Duchess Taught Me How

During the US Pony Club Championships, held at the Kentucky Horse Park, we were allowed to dress up for our musical freestyle. Our music was all Shrek themed, so that was how I dressed!

We are celebrating Plus Size Riders as our July Featured Riders of the Month on YourDressage!

Here, a Region 2 rider shares the story of her Curly x Andalusian mare, with whom she traded Pony Club rallies for pirouettes and a shadbelly, becoming a “fancy” rider!

By Anna Schwartz

My first memory of being a part of the United States Pony Club sure was one my mom and I won’t forget. 

It was the day of my D1 rating, where my riding skills and unmounted knowledge would be tested for the first time, as a 10 year old. My first horse, Scout, had to be spotless for the rating.  It was early November, and it had been muddy and cold. Did I mention Scout was a fuzzy beast, as we lived in Wisconsin and he was a light colored palomino? I bet my mom never expected to bathe a horse in the cold and blow dry him off with her own hair dryer. We finally had him clean enough, and off we went to pass my rating. Scout was, however, an old gentleman that wouldn’t be able to handle the jumps I was wanting to do in the future. 

So, the search began for my next horse. Little me was wanting an Appaloosa, because I loved a horse with some color. Our next door neighbors also had horses, and two of them were from the same breeder. With a push from my trainer, we drove south a few hours to look at what that breeder had to offer. 

Beautiful dapples early in Anna and Duchess’s partnership! Close enough to looking like an Appaloosa.

One, in particular, was the stand out star; to me, she looked like an Appaloosa with her beautiful white spots on her dark grey body. I was riding her in their outdoor ring when a large truck drove by with a huge tarp flopping around. You would think she would have spooked. Not a flinch! She was a smooth ride, and had a kind eye. I loved her, my trainer loved her, my mom loved her. Mom was concerned about the price, but my dad mentioned all the time and money being spent running around looking at all these different horses. We always will remember him saying to “buy the damn horse”. Best dad ever. 

That beautiful grey mare came home with us. At the time I didn’t realize what a special horse she was. Davido’s Duchess is a unique cross that I love to brag about. Half Curly and half Andalusian, and as I tell everybody, she is 100% sheep. She got the best of both worlds. Beautiful grey color, body, and movements from her sire, Davido MC. Calm personality and curly coat from her dam, Curly Lad’s Sapphire. Now that I had a horse capable of jumping and doing more, Duchess and I went out to conquer the world of USPC. 

Duchess was only five at the time, so we learned how to jump together. Duchess always had that Steady-Eddy pace, using just the right amount of energy to get things done. Bucking, rearing, or any other shenanigans was not worth the effort for her. If I fell off her, it was out on the cross country course due to her putting her head down after a jump to get a quick bite of grass! I would slide right off, while she would just stand there and munch. When we got to be more confident in our jumping skills, and I in my horse management knowledge, I tested up in USPC ratings. A high rating meant more opportunity for some shows. 

Duchess and Anna during a cross country lesson during USPC Camp.

A memorable part of USPC came from rallies. For those of you that don’t know USPC, or what a Pony Club Rally is, this is my best short description: Pony Club Rallies allow members to compete to test their knowledge and skills, in both horse care and riding, in a competitive atmosphere. Parents, coaches, and chaperones are not allowed into the barn at all, giving members a chance to work as a team, without the help of helicopter adults. Participants are judged at all times, even in the barns, and while not on horseback. Judges keep an eye on how clean our horse’s stalls are, and make sure we have the required equipment from a list. After you have a ride, you are required to do a “turn back”, where you present some of the equipment used while riding, to make sure it was properly cleaned, as well as your horse being groomed, with no sweat marks. 

At my first rally with Duchess, the judges tried to take a point off for having sweat marks where the saddle would go. They were not sweat marks though, just little ripples from having a curly/wavy summer coat! After that, I always let new judges know about her unique coat. 

Duchess and I weren’t always dressage queens.  We played Polo Crosse, which is the equivalent of Lacrosse on horses. Duchess wasn’t great at stopping and turning on a dime, but she was a safe horse, that was perfectly fine being up close and personal with other horses. She was always the fearless leader whenever we would go on trail rides. If we wanted to toss a cousin on a horse, Duchess was always the first one we would grab. She was a do-anything-whenever kind of horse. 

USPC also brought us the sport of Polocrosse! Not all horses can do this, as you are bumping around with others. Good thing Duchess doesn’t kick or she would get kicked out for life!

We had managed to start working on some Second Level movements when our opportunity came along. A local dressage trainer had once told us she would be interested in purchasing one of our other horses, if hers ever passed. We didn’t think anything of it – until that happened. She started working with our other horse, and started giving me lessons at the same time. Before I started working with Kim Iwen, I never really had any solid dressage goals. There was always the goal of getting a blue ribbon at each show, while not caring about levels. 

Kim put the thought of creating new goals for Duchess and I in my mind. I had already earned the scores needed for First Level, and so I thought “why not look into earning our USDF Bronze Medal?”. We knew putting flying changes on Duchess wouldn’t be easy. I felt that the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” was accurate, as Duchess was already 15-years-old by then. 

Well, teaching an old dog new tricks is exactly what we did. Kim put the changes on Duchess, and taught me how to play with all the new buttons. At this point, Duchess and I had started to back off on jumping in order to save her legs. I was fine with that, and it sure seemed like Duchess was too. We started to get those changes down, and headed out to some shows. 

That summer we earned our scores needed to earn my USDF Bronze Medal. An accomplishment I had never known existed just a few years prior, and something that I had never thought I would add to my dreams. With that goal realized, Kim thought “why stop now?” Heck, I, on the other hand, thought we were done.

USPC Dressage Championships in Kansas City. Anna and Duchess won high point with their First Level Freestyle.

