Big Name, Little Horse

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The versatile Morgan Horse! We are celebrating this breed as our June Breed of the Month on YourDressage! We asked our social media followers what makes Morgans their favorite breed, and got an overwhelming response.

Did you know that dressage riders who choose Morgans as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards program, as the American Morgan Horse Association Inc. (AMHA) is a participating organization?

Here, a Region 1 rider shares her experience looking for “the right horse” and how her search led her to find the perfect confidence building partner in a breed she never would have expected.

By Taylor Sumansky

In early February of 2014, sitting on a hay bale in a barn aisle in Western Pennsylvania, wearing roughly seventeen layers of clothing plus a barn cat, while waiting for sedation to wear off after having my warmblood mare’s hocks injected, I made the decision to sell her. I’d purchased the eleven-year-old mare just two years earlier as a dressage mount. She used to be a Training Level event horse, but her previous owner was selling her because her jumping career had ended after a mild stifle injury. I was told she had been sentenced to keep all hooves on the ground. As a beautiful mover with a sweet disposition and a reasonable price tag, this didn’t seem like a bad career change for her, and I thought it was a somewhat lucky find for me. After two years, multiple trainers and vet exams, we realized that the mare wasn’t thrilled about this permanent career change, and maybe it hadn’t been career ending after all. She and I had never quite clicked despite my best efforts. I’d worked hard to ensure that she became 100% sound and was able to return to eventing…just with a different rider. When she started to jump four-foot verticals from a stand-still, and treated the cavaletti as oxers, I knew it shouldn’t be me piloting her over any fences. 

Me and Ty on Day 1

By May, she had found her new home, and I was looking for my new partner. After spending two years with a horse that often had me leaving the barn in tears, I decided that the most important thing I wanted in this new horse was personality. I had been riding solely dressage for over a decade after growing up riding hunters. A bad fall and a shoulder injury in college shattered my confidence, and I’d given up jumping altogether – save for the unavoidable occasional pop over a log on a trail. Time and newfound friends (and maybe a little of that mare’s absolute insistence on returning to the jump field with such enthusiasm) had me wanting to give it a try again, so I knew the horse I would choose would have to have not only the athletic ability to compete in dressage, but also the brain to carry me around a jump course calmly with a forgiving attitude as I regained my confidence in that arena. The horse would need to be able to go out on trails or to shows alone – I’d met far too many people who couldn’t leave the barn without someone else, and I didn’t want to get caught in that trap. I knew I was asking for a tall order. I threw out every other qualifier I thought I wanted – breed, color, gender, competition record – and focused on finding the one that would help me find my love of riding again.

The search was on. I was very excited to meet a blue roan Gypsy Vanner/Thoroughbred gelding (with pretty feathers!) that I thought had quite a bit of potential, despite being very green. I told his owner I would think about it and get back to her – she called me thirty minutes into my drive home and told me he’d sold to the people who looked at him right after I had. Next, I went to look at a little Fjord mare.  She was a cute little horse, with some professional dressage training and a calm demeanor, but riding her felt heavy and dull to the aids. I like my horse to feel light and almost electric. She wasn’t the one for me. 

By early June, I was disheartened. I needed a support group. (“Hi, I’m an adult amateur with a full time job and confidence issues, and I’m trying to buy a new horse.”) I’d called, emailed, or messaged about horses in a half dozen states and been to see several of them; many had already been sold by the time someone responded to me. Each visit ended in a similar fashion as the Gypsy Vanner/Thoroughbred or the Fjord. One evening, sitting around a bonfire at my barn with a few friends, I came across a Facebook group ad for a horse – he was a 15.1 hand, seven-year-old gelding with experience jumping up to 3 feet. The ad made a point to mention that he was brave and honest to fences. He’d been on hunter paces and done well, and had basic dressage training. He was a reasonable price and a reasonable distance away. The post had only been up for two hours. There were no comments yet. I was stoked. I showed the post to my friends.

Ty is my pot of gold

“He’s a Morgan?”

“Can you do dressage with a Morgan?”

“Aren’t they gaited?”

“Aren’t they one of those breeds that do the high stepping thing? Because of the shoes?”
“Isn’t that a high-strung breed?”

I actually had no idea how to answer the questions my friends were asking me that night. I’d never met a Morgan horse in my life, as far as I knew. So of course, I messaged his owner to set up a time to go see him. We talked quite a bit, and she sent me a few videos of him being ridden. The more I learned, the more I started to think that this was it – this was possibly the one – I might have found my horse. Because of our schedules and the fact that “reasonable distance” equates to a four-and-a-half-hour drive to a town in western New York, there wasn’t a day for me to get to this horse’s barn for another week. I was near panic, fearing that he would be sold before I could even meet him as so many others had been. His owner was incredibly nice and understanding and promised to keep our appointment and let me know if any other serious buyers wanted to set something up before I could get there. I, thinking maybe this was too good to be true, obsessively started Googling things like “Can you do dressage with a Morgan horse?” “Do Morgans wear shoes?” and “Can Morgan horses jump?” because who else do you ask those sort of stupid questions when your friends are asking you those sort of stupid questions? 

