The wonderful Westfalen! We are celebrating them as our August Breed of the Month on YourDressage!
Here, a lifelong equestrian who had always been involved in starting young horses to set them up for success in any disciplines shares about her heart horse, a fiery, multitalented mare born on the same day she lost her mother.
By Kristy Ernst
Years ago, I had the honor of attending my very first clinic with a prestigious rider and instructor. I was new to the world of dressage, but excited for the opportunity because of my admiration of this person’s background, breeding, and training of young dressage horses. My mare was three years old and only four weeks under saddle. Needless to say, it didn’t take more than a few loops around the arena to know “B & Me” were out of our league, at this moment in time. While the instructor fulfilled her role, I humbly accepted the learning experience on a much broader scale than expected. At the end of my ride, she politely offered congratulations to the clear partnership I have developed with my young horse, but stated that my mare was not quite what they were looking for in a dressage horse. Thanking her for the session, I proceeded to exit the arena with a huge smile on my face because…I already knew this little Westphalen mare may not be what some are looking for, but she was exactly what I needed!
Like any other horse crazy person, with the propensity to be a perpetual student of the Equus, I had an obsession to connect with them, learn from them, care for them; my horses came ahead of anything else in life. I have been riding since I could literally sit, and grew up playing polo with my Mom, Dad, and three younger siblings. By default, probably simply being the oldest, I always rode the most difficult horses, where I learned from them more than I taught them. We trained, exercised, and schooled the “ponies” for my dad who would play in the official matches. It was an amazing way to grow up and having horses was just a way of life. Other disciplines like racing, foxhunting, hunter/jumpers, and dressage were familiar, but our entire family were dedicated polo players from Windy Knoll Farm; The Roe Family. For me personally, having a natural way with animals in general, my sense of “feel” gave me a strong connection, at an early age, with horses, where my life-long love of these majestic creatures began.
Fast forward many years, today, I am an adult amateur when it comes to showing. I have personally been a farm owner, breeder, and horse trainer as a lifestyle, but not professionally. Over the years, I really enjoyed starting the young horses and never excelled up the levels of any specific discipline. Developing a solid foundation was really important to me, to ensure horses were happy with the direction their abilities took them. “Form-to-Function” has always been my motto, placing the “Horse before the Sport” allowing them to ultimately tell us where they fit best.
Rhythm O Rouge was born the same time I lost my mother. My friend called to tell me her mare had foaled, so when I returned after time with my family, I went out to see the new filly. My friend said they named her Beamer because she was born under the light of the full moon. We walked up to the fence where I called out “Beamer”! The little filly threw up her head, whinnied as loud as she could, and left her dam, racing out of the meadow to visit with us at the top of the hill. One week later, I officially purchased this foal and our journey together began. I truly believe Beamer was a gift sent to me from my mom. Growing up, my mother always told me I must like to do things the hard way, which is probably why I work best with horses that are, well…unique and independent thinkers that were challenging to work with, kind of like me. Trying to help them figure things out in a positive manner was my passion, backed with a lot of patience and persistence. As it would turn out, Rhythm O Rouge was one of those smart, wickedly talented horses that challenged the status quo, requiring my unique approach to a connected partnership. My mom must have known this little filly would be my ‘horse of a lifetime’ because we have experienced more in the last 10 years than I ever could have imagined.
This fiery blood-bay mare, affectionately referred to as my “Little Red Dragon”, is the first Westphalen I have owned. She was originally registered as a Zweibrucker with the Rheinland Pfalz-Saar International (RPSI), based on her sire, a Dutch Warmblood called Ruben O (Ulft Bloodlines), and her dam, a Jockey Club Thoroughbred called Alezan Rouge (Secretariat Bloodlines). Most of my past experience was with Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses, and Appendix Crosses, who were more suited for the sport of polo. Later in life, I rescued a Warmblood who introduced me to a whole other world of sport horses. I was intrigued with the different breeds and began learning as much as possible about each one; the foundation stallions, pedigrees, anything I could learn about them. RPSI was subsequently absorbed into the Westphalen breed. I was excited to be a part of something bigger, and greatly appreciated what this German registry extended to North America. At six years old, Rhythm O Rouge successfully completed her Westphalen Mare Inspection, as well as the Mare Performance Test, and has been accepted into their Mare Books. I wasn’t planning on having a broodmare but, based on professional feedback, moved forward with the effort it takes to complete these processes, just in case a future opportunity presented itself.
Rhythm O Rouge’s best quality is her independence. While this can be a challenge at times, a horse who has that “fifth-leg”, as they say, can think on their own and willingly makes up for the rider’s mistake. She has a bond with me, closer than I have ever had with another horse. We spent a lot of time together when she was young, playing at liberty. Her most special gift is the way she makes me feel when we are together; connected yet independently free spirits!
