The inspirational Rescue Horse! We are celebrating them as our April Breed of the Month on YourDressage!
Dressage riders who choose Rescue Horses as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards program, as the International Rescue Horse Registry is a participating organization.
Here, a Region 2 competitor shares the story of the Friesian Arabian Cross whom she purchased from the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation’s Trainer’s Challenge auction after being paired with him for the competition, and the obstacles they’ve overcome to compete at the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships.
By Rochelle Wrisky
You know in the movie scenes where the girl sees the horse for the first time and it goes into slow motion, the horse looks majestic, and the music is serene? Well, that is not how my first encounter went with my unicorn.
The scene instead opens on a trip with six people piling into one vehicle to pick up their challenge horse two hours from home on April 2nd, 2016. The first pick-up day allowed was April 1st and I thought to myself, “that’s a bad joke, right?” He was beautiful, that was for sure, and he had a presence and air about him. While everyone else in the group was eager to crowd him, and shower him with attention, I stood back and took him in. He gave off a nervous energy, and knew how to use his head and nose to shove people to maintain his space. He also lifted his head and neck to try to tower over the group to show how “big” he was. (He is 15.1 hands, so he is not a giraffe by any means.) It was a laughable presentation of a tolerable gelding with fans to adore him. He acted so suave and macho, which quickly earned him the nickname “Fabio”.
Newton was one of 16 horses that were candidates for the Minnesota Hooved Animal Rescue Foundation’s (MHARF) 2016 Trainers Challenge – a competition where trainers get five and a half months to start an unstarted horse. Each trainer is assigned their horse based on experience and discipline. Newton was a 13 year old gelding that had been an elderly woman’s pasture pet from a young age. He was surrendered to the rescue a little fat, handled, and maintained (vetted and regular farrier), but never really taught much beyond leading. I was excited that we didn’t get a horse that was unhandled or had trust issues.
Newton loaded relatively easily, and we were off on our adventure. We had a group of four trainers, the support of many barn family members. Besides one member, none of us, myself included, had ever started a horse. I had worked with many green horses, finishing them into quiet, willing mounts that were used in our lesson program or were my personal mounts. Newton proved to be a quiet start. He had sticky feet at times but never offered a buck or bolt. He was super honest but still always had an air of nervous energy about him. I’ll take this moment now to mention his breed –Newton is a Friesian Arabian cross. So, the nervous energy was just some of that Arabian suave-ness that exudes from their pores.
We slowly worked on desensitizing, leading, exposure to new things and venues, mounting, lungeing, and eventually to walk, trot, and canter under saddle. Everything went well. We had a consistent progression of all the things, and Newton took everything in stride. As the time of the challenge finale came closer, we still had much to do.
There are five categories or classes we are judged on: showmanship, pleasure, trail, vet/ farrier, and freestyle. We decided which trainer would do each class, and decided to do the freestyle together. Showcasing Newton’s versatility and ability to work with different riders and skills was our aim. Going into the challenge, we had discussed whether anyone from the group was interested in adopting him. I was in the market for a horse, as my trusted mare was aging, and I wanted to begin looking for another horse to start bringing along. Newton was a shoe-in. Promising ability, beautiful, sound, sane, and affordable!!!
I decided to pass though. Newton, although safe to put a kid on, was bullheaded and cocky. He was a little pushy, impatient with things, and sensitive. I also considered myself a bay mare person, and thought it was just the gelding personality I didn’t mesh with. We had a few people come to visit and try him before the challenge, and we were hopeful that he would get adopted. We finalized our freestyle theme of Home and did it to the song “Home” by Phillip Phillips.
The day of the Trainer’s Challenge came, and I couldn’t be more proud. Although slightly edgy, Newton did all of the things we asked of him, kept a super level head, and came in 6th overall!
Then came time for bidding. This part of the story may have you think less of me but it is the truth. I HAD NO INTENTION OF BIDDING!!! The bidding started, and Newton had only one person bidding on him!!! I was in shock. How could this beautiful, willing creature not be in a bidding war?! Up went my hand! This fancy, bullheaded boy was not selling for a thousand dollars! If so, I’ll bring him home and enjoy him for all his quirky ways. My pride wouldn’t let him go for mere pennies. Could these people not see and appreciate the talent they had in front of them? I ended up spending a little over two thousand on him and I was his.