Surprisingly, the internet had only good things to say about the breed. Yes, Morgans can do dressage (very well, actually, and they event, too). Only 2-3% of the breed would be considered “gaited,” (having five, rather than three, natural gaits), they do have more animated gaits than, say, a Quarter Horse, but it tends to be a natural trait and isn’t because of any shoeing practice. Finally, as with any breed, their personalities can vary, but generally Morgans tend to have a strong work ethic and a lot of energy but are considered smart and gentle. I stumbled across Denny Emerson of Tamarack Hill’s Facebook page and found that he is a big fan of the Morgan breed. I was convinced. 

Out on the trail

On the day I drove to New York for our trial ride, I was trying to talk myself down the whole time. My internal dialogue was something like: “It’s okay if this isn’t the one, you’ll just keep looking.  Try to go in without any expectations; he’s a Morgan, so he may not look or move like the horses you’ve ridden before. Remember, you’re looking for a horse that you enjoy, a horse that you can do things with, not necessarily the horse that’s going to win every class, so just go with your gut and don’t worry about if he looks like every other warmblood out there.” 

Livin Large, known as Tyler around the barn, is honestly sort of plain looking at first. You might pass him up if you were just walking through the barn aisle or look him over if you had to choose a horse out of a field. He’s special when you look closer. He’s small-ish at 15.1 hands – this is pretty average for a Morgan gelding (not a problem for me, at a whopping 5 feet tall). He is a chestnut with a big white blaze and two matching low white hind socks – they’re almost perfectly symmetrical, it’s impressive. His mane and tail are a matching chestnut shade with silver hairs woven throughout that flash when he moves. There’s a natural wave to his mane and tail as if you’d left big, loose braids in the wet hair overnight while it dried and snuck into the barn early to comb them out. His eyes are dark with a kind, knowing look that sort of gives you the impression he’d wink at you as if he’d just told you a secret or quiet joke if he could.

I watched his owner ride him first, and then I hopped on. If you’d watched my ride that day, I’m not sure you would have called it a “buy that horse” ride. Tyler was incredibly sensitive to every aid – just shifting my weight made him bend in the opposite direction, more left leg than right and he was leg-yielding. We crashed through a few jumps. The video looks like one (or both) of us are drunk. He never got hot or upset or put a hoof out of place – we were trying to figure each other out, and it was sort of a disaster. The truth is, I knew I was going to buy him as soon as I touched him. Every concern I had flew away with one breath. I just knew. The ride was just a formality. I paid for him that day and arranged for him to be picked up later that week. 

Since then, Tyler has exceeded every benchmark I set out to find when I began my search. He has picked up on dressage as if he were bred for it. His sensitivity to the aids that he showed on that trial ride gives him that lightness that I love in a horse. It’s a blessing in both the dressage and jump arenas, giving an almost instant reaction to the smallest movement. His gaits are expressive, and he looks good in braids. Tyler has made me a better rider in the way riding a schoolmaster does – he gives exactly what he is asked for…ask correctly or it won’t happen. He will go anywhere, do anything, and be happy about it. There has been nothing I have asked this horse to do that he has not tried his heart out at. He runs to me when I whistle for him at the paddock gate. There is no trailer too scary to prevent Tyler from going on an adventure. I’m pretty sure he would load into the back of my car if he could figure out how to fit. He is brave and has made me brave again. He has brought me back from being afraid of jumping single two-foot fences to navigating 3’3” courses. We are eventers in addition to dressage now, too. 

Ty is not perfect. The day after I brought him home, I took him for a ride through the park with a friend. We cantered through a field, and he bucked me off in a fit of joy. He then proceeded to trot about 200 feet away and eat grass. (He’s improved in this aspect – if I fall off these days, he stands right next to me and eats grass.) He is opinionated and will pace and paw at the ground if he thinks he’s been standing in the crossties for too long. That amount of time varies depending upon his mood. Once, at a show, he broke out of his stall and spent the night wandering around the barn eating everyone else’s hay. It should be noted that the barn doors were open, and he could have left, but he was too busy visiting all of the other horses and taste-testing the aisle-hay. He is too hard on his blankets, and I’ve given in to just buying the expensive ones with the ten year replacement guarantee no matter what. It’s worth it. He has to wear a grazing muzzle because he’s “hardy,” (yeah, me too, buddy) which he tolerated amazingly well – until this year when he apparently decided that the grazing muzzle was an affront to his independent civil liberties and began systematically removing it on a daily basis, causing the barn staff, and me, an undue amount of stress. The current muzzle configuration is an amalgamation of sewing, padding, and two kinds of duct tape. At the time of this writing, it has been five days since our last incident. We may have found a solution. 

On the jump course

It has been eight years since Ty came into my life. We do not have what might be considered an impressive show record, though we keep improving every year. We do not spend every weekend riding with professionals in clinics, though we do catch some when we can. What we do have is an incredible bond. He has moved across the country with me twice. We have competed in four different states and trail ridden in two others. He has carried me through some of the happiest and saddest days of my life.  So, what can Morgans do? Everything.

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