By Ginger Bowles
Meet Cielo, my dressage horse.
Cielo is a kill pen rescue. He was adopted out of a Louisiana kill pen by a woman in the northern California valley. My former trainer saw an ad on Craigslist for Cielo, Boots, an older Fox Trotter mare, and a five-year-old mare that had a neurologic issue. Cielo is now about 18 years of age.
I first saw Cielo when he arrived at the ranch in July or August of 2016. He was a yellowish-orange due to the clay in the soil where he had been living. His tail was so wind knotted that it was like a baseball bat. It took a lot of detangler, and hours of tedious work, to untangle the mess. I have never seen a tail as knotted up as his was.
He was withdrawn, didn’t want anything to do with people, and even though I had worked with a lot of rescue horses at the ranch, he wouldn’t let me near him at first. He had his teeth done and had a visit with the chiropractic veterinarian before he was taken out on a couple of trail rides and ridden at the ranch, before being put up for sale.
I wasn’t looking for a second horse at the time, so I was able to ride him out on the trails a couple of times with the trainer while he was being offered for sale. In November, my retired racehorse, a former lesson horse, suddenly passed away. I missed him and it was good for me to be able to work with Cielo during that time. I taught Cielo to stand at the mounting block for treats. It took some work to get him to trust me but we got along quite well. By January I decided I wanted to purchase Cielo for my birthday. Before I did that, I spent some time with him and asked him if he wanted to join my family. He seemed quite happy with the idea.
Although I purchased him as my primary trail horse, I am also a dressage rider, so I started schooling him. He didn’t have any former dressage education, and under saddle work was very stressful for him. But on the trail, he is fantastic! He never takes a bad step and is completely trustworthy.
Life was going really well with Cielo as my second horse until May 6, 2018, when he went down with laminitis. He had a really bad case, and it took months to pull him through. He was on stall confinement with no access to grass, underwent a complete diet change, and was administered lots of bute to help reduce inflammation. His glucose test was over 300. He was in bad shape.
He recovered from the bout of laminitis, and I started to ride him lightly again. A photographer came to the ranch to take glamor shots of the horses, and since Cielo was sound again, I had him done along with my Arabian. These photos were done October 27, 2018, just 5 months after his laminitis started. They really capture his essence quite well.
All was going well, so I entered him into a show that had open classes for dressage at an Arabian Show that my other horse was entered in on March 31, 2019. Unfortunately, laminitis returned shortly after the show (photo below). My new veterinarian didn’t think he was going to survive it this time, having had it just a year earlier. My now former trainer insisted he would never be sound or able to do trails or dressage again if he survived. All I remember of 2019 is soaking hay nets. Over 30 bales of hay that summer!
Cielo was x-rayed, and my farrier trimmed him according to my veterinarian’s instructions. Then there were more x-rays, and more trims, every 3 weeks to change his angles, and take the dorsal hoof wall back. When he recovered, he had a lot of damaged hoof material growing down. My veterinarian said I could do light trail riding and dressage with him again – much to my surprise. I tried to start riding Cielo lightly in 2020, mostly bareback, but he was still too uncomfortable for any serious riding. I decided to retire him as pasture sound. Cielo was sad that he couldn’t go out on rides or trails anymore, and didn’t really enjoy retired life. I would pop on him bareback here and there just to have some fun with him. The damaged lamina grew out over the next 2 years. He gave me another laminitis scare in the spring of 2022, but, fortunately, this time it was just an abscess. It’s funny how you can get excited about an abscess after having survived laminitis.
I was riding my other primary dressage horse during this time and unfortunately, he passed away suddenly in April. Cielo got the call to come back into light work again, since I was devastated at the loss of my other horse.
Cielo missed being in work, and I really didn’t know how much riding he could tolerate. I decided I would just work on myself as a rider, since I didn’t know if he would be able to do any dressage again, or even trails. I had taken his shoes off in the fall of 2021 since he wasn’t being ridden. His feet were doing okay, but with the introduction of work, I had to put trail boots on him to protect his feet from breakage. Breakage on barefoot horses is normal but in Cielo’s case it really worried me. I spent about a month just lunging, then mostly did walk/trot under saddle, with a little bit of canter because that has always been his weakest gait.
I started applying the learning I had done with my deceased horse and Cielo really started to show improvement. I took him to a clinic and really worked on the lessons I was taught. I took lessons from a trainer with the new CDS club I had joined as well. All the pieces were starting to come together, after all these years of struggling with setbacks.
I decided to enter some shows this summer, mainly for me as a rider to work on how to become a better test rider and work on my position, and it really benefited both of us. I learned how to manage Cielo when things went wrong in the test without getting upset or panicking, since I wasn’t bothered about the scores. He was able to get the benefit of being shown again, and dealing with the environment since he had been retired for almost three years. I ended up putting shoes back on him since now he was in regular work. After the shows, I really started to work on each element in the dressage training scale. I started applying exercises I had watched on various training videos, and started to increase my expectations with his work. Really focusing on having him more round. Round and through has always been his main weakness, and it caused problems everywhere. We both worked really hard and entered some shows this fall. This time I dropped him down a few levels and really focused on producing at least a 60% score in Training and First Levels. During the summer, I was schooling him in the Second and Third Level movements but because I entered the shows, I had to step back from that advanced work and focus on walk – trot transitions, and having him more relaxed and supple. The advanced work gets him very hot off my aids, which causes problems in the lower level tests. For the first time since I started my dressage journey, I finally felt like we were competitive! Cielo felt really good, understood his job, and tried really hard for me in each of the shows we entered. He is now picking up those 7’s we’ve been working so hard for. Not only did we achieve my goal of 60% in ¾ of the tests we competed, but we managed to earn a personal best score of 63.7 in First Level Test 3!
After the fall shows, Cielo was a bit tired so he had time off, while I went on vacation to Iceland. Cielo had nearly three weeks off to relax after six months of steady work.
Since we are not showing until 2023, we are now doing more advanced elements such as learning piaffe in hand, canter half pass, and flying changes. I am hoping we can compete at Third Level in 2023. After his mini break he has really excelled in his work. I have started asking for the flying changes, which he is now doing on both reins, and after only 4 or 5 in-hand sessions, is showing he understands the piaffe concept.
Cielo has so much natural talent for dressage work, I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what he is capable of. His collection work has really improved, and he’s super eager – to the point I have to remind him to wait for my aids.
I can’t believe someone threw this wonderful little horse away years ago, but I’m so happy he is part of my life. He has been there for me when I’ve had a loss and continues to bring so much joy into my life. The little horse that didn’t want anything to do with people now bugs everyone he can reach out to and touch with his nose for treats. I have created a treat monster!