Dare to Change Disciplines

Photo © Lauren Mauldin


Ever consider a career change for your horse? Don’t be afraid to “look outside the box.” You may discover your horse needs a change in order to truly shine.

Just like people, horses need a job they enjoy. Unfortunately, that often means changing their careers – a decision that can be difficult at best and heart-wrenching at worst, especially for an amateur who loves both her horse and her chosen discipline.

A horse that is mentally and physically suited to his job, however, is going to stay sound – in both mind and body – a whole lot longer. After all, who wants to do a job they dislike or one that causes pain or discomfort?

In order to find the right job, our experts explain, it’s important to consider both its physical and mental aspects. As hunter trainer Christina Major points out, a horse well suited to a particular discipline is one with the conformation needed to succeed. She describes her own horse, re-schooled as a hunter, as one who simply “fits the bill.” The long, low style of movement that was such a detriment for him as a dressage horse is now one of his best assets. For any horse in any discipline, she reminds, conformation plays a huge role in the horse’s comfort level. And that, she says, is one of the best reasons to give a horse a new job, no matter how difficult the decision.

But conformation alone is not enough according to well-known combined training competitor Nick Cwick. “Even if a horse seems physically right for a particular job, he may not be mentally prepared for it.” Dressage trainer Silva Martin concurs, describing a talented jumper who literally shook in fear at the start of each event’s cross-country phase. Today that talented horse is much happier competing in dressage.

As Nick Cwick’s story will demonstrate, sometimes a horse has to try more than a few careers in order to find the perfect fit. His international-level event horse, which qualified a dressage horse and was then reschooled as a hunter before finally finding his niche with Nick.

Let’s take a closer look at six different horses that have successfully moved from one discipline to another. Their riders, owners, and trainers share the tales of how and why they made these changes, and what the outcome was. The results, horses that find unimagined success in a new discipline, are inspiring and thought provoking.

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Dressage to Eventing

Eventer Nick Cwick never dreamed he had an international quality horse in Asterix, a youngster he took on as a reschooling project. Originally purchased for an adult amateur rider, Asterix had difficulty with the discipline demanded in the dressage ring. “He is very forward thinking and really kind of hot,” Nick says. After being schooled in dressage, then as a hunter, Nick introduced him to eventing.

Originally Nick was hired to reschool Asterix so he could be resold. That plan quickly changed, however. “He took to eventing really, really well,” he says wryly.

At his first event, Asterix competed at Training Level and immediately showed his talent with a very respectable finish. In fact, Nick says, the 16.2 hand Oldenburg placed first or second at each of his first six events. Best of all, the horse that had been labeled with a behavior problem now had an attitude that was improving every day.

So in 2002, Nick and Asterix’s owner came to an agreement and Nick purchased Asterix for himself. At that point, the pair had competed at Preliminary once. Nick was convinced of his potential to move up, even though it was unexpected at first. “I would never have expected him to be the one to get me to the upper levels of this sport. He looks like a dressage horse – but he loves eventing!”

Nick attributes some of his success with Asterix to the time he spent helping the horse relax, along with his ability to ride through occasional misbehavior that might have thrown another rider. The key to successful training, he explains, is to find that relaxation. It is also, in many ways, its reward. “That’s how you know they are enjoying the job,” he says succinctly.

In the case of Asterix, Nick says he knew he could not be pushed too far or too hard. “Mentally, he just wasn’t ready,” he explains. “Just because a horse seems right for job – realize they may not be mentally prepared for it. Don’t get overzealous and push too far past their comfort zone.”

Asterix did not compete at this year’s Rolex event in April, despite having qualified last year. Unfortunately, after overreaching during a training session, he slightly bruised a tendon sheath and needed time off to make a full recovery. As he comes back into training, however, Nick is already planning his competition schedule for the rest of 2009 – and, he hopes, for many years to come.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Dressage to Hunters

Christina Major’s 10-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Lorenzo, is, in her words, “a dressage flunk out.” In his case, she says, the decision to change his career was easy to make, both for her and for his former owner. The 16.3 hand bay is simply not built for dressage, she explains, with a low-set head and neck and a distinctive “daisy cutter” style of movement. Dressage riders saw him as dragging his feet, she says, while hunter riders see exactly the long and low style of movement they want. In addition, because of his conformation, the more upright frame needed for dressage was stressful and demanding for him.

