The Best $1 Purchase Ever

Willis and I at the 2021 US Dressage Finals. Photo by Susan J. Stickle

The powerful American Warmblood! We are celebrating them as our July Breed of the Month on YourDressage!

Dressage riders who choose American Warmbloods as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards program, as the American Warmblood Registry and the American Warmblood Society & Sporthorse Registry are both participating organizations

Here, a rider in Region 6 shares about unexpectedly finding her dream horse, for the price of just one dollar.

By Jesse Woodhead

As far as suitable FEI horses go, Willis is the exception to every rule, from his grassroot beginnings when his breeder’s theory behind his parents’ coupling was “we’ll try it once and see”, to the fact he has one straight leg, is quirky, and if he were a human, he’d be a ginger band nerd with his name sewn into his underwear. And yet, he is my one in a million! If I could afford to clone him I would, and he is the horse I would want for my kid. My heart horse is a 16.2hh chestnut American Warmblood (Hanoverian/Appendix cross) gelding that has been in my life for almost a decade, and has taught me more about horsemanship, riding, and the responsibility of ownership better than any other horse could have. 

My first ride at home on Willis in 2013

They say you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and that’s the idea behind how I acquired Willis, in 2013. For a whopping $1, family friend Kindra Wilson “sold” Willis to me because he had a hind suspensory injury, wasn’t doing well on stall rest, and would never pass a Pre-Purchase Exam (PPE). She called my mom, Marina Parris-Woodhead (who also doubles as my trainer), and said “if nothing else, she can learn a little something on him, and if you can’t get him sound, promise me you’ll retire him to pasture” – which we had plenty of access to. We accepted. When I moved Willis from Kansas to Oregon, he was serviceably sound at home, but not yet ready for competition. He had shown a couple of Third Level tests prior to his injury and displayed easy natural changes and an impressive show record to boot, earning two Great American/USDF Regional Championship titles by the time he was eight years old. I didn’t care about any of that. I was 15 years old and excited to have my first “big girl horse”, especially after riding my saintly but sausage-bodied Quarter Horse, Bob. My mom warned me we’d have to be careful with Willis’ rehabilitation and that there would be days where I wouldn’t be able to ride him and days we would have to only walk. But I was so in love with my boy, I promised in earnest that if he felt off, I would only groom him or walk him. And I kept that promise. 

Willis sporting his AWR brand on his left hip. Photo by Cortney Drake

For a whole year, we walked. I got to learn how to make a horse round, how to set up my lateral movements, and most importantly, my feel became immensely educated.

Within one step off from the block, I would be able to tell if it was going to be a good day or not for Willis. We started tentatively entering shows, with the precursor that maybe we only did one test the entire weekend, and treated Willis as if he were made of glass. In 2014, we went to our first Great American/USDF Regional Championship, placed in the top ten at First Level, and I was living on cloud nine. I had a show horse! A real Warmblood of my own for the dressage ring! 

From there, I stayed diligent, and still do. Every day, even now, I check in with my internal feel to make sure Willis feels good. He has been 100% sound and without any need for maintenance for eight years now, a fact I brag about to anyone and everyone who will listen to my story. Even the vets couldn’t decipher which leg was the original injured one! My gospel consists of ice boots, liniments, cold hosing, and extensive warmup and cool down times, but mostly diligence and consistency; I never got greedy, I always let him take the winter off, and I listened to my horse. I think if more people treated every horse like it was a rehab project, horses everywhere would stay sounder longer. 

It was because of Willis I was able to learn so much, and from there we grew together. After we made it to Third Level, achieving my USDF Bronze Medal in 2016, I looked at my mom and said, “Do you think he can go on?” And she said, “We’ll just take it one day at a time, he’ll tell you when he’s ready to plateau” and that premise has coasted us all the way to Intermediate I. I have learned, not only how to ride FEI, but how to make an FEI horse myself, an invaluable tool in my toolbox for the future. After almost ten years together, our collective resume has grown to include a trip to five total Regional Championships, the majority of which resulted in the coveted neck ribbon, end of year awards, and, last year, the ability and privilege to attend the U.S. Dressage Finals Presented by Adequan® in Kentucky for the entire FEI small tour, including our Intermediate I Freestyle set to the soundtrack of Disney’s “Mulan” that I curated myself.

This will now be our second year at I-1, which we debuted in May with a personal best of over 66% and he just keeps getting better every day. I keep asking him “are you ready to be done bud?” And he says “17? Who’s 17? Not me!” And we march on. 

My motto has been “everything is just icing on the cake with this horse” and I stand by that. If Willis was ready to retire today, I’d have no regrets, but I’m also eternally grateful for every fantastic ride he gives me and every show we get to attend. He’s been with me through my awkward and confusing teenage years, and helped me grow into a young adult with the same passion for the sport that I had when I was little. The other day, I admitted to my mom that I was spoiled by Willis. Sure, he is quirky, he has to live outside 24/7 because he’s prone to ulcers, and we have to contact show management to request a special stall to accommodate his claustrophobia, but if that’s the trade off, I’m okay with it. Every show, I can put my foot in the stirrup right away and it feels like we’re going on a relaxing trail ride. He’s honest and so willing, he gives me the feeling he would walk on water for me if I asked him. He’s also a competitor, like me. We share the same fire that drives us in the show ring, and as cliché as it may sound, he is my favorite dance partner. Our most common comment on our tests have been “Lovely harmonious pair” and I think that about sums us up. We are two halves of a whole in the ring and I cherish every second we get to spend in the sandbox.

As far as his breeding goes, I truly believe he is the best of both worlds. When you get to the upper levels, you start to appreciate horses that feel as though they can canter forever, and Willis has one of those canters, thanks to his thoroughbred heritage. He is also elegant, with three lovely gaits to make him an all-around effective and impressive athlete in dressage. I get questions all the time of people asking me “What IS he??” when we’re in the warmup at shows and I proudly smile and say, “He’s a mutt, but he’s a registered mutt, and got some of that hybrid vigor!” In actuality, I wish more of my own clients would consider similar crossings.

After receiving our new personal best at Intermediate I, 2022. Photo by Katrina Natwick

The American Warmblood offers dilutions of the fire-breathing dragons that maybe aren’t so amateur friendly (or if you’re like me, some professional that values an honest safe horse on a daily basis!), but you still get to have fun competing and showing off your horse because they are athletic enough for the job. He was perfect for 15-year old Jesse that had only ridden to First Level, and he’s still perfect for 23-year old Jesse that has big dreams of achieving her USDF Gold Medal in the near future, on a self-made horse. 

Not only has he helped me learn, but he’s helped establish my professional career in the horse world. I have to credit all my sponsorships and publicity to him and our story. I always preach that you want a trainer that can “walk the walk” and I feel that because of my journey with Willis, people see the proof in the pudding when it comes to my training program, and he’s helped me gain several clients as I moved from Jr/Yr to Professional. He’s also a really good sport about being my “Barbie horse”, and we’re most famous for our “matchy matchy” outfits, which has helped me grow my social media platforms to form more connections and network with others in the horse community.

My ultimate dream would be to celebrate our 10-year anniversary together by debuting at Grand Prix but with horses, you never know. I do believe in positive energy and if you put something out in the universe, you might be surprised what it’s willing to give back. It’s worked for us this far! I never thought I’d be able to even show Willis, let alone don a tailcoat and canter down centerline at the Kentucky Horse Park. With Willis, I feel that the sky is the limit, as long as I continue to listen to him and do best by my partner.

But for now, I’m just enjoying the ride. 


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