By Coralie Hughes
Sometimes, bad luck is the only luck we have, and bad luck in horses usually means heartache.
In March 2022 I was blessed to have two riding horses: my fun little pony Nugget, who I had picked up in Arizona as a play horse, and my 17-hand heart’s desire and USDF Silver Medal partner, Worthy. By April 2022, Nugget had fractured his pelvis. I will never know how he did it, but losing him was devastating. I am lucky that my horse-loving daughter, Ariel Stanley, was alert to my anguish and worried about me. Her solution? Mom needs another play horse.
Ariel found her way to the Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue website and read about the annual Appalachian Trainer Face Off. She noticed that Randy McStoots, of Muncie, Indiana, a trainer we know through our vet, was entered in the competition with the cutest little palomino paint pony named Dandelion. Dandelion is an Appalachian Brumby, a wild horse recently rounded up in West Virginia, with a very low, experienced-based impression of humans.
Although heartache precluded my interest in replacing Nugget at the time, we made our first trip to see Dandelion when Randy had just recently gotten her in early summer of ‘22. There she was. Scared, barely halter broke, and with her feet glued to the ground. About a month later we went back to watch Randy work with Dandelion and were amazed at how well she was working under saddle. On the third trip to visit, she had won my heart, and I decided it was time to get to know her and see if we were a good match. As a long-time bodywork practitioner, my preferred way of getting to know a horse is through the Masterson Method of performance equine bodywork.
While doing Masterson Method bodywork on her, I noticed her worry, but was captivated by her big soft eyes, lovely gentle spirit, and her willingness to work through the fear and give me a chance. The softness of the Masterson Method offered a perfect first impression with her. We had a lovely session, and I learned a lot about her body, as well as her mind and spirit.
The next visit I rode her – although, the thought of being on a still wild horse unnerved me a bit. I clearly am not Randy! She was smart, willing, and sensitive, with a very nice walk and trot. I wasn’t brave enough to try a canter. I am so grateful that Randy did such an impressive job starting this little Appalachian Brumby. Randy said her eagerness to please was the easiest thing about working with Dandelion. She never wanted to “be wrong” and always tried to find the right answer. The hardest thing was teaching her she could relax. As a feral horse, she was always watching and on guard. Both are characteristics that continue today, although to a lesser extent.
The next step would be to adopt/purchase her at the auction, which followed the allotted three months of training and subsequent competition. Dandelion did very well at the three stage competition, pulling in a cart that turned out to contain a calf, jumping over fire, and cutting the calf bridleless. She earned third overall, and that night, I became her new human… technically.
Dandelion moved to our home in September 2022. For the first few weeks, she was clearly looking around for Randy. It was as if I could hear her say, “Where is Randy? When is he coming back?” I felt a little sorry for her and told her I was all she had now, but that I would do my best. To my amazement, she turned, looked at me, and let out a deep sigh. I never got the “where’s Randy” feeling again.
Despite her excellent start, I still had in front of me an adorable package that was a totally new experience: a wild horse. She was very different from any horse I had ever dealt with. At 71, with a lifelong love of horses, I had always either developed a young but domesticated horse or benefited from an older, experienced horse. In my experience, young, domesticated horses are a two-fold challenge: they need to learn their job, and they also need to learn how to be a horse. The latter can be a little tricky sometimes! The older horses have the upside of knowing what they are doing in both categories, but the downside is the impact of those years of experience on their health and longevity. Dandelion was a new horse experience: clearly an expert at being a horse, having already had two babies by age six in the wild, and now she needed to learn her job as a riding horse.
At the time of purchase, her job was “do everything and have fun doing it”. I was so fortunate to have Lauren Deck of Peru, Indiana, as our dressage instructor. Until Dandelion came along, I didn’t know Lauren had a long history of starting horses. She kept me from going astray with expectations that would not have matched a horse at Dandelion’s stage. Dandelion is quick to frustration and worry when presented with a new question. She is quite sure I couldn’t possibly mean that!
With Lauren’s guidance, we progressed from nervous and insecure in a new environment with a new rider through many reassuring rides encompassing simple requests, such as starting, turning, etc. It was clear she would rather have had an obstacle to master, but she adjusted to arena work. She had to get used to being ridden in a dressage saddle where the legs are always “there” compared to the western saddle she was used to with Randy. Between the length of Randy’s legs and the positioning of a western saddle, legs always “being there”, albeit softly, was a new thing that bothered her for quite a while. Riding with shorter reins was the other significant challenge, and we slowly crept up on the whole idea of contact.
Dandelion’s lessons included practicing how to soften instead of bracing, and reaffirming the difference between turning, stopping, and contact. The focus was always on building confidence with reasonable and simple requests. We also had to recognize when she needed simple requests versus when she was ready for a challenge. As her balance and understanding improved, we added lateral work and patterns to help her understand how contact, balance, and impulsion are all related.
Dandelion’s “job” was to be reliable and have fun doing whatever. Dressage was simply a tool to develop a safe and well-broke horse. Becoming a “dressage horse” was not the plan. Dandelion gradually grew confident going out in the pastures to trail ride alone with me, and she was game to learn what goes along with it, like opening and closing gates, or dragging things. She is marvelous on trails, taking everything in stride. When riding with another horse that is seeing ghosts, she waits a couple of minutes patiently, looks at the other horse, rolls her eyes, and proceeds down the trail. “I know danger, and that is not a bear!”
The plan for Dandelion changed in April 2023, when I suddenly and tragically lost my fabulous Worthy, my huge FEI schoolmaster, to an intestinal strangulating lipoma.
My daughter was again worried about me, as the loss of Worthy was more than I could cope with. After watching me sit, stare, and do nothing for weeks, she announced that she had entered Dandelion and I in a dressage show. What? We aren’t ready for a show! I don’t want to go to a show! Well, I was informed we were going, and it was in three weeks.
With the first show only a couple of weeks away, we weren’t anywhere near confirmed at Training Level. But we went, and Dandelion was as solid as you could ask for performing Training Level Test 3, and I only flubbed one canter depart. The wild girl is always there in interesting ways. It had rained a lot, and the puddles didn’t particularly bother her, but she felt they needed a good look before bounding through them. She never broke rhythm. Perhaps she read the dressage book I put outside her stall. Fortunately, the judge didn’t mind letting the girl have a look! The little Appalachian Brumby came home with a red ribbon, numerically tied for first. Showing her in dressage suddenly became a thought.
Three months later, we were back at a show to see what parts of our training would fall apart at First Level under the pressure of a show environment. The First Level Test 3 movements that had been so difficult for us to learn at home were decently performed, and another second place with a solid score was our reward.
At 13.2 hands, Dandelion has really challenged me as a rider, since I was used to big horses. She has been a balance trainer in the extreme, as my position faults are a huge problem for her. She makes it clear that she “can’t work under such conditions”. Hopefully, she knows I am trying really hard and the yoga mat is wearing out quickly. I am happy to help her by improving myself. I have also learned that when our training gets stuck, and she is particularly resistant but my posture is holding up, she needs a little bodywork. Her mind is much more comfortable when her body is too.
After scarcely a year, Dandelion is my “grow old with me horse” and, yes, my dressage pony. While having fun adventures otherwise, we will keep working away at the levels to see what we can achieve in dressage, which remains my main equestrian passion.
A few years ago there were news stories about many wild horses found shot dead around an old quarry in the Appalachian mountain area. They were Appalachian Brumbys, possibly from Dandelion’s herd. I am so grateful she escaped the evil that man can do, to be rescued by Heart of Phoenix in the good that man can do…
… so she could rescue me. What luck!!