I would like to say that it was all rainbows and sunshine after that, but those first 2-3 years that Newton owned me, I felt like we were a bickering married couple that could just never really see eye to eye. It’s not that it ever got dangerous or scary, but it just didn’t seem like we could mesh and work together. We worked with multiple instructors, and had lots of lovely lessons and improved over time, but would always come back to this edgy bullheadedness.
I knew from the beginning when I adopted him that we were both bullheaded, and that I needed to be the reasonable one, and be slow and patient. That may sound big of me, but I can tell you there were many days where there was tears, frustration, and feelings of defeat. I was hoping to start my career in dressage, but quickly discovered that he didn’t have the patience to do flatwork consistently, and work on relaxation, rhythm, and suppleness. We ended up doing a lot of cross training, which brought us to eventing. We enjoyed a couple seasons, competing at Starter, and were schooling Beginner Novice. Newton was always a willing mount, we had a lot of fun, and he really made me appreciate and enjoy the open cross country fields, the discipline of dressage, and the focus and strategy required of stadium jumping.
We had some mild success in eventing but decided it was time to focus on dressage. We found a clinician we really liked and meshed well with. When I met her, we were in a better place, but still had many frustrating rides. We had some brilliant moments, and I felt and saw Newton’s potential, but didn’t know how to get the consistency. We struggled for a season chasing open Training Level scores. To say I finished that season defeated is an understatement. Many know the journey; it’s a lot of work, time, and money. It’s not that I needed the accolades, but when you invest in it, there’s a huge feeling of gratitude knowing you’re getting somewhere. Around this time, the clinician that really helped and understood Newton and I reached out and informed me that her assistant trainer was looking to take on some additional outside clients. Not to be sappy, but this is that pinnacle moment in the movie where everything turns around. We had so many amazing trainers leading up to this, and no one did us wrong, but there was just something about this trainer and how she understood my horse and I that clicked for us, and now I saw future opportunities being opened up to us. In 2022, Newton and I decided to move up to First Level, even though we never achieved our goals at Training Level.
Although the first part of the season started similar to our 2021 season, I had more consistent rides, and rideability and attention from Newton. There was a real “We grew up” feel to our rides. By mid season, we earned our qualifying scores for the Great American/USDF Regional Championships, and decided to do a First Level freestyle. It was always in the back of my head that if we got to this point, I would love to do my freestyle to the same music we rode to back in 2016 from the Trainer’s Challenge. On July 30, at Otter Creek Farm, we danced down centerline to perform our first freestyle “Home” (musical version by The Piano Guys) that I did the choreography for.
I was just hoping to make it through in time with the music. We didn’t have a ton of practice going into it in a full-size arena, and we were just hoping to have fun. The mission was definitely accomplished. It was such an amazing feeling, and there is something about composing your own freestyle, and dancing to music, that really added a new element to our riding. And to add a cherry on top, we also got a qualifying score!
I was born and raised Catholic, and went to a Catholic school growing up. We had a priest from Ireland, and one of his favorite stories to tell was how as a new student or an underclassman, you were considered a little fish in a big pond, but that someday you would be the big fish in a little pond. In September, we headed with friends to St. Louis, Missouri, and I started my journey as the little fish in the big pond at regionals. We had two really good rides, and I couldn’t have been prouder of us. My eyes were opened to a whole new caliber of horse and rider. I didn’t feel defeated, but inspired. Newton adopted the nickname “Uncle Newton”, as his chill demeanor helped escort some of the younger horses to the warm up and show rings.
We are now headed into the 2023 competition season, and are getting stronger in our Second Level movements, and enjoying every ride and bonding moment. Not only do I want this story to be one of success, but also an inspiration to everyone out there that has the unwanted horse, limited training, and access to trainers. Know that it can be a long journey, but if you put in the time, you will gain experience, knowledge, and most of all, joy. In riding horses, we’ve chosen a difficult sport, where many factors are stacked against us, but there are those rides that make it all worth it.