Sweet Seniors! In October on YourDressage, we are celebrating the special horses in our lives that are ages 20 and up through photo galleries and exclusive stories. Join us all month long as we celebrate the ‘Golden Oldies’ of the dressage community! Here, a former snowbird shares her journey from the hunter, jumper, and equitation rings to the dressage arena, with her magic horse who changed the trajectory of her life.
By Susan Collins
Those of us who have been bitten by the horse bug know that our partnerships with these wonderful creatures are as essential as breathing. All of them have their own special qualities and lessons to teach us, and having any opportunity to ride is a tremendous privilege.
That said, once in a very long while, if you are extremely lucky, you get a partnership with a horse that will change the trajectory of your life. Spree is one of those magic horses.
I was a young adult when I got Spree as a coming-five-year-old. A friend of mine had taken a clinic with the wonderful Derek Petersen in Florida, and had seen some of his lovely sales horses; she knew I had finally decided to take the plunge and invest in a nice young horse, and she made the connection for me. I went down to the Petersen’s farm for a weekend to see “a bunch of nice young horses”, and sat on exactly one: that was Spree.
At that time, I was at something of a crossroads. I was newly divorced, starting a new career, and rebuilding a life that better reflected my own interests and ambitions, after spending way too much time trying to be the person that everyone else thought I should be. I had the luxury of choosing a new direction, and the one thing I was completely sure of was that it would include, finally, a horse capable of showing in the rings I had watched as a kid.
Growing up, I was that once-a-week lesson kid who became a barn rat, and worked for ride times, and the opportunity to be around horses in any capacity. My family was not horsey, and I lost track of the number of times my mom tried to get me interested in tennis. “You could wear all those cute outfits and not get so… dirty!” But I couldn’t be enticed away from the barn, and never stopped dreaming of having a horse of my own. During high school, I got a job grooming polo ponies and got to ride that way; at one point, I had a failed polo pony as my trail horse, bought with my grooming money.
After I graduated from college and joined the workforce, my grandparents gave me some money to buy a car, and so, like any good horse crazy person, I bought a beater car and spent 90% of it on a horse. Unfortunately, that horse ended up passing away shortly after I got her, and I was once again horseless. My next horse was a really lovely, but very quirky (and therefore affordable) Off Track Thoroughbred. I spent the next decade plus with that horse, and he taught me quite a lot. He was a very good mover, and in fact, a good athlete in general, but he was a challenging ride, and pushed me to the very outer limits of my ability. He had many wonderful qualities, and was a lovely personality, but he was never a horse you could just hop on and go for a hack; he really needed to be in a very focused, professional program, and that simply wasn’t the kind of program I had at the time.
I knew the minute I sat on him that I was going to buy him. He was young and he was green, but he had the kind of fantastic brain and willingness to please that was heaven to ride. At the time, I wanted a hunter, and he had a beautiful jump and a huge stride. I could misjudge the distance to any jump and he would just happily pat the ground and fix it for me, and there were plenty of times I would come around a turn, not see any distance at all, and feel a soft tug on the reins because he saw it and knew we needed to adjust! He’d just basically say, “Hey, let go a little, we need to move up here, Mom.” He was incredibly fun to ride and to show; you could walk into any arena and he would be all business, and very competitive. As my career progressed and I could afford to do more, I showed him in the jumpers and equitation as well, improving our skills and finding more interesting challenges to take on. He was always game for whatever I wanted to do; we used to say we could dress him up for any ring and he could figure out, based on what he was wearing, whether he needed to do his relaxed hunter lope or his quick jumper turns or his rock steady equitation courses.
Spree was always the center of my universe. He carried me through cancer treatment, both literally and figuratively, and he was always the one I wanted to talk to when that treatment was difficult or scary. When I was dating the fellow who is now my husband, the first place I took him was to the barn to meet Spree. (When they hit it off and he started learning to ride and talking about horse shows, I knew he was a keeper!!) After we got married, I moved to a new state and to a new barn. Sadly, we had a very unfortunate situation with a farrier there, and Spree ended up with very serious abscesses, and a rehab program that required over 100 days of stall rest, and basically, the need to grow out new hooves. In all that time, he was patient and kind, quietly doing his hand walks even when the weather was windy and cold, and the other horses were acting like horse balloons. Luckily, he did recover, but those feet became a concern, and we were always very careful to manage the footing he worked on and the number of jumps he took. After that, I rode with another really wonderful professional, Kristen Abbatiello Neff, and we had years of fun doing lessons, clinics, and shows all over the northeast. Along the way, he won a New England medal, the Greenwich Cup, and many other awards.
Eventually we moved back to Atlanta, and it seemed better for Spree not to jump anymore; my vet told me there was absolutely nothing wrong with continuing to do flatwork, and suggested that I try dressage instead of retiring him. At the time, I have to admit I was a little bummed, but it turned out to be just the start of an entirely new chapter and passion for dressage! I called my friend Julie Shannon, who happened to have a wonderful dressage program at her Elite Training Center, Shannondale Farms, and our new adventure began in earnest. Of course, having been an equitation horse, he was already familiar with work like counter canter, lateral work, and flying changes. He turned out to be just as wonderful at dressage as he had been at his previous jobs, and in just over a year, he got me almost all of the way to a USDF Bronze Medal (and would have completed that medal, had I not “gotten lost” in our last Third Level test, earning a penalty that dropped our result just .02% below the qualification score, sigh.) Along the way, we had great fun going to clinics and shows, and meeting all sorts of new people who have since become great friends. It opened up a whole new world of riding and training that I hadn’t even known existed. It was through all of the wonderful adventures I had with Spree that I fell deeply in love with dressage, a passion that literally changed my life, and very much for the better.
Spree stepped back from competition shortly before he turned 20, when some arthritis caught up with him and made collection more difficult. I bought a young dressage-bred gelding to continue on my journey, and my intention was to offer Spree his well-deserved retirement, but he made it clear he was not happy without a job. We had moved again, and I was boarding my young horse at a training barn nearby; at my trainer’s suggestion, I leased him to a lovely retired teacher who liked to trail ride and take the occasional low key lesson. She had a wonderful time with him, and he loved being fussed over and having something to do. A few years later, I bought a farm nearby to ensure that when the time came to fully retire him, I could provide a suitable environment. Little did I know that was the beginning of yet another adventure: farm ownership!! Having the horses at home has been fantastic, and is now a way of life I could never give up.
My little mini herd of dressage horses continued to grow a bit, and through it all, Spree was in charge of the farm – we pretty much organized our lives around what we jokingly referred to as PonyLand, and he was the Senior Pony in Charge. At over 17 hands, he was pretty far from pony sized, but he definitely had that Pony Attitude!
This year, we decided to move again, and make the Wellington, FL area our permanent home, after spending a number of years as “snowbirds” during the winter season. That was going to mean a lengthy trailer ride for the horses, and I was a bit worried about how Spree would fare on such a long journey. I asked my marvelous veterinarian, the amazing Dr. Amanda Cerniglia of East West Vet Care, if she thought it was fair to put him through such a long trip, given he was nearly 30 and coping with arthritis. Dr. Amanda has known Spree for many years, and she knew how hard it was for me to even ask the question, but she thought he would do just fine, and luckily, she was absolutely correct! Spree has adapted to his new Florida lifestyle, and now spends his days happily grazing under his palm trees, often with an ibis or two for company. He still runs the farm and supervises our lives, and hopefully will continue to do that for many years to come!