“It was very hard work and because of that he started to develop bad habits,” she explains. “Even though his previous owner was not aggressive with the dressage training, he started backing off the bit and then he started to really back up to avoid the work.”

Lorenzo’s former owner soon recognized that he was in the wrong job and, knowing she wanted a dressage prospect, she put him up for sale. Christina, a trainer based in Keene, New Hampshire and Ocala, Florida, immediately saw his potential to shine in the hunter ring and purchased him in 2007. “He just fits the bill perfectly as a hunter,” she says with a laugh.

She spent the first year teaching him to go forward into a very light contact, with months going by before she introduced a single jump. When she did, he took to the fences easily and confidently. He had a relaxed attitude and willingness to go forward that quickly made him popular with her students. Christina says that his new attitude came from being given a job that was physically easy for him.

In 2008, Christina and her students began to compete Lorenzo, both in New England and in Ocala. He quickly found success at the “A” shows around New England. That year, he took blue ribbons in both the Children’s Hunter and Adult Amateur Classes, both under saddle and over fences, at the Vermont Summer Festival. In addition, he took the championship ribbon in the Modified Hunters at Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Massachusetts.

Even better than the ribbons, Christina says, is the fact that Lorenzo is clearly content. “Now he’s just happy in his new career. My students love to ride him, especially the kids. And he’s such a pretty mover – he was made for this job.”

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Jumping to Dressage

Johnny Robb says Mr. Boombastic is her horse of a lifetime. The big Latvian Warmblood was not a horse she intended to purchase. As an aspiring amateur dressage rider, buying a former open jumper – and a stallion to boot – did not match her mental list of what she needed in a horse. In fact, she says with a laugh, he jumped out of the round pen during his pre-purchase veterinary exam. One of the first things she did with her new horse was arrange to have him gelded.

Still, she says, something told her this was the horse for her, despite his jumping ability and his tendency to spook at almost everything. Listening to that inner voice paid off for her as Mr. Boombastic, named for an old reggae song and known around the barn as Boomer, turned out to be horse that would help her learn the art and sport of dressage.

“It’s funny, because I would never have considered a horse that was changing careers, not moving into a whole new realm like this,” she says. “Now it seems like a really viable way to look for a horse and I always keep my eye on the jumper ring.”

After seeing Boomer during a professional visit to a sale barn for an article she was writing, Johnny was encouraged to ride him – in her street clothes. Drawn to the horse, she went back the next day to ride him again. She was definitely impressed. Despite his lack of dressage training, she saw a horse with nice gaits and a willingness to work hard.

“This is a horse that can ‘sit’ whenever he wants to, which made pirouettes very easy for him,” she says. “He is able to lift his shoulders, drop his haunches, and move forward. It is also very easy for him to move laterally. Training Level, however, was difficult because it was not easy for him to stretch out and relax.”

As they moved up the levels together, this amateur rider based in Loxahatchee, Florida and Boomer won the USDF regional championships in USDF Region 3 for several years in a row, winning at First, Second, Third, and Fourth levels. Johnny says while his gaits were certainly not the best, his innate athletic ability helped them win again and again. In addition, she says, he was fresh to the sport of dressage.

“He is big and hot and snorty, so people thought he was difficult to ride. In reality, he made it easy. Because I was just learning about dressage, I had a false sense of my depth of understanding of the sport – he gave me so much, even if I didn’t ask quite correctly. He just gave it away for free!”

“To me, it’s about finding those horses with an extra quality. They may be hidden in another discipline. You just have to find them. Don’t be afraid to look outside the box! If I’d focused on my list of what I had to have in a horse, I would never have found Boomer. And he is truly my partner.”

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Eventing to Dressage

Dressage trainer Silva Martin says she knew the first time she rode an event horse named Felix, she felt his potential as a dressage horse. “The minute I got on this horse, I knew this was meant to be his job.” If a horse doesn’t like the discipline he’s working in, she continues, he may perform adequately but he will never excel. “But when it fits, that’s when riding gives you goosebumps!”

