Sweet Seniors! On #YourDressage, we have been celebrating the special horses in our lives that are ages 20 and up through photo galleries and exclusive stories. Join us through the end of November as we celebrate the ‘Golden Oldies’ of the dressage community!
By Justine Watson
To say I was excited to see USDF having a “seniors month” would be an understatement! I took a chance on a senior as my first horse, and in retrospect, it was one of the most important decisions I didn’t know I was making as a new rider. I had no idea how instrumental Jacob’s Arch “Archer” was going to be to my dressage career, which wasn’t even an inkling of an idea when I got him. I just wanted a safe horse that would take care of me, and take care of me he did.
Archer was just two weeks shy of his 17th birthday when I went to see him at After the Races, a Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA) accredited rescue in 2018. He had not done much of anything under saddle since retiring to his fantastic breeders in 2008 after sustaining a career-ending slab fracture during a race (our boy still finished third!).
Of course, there were concerns about taking on a horse of his age:
How much time did he have left to be a riding horse?
When would the pin in his knee become a problem?
How much maintenance was he going to need?
Do we even know if he will stay sound in work?
But he was kind and gentle, and didn’t take advantage of the fact that I had only 6 months of riding under my belt when I tried him out. He must have had a good feeling too, because he hung out with me at his stall when the rescue director and I were talking particulars. “Funny, he must like you, he typically stands in the stall with his butt facing the door.” So home he came with me.
Before we got ourselves into a “serious” dressage role in 2021, we spent the years prior getting to know each other and having other kinds of adventures.
I learned how to canter on him. He was so patient with me, and would even come down to a trot if he felt me become off-balanced- which was great for learning but had to be untaught later, another great lesson he provided!
He showed me what it was like to be a jockey, when we would hack over to a friend’s turf track to play- I’ll never forget the sound of silence and struggling with the wind in my eyes when he tore down the stretch. I think in those moments he was truly the happiest, and so proud of himself to show me how good he was at his previous job.
He was totally game to learn how to do tricks: his bag included smile, bow, give hugs, give kisses, say “yes” (I never taught him how to say no), and counting.
He tolerated a hunter show… once. It would have been a tragedy to ask him to endure another. He was an expert copilot in getting lost for hours exploring the trails at Fair Hill, typically by ourselves.
We dabbled on and off with dressage lessons with a few different instructors over those years, but it wasn’t until we met Lauren Annett (now USDF Gold Medalist and “r” judge from Lincoln University, PA) in 2020, that we got serious about the sport. I had thought that because of his age and previous injury, we could never be competitive at much of anything. But she has an eye for good horses and knew we could navigate it. He became sounder with the work as I learned how to best support him. We went out to a few schooling shows at the end of the year and decided it was time to strut our stuff at recognized competitions.
We started our recognized campaign in 2021 when Archer turned 20 with a 2 day – 3 ring show that was 2.5 hours away- I now realize it was kind of an insane undertaking, but at the time, it was just Archer and I obliviously taking on the dressage world. We held our own and were hooked after that. We went on to have 26 recognized rides for the season- qualified for and showed a First Level musical freestyle, qualified for the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships at Training and First Level, made the long haul to compete at the Region 2 Regionals at the Kentucky Horse Park, and were reserve champions in the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds for First Level Musical Freestyle for The Jockey Club. All in our first year.
And we weren’t done. We spent that winter getting stronger for next year. Archer was aging like a fine wine. Through proper work, he was developing the musculature he needed to carry himself properly. And I became a better and more serious rider in the process.
There was a lot of hope and excitement going into the 2022 season, but we both got a gentle reminder of his age when he kicked himself and came up lame in our first test. After some R and R and injecting his hocks, we were back in action. But as much as Archer was game for whatever I asked of him, I knew I had to scale him back. He meant too much to me to keep pushing him, and I owed it to him to make the right choice. So we slowly finished up the bare minimums for All-Breeds and retired him from recognized competition this year.
Please don’t think this season was a total bust! It actually ended up being quite the opposite. Despite not attending in Archer’s best interest, we did qualify early for Regionals at First Level Freestyle, and Training Level. We joined the 70+ club at Training Level TWICE, which I never thought we were going to see. We even won a “high score mature horse award” at a show, which I’ve never been more proud of winning! And he is the All-Breeds Champion in the First Level Freestyle for the Jockey Club for 2022! 21 looked good on the old boy!
None of this is easy, as many of you who compete can understand. And to do it on a senior… now that was something special. I think it takes a certain person to be able to take a senior horse on to do these things because not all days are great. Aging is not kind to any of us. Some days are good, others not at all, and we have to be mindful and adjust. It can be a labor of love keeping them tuned up, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’m glad I got to be that person for Archer, and I was privileged to have a horse give me so much of their heart and soul in the process.
I want to say this has a happy ending, but unfortunately, life has this cruel way of keeping you grounded.
Archer was humanely euthanized this month following a fatal pasture injury. Words can not describe the loss. I was so very lucky to have had him and am grateful for everything he taught me. He gave me confidence, taught me feel, gave me a safe place to learn and make mistakes, and most importantly gave me happiness and memories I’ll have and cherish forever. As you have read, we did a lot of incredible things, and I can tell you I don’t think either one of us would have done any of this without the other. I would not be the rider I am today if it weren’t for him.
Take a chance on a senior. You may just get a taste of greatness.