An Adult Amateur's Journey to the U.S. Dressage Finals

Adult Amateur Laureen Van Norman overcame the odds on her road to the 2014 U.S. Dressage Finals.
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Credit: Courtesy, Laureen Van Norman

Credit: Courtesy, Laureen Van Norman

In this two-part series, Dressage Today gives you a look into the amazing stories of two adult amateurs who overcame incredible challenges on their road to the U.S. Dressage Finals in Lexington, Kentucky, Nov. 6 –9, 2014.

U.S. Dressage Finals First Level Adult Amateur competitor Laureen Van Norman of Lincoln, Nebraska, was lucky to finally find her dream horse. But an almost unbelievable cascade of events turned her dream into a nightmare. In the span of just one year, Van Norman went from contemplating euthanasia for her mount to triumphantly trotting down centerline in Kentucky.

Van Norman got her first horse at the age of 10 and rode with her local 4-H Club throughout school. After pursuing a career as a state court judge, Van Norman returned to horses in her 30s. By chance, the barn where she purchased her horse had a focus on dressage. “It was the first time I was really exposed to the sport and I fell in love with it,” she explains.

As her skills and enthusiasm for dressage grew, Van Norman decided in 2011 to search for a new mount in the hopes of advancing up the levels more successfully. “By now I was in my late 50s and I felt that my window of opportunity was getting a little smaller all the time,” she says. “But I had to find the right partner because with a family, home and career, I am a person with the resources and time for just one horse. My trainer, Jami Kment, and I embarked on a trip to try horses in California, where we found a 7-year-old, beautiful, black Trakehner gelding named Montagny von der Heide. He had talent and good training, was amateur-friendly and was within my budget. So that July, Monty came to Nebraska so we could start our lives together.”

But within a few months, the honeymoon was over. Complications from hip-replacement surgery five years earlier created problems for Van Norman in the saddle. “We started having a few issues, which I blamed on my physical problems,” she notes. “One of my legs was literally getting shorter and I wasn’t sitting straight in the saddle. But I admit it did make me wonder, ‘maybe I just can’t ride him.’ So in January 2012, I chose to undergo a surgery that I hoped would correct the problem, and in the meantime Monty went to Florida with my trainer.”

Picking up the reins again that April, Van Norman and Monty seemed to be back on track. But at their first show in May, “the wheels started coming off the bus,” she says. “He was becoming unrideable. After repeated veterinary examinations, he was ultimately diagnosed with bilateral high suspensory desmitis in both hind legs. I elected to have him undergo surgery, and his prognosis was good. So thankfully by fall we were riding again.”

Spending the first three months of 2013 in Florida as a congenial “Dr. Jekyll,” Monty returned to Nebraska and suddenly turned into Mr. Hyde. “Some days he’d be OK, and then he’d be explosive and really scare me with his rearing and very naughty behavior,” Van Norman says. “It got to the point where I wouldn’t ride him and wouldn’t let my trainer ride him either. Something was obviously wrong, and I thought it had to be due to a physical issue, but we couldn’t figure it out.” With the lack of a more concrete diagnosis, veterinarians suggested that minor arthritic changes in Monty’s neck could be to blame. Despite injections to relieve any pain, the gelding’s erratic and dangerous misbehavior escalated. Van Norman was at a loss.

Credit: SusanJStickle.com Laureen Van Norman and Montagny von der Heide placed 11th in the First Level Adult Amateur Championship at the 2014 U.S. Dressage Finals in Lexington, Kentucky.

Credit: SusanJStickle.com Laureen Van Norman and Montagny von der Heide placed 11th in the First Level Adult Amateur Championship at the 2014 U.S. Dressage Finals in Lexington, Kentucky.

In a fortuitous twist of fate, Kment became acquainted with Dr. Chris Newton of the Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, when her mare needed care during a CDI at the Kentucky Horse Park. In addition to being a renowned sporthorse veterinarian, Dr. Newton is an accomplished event rider who had worked with horses with rearing and other behavior issues. On a whim, Van Norman asked Dr. Newton to take a look at Monty’s records and scans, and he agreed to see the troubled horse. Out of other options, Van Norman loaded Monty for the 16-hour trip to Bluegrass Country. “Sending him to Kentucky was a last resort,” she notes. “I was skeptical, but Dr. Newton was optimistic and thought Monty deserved another chance.”

In the coming months, Monty began to make progress with Dr. Newton, who utilized a variety of alternative therapies and exercise regimens in an attempt to improve the gelding’s physical and behavioral well-being. Just as Van Norman was making plans to bring Monty home, tragedy struck—again. “On August 5, I got a phone call telling me that Monty was colicking and was on his way to the hospital for surgery,” says Van Norman. “I was incredulous—it had been one thing after another with my poor horse. You can’t even make this stuff up!”

In the weeks post-surgery, Monty was a shadow of his former self. “I kept getting calls from the farm that he was colicking again, and he had to be tubed on several occasions,” explains Van Norman. “We were at our wits’ end. I have to say I had reached the point where I was ready to extricate myself from this situation. Even if he recovered from all the physical issues, I still wasn’t sure he’d be the right horse for me. People were telling me that maybe it was time to be done with it, but Dr. Newton didn’t believe that. He still thought there was something special in Monty. I couldn’t afford to just put him in a pasture, but I didn’t want to quit. I was really in a quandary about the whole thing.”

Ironically, Van Norman made a trip to Kentucky to visit Monty during last year’s inaugural U.S. Dressage Finals—a place she had hoped to be with her horse under very different circumstances. Thanks to Dr. Newton’s care and over-the-counter gut medication, Monty’s colic issues had subsided and he had been in training under Dr. Newton’s supervision at nearby Antebellum Farm. 

Van Norman then made another visit to see Monty, but was disappointed to see that his behavior was still poor. She was ready to give up, but Dr. Newton had one more idea. In a last-ditch effort, he had started the troubled Trakehner on a new supplement and asked for some additional days for it to take effect. “So we went back to the farm, where Dr. Newton got on Monty. They start going around and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The horse was fabulous,” Van Norman recalls. