The fabled Norwegian Fjord! We are celebrating these horses as our October Breed of the Month on YourDressage! We will be sharing stories and galleries all month long from folks who love this breed.
Did you know that dressage riders who choose a Norwegian Fjord as their dressage mount are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards program, as the Norwegian Fjord Horse Registry is a participating organization?
In this story, a Region 6 rider born in Norway walks us through how purchasing an aloof and shy Norwegian Fjord as an homage to her heritage changed the trajectory of her equestrian journey, opening her eyes to the world of training and dressage.
By Kristin Miller
Saundra and I met in the summer of 2004. My husband Rory and I had just finished building our retirement home on a few acres just outside of a small town in southwestern Washington state, where I grew up. I had been a horse-crazy kid from my toddler days in Norway, immigrating to the US when I was three and a half. As post-WWII immigrants, finances didn’t allow my father to buy me a horse, so I picked strawberries and raised sheep and a couple of calves to earn money to eventually buy my first horse.
When I went away to college, I sold my first horse but had several others over the years (depending on where I was living, and when life allowed). I never had formal training, but was mostly good at staying on top of, and having a good relationship with, whatever horse I owned.
Building our retirement home was the perfect opportunity to work another horse into my life. Rory had long wanted to learn how to ride, so this was his chance, at 59, to learn. We looked at several breeds and finally settled on Norwegian Fjord Horses, mostly because of my heritage, and that they were so adorable to look at. We started contacting Fjord breeders that were within an eight hour drive. Finally, we found ourselves driving to southern British Columbia, Canada, to look at two pregnant mares, Bergen Saundra and Monarch Lana.
When we arrived, Saundra and Lana were grazing in a small pasture, away from the rest of the herd. As is typical of Fjords, Lana came immediately ambling up to the fence to visit. Saundra refused to come close, but kept watching us from a safe distance. The owner haltered them, and we proceeded to tack them up so she and I could take them for a little trail ride. They were both very green but, since that is how I had always bought my horses, that was okay. We sealed the deal that day and made arrangements to return to pick them up when their export papers were in order. What we hadn’t considered was that we had neither a truck nor a trailer, and we had to pick them up in another country. Fortunately, at the last minute, an old cowboy who we had just met, offered us the use of his truck and trailer. We had a safe trip home with the mares, which was especially good because, upon our return, the generous cowboy casually mentioned that the trailer had no brakes because he hadn’t figured out how to disconnect the warning light it set off on his dashboard, and so he cut the wires.
With two lovely but green mares, I discovered that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and Rory knew that he knew nothing, so we started taking lessons with a local trainer, Pam Kiehn. Her help, at that point, was invaluable. Saundra was reserved and cautious around women, and she wanted nothing to do with men. Rory spent hours just hanging out in the paddock with her, to gain her trust. It took a full year for us to bond with her, but when it came, it was gold.
We learned to ride English, and about general horsemanship. We started competing at local horse shows, and then some Fjord competitions in Washington. Saundra became my main horse to ride, and we did just about everything together. We competed in English, Introductory Level dressage, western, trail, and gaming. Her greatest love was barrel racing. We also did some jumping, with 3’ being the limit of my courage.
As the years passed, Saundra was also trained to carriage drive, both single and doubles with her daughter, Silje. By this time, we had five Fjords: the original two mares, their fillies born the following spring, and a gelding who was born the year after. Our original idea was to raise one foal per year for resale. In our defense, we did make ourselves sell Liv, one of the first foals, but we bought her back six years later. Obviously, we weren’t cut out to be breeders!
In 2008, to celebrate my 60th birthday, Saundra and I continued our adventures with a 15-day, 215-mile organized ride across the eastern half of Washington. She never balked or complained when we rode through a long and completely dark railroad tunnel, or when we rode through long, open areas with sideways rain. Our other really grand adventure came in 2014, when we joined a group of 13 Fjords to ride in the 2014 Tournament of Roses parade in Pasadena. The experience of riding a six mile parade, in front of close to a million people was mind-blowing. The most touching part, for me, was seeing all those people of all shapes, sizes, and races all being pleasant to each other, and so welcoming to us.
In 2012, I was having challenges with the training of the last foal we had from our mares. Nils, the aforementioned gelding, is the smartest and most opinionated horse I have ever encountered and, out of sheer frustration, I contacted his sire’s owner and our friend, Anne Appleby, for advice. She connected me with Kari McClain, which started me on my serious journey with dressage. After seeing the improvements in both Nils and I, I began also taking lessons with Kari on Saundra.
It is now eleven years later, and I am still treasuring my lessons with Kari. Her skill, kindness, and patience make my continued training on Saundra and Nils an important part of my life. Saundra and I have earned our First and Second Level scores from my USDF Bronze Medal, and on October 14, 2023, we completed our Century Ride, joining The Dressage Foundation’s Century Club, which is a goal I had long hoped we could accomplish. Saundra and I will continue our journey at Second Level, as she has some arthritis that would make it difficult to move up to Third Level. She has given me her all for 19 years and, for that, Bergen Saundra will always be my heart horse.
P.S. Nils is on alert for my future Fjord dressage dreams.