By Madelyn Houser
I never thought I’d… Actually, I legitimately began typing that statement before coming to my senses and realizing it was false information. Let me rephrase myself before I continue on – I always carried some sort of overly hopeful objective that one day, I’d stumble upon that unicorn Quarter Horse dripping with blatant talent for the dressage arena. You know the type – raw, undiscovered talent so palatable, yet those already involved with the horse have no earthly idea what kind of diamond in the rough they have at the tips of their fingers. They definitely exist. They’re just incredibly rare.
The breed itself trotted their way into a soft place of my heart a long time ago, when I was an awkward tween still learning how to appreciate the mystical sphere of dressage. I grew up riding Quarter Horses in various lesson programs and summer camps, only to compete a couple on the dressage circuit as a junior rider from 2007-2009, or there about. I always appreciated their versatility and how sound a majority of their minds could be, for those of us not always confident in the tack. But, with age, came loftier competition and riding aspirations. I allowed the idea of owning my own Quarter Horse to fizzle into a distant notion, and I moved onto the world of Warmbloods in pursuit of my target goals.
Retiring my FEI horse – my heart horse – in 2019 presented a lot of uncomfortable uncertainty and vulnerability towards my riding career’s future outlook. It was an uneasy place to mentally park; often lonely, frustrating, and riddled with discouragement. Our daily routine we both had grown accustomed to suddenly ceased – like a smoker quitting cold turkey. After a few months into my mare, Leah’s, new chapter, I arrived upon one valid conclusion: there are copious emotions deeply intertwined with such bittersweet decisions that often go unspoken in our community, like some sort of weird taboo. I learned that it was okay, even normal, to not be okay in those moments. The choice to retire means you’re willing to view reality for what it truly is, not for how you wish it to be in your heart. It’s facing the acknowledgement that our beloved equine partner is not who they once were, and for those of us who become so vastly attached across the emotional, mental, and spiritual spectrum, it can be incredibly hard to accept.
I guess I never really thought about how my journey post-Leah’s retirement would guide me into a contrasting trajectory than what’s expected of your typical dressage rider in today’s era. I was rooted in internal conflict for quite some time, as I subconsciously stewed over the inevitable “what’s next” factor. Where would I go from there? When would I know if my heart was open to welcoming – even trusting – another? What could I even afford in such a volatile market? Was I brave enough to take on a young horse at home, without professional guidance? So on, so forth. These proposed questions and talking points gifted me the opportunity for some serious soul searching, which eventually pulled me to a decision in seeking a more “untraditional” route. I weighed my options carefully and tirelessly. Breeding my own with a senior maiden mare? No. Purchase a yearling Warmblood? No. Kudos to those who pick this winning ticket. I’m just not brave enough nor was that something I wanted to handle on my own sans guidance, and that’s alright. Purchase a younger Warmblood with some mileage, maybe even a confirmed flying change? My obvious choice, a resounding “yes!”
Until… you solidify your budget. At that point, you slam the laptop closed after falling face first down the rabbit hole of Facebook sale groups, particular sale websites, and YouTube videos, ONLY to fully comprehend that the ONLY purpose-bred dressage horse you’re buying is either still in utero or option two. I knew in the pit of my stomach that persevering forward in my dressage endeavors meant I’d have no alternative but to get creative. I’m here to say I don’t feel as if this is a groundbreaking, earth shattering, newsworthy path to meander down. I’m now one of many, many fellow equestrians seeking the unique in a valiant quest to keep doing what they love most.
In early January 2021, my heart finally settled on the idea of chasing a long-lost, albeit sizable, goal that fit inside my current life circumstances. I wanted a horse who felt manageable – one that would further help build my confidence and one that didn’t require substantial prayer before slipping my foot into the stirrup on a blustery winter’s day. I couldn’t picture a better breed for the job description than a Quarter Horse. Embarking down such an avenue wouldn’t come easily or straightforwardly without its own collection of challenges, but I was ready to test my skill set in an unusual fashion. And so, I earnestly began my search.
A handful of months, weeks, and days sailed by with no avail or any positive light shining at the finish line. At this point, I had combed through what felt like thousands of online sales advertisements, dished over a couple hundred dollars on a discouraging Pre Purchase Exam, tried a couple other potential fits, and nothing came together like I wished. Questioning my desire to think outside the dressage societal norms seemed like the logical next step. Internally, I scoffed at my ambitions that left me resentful of the evidence that I couldn’t afford a Leah-reincarnated on my own. But damn, even the dollars I could fork over didn’t leave much wiggle room for hope.
An incoming phone call from my trainer, Eva Oldenbroek Tabor, interrupted my self-pity soak. It was late March, and she was making the eighteen hour – mas o menos – drive to visit her husband, Joshua Tabor, in Ocala, Florida. Josh, our resident jumper rider, trainer, and competitor, headed to Ocala with a string of impressive horses in tow, at the kickstart of January, to spend the winter months basking in the World Equestrian Center’s beauty through its spectacular show season spectacle. Say that three times fast. Somewhere in the midst of our silly conversations, Eva casually mentioned that Josh had been renting a small casita, situated on a pretty well known Quarter Horse farm adjacent to the WEC grounds. We hadn’t thought to put two and two together – that I was yearning for my own Quarter Horse and there Josh was temporarily living right smack dab in the middle of Quarter Horse paradise. We laughed, and I asked Eva to please keep an eye peeled for me; if there was something beyond the ordinary that could maybe, just possibly fit the bill… to inform me first.
