50 Years of Intention

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The mighty Friesian! We are celebrating this fairytale-looking breed as our May Breed of the Month on YourDressage!  Join us all month long as we celebrate Friesians with photo galleries and exclusive stories!

Did you know that dressage riders who choose Friesians as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards program, as Friesian Heritage Horse & Sporthorse International, Friesian Horse Association of North America, Friesian Horse Society, Friesian Sport Horse Registry LLC, and Friesian Sporthorse Association are all participating organizations?

We recently asked our social media followers to share stories about what makes these horses so special.  Here, an adult re-rider finally made her dream come true of owning a mythical Friesian after 50 years of dreaming of one. 

By Karen Hughes

Life has presented me with many blessings and obstacles but, since childhood, my dream to learn dressage never waned and I intended, someday, to own and ride the mythical and medieval looking, beautiful, Friesian. My eleventh birthday gift, a sweet, fiery, grade gelding with a lightning sideways scoot and the ability to stand on two legs taught me to ride. Daily barn work earned his keep and there was no lesson money. Sadly, I could not keep him when I went to college, but I kept those dreams.

At age 63, it was my turn. I had moved beyond a melanoma diagnosis, cared for my mother with Alzheimer’s and then my uncle, who sustained a fractured neck as a passenger in a vehicular accident, a double negative breast cancer diagnosis, bilateral mastectomies, and reconstruction surgeries. If anyone reading this faces this diagnosis and needs to hear this, don’t dwell on the mastectomies or fear. Grab the bull by the horns and move on with your life; it’s a very fair exchange to be cancer free.

While COVID raged and the world was upside down, I had the means and time to pursue my dreams. When I was told I couldn’t ride a Friesian and at my age, I only had a couple years left to ride, I imagined myself never trying and felt an overwhelming sense of grief and sadness. After literally 50 years of intention, I knew the rider in me and decided not to fail. I found, then contacted, Black Sterling Friesians online and described the horse I needed. She sent me info and videos of a couple options.

I chose Wilco JH, proceeded with a vet check, x-rayed him until he glowed, and then took a leap of faith and bought him. One year ago, in late April, a nervous, newly gelded Wilco arrived from the flat open topography of the northern Netherlands to the lushly forested hills of southwestern Pennsylvania. Fracking water trucks he could not see repeatedly roared toward him from behind a hill, which sent him exploding on a lunge line, whirling and jerking me on a lead line, or bucking and bolting in the pasture. At 1,300 pounds, with huge shoulders, 10-inch round canon bones, and giant hooves, he intimidated me.  I had to find the courage and physical strength to ride my horse, and I was certain he was my horse at our first encounter. When I scratched his wither, he nibbled my shoulder. Then, with that bright, curious Friesian face, head high, piqued ears, and wild forelock, he followed me and I felt his trusting, kind, warm, bright, curious nature. In that moment, he was my Wilco, my heart horse, forever.

Weeks of groundwork, and our first rides with competent and patient Jackie Ely, settled him down and developed our characteristic “one-person” Friesian bond. His clowning, inquisitive nature made him even more endearing. Wilco grabs everything, from brooms, sunglasses, phones, brushes, plastic bags on the grooming stall ledge, to the hose which he enjoys spraying everywhere. Once, I stopped him just in time with his teeth on the fire alarm. His inquisitive Friesian nature allowed me to clicker train a “touch” command, to find treats when he sniffs new, frightening things, or does therapeutic stretches. Time with him was pure joy, but our saddle fit difficulties emerged and persisted.

Saddle fitting during COVID proved impossible. No available demo saddles, production time of five to six months, shutdowns loomed, fitters couldn’t travel, and add my unfamiliarity with his gait, my scoliosis, 5’8” height, his short back and big shoulders, and it was a recipe for disaster. A rotating array of not-quite-right saddles left him back sore, losing muscle, and in rehab. Suddenly, it’s mid-January and I had ridden this horse for about two of nine months. I began to fear this would never work, but by unusual circumstances, an encounter with Emily Morris changed everything.

She had experience with the saddle brand Wilco needed and knew her uniquely constructed saddle would fit him. Riding in that saddle, between February and April with Jackie then Emily, a comfortable horse moved freely forward. I learned to ride that jack hammer trot, manage my scoliosis, and start on his big canter. COVID settled, fitters came, and I ordered the correct saddle.

Two days ago, we went to a clinic off property for the first time and registered for our upcoming first dressage show. Is he a difficult ride and am I terrified some days? Yes, absolutely, but life already has no guarantees and changes in a flash.  I don’t care what level I achieve or that I could progress faster on a non-Friesian. My characteristically wiggly Friesian and I are finally a dressage team. I have begun to recognize problems, make the proper aid corrections, and feel the thrill in the results. Every rider knows the compelling need to look between those ears and find pure joy.

Because I’m still here working on my two dream goals, I feel so blessed and fortunate. Without tenacity and the help of each trainer who came into our lives at the perfect time, first Jackie Ely, then Emily Morris, and now Dana Fiore, it couldn’t happen, nor could it happen without encouragement and support from my husband, Chris. Thank you USDF, for allowing us to share our Friesian story. I hope it continues and I truly hope it helps someone else on their journey.

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