While earning my Bronze Medal, I was still a part of USPC, however only doing the dressage part. We qualified for USPC Championships, which were to be held at the Kentucky Horse Park the year after I earned my Bronze Medal. Kim worked hard with us that fall, through the winter, and into spring, on Fourth Level movements. 

Kim wasn’t able to make it to the show where we debuted at Fourth Level, and my parents weren’t able to stay the weekend either. I drove to the show grounds with my mom, where she dropped Duchess and I off with the horse trailer. Luckily, being one of the first rides of the day, she was able to stay long enough to watch me ride, then literally ran back to the truck and drove to work for the weekend. This left me stranded for the weekend with Duchess. We would spend the rest of the day going on walks, and reading in her stall, sometimes leaning up against her as she napped. I think some of my fondest memories were from shows I did where it was just Duchess and I. 

On the third day of showing, my dad came down to pick us up and watch our last ride. Which I thought was a disaster, since I had lost my stirrups during two movements. I grabbed my test and ran back to the truck with happy tears. Duchess and I had earned both our scores at Fourth Level, meaning somehow Prix St. Georges, and my USDF Silver Medal, was on our agenda. 

A few short weeks after earning our Fourth Level scores, Duchess and I were on our way to USPC Dressage Championships at the Kentucky Horse Park. We would be showing Third Level, as that is what we had qualified for. I had some of the toughest judges there, and what I thought were some solid tests, turned out not to be. 

I have always been overweight, since I began riding, and I am sure that hasn’t helped in reaching some of my goals. I had a comment written by a judge that reflected this, but was also a reason to push myself to do more with Duchess over the next few years. I will not include the comment word for word, but it was along the lines of we would be able to perform better at that level if the rider was more athletic. That crushed me inside, seeing as we were doing Third Level at Championships, but had already earned our Fourth Level Silver Medal scores. 

Immediately following USPC Champs is what they call USPC Festival. It is a week packed with unmounted and mounted lessons with well known clinicians, and even some Olympians. I had two great lessons with an Olympian that was aware of my Prix St. Georges goals, and gave me my first exercises to train pirouettes with Duchess. 

When Duchess and I got back home, and after a well-deserved break, we started working on the Prix St. Georges movements with Kim. At this time, I was looking for a shadbelly that would fit me, but also not cost an arm and a leg. I had attempted to look at the vendor fair at USPC Festival, but knew as soon as I grabbed one off the rack it wouldn’t fit. Growing up I always thought of the riders wearing shadbellies as “fancy” riders. Never did I think I would be fancy enough to consider looking at them. 

After searching high and low for one that might fit, that wasn’t custom, I found one. Based on their size chart, RJ Classics had one that would be super close to fitting, and cost less than $400. I ordered it and it fit, for the most part; it was a little tight in the armpits, but it would do. In previous years, we were moving up a level each year, and earning the scores we needed for my medals. This is what I hoped would continue, but I was wrong. 

Duchess and Anna have been representing the Curly Horse breed at the MidWest Horse Fair in Madison, WI for over 10 years now. Here they are looking very sheep-like at MWHF one year.

We were always short of that elusive 60% at Prix St. Georges to complete my silver medal. We would try multiple shows for two years in a row, without luck. I am thankful that the highest scoring test Duchess and I did at Prix St. Georges, we did while her breeder watched. It was so nice to see them interact, and I am very sure Duchess recognized him. He passed away the following year, so it’s even more special to me now. 

Duchess, at this point, was 20-years-old, and we had been together for 15 of those. She had done more than I ever thought possible. After two unsuccessful seasons of showing Prix St. Georges, I had to take a step back and think about what we should do. 

That fall, in 2019, Duchess got very sick. Even though she was vaccinated for Potomac Horse Fever, she still got it. It resulted in multiple days of IVs, where she had a catheter in her neck, for easy access for me to treat her. I honestly thought I would lose my heart horse. 

At that point, I made the decision to be done with showing her at the FEI levels. This mare had carried me through it all, and if I had asked her to carry me through fire she probably would have. That spring, during routine shots and teeth check up, the vets found melanomas in her mouth, right where the bit goes. Another sign that I had already made the right choice. Then we all know what happened after that – in 2020, covid hit. Duchess and I had no pressure to push forward and show. We would just hack around in a bitless bridle. It may seem like I just gave up on pushing to get my USDF Silver Medal but, to me, it was more important to listen to my horse and make her happy. 

I’ve now taken a step back from riding, after moving out of state for a big job opportunity for my husband. I thought about bringing Duchess with me, but we both prefer the cold and I have gone too far south for that. Now, she is a fat sheep that gets love from my parents. 

When I go back to visit my parents, I hop on her bareback and we take a ride on the trails. I look back at photos and think of all the good times I had. Showing dressage taught me the art of performing under pressure. Lucky for me, I had a horse that was as cool as a cucumber. They say horses are like their owners, and I feel that Duchess helped shape me into who I am today. Her and I don’t get too worked up about much. She made me brave. She made me do things I never dreamed of. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would ride down centerline wearing a shadbelly. 

Duchess and I rocking the fancy shadbelly while competing at Prix St. Georges. Photo by John Borys Photography

When I used to picture that fancy person riding down centerline, it was always the same picture; the perfect image of a rider – tall, thin, with their long legs sitting quietly on the horse’s barrel. I was not that image, far from it, with all the plus size riding attire that was hard to find and feel confident in. I used to wear compression wear. But in my final year of competing, I didn’t. I decided to be me and not try to fit all the standards. I felt much more comfortable with less layers on, that is for sure. 

I still follow the dressage world, and I am happy to see some change going on with more brands becoming more size inclusive. I see a lot of people going big, and bold, and really the more power to them! Things are going in the right direction. 

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