We are celebrating Splash of Color month on YourDressage!  Whether your horse is a registered Paint, Appaloosa, Knabstrupper, or Gypsy Horse, sports a patched or spotted coat, or wears lots of chrome, this month is for you!

Dressage enthusiasts who ride colorful horses have the opportunity to earn special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards such as the American Paint Horse AssociationAppaloosa Horse Club, Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark (KNN), Gypsy Horse Registry Of America, Westfalen Verband of North America, and Gypsy Vanner Horse Society, which are all Participating Organizations.

We recently asked our social media followers to share photos of their loudly colored horses, and let us know what makes these horses so special. Here, a para dressage rider with dreams of competing internationally shares how she is now dancing her way down centerline with her Prince Charming, while being cheered on by her fairy godmother.

By Veronica Gogan

Once upon a time not long ago, in a place not so far away, a horse named Mason was part of a dream. I dream of competing in the international para dressage ring. In November 2020, I had just returned from the Para Dressage Emerging Athlete Championships. The horse I was riding had given me all he had and then some. Our trainer had done the same. It was time for that horse to retire. Great things are possible with risk, wise guidance, and surrounding yourself with ambitious people. I set out on a quest for the next big chapter.

I reached out to an FEI trainer in my area and laid it all out: I wanted to work towards showing internationally. I needed a new horse and a new training program, I had to find resources to support it all, and I was willing to work extremely hard. Every fairytale needs a fairy godmother and Lauren Sprieser is mine. She is adventurous, wise, ambitious, has a very good sense of humor, and, most importantly, agreed to help. She gave me a few lessons on my retiring horse to get a sense of my abilities, equipment, and critical things such as how to help me get on and off.

We went to look at a horse owned by a previous student of Lauren’s. This horse had stepped down from doing upper-level work and needed someone to need him for his experience and kindness. There’s always a feeling of trepidation when people with real, measurable physical challenges clamber onto the back of an animal, who then has extreme power over their well-being. These horses must be intuitively sensible and safe. I believe horses can tell when a person is unsteady. The natural para horses want to help steady their riders. Here we were, on a cold December day in Virginia, with a horse out of work, me in my scooter, Lauren who had never put me up on a horse solo before, and a horse owner who was a very good sport. Despite all the reasons he could have objected, Mason and I had a lovely little ride. He was unphased, perhaps even bemused.

As a grade II para equestrian, I show walk-trot tests in a 20×40 ring with walking lateral work and short bursts of trot lengthening. The tests for the lower grades like mine prescribe less variety in the movements and rely heavily on patterns and transitions, with harmony being heavily weighted. Horses must have top-notch natural gaits. The pieces were all there between Mason and me; I couldn’t really believe this was all real or possible.

Mason arrived in March. Through circumstances found only in fairytales, I was leasing this magnificent horse and in a full training program, and it was all beyond my wildest dreams. He was the same horse on that blustery cold March day as he had been in December: unphased by my scooter, travel, or any mysterious ghosts that so often show up on drop-off day. He proceeded to be that magical horse, day in and day out.

Many para riders use some form of mobility equipment and the horses have to have a fairly good sense of humor about having a sidekick. Mason never acknowledged my mobility scooter, accepting its presence from day one. In fact, all the horses in the barn developed affection for “the cookie cart.” Mounting also requires humor, acceptance, and patience from para horses. Mason’s only passive aggressive comment to remind us that he was, in fact, in charge of his own destiny was a half-step backward at the mounting block every. damn. day.

He was politely disgruntled, but compliant, about learning to be a para horse. As my legs don’t move on their own, I use a whip on each side to communicate with the horse, instead of using my legs. Mason was indignant that I would ask with a whip, even with a gentle touch, instead of asking with my non-functional legs first. He is a well-educated horse, after all, and one who was ridden consistently by his owner, a well-educated rider, for his entire life. She would never have used a whip to correct him without having asked with her leg first. Then, one day, his light bulb went off: “she is asking me to do the things I already know how to do just in a different way!” His relief was palpable. He never huffed or swished his tail when I communicated with a whip again. About once a week, Lauren would sit on him to have a brief conversation about, “yes, this right leg” and “yes, this much underneath you.” These rides kept it clear that he was still expected to do correct dressage movements, even if the aids were different.

Para dressage, more than able-bodied dressage, relies on out-of-the-box thinking on equipment modifications and training techniques. Mason’s patience was limitless as we tried various reins, adjusted thigh blocks, straps, and stirrup configurations. Being a modern kind of man in touch with his feelings, and also good at expressing them, Mason made it clear when he was happy with tack modifications. I also became an extremely good listener. This bond we formed was incredibly strong.

We developed a language that we used on the ground. If I leaned or pulled on him with no sound, I was using him for balance. If I added a sound to either of those pressures, he would move. We scaled this up and down, the harder I pushed and the louder I clucked, the more he would move, but usually only one step at a time. He would step over three inches or twelve, or not at all. He learned to put his head in my lap for the bridle. I stuffed a treat in his mouth as soon as both ears were in front of the crown piece. Some days he would beg for his bridle because he knew it meant a cookie too.

I had not had much exposure to capital D-Dressage prior to training with Lauren. I found myself at a bona fide FEI barn, leasing a nearly-FEI horse, and every day I absorbed as much as I could. Some days I had to pinch myself at being surrounded by it all. Lauren fast tracked what we needed to know, Mason was suave and covered my naivety, I was a quick study, and before we knew it, we were headed down centerline.

My favorite place on this Earth is the show ring; Mason and I seem to have that in common. He skillfully and gracefully broadened my experience at prestigious shows. He was steadfast when we had clerical re-starts and forgiving when there were pilot errors. His sense of the spotlight was obvious. The best fairy tales include dancing in glamorous places, and oh did we dance. He was my Prince Charming at the USEF Para Dressage National Championships, where I truly felt like his princess and we got to wear blue.

He was the teacher, I was the student, and he knew that. My discovery of the sensation of a horse lifting his back and sitting on his hocks was Mason’s doing. The weightlessness and power of a medium trot was one of his generous lessons. My body can’t insist the way an able-bodied rider’s can. His willingness to offer it anyway still amazes me. Lauren’s benevolence was equally astounding. She waved a magic wand at struggles outside of our control. She cheered the triumphs and poured heavily when things weren’t splendid. My earliest origins in para dressage are tied to her, as are Mason’s and my successes. I could not have a better role model to help me take risks, give sage guidance, and demonstrate talent and ambition.

Our story really is a fairytale, complete with true love, dancing, fairy godmothers, sidekicks, and a happily ever after. What Mason gave me was a year of incredible experiences to be treasured forever. Experience is something that cannot be lost or taken and is always growing. He was a magical part of my journey. Thanks to Mason, I’m ready for the next big chapter on the way to the international para dressage ring.

Sharon Parker Photography

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