The wonderful Westfalen! We are celebrating them as our August Breed of the Month on YourDressage!
Here, an adult amateur shares about how the global pandemic and losing her mother changed her outlook on life, caused her to decide to go “all in” on her horse goals, and the special Westfalen dance partner that she has now found.
By Cynthia Werner
I have owned a 14-year-old Westfalen gelding named Flor-de-lis (aka “Flash”) for the past two years. I can say with certainty that my experience with this particular Westfalen has been a game-changer in my journey to learn dressage. My story and his story, however, began long before the moment that I first laid eyes on this beautiful, bay warmblood, with a unique bald face and four white socks.
My desire to have my own horse started when I was a teenager, working at a barn in Texas, where a trail riding business coexisted with an eventing program. I knew I wanted to have my own horse someday, but like many adult amateurs, I had to put that dream on hold as I pursued a career as a cultural anthropologist. By my late 30s, I was finally able to return to regular riding. I started taking dressage lessons, and bought my long-awaited first horse, a four-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare, a year later. She matched every stereotype of a chestnut mare, and although I didn’t fully realize it at the time, I was the prototypical green rider on a green horse. Needless to say, our dressage career did not have a skyrocketing start. About five years later, I bought my second horse, a slightly older appendix Quarter Horse mare.
I competed both mares in the lower levels of dressage and eventing. Like many adult amateurs, it often felt like I was taking one step forward, two steps back. The learning curve was steep and my success was modest, but I learned invaluable lessons from both mares. I retired both of them from competition when they reached the age of twenty. As the second one approached that age, I started to do some serious soul searching about whether I should throw in the towel or get a third horse. Dressage is incredibly difficult, yet addictive. The global pandemic and the loss of my mother gave me a new perspective on life, and I decided that I needed to “go all in”, if I wanted to reach my goals. My husband generously offered to pad my budget, and what started as a virtual horse search for fun, morphed into a real search for my dream horse. I knew exactly what I wanted – an amateur-friendly, 16-17 hand, warmblood gelding who had been schooled to Third Level or higher (the level I hoped to reach someday). To stretch my budget, I acknowledged that a slightly older horse, with some maintenance issues, might be a good option.
Enter Flash – one of the contenders who ticked all of the boxes. Of course, Flash had his own set of adventures long before I became his new person. He was born in 2009 in the Westfalian region of Germany, and therefore registered as a Westfalen. His family tree is better documented than my own, and includes multiple European warmblood registries. His damsire is Lord of Loxley, and his sire is a direct descendant of the stallion Florestan. When he was four, Flash was imported as a jumper prospect. After a short time with a professional rider, he was owned and loved by a young woman who showed him in the competitive West Coast jumper circuit. He went by the show name of Unique, and the barn name of Moo, presumably in reference to the cute cow-like markings on his face. As the story goes, he started to refuse jumps as they tried to move up to 1.4 meters, and it was eventually decided that he might be better suited for dressage. He quickly sold to a new owner and was retrained as a dressage horse. By the time I met him, Flash was twelve. He had been doing dressage for several years and had competed at Fourth Level, with a professional rider. He was not a perfect match for his amateur owner, so she decided to put him on the market.
When I first met Flash, I was immediately struck by his physical beauty, from head to tail, and his sweet personality. I eventually learned that Florestan’s progeny are known for having outgoing temperaments and curious, expressive eyes. During my first ride, I fell in love with his forward energy and comfortable gaits. When my coach, Allie Cyprus, walked me through the cues for a flying lead change and I did it with ease, I knew I could learn a lot from this experienced horse. The decision to buy him would have been easy, had it not been for one flaw – he occasionally lolled his tongue. If I needed a sign from the universe that he was meant to be my horse, I like to think that I found it as I headed away from the sales barn and saw a street sign with my late mom’s maiden name. I made an initial offer and scheduled a pre-purchase exam. The PPE did not provide any answers, so I had to make a final decision without knowing whether the tongue issue was habitual, and if so, whether there was an underlying cause or an easy fix.
Our journey together has not been without its challenges. After he arrived, the first challenge was solving the mystery of what was causing him to be slightly off. Rather than narrowing down the problem, each visit from a vet or specialist ruled “in” a new problem. My adorable Westfalen was the equivalent of a fancy sports car that needed some fine tuning and maintenance. It took several months, but once he was treated for ulcers, injected in the hocks, adjusted in the back, and provided with corrective shoeing, he became a happy and healthy horse. The next challenge was to work on my issues. My success in the saddle, and the show ring, have been hindered by my natural tendency to be tight, tense, and timid. Flash is not the patient schoolmaster type. He needs a confident rider, who is able to remind him who is in charge. I had to become that person. To strengthen my position in the saddle, I added pilates and stretching to my off-saddle cardio and weight-lifting routine. To address my confidence, I learned to become a more assertive rider, with help from coaches Allie Cyprus and Nancy Hinz. Finally, I learned to review the judges’ comments carefully, to identify ways that I could improve my test riding.
I have been actively showing Flash for the past year. Our partnership has continued to develop and Flash has earned a new nickname – “Flashtastic.” I no longer dread riding in a crowded warmup ring, or fear what might happen if he spooks at something during a test. I am now working on ways to push the power, while improving accuracy and maintaining control. This isn’t always easy because Flash sometimes wants to impress the judge by throwing in a flying change when I’m not paying attention. This year, I rode him in three shows, in a short period of time, and that really helped to put all of the pieces together. Our last show was particularly rewarding as we celebrated several firsts: first two scores in the 70s at First Level and first High Point champion ribbon.
It is always fun to do well, but what I enjoy the most about Flash are the qualities that are associated with the Westfalen breed. His looks are matched by a huge personality. One of his favorite activities is to play with his jolly ball, which he sometimes picks up and drops in another horse’s run. He is outgoing with horses and humans alike, and he knows that he is something special. I feel so privileged and grateful to have the opportunity to be partnered with such a beautiful, athletic horse.
We are qualified for the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships at First Level, and I plan to move up to Second Level in the near future. We still have a long way to go, but I am confident that the best is yet to come.