A Dressage Pair Grows Together

One adult rider forges a new path with her young horse and finds pleasant surprises along the way.
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Credit: High Time Photography Radka Heineman with her own Oldenburg gelding, San Jaco TWF

Credit: High Time Photography Radka Heineman with her own Oldenburg gelding, San Jaco TWF

After I signed the sale contract I never looked back despite the fact that my search was very short and my decision was pretty quick. For me, a quick and decisive search was better than the alternative, as you can drive yourself crazy looking for a young horse. There are a lot of nice yearlings out there, and the U.S. breeders are really doing a great job. The youngster I decided upon, San Jaco TWF, was a well-bred Oldenburg with a sweet disposition, naturally uphill and gelded already. We also happened to share the same birthday. Our journey together started on May 31, 2011, when he arrived at my farm from Lovettsville, Virginia.

My former trainer and good friend, Sonya Gressel, was at that time a certified sport-horse appraiser. She was very helpful while I was searching for my future dressage partner and when she eventually came to meet Jaco, she said it might be fun if I could do some breed shows with him. At that point, I had no clue what a breed show was. After doing some reading on the subject, I went to watch my first breed show in Raleigh, North Carolina, in August. I learned that horses are judged at the walk and trot on two triangles. Their conformation is also judged. Watching Jaco play and grow the first year I had him, I started wondering how he would do on the triangle. I wondered if the judges would like him. 

So I sent his first breed-show entry in for Lexington Spring Dressage in May of 2012. Since I had no idea how to present my horse, I hired Bruce Griffin as Jaco’s handler. Bruce did a great job, and to my delight Jaco was Reserve Grand Champion, earning his first qualification for Dressage at Devon. I was thrilled. 

Jaco’s second breed show was in Raleigh a month later. He did well with Bruce, but I thought he might be more relaxed with me, someone with whom he was much more familiar. After all, the brief time spent with a professional handler who sees a colt only at a show doesn’t always make it easy for a youngster to perform. Through our first year together, Jaco and I spent a lot of time walking on our trails and sometimes just jogging next to each other. I felt that maybe he could do even better if I ran the triangle with him. We did that for the first time in August 2012. The day of the show, I loaded up my 2-year-old gelding and left around 9 a.m. We were back before 5 p.m. with another qualification for Devon. What a thrill! Next, I had to make a decision about entering Devon. I truly believed Jaco earned his spot in the competition, and even the awareness that I had to do this all alone didn’t stop me from sending the entry in. I had never been before, even as a spectator. 

Once we got to Devon, Jaco settled in and he was wonderful. Watching the other handlers practicing their runs with the horses, I knew the competition wouldn’t be easy. But I was just happy to be there with my horse. It really didn’t matter to me where Jaco placed. The experience of that show was unforgettable. There is something magical about the Devon show grounds and the Dixon Oval, especially. 

There were 14 horses in our first class, Two-Year-Old Colts and Geldings. We had a good run. I was surprised and happy to see that Jaco placed eighth with a score of 75.6 percent. We got our first ribbon from Devon! Our second class was the USDF/GAIG East Coast Colt Championship with 12 horses in it. I truly had no expectation of placing well in it. I was running the triangle for only the third time, and the participating horses were spectacular, so I was just happy to be in such good company. 

When we entered the Dixon Oval Jaco was in his element. He stood quietly for the judges in the beginning. His walk around the first triangle was relaxed. When we picked up the trot I felt he was ready to show what he had. I just needed to stay with him. In no time we were back in front of the judges and it was over. I felt good about his performance but had no high expectations. Only six top horses are called back to receive their ribbons. I was totally shocked when the announcer said Jaco’s name. I ran to the barn, put his bridle back on and we joined the other five horses for the final lineup in the Dixon Oval. 

I had a hard time holding back my tears. Jaco placed sixth! His scores were 76.7 percent from Carter Bass and 78.3 perent from Sue Mandas. I was so happy and surprised, and for the first time, I realized something: This horse would perform for me! He certainly did that night at Devon. We left the next day with two beautiful ribbons. Driving home, I was thinking how much fun it would be to ride Jaco in the Dixon Oval one day.

With the proper preparation I swung my leg over Jaco’s back for the first time in November, 2012, and I worked him lightly over the winter. Jaco had several abscesses through 2013, which slowed his progress, but I didn’t push it either. We really didn’t do a lot, but I was able to get him to two breed shows. He was the Grand Champion the next year at Lexington Spring Dressage. He also earned first place in the Oldenburg class with a score of 80 percent. Our last in-hand show was in August. It was time to start thinking about showing him under saddle.