The next morning, my phone rang once again. I was standing inside a bustling Wash Tub gift shop (car wash business, ha) with my mom when I glanced down at the buzzing device nestled in my purse. Eva’s face appeared, and I hurriedly answered. “I might’ve found something for you,” she happily proclaimed. Curiosity poked at my mind. As Eva proceeded to explain the mystery horse in greater detail, I remember pressing play on the two short video clips she had simultaneously sent my way during the call. A flea-bitten grey with a bright pink snipped nose slowly lifted his neck from a graze in the paddock, flicked his ears twice and lazily strolled to the fence line where Eva stood. He was taller in stature, and challenged the stereotypical Quarter Horse appearance. Toward the end of the general lowdown, I could hear faint caution creep into her voice. The grey was coming-nine, and Western Pleasure/Hunter Under Saddle was the only life he understood. Of course, there is always a level of hesitancy when taking a retraining project into consideration. An utter crap shoot, really. You never know what you’re going to get until you start pressing buttons or applying little bouts of necessary pressure within the newfound discipline. I, however, stood firm in my stance in that there was no harm in trying. I didn’t have a thing to lose at this stage in the game.
I received an under-saddle video later that afternoon. The clip that streamed across my iPhone screen is what I generally expected to feast my eyes upon – a grey Quarter Horse doing its western Quarter Horse stuff. He was labeled as an “in-betweener.” A term of non-endearment alluding to the case that he was not a gifted Western Pleasure mount nor a Hunter Under Saddle prized possession. I did, however, see the raw kindness and a soft, willing expression from a ninety second video. I noticed gaits that needed fostering but oozed potential. I saw tiny glimmers of untouched power. And suddenly, his age or background or athletic ability (or lack thereof, rather) didn’t matter much anymore. The clock was ticking – I needed to make a decision to either move forward or back away as I only had three days to decide if the horse was stepping onto Josh’s trailer when it came back home.
So, I jumped in a huge blind leap of faith. Josh took the gelding for a short spin, and I analyzed the grainy video with my dear friend, Cassie Nolte, my mom, and my husband, for what seemed like hours upon hours. Mind you, I still wasn’t even aware of the horse’s name, but that seemed like such an insignificant detail during crunch time. One ingredient I especially favored was that he clearly understood the biomechanics behind a clean flying change. They were green and unpolished, but this alone brought the “should I, shouldn’t I” race inside my head to a halt. Regardless, the choice to purchase was a risky move, but to quote Sirius Black from Harry Potter, “what’s life without a little risk?” Josh then validated my verdict in the special way Josh only can and could… “Maddie, he’s safe, just buy the horse!“
This whole scenario took place on a Wednesday afternoon and evening. By Friday of that same week, Ryder, err, Knight Ryde – I had learned of his identity, finally! – “passed” his impromptu and rather last minute vetting. His then-owner and I mutually shook on a price, I signed the necessary paperwork, and I wired the funds. Just like that, after a whirlwind one hundred and sixty eight hours, I was the proud new human responsible for a grey Quarter Horse gelding that I really only knew very little about, other than the humdrum specifics. On Monday morning, Ryder was en route to Central Texas… the single Quarter Horse on a Warmblood heavy caravan.
The rest is history in the making. Ryder’s spirit is one I didn’t know my world needed after closing such an emotionally charged chapter with Leah. She is forever my “heart horse,” and through my immense love for her, I have unlocked the normalcy in allowing another horse into a different territory of my heart – something I feared for so, so long. A vast majority of you who follow us on Instagram have witnessed first-hand the leaps and bounds Ryder has blossomed, with a correct introduction to dressage. He is wickedly intelligent; a smart cookie with an aptitude for trainability. It is imperative to recognize this special personality trait because in the wrong hands, one can easily take advantage and ask too much. However, Ryder has surpassed every expectation I subconsciously set within the last year and a half of our freshly minted partnership.
As an equestrian who has always visualized herself developing a blank slate through the levels, in some capacity or another, I find fulfillment in the most minuscule milestones through Ryder’s training journey. Perhaps, that is because he is an “untraditional” breed. I’m not entirely sure. I grapple with using such terminology because, while dressage is primarily Warmblood populated and dominated, we cannot dismiss that the word “dressage” itself quite literally means “training.” Every horse, every breed, every shape, every size can benefit in some fashion from its principles. Outwardly, the pathway I have chosen with Ryder is unique in a hefty sense. But, I want to emphasize that I am not alone here. There are thousands and thousands of you out there who are seeking growth, whether as just a leisurely rider or avid competitor (or somewhere in-between), with unorthodox equine partners. What one individual stamps as “untraditional” might very well be “traditional” for the person standing next to them.
Dressage is not a one-size-fits-all type of sport. To me, dressage is seeing and embracing the beauty in all hoof prints of life. The, often complicated, road that leads us to what we personally view as success is different for every single soul. Young horse, yearling, a seasoned schoolmaster, pony, a breed that might surprise a few spectators in the crowd – whether you’re immersed in a training program, enrolling in virtual lessons, or coaching yourself alone, there is no “traditional” route. We’re all a smidge “untraditional” at the end of the day, right?