Lessons from a Dressage Pony Named Bubba

Dressage Today's Jennifer Mellace shares how a special, 13.2-hand pony has reconnected her to the joy of riding.
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I think I’m in love with a guy named Bubba. He’s not very tall, but he sure is dark and handsome. He’s a hunk of hubba, bubba love! OK, maybe I’ve lost it, but I’m just over the moon after my lesson yesterday on this 13.2-hand dressage pony who I truly believe is my ticket back to finding my seat, my nerve and that joy I seemed to have lost in recent years.

Jennifer Mellace and Bubba. (Photo by Ali Calkins)

Jennifer Mellace and Bubba. (Photo by Ali Calkins)

Just a little background about me and my horsey life. I was a horse-crazed kid who grew up as a working student. I rode hunters, dabbled in eventing and dressage and eventually owned two very large horses (I’m 5’4 and both horses were 17-plus hands). I bought my first horse the year I graduated college. Ben was a 17-hand Trakehner/Thoroughbred cross coming 4. I mostly did the hunters with him, but we did focus on some dressage. We had a wonderful partnership until I put him down at the age of 21.

My second horse, Woodrow, a 17.2-hand Clydesdale/Thoroughbred cross, was 6 when I got him and could be a bit of a handful. But, at the time, I was riding almost every day and had the time to devote to him. That is until life got busier and my hours at the barn became less consistent. He was the type of horse who needed a job and I had a hard time keeping him employed. After a particularly bad fall, I lost my nerve and then spent the next two years trying to make the relationship work. I finally came to the sad realization that he was simply too much horse for me—in size and demeanor. I swore I would never sell a horse, but it was best for him and for me. Today, he’s foxhunting in the Midwest and seems to be loving life.

As for me, I’ve always been the all-or-nothing type of person, and at that point in my horsey life I felt that I just couldn’t give it my all. I just needed a break. And so, I stopped. Cold turkey. I essentially walked away from what had been one of the biggest parts of my life for the past 40 years.

Of course, that break now meant I had a huge void of time on my hands. I spent the last two years filling all those previous hours of riding and barn time with running, specifically trail running. I found a new sense of purpose and enjoyment in this hobby and it’s shown me that I could be happy without riding. But … once a horseperson, always a horseperson, and I eventually felt the pull to get back in the saddle.

This lesson on Bubba wasn’t my first ride since I sold Woodrow. My daughter rides and I’ve been very fortunate to ride her trainer’s horses from time to time. They are fun and kind, but I still find myself feeling anxious and out of sorts when I’m in the tack. I almost feel as if I’m perched on top of them and at any moment I will find myself eating dirt. I realize this is mostly in my head, but it’s been enough to keep me from wanting to ride.

Check out that lush forelock! (Photo by Jennifer Mellace) 

Check out that lush forelock! (Photo by Jennifer Mellace) 

Then I saw my friend’s Facebook post about her ride on an adorable black pony. This friend is an adult who has found her way back to riding after a bad fall. She needed a horse and an instructor who could help her regain the confidence she had lost and she found it in this dressage duo who just happened to be a short drive from my house and had openings for lessons. I took it as a sign and called local trainer Ali Calkins to schedule a lesson on her 17-year-old, 13.2-hand Fell Pony cross, Bubba.

Bubba looking glamorous (Photo by Carissa Holly Mattern)

Bubba looking glamorous (Photo by Carissa Holly Mattern)

So, yesterday was my first lesson and it was just as great as I had hoped. It also helped open my eyes to several things that I’d like to share:

1. I’m thankful that I’m only 5’4” and I don’t need to ride a 17-hand horse. In fact, a pony can work just fine. Of course, others tried telling me this, I just needed the right pony to show me.

2.Riding in a dressage saddle felt a little like coming home. My leg didn’t feel all jammed up and I wasn’t perched (my bad habits, not the hunt seat saddle’s fault).

3. This doesn’t need to be all or nothing. I can enjoy one lesson a week for now and remember the excitement I felt as a kid on lesson day.

4. I haven’t lost my touch completely and I’m really looking forward to learning more on this little wonder pony.

5. I need this patient instructor and her awesome dressage pony in my life right now.

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