“As a trainer, you can feel early on if this is meant to be the horse’s job. If you keep trying and trying without success, you should be able to feel that this is not what the horse wants to do,” she explains. “It’s important to listen to what your horse is telling you.”

“But as an amateur, don’t make a quick decision,” she cautions. “It may be how you are presenting the training. Often, it’s a good idea to have a professional ride your horse a few times to help you decide.”

Felix, a chestnut Irish Sport Horse, was trained as an event horse but simply didn’t enjoy the job. Despite several years of training with top eventing professionals, including Phillip Dutton, he never realized his potential. He did however, find competitive success in the event world, including a win at a CIC** at the Fair Hill Horse Trials. Despite his jumping talent, Felix would get so nervous at the start of the cross-country phase that he would simply stand and shake, Silva explains. His owner saw how much more he enjoyed dressage and was willing to make the financial investment to have him change careers, even though she remained a committed event rider.

“That first time I got on him and showed him the aids, he just clicked,” Silva recounts. “He enjoyed it so much he was almost showing off!”

In 2008, after one year of training, Felix showed successfully at Third Level and has made the move to Fourth. Recently he left Silva’s Pennsylvania base and rejoined his owner in Northern California. There Felix is in training with Gina Duran of Topline Training, he is showing Prix St-Georges, and he is looking for a new owner who wants to focus on the dressage he enjoys so much.

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Breeding to Show Jumping

David Tromp, who runs Beyaert Farm in North Salem, New York with his parents and siblings, knows all about finding talented horses in unexpected places. Topas, his nine-year old Dutch Warmblood mare, was a broodmare when he found her in Holland two years ago. The pair began competing just a year ago.

The Tromps purchased Topas from a breeder who normally bred a young mare once, then sold her. In this mare’s case, however, he was determined to get a filly to preserve the bloodline – her sire is Indoctro and her dam’s sire is Huzaar. Because he continued breeding her, she was ridden only in the early stages of each pregnancy, and again after each foal was weaned. When under saddle, she competed sporadically in 1.10 meter (approximately 3’6”) jumping classes.

“When they pulled her out of the stall, her appearance was that of a broodmare,” David says of the first time he saw Topas in 2007. “But the quality of her jump was fantastic, even over low fences, and her breeding was wonderful.”

He made the decision to purchase her and begin competing her seriously. Once she arrived at the Tromps’ New York farm, the next order of business was to begin conditioning her for more strenuous work. In addition, David explains, she was relatively unused to the sights and sounds of a busy show ring. “Experience-wise, she was a lot younger than her actual years,” he explains. Topas, a 16.3 hand dark bay, learned quickly however.

In 2008, David showed Topas successfully in 1.40 classes, before scaling back to the 1.30 meter level in order to focus more on her training. “Physically, she was farther along than she was mentally, so we had to keep ourselves tempered and not go too fast. We had to put the horse first and hold ourselves back,” he explains.

Over the past winter, the pair competed successfully in Wellington at the 1.30 meter level, winning or placing in most of their classes. “We’ve had a really great time with this horse,” he continues. “She truly loves her job!”

In 2009, David plans to compete Topas around the northeast, at Lake Placid, the Hamptons Classic, and Saugerties’ HITS-on-the-Hudson, among others. Because of the mare’s enthusiasm and their own willingness to go slow as she learned her new job, David says this horse has enormous potential. And, after her eventual retirement from the show ring, she can always return to her initial career as a broodmare!

There are so many reasons to change your horse’s discipline, continues hunter-jumper trainer Christina Major, both good ones and bad ones. “The bad reasons come into play because of human ego, because of what you want to do with your horse,” she adds. “With wisdom and maturity, you come to accept that there are good and bad matches, both between horses and riders and between horses and their jobs. It’s just so important to take an overall look at your horse’s conformation – and then feed in their attitude – as you consider the careers to which they are best suited.”

Originally published in Warmbloods Today May/June 2009 Issue