Billy Taught Me How

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Photo by SusanJStickle.com Note: USDF strongly recommends all riders wear protective headgear when mounted.

Renowned for its floating trot, the Trakehner is one of the lightest & most refined warmbloods. We are celebrating this breed as our March Breed of the Month on YourDressage! Join us all month long as we celebrate Trakehners with photo galleries and exclusive stories!

Dressage riders who choose Trakehners as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All Breeds Awards program – the American Trakehner Association and the Trakehner Association of North America (TANA) are both participating organizations.

We recently asked our social media followers to share stories about what makes these horses so special.  Here, a Region 1 competitor shares the love-at-first-ride story of her Trakehner, Bellinger, and how his greatest gift wasn’t just the competition successes they shared, but all of the lessons he taught.

By Lauren Sprieser

It was so, so cold. My trainer, my mom, and I had flown into Frankfurt and driven the three hours to Warendorf, and while it wasn’t terribly late in the day, it was the middle of winter, already dark, and with temps in the single digits. But I was 18 and giddy with excitement, so I went to try a set of horses alone. 

I was so lucky, to have the family support to lean into my dreams of going to the North American Young Rider Championships (now North American Youth Championships – NAYC), and we’d made the trip to Europe to look for a schoolmaster. And I sat on many that trip, but I kept coming back to the first: this scrawny little bay, both too short and too light for my freshman-15-and-then-some body, wild to my leg, with a parrot mouth and a reckless front leg. Looking back at it now from a trainer’s eye, I’m not sure I would let a student of mine take a horse like him home. But 18-year-old me was in love.

And thank god, because Bellinger would go on to be one of the most important teachers of my life.

It was quite a road. “Billy” (a Trakehner by Maizauber, out of a Habicht mare) hit every stereotype of the breed: light and modern, but also a bit bananas. I have an amazing video somewhere of us at our first show being led by the “judge’s booth” – a two horse bumper pull trailer, one of the great fears of Billy’s life – by Lendon Gray, because I couldn’t get him around it by myself. He was a horrendously hard keeper, but the food options for hot horses back then weren’t as vast as they are now, and it took years to figure out how to add calories without adding enthusiasm. Turnout was complicated. His mouth was terrible. He was quick to hit the “up” button, and I was young and, in spite of excellent instruction, extremely stupid.

But we learned. I got more patient. I learned about good saddle fit, about good nutrition, about good warmup strategy. I learned about how to teach the ones, and how to install something like a piaffe on a horse who’d been introduced to the idea the wrong way. Billy and I went to two NAYRCs, placed third in the first-ever “Brentina Cup” Championship, and did a few terrible rides at CDI Grand Prix, in which I learned that Grand Prix is much harder than I thought, from my home in Illinois. But he also gave me a taste of what was possible in the deep waters of international dressage, and caused me to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could do this for a career.

Photo by Amy Dragoo. Note: USDF strongly recommends all riders wear protective headgear when mounted.

At 16, his body announced that it didn’t want to be a Grand Prix body anymore, but he found many homes through being leased to my students, well into his 20s. He took a teenaged student of mine from Second Level to Prix St. Georges. He won Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships. He won the Youth Dressage Festival. He went to the first-ever US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, with a kid, before there was a youth division there. His teacher’s heart was the size of Montana, and he gave, he gave, he gave.

Billy did his last FEI test at 22, stepping back after an 11 year career of upper level work to enjoy a few months of step down work before retiring to my friends Kristin and Joe Hickey’s amazing care, where he lived out his days until 28. His topline stayed healthy, his legs stayed clean. He was remarkably sound through his career, in spite of a club foot, and in spite of back and hock x-rays that would make any vet cringe; what retired him, and what would eventually end his life, was that he’d become an increasingly bad roarer over time, making it harder and harder for him to breathe on the bit. Not that that slowed him down; I recall a ride towards the end of his career with his last human, my amazing student and friend Jean, where he very slowly just dragged her out of the arena, at the walk, having decided it was time to be done. 

I’ve had better horses since him. I’ve had horses with better walks, better mouths. I’ve had horses with better hind legs and easier connections. And I’ve made them better than I made him, better piaffes from scratch, better piaffes on horses who’d gotten the wrong idea from someone else first. But Billy’s greatest gift to me wasn’t our competition successes. Billy’s greatest gift to me was the lessons, both in horse training and in life at large. Billy taught me patience. He taught me no small share of humility. He taught me to have a quiet hand and a strong seat; he taught me to put my leg on hot horses, and that throughness was the foundation of everything. The lease fees I made from sharing him with others paid for the young horses who would follow, creating a pipeline I still ride to this day. The folks I met along his path are some of my closest friends, and I still hear in my head every day the voices of the trainers who taught me on him. Of all the horses in my rear view mirror, I think he is the one I most want back again, knowing all I know now.

That’s not how it works, sadly. But even though Bellinger isn’t with me anymore, he’s still with me, in every half halt, in every shoulder fore, in every test of self carriage; in every time I laugh when a horse I ride today gets tight, or squirrely, or colorful. Because Billy taught me how. 

Lauren Sprieser (www.spriesersporthorse.com) is a USDF Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s also an award-winning blogger for The Chronicle of the Horse, and a regular contributor to Noelle Floyd, Practical Horseman, and other print and online publications. Lauren is currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own string of young horses with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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