Dressage Horse of a Different Color

At the KDA Fall show

By Alex Belton

I always say Coqui is not your “typical” dressage horse, although, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “typical” dressage horse anymore.

One look, and it’s obvious he wasn’t bred to be in the dressage world. Daffys Son Shine, known around the barn as Coqui, wasn’t always the FEI-Level dressage horse everyone sees in today’s competition ring. No – he started out as a project for a teenage girl who won him in a raffle as a yearling. They did some western events – team penning, sorting, reining, and the like. Through social media, I discovered that over the first ten years of his life, Coqui went through eight or nine other owners, dabbling in Paint breed shows, hunter/jumpers, and western pleasure.

During my years in middle and high school, I was in 4-H and Pony Club, and wanted to be as involved as possible with horses, competing in English, Western, and dressage. At the end of 2009, my saintly first pony, Rise-n-Shine, a palomino pinto known around the barn as Sunny, had to retire due to a suspensory injury. For the summer, I borrowed an Off Track Thoroughbred mare from a 4-H friend, which was a great learning experience, but I needed my own horse.

I was constantly looking online at horses for sale. We didn’t have a huge budget, and I needed something quiet that could participate in all my 4-H and Pony Club activities. I found a gorgeous palomino Paint with tons of chrome on DreamHorse.com and was hooked. Fifteen-year-old me said to my parents, “He looks exactly like Sunny! We have to go see him!” and my parents obliged. After that, there was no turning back.

Coqui and I started doing Paint breed shows, on top of multiple disciplines in 4-H, Pony Club, and taking regular lessons with my dressage trainer. We did fine in 4-H, but Coqui never moved like your typical western pleasure horse. “Slow” was not his thing. As we built our relationship and continued our dressage training, I took him to some dressage schooling shows at Training and First Levels. To my surprise, lateral work came easily to him. We went to our first USDF-recognized dressage competition in 2014, qualifying for the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Region 8 Championships at Training Level that year. We made slow progress over the years, earning scores towards my Bronze Medal, but getting stuck at Second Level for a long time. The ultimate goal was to earn my USDF Bronze Medal, thinking I would never be able to because of those darn flying changes!

In late 2018, I moved to Lexington, Kentucky, and brought Coqui along, as I began a new adventure working at USDF. We began working with a new dressage trainer who asked what my goals were. I told her that my only goal was to earn my Bronze Medal. She told me that we would easily be able to achieve that, and more. So, we got to work, spending the winter learning and perfecting the flying changes for Third Level. At our first show of the season in May of 2019, we earned one of our two Third Level scores! There was definitely room for improvement. We didn’t go out again until August, to a two-day show. Day one was a little rough. Coqui is an excellent boy in new locations, but sometimes has a pony-like attitude! Day two, we pulled it together and earned our second Third Level score, the final one we needed toward our Bronze Medal! I cried a few happy tears that day, knowing we had finally accomplished a goal that was nine years in the making.

We didn’t stop there. We have continued to work on our flying changes (the bane of my existence at this point!). In 2020, we moved up to Fourth Level, and even with a limited show schedule due to COVID, we earned both Fourth Level scores toward our Silver Medal. At the end of 2020, I did something I only dreamed of. I donned my first ever shadbelly and rode down centerline for my first ever FEI test. *Cue more happy tears.* Prix St. Georges has proven to be our biggest challenge to date. The flying changes are still a thorn in my side, but Coqui’s pirouettes came fairly easily, thanks to the reining training he had in his past life. Coqui, now age 22, is still in amazing shape, and we’re continuing to make progress toward earning our scores to complete our Silver Medal.

It feels great to know that I did the work myself, with many, many dressage lessons along the way, but no one else riding Coqui, to bring him to the point he is at in his training. Being a flashy palomino overo, he sure sticks out among the multitude of solid bays and chestnuts, but that’s just the way I like it.

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