While participating in breed shows, I learned about the Materiale class. This is a group class for 4- and 5-year-old horses where they recieve scores for the quality of their walk, trot and canter. A score for general impression is also given. The class is ridden in a bigger arena than the usual 20-by-60 dressage arena. I thought this class would be perfect for Jaco. Being a tall horse with big gaits, he wasn’t ready to canter a 20-meter circle as a 4-year-old. I also knew his gaits were good enough for this class. 

We rode in our first Materiale class in May 2014. Our score was 69.5 percent. I was disappointed. I realized I had a new task ahead of me—I needed to learn how to present my horse better under saddle. I sure didn’t want to ruin it for Jaco. We did a little better the next day, earning 72.6 percent, and ended up the 2014 show season with a score of 77 percent in September. I was really happy with our progress. We also showed at Introductory Level. Jaco was Third at the NCDCTA Championship.

I planned only two shows for 2015. We weren’t ready to shine at Training Level but we were ready to participate. We rode in three Materiale classes. Through the whole summer I was thinking about Devon. I knew what was involved and how much work this trip is, especially if traveling alone. An encouragement came from one judge in Raleigh. Although Jaco’s performance in that Materiale class wasn’t a stellar one, she believed he could win the Materiale class at Devon. As nice as it was to hear that, I thought she was exaggerating. But she sure helped with my decision. 

I sent the entry in for three classes, and we left for our six-day-long journey on September 27. There were three of us—Jaco, my dog Henry and me. Once at Devon, I was quickly reminded about how different this show is. The horse- trailer traffic is constant, the longeing hours are very limited, the warm-up rings are crowded and every horse looks like a winner. This atmosphere can be very electric. The Dixon Oval was open only 90 minutes for schooling on Monday. After we settled in, I quickly tacked Jaco up and he surprised me again. Once we walked into the Dixon Oval he was in his element. It was like he remembered our last run there. His walk was big, his trot was lofty and his canter was very uphill. His behavior was perfect. Truthfully, he gave me the best ride of my life. I experienced a new forward with him, and we sure needed that kind of forward for Devon. I started thinking there was a chance we could earn a ribbon. 

Jaco schooled well on Tuesday. Our first class was on Wednesday morning in the Dixon Oval. Ten beautiful horses of both genders entered the ring for the Suitable to Become a Dressage Horse 5-Year-Old class. Jaco felt good and his behavior was excellent. In the canter, some horses went wild. Jaco kept his cool. After changing the direction, we cantered once more for a very short time. We were asked to line up for the results. 

In this class horses are placed and no actual scores are awarded. They reward the first six horses right there with a ribbon, calling them from the bottom. For the sixth and fifth place, horses next to us were called. Then the big surprise came and I heard Jaco’s name called for fourth place. I couldn’t believe it! A beautiful white ribbon was placed on his bridle and we walked out of the Dixon Oval. I was very happy. This placing already justified my decision to come to Devon. The Materiale 5-Year-Old Stallions & Geldings class was ridden in the Gold Ring. Eight horses were entered. Our warm-up went well, but Jaco felt a little tired, so I didn’t do much. I was saving his energy for the class. The group entered the ring on time. Again, we rode at the walk and trot around the whole ring. The horses were split for the canter. There were no issues this time. We were asked to trot some more in this small group. Jaco felt good—he was soft and listening. After the group was together again, we were asked to ride the free walk. The class was dismissed after that, with scores displayed later. I was able to glance at the horses while I rode—they all looked fabulous. On my way to the barn I was thinking it would be nice if we were not last.

When I finally found the score sheet I couldn’t believe what I saw. We placed second with a score of 78.4 percent. I was shocked. Second at Devon and our best score ever. Leaving the Dixon Oval with a red ribbon felt unreal. I had tears running down my face. 

Our placing moved us to the Materiale Championship class. The first three horses from each Materiale class participated. Twelve horses entered the Dixon Oval. Every single one gleamed under the lights. The quality of the horses was high. The riders were special, too. Just passing top riders like Julio Mendoza, Ulla Parker and Meagan Davis, I truly couldn’t believe we were riding in the same ring. This class was judged by all four judges. For the last time I asked Jaco to give me his best. Only the top three horses were recognized. We ended up in the group of nine unplaced horses, but it didn’t matter. I was honored to be invited into this class.

During my drive home, I spent a lot of time thinking about my journey with Jaco. He is physically a slow-developing horse. He can be a little emotional, so you can’t ask him for too much too fast. I always think about these aspects when I plan ahead. The first chapter of our journey is over. There is no Materiale class for a 6-year-old. We have grown together as partners, our confidence is better. We achieved a lot and I am truly thankful for that. We all evolve as we go. But in my wildest dreams I never thought I would be able to train and start a young horse on my own or ride in the Dixon Oval. 

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