From Colic Survivors to the National Stage

Alicia and Piper. Photo by Megan Connolly

Spotted and special!  February is Appaloosa Month on YourDressage!  Easily recognizable for their colorful, spotted coat pattern, this American breed finds its origins with the Nez Perce Native American people. Join us as we celebrate these beautifully marked horses as our Breed of the Month, where we will share stories and photo galleries from Appaloosa enthusiasts across the country.

Dressage competitors who ride Appaloosas have the opportunity to earn special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards as Appaloosa Horse Club is a Participating Organization.

We recently asked our social media followers to share stories about what makes these horses so special.  Here, a rider in Region 4 shares about the resilience of her incredible mare, Piper, who not only survived what was thought to be a fatal bout of colic but also returned to the top levels of the sport. 

By Alicia Stock

Behind every amateur is a patient trainer. Here is ours: Kate Phillips making sure we look our best before our championship class that earned us our trip to Finals.

Someone once told me that riding “is all about the journey” and, from my experience, I can tell you that it’s the truth. The journey with my mare, Bright Design aka Piper, has had its ups and downs. To this day, I still have moments of wonder each time I get on her. How did we come this far? At one point in time our world was crashing down and I wondered if our journey was going to be cut short. Qualifying for the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® was a dream come true, but what made attending it even better was getting to share it with this mare, adding the “cherry on top” to our journey.          

In November 2021, my favorite spotted mare and I trotted up centerline in the Alltech Arena at the US Dressage Finals. To put it simply,  I was elated. I had dreamed about qualifying for this event for years. For an average adult amateur like me, this event is the equivalent of the Olympics. Here I was with Piper, my wonderful, cool-as-a-cucumber partner, known for her beautiful spots. She never batted an eye in the large venue of the Alltech. I rode my heart out for the judges to our Third Level Freestyle featuring music from Kingdom Hearts, a video game that I have fond memories of playing as a teenager. Even though flying changes were still a bit new to us, Piper was a complete star. I finished on centerline with a massive smile and an even greater appreciation for this horse. We had a wonderful show, ultimately placing 9th in our Third Level Freestyle Championship class. It was after that lap around the arena for the awards ceremony that I truly had a moment of reflection, realizing, “I am so honored to be here, and I am so lucky Piper is still with me.”

Though our trip to Finals was an extreme high, we’ve also experienced the lowest of lows together. On December 2, 2017, I received the call that all horse owners dread. Piper was sick and the vet was on the way. Still dressed in my pajamas, my best friend and I ran out to evaluate the situation. I walked in the door, and my stomach hit the floor. Piper stood there in the arena looking miserable and covered in sweat. The vet confirmed my worst fears by asking me the question, “Is she a surgical candidate?” I remember staring in shock at my uninsured, 8-year-old, and previously healthy mare. By 2 AM, with the help of my village, I got the money together for the vets to perform the surgery. They found that Piper had an entrapment colic with no reason behind how she got sick; it just happened. 

If that wasn’t “a low” enough, a week of regressions followed. Piper was refusing to eat and drink. By the end of our stay at the university hospital, the decision was made to load her up and take her home to pass away. I remember sitting on the floor in front of her ICU stall, just sobbing. At that moment, I swear she looked at me, walked over to her hay, and started eating for the first time in a week. The surgeon was as baffled as I was. We took her home as planned, and she immediately perked up the moment she got there, especially when she saw her friends. She started eating more and more. My whole barn family pitched in to make sure she got her medications and plenty of walking. With her miraculous recovery, she became a case of complete astonishment to our vets. 

Three more months of instructions followed before I could ride her again. The first day back on board was horrible. She felt so strange underneath me. Her beautiful, clear, rhythmic walk was missing. It was so hard to stay positive with such an unsure future. It was a never-ending cycle of one gait getting better and then another being worse again. Rehabbing a horse is not a fun job, and I give anyone who does it for a living my respect! It took eight long months before she was fully sound again. 

All smiles at the US Dressage Finals. Photo by Susan J. Stickle Photography

Although the surgical setback took an entire year, I had my mare back, and we were closer than ever before. We had a rough 2019 show season, as it took another year of riding to gain the muscle strength that we had completely lost. By then, I was looking at this as a fresh start – a reset button was pressed. Buying her as a 5-year-old, Piper is the first horse that I’ve owned. Having successfully brought her up the levels, we were just about to start flying changes when she colicked. She taught me so much and now I was able to go back to the beginning of our training and fix the holes I had accidentally created. I was literally building her back from the ground up. In 2020, Covid-19 held up our showing progress for a whole year, as it killed the entire show season up north. It gave us a lot of time to school though, and we were stronger than ever before.

When the 2021 show season started, I was so elated to just be out and doing normal things again! She was a gem too, acting as though she had never had a break. It was her kind-hearted mentality that allowed us to succeed at the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships, placing in our championship class and earning our spot, once again, to the US Dressage Finals. To this day, I still have moments of wonder when I start riding this mare. She’s sound, and she’s still here with me. Despite the roller coaster, how lucky am I to be on this journey, with my partner and friend, who will do anything for me and I for her? Here’s to the adventures to come…and those beautiful spots. 

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