Like most equestrians, I have goals, but that does not replace enjoying every moment of the journey with her, no matter the path we take. Having young horses, I fell in love with dressage because of the foundational components it applies to riding and training. Originally, I wanted to be an eventer, mainly because I couldn’t afford a string of polo ponies. I discovered this sport later in life, and Beamer’s love of jumping, along with her conformation, potentially set us up for success here. It included all the fun disciplines into one; dressage, cross-country, and stadium jumping.
My favorite memory in our journey, so far, is stamped on my heart and ingrained in my emotions. As an aspiring eventer, at the time, I competed Beamer in-hand through the USEA Future Event Horse (FEH) program, where she qualified for the championship show all three years. During her trip as a two-year-old, they hosted the first clinic for a jump chute, which would be integrated as part of the championships program the following year. During the clinic, Beamer displayed quite the independent attitude with the instructor, an international eventer and Grand Prix show jumper, who promptly advised to “get this mare a job… and the sooner the better”. With the support of my boarding facility, I was able to replicate a jump chute, to practice with over the next year, in anticipation of qualifying for my mare’s final FEH show. By the time Beamer and I walked into that jump chute ring, at her three-year old championship, all I had to do was point toward the chute and she jumped through it like an upper level pro. I could hear the gasps from onlookers as they watched, in awe of her jumping ability, and saw how they leaned in closer to see how she came to my whistle and moved where I pointed. The clinic instructor, from the year prior, happened to be one of the judges. He caught my eye and gave me a nod, acknowledging that I had, in fact, given this mare a job, where she, in turn, exceeded all expectations. I will never forget how I felt at that moment, with this Westphalen mare at my side.
During the years I competed Rhythm O Rouge in the FEH program, she earned 2nd Place for Yearlings, 5th Place for Two-Year Olds, and 6th Place for Three-Year Olds. It was exciting to be competitive, to say the least, compared to other participants. The quality of horses being bred and developed in this country is impressive. We were having so much fun in one discipline, we doubled down and also participated in the USDF sport horse in-hand shows. From a yearling, through her fourth year, Beamer earned the required scores to rank every year in the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards. As a three-year-old, she even won overall Grand Champion Filly at the USDF North Central Breeders Championship Series. She received her highest conformation scores across both disciplines at that show, from none other than the instructor at our first dressage clinic.
Two years later, Beamer was five years old when she lost her eye. One afternoon, in late summer, I went to the stable to ride and found her in the stall, with one eye swollen closed. She had been turned out all night, with her pasture buddy, as usual and there didn’t appear to be anything in the stall that caused the injury. Quickly working with the vet and an animal eye specialist, I spent the next couple of months trying to save the eye, until it ended up rupturing. This required surgery to remove the eye, which went well and Beamer was back in the ring within two weeks, like she never missed a beat. Who knows how horses injure themselves, but the way she trusted us to care for her showed her trust in me. As I continued to progress with training, her nature didn’t require any special aids, relative to the loss of the eye. I was thoughtful in how she was led around, or ridden when being turned into jumps. This was to ensure her new scope of view was accounted for and that she had time to process what she was being asked to do. She, eventually, was schooling at the eventer level of Training. There was a sense of a closer connection through this situation, which just built more trust between us.
Shortly after we completed her mare performance test and inspection, the pandemic occurred. There was time off to enjoy quieter days and a break from show life. As the world began to open back up, we entered some schooling shows, to knock the dust off, but life shifted for me, personally, requiring more attention, and Beamer seemed happier outside the ring. After years of consideration, preparation, and consultation from top breeders/trainers, I made the decision, last summer, to lease her to a breeding program. I am excited about this opportunity and glad I was forward-thinking, in getting her Westphalen mare approval in advance. Life is a journey and I am excited about the next chapter, for Rhythm O Rouge to produce her own unique progeny of athletes. It was a long winter, missing my fireball, so I was inspired to begin painting again, to pass the time. I have never painted any of my own pets before ever, but Beamer is my heart-horse, so I decided it was time. Her portrait turned out wonderful and brings a smile to my face daily, as if she is standing right next to me. Can’t wait to visit her soon, as she settled in nicely to her new surroundings.
By definition, the Westphalian is known for being a very athletically talented horse that is still manageable to ride for many equestrians. Even though the breed is courageous and spirited, it is also highly willing and docile, which is a great temperament for a competition partner. As you search for your own Westphalen, know your goals, have a plan, but most importantly, be prepared to enjoy the journey because your horse may not be what others are looking for, but is exactly what you need! On her birthday, April 25th, 2023, Beamer checked in positive for her first foal, who will certainly become someone’s ‘horse of a lifetime’!