The mighty Irish Draught Horse! We are celebrating them as our January Breed of the Month on YourDressage!
Dressage riders who choose Irish Draughts as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards program, as the Irish Draught Horse Society of North America is a participating organization.
Here, a rider shares the story of the Irish Sport Horse mare whose saddle immediately felt like home, and how together they earned their USDF Bronze Medal, rehabbed through a torn tendon, and ultimately earned a trip to Festival of Champions!
By Samantha Collins
I remember telling my parents that I wanted a mare. My pony was a gelding – a sassy pony gelding, nonetheless – but I wanted to get a mare once I outgrew him. So, when I did finally outgrow my hunter-jumper-turned-dressage pony, we put an “in search of” ad on Facebook and ended up looking at several wonderful horses — all of which were mares, of course. That’s just what my little teenage heart wanted, and I probably couldn’t tell you why I wanted a mare – I just did.
I was open to any breed, and because I was just learning to ride a “full-sized” horse, temperament was the number one thing of importance. I sat on several horses and never felt completely connected; but then again, I had only ever really ridden my pony, so I wasn’t quite sure what that was supposed to feel like or if I had already achieved it. It wasn’t until I stepped into Ballybolger Springthyme’s (aka Maggie) stirrups that I truly knew that I had found the one.
My mom drove me a few hours to go and try this Irish Sport Horse mare. We arrived and I walked through the barn aisle, finding the stall with her name on it. I stood and held my hand out for her to smell, which she did, and then she promptly went back to her hay pile and kept munching. We took her to the cross ties where I groomed her, and then headed for the arena. OnceI had mounted, her saddle felt like home. I don’t even remember much of the test ride because all I could think about was how much I loved this horse. If you were to watch the videos my mom had taken, you could probably only see my smile beaming from under that covered arena. The farm was right next to an airport and a railroad track, and I had taken Maggie out for a trail ride after working in the arena. With my feet dangling out of the stirrups and the reins held in one hand at the buckle, on a horse I had only ridden this one time, an airplane flew just overhead – right as a train zipped past. Maggie didn’t even flinch (looking back, thank goodness!) and if it wasn’t clear up until that point, it definitely was then: my next horse would be Irish.
I was barely riding First Level when we got Maggie; she was working Second and bits of Third Level, and had previously done CCI1* eventing. She taught me up to Second Level, and when we were ready for Third we were practically learning together. But, naturally, our journey from First to Third Level was not without some oops moments. In the first show we ever went to together, I took an unplanned dismount in the warm-up ring on Friday evening. I got up and laughed it off, very thankful for the well maintained footing and my helmet, and we proceeded to score in the 50’s that whole weekend. Not exactly what I had planned, but I was grateful for every moment. Coincidentally, at that same show one year later, we completed the qualifications needed for our USDF Bronze Medal. In addition to that, she carried me through my first equitation class, and we qualified for the USEF Dressage Seat Medal Finals. When we were looking for Maggie, we wanted a horse that could teach me to ride; I never expected her to take me as far as she did.
Unfortunately, three months after our Third Level debut and obtaining those oh-so desired scores, Maggie went lame. We discovered that she had a torn deep-digital flexor tendon in her hind leg, and that meant no riding for nine to twelve months. It meant no equitation finals with her. I was heartbroken. My Maggie Pie, my world, was hurt. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before, and I just broke down in the vet’s office.
After months of stall rest, small paddock turnout, icing, wrapping, and hoping, Maggie was cleared to begin walking under saddle. We then progressed slowly to trotting and so on, but of course we had to retrain and recondition ourselves to be where we were earlier that year. Realistically, nobody was quite sure if we’d be able to train beyond Third Level, but I just wanted Maggie to be a happy, healthy girl. She always gave me her all, so I needed to give her mine.
About a year and a half after her injury, we returned to the competition ring and debuted at Fourth Level, on a whim. It felt like an amazing feat because I don’t often hear of an Irish Sport Horse in dressage, let alone having the pleasure to ride one at Fourth Level. That autumn, during a rollercoaster of a show, we once again qualified for the USEF Dressage Seat Medal Finals. This time though, I would put Maggie’s needs first. I learned to listen more closely to her. I learned to put her needs before mine. And ultimately, we ended up being able to travel to Chicago and compete, where we received fifth in an immensely skilled class of riders. I couldn’t have been more pleased with Maggie, knowing she took such great care of me while taking in the sights of her first Festival of Champions. Then, to keep me grounded, at the next show we went to, we spooked at the crackling loudspeakers and had a rather eventful ride. I guess that’s just part of the joys of showing.
I‘ve always said that she only gave me as much as she thought I could handle. Of course, I became a different rider than I was at First Level, and she, a much different horse. Maggie knew when I was ready for more even if I didn’t. She pushes me every day, and takes care to never throw out too much; for that I am eternally grateful. Each morning I walk into the barn and she’s the first to nicker. Each cool evening, I put her therapeutic blanket on, hoping that it brings any type of additional comfort to my best friend. Each time I sit in her saddle, she asks what goal we have set for the day, and every time I tell her, her response is “let’s do it”. Now, we have our sights set on completing the second half of our USDF Silver Medal, and I couldn’t see myself doing it with any other horse. Little did I know that an eventing-bred Irish Sport Horse would teach me so much about dressage.
Maggie has shown me that any horse can do dressage; all that matters is their frame of mind. She’s shown me that all it takes is love, perseverance, and treats – several treats.