By Rachel Ory
I began riding at the age of eight. In middle and high school, I worked at our local boarding stable and had the opportunity to ride and drive many different types of horses. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls with a bachelor’s degree in Animal Science. Since graduating in 2008, I have been starting colts and showing reining horses, alongside horseman Tom Pierson. We moved to Mardanza Farms in Micanopy, Florida in 2015.
I have always had an interest in dressage, but living in Florida has opened up a whole new world. It has allowed me to immerse myself in the art, by studying and riding with top class trainers and horsemen on a regular basis.
Jagalicious (barn name, Veronica) came to our training barn as a young horse to be started. She was bred to be a reining horse and has a royal pedigree; she’s a granddaughter of Smart Chic O’lena and both of her second dams were exceptional reiners. We took our time starting Veronica, as she was late to mature and lanky, topping out at fifteen hands (tall for a reining prospect). As a young horse, she was electric to work with. She was light on her feet and had so much feel. I had the opportunity to purchase her as a four-year-old, and began teaching her the basics of dressage, in addition to her reining training.
In 2019, I took a year off from our training business to work for Frank Barnett in Williston, FL. Frank specializes in helping jumpers and dressage horses that quit working get back to their careers. He has gained extensive wisdom in both traditional western riding and dressage over his career as a horseman. Frank helped me teach Veronica jaw flexions, in-hand work, and how to find a more uphill balance. Veronica adapted to her new training goals quite well, and it really enhanced her way of going.
Our greatest achievement came through riding in a $10,000 added freestyle reining class at the World Equestrian Center. Our routine incorporated the dressage movements that we had been working on, along with the required stops and spins for the reining. We entered the arena in our little trot, trying to make it look as much like a passage as possible. Then, we galloped our large fast circles, spiraled into a small slow circle, followed by a canter pirouette, which flowed right into the reining spins. Next, we did a line of two tempi flying changes, and finished with three sliding stops, galloping the length of the arena.
We marked a 221 and were reserve champions.
It was magical to be able to showcase reining maneuvers next to dressage movements, all in the same ride! The idea of even attempting such things came from Jack Brainard, who dreamed up making dressage classes for western horses a long time ago. Jack was a true horseman, a founder of the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA), and a mentor to my mentor, Tom Pierson.
Jack understood the value of basic dressage for all horses, and was disappointed in the growing distance between western performance events and the dressage basics that he witnessed as he got older. It has taken three generations to produce such a horse; I think he would be so pleased that his dream for dressage based western horses is catching fire.
Over the past decade, the development of the Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) has given western horses a place to showcase dressage skills, by combining western traditions with classical dressage. Veronica and I have greatly benefited from showing with WDAA. It has allowed us to earn our American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) Superior and year end championship in Level 4 western dressage. We also won the 2022 AQHA World Championship Show stakes in both dressage and western dressage. These are all new opportunities for western horses, and I’m grateful that Veronica and I get to be at the forefront of these developments.
USDF dressage was another goal of mine, and it seemed like the next logical step. At Mardanza Farms, we have access to top eventing trainers Sharon White and Bettina Hoy. Veronica and I began to work with them to add more impulsion and power to our movements. Veronica has plenty of natural sit, as a result of her breeding, so moves like canter pirouette and piaffe come more naturally to her. But we had to teach her to put power into her medium and extended work. It was challenging, hard work, but it paid off when we began showing at The Waterloo Hunt Club, in Michigan, last year.
We earned our scores for my USDF Silver Medal at the World Equestrian Center this spring. Riding Veronica in the Prix St. Georges class alongside some very nice warmbloods was a bit daunting, but I’m so glad that we did it; there aren’t many quarter horses in the ring at that level. Veronica may not have the suspension of a warmblood, but she tries her heart out, is so willing, and I love and appreciate her for that!
My biggest takeaway from the adventures that Veronica and I have been on, from reining to western dressage, to classical dressage, is that good horsemanship isn’t discipline-specific. Good riding is good riding. We can learn something from everyone, especially if they are at the top of their game, but it’s up to us to figure out how it fits into our own program. I use basic dressage training as part of my foundation on the young horses that come in for training, regardless of what discipline they are destined for. I also believe in the benefits of cross-training and incorporate ground pole and cavaletti work when I can. My goal is to develop well rounded athletes. I think the specialization of disciplines can come farther down the line than we sometimes let them.
Having crossed paths with Veronica has been such a gift, and I’m grateful that circumstances have allowed me to keep her this long. I’m thankful for every day that I have the luxury of doing what I want to do for a living. I remain a student of the horse, and enjoy sharing my insights through training, teaching, and writing to help others improve the relationship with their horses. Every day that we get to spend with horses is a blessing; the joy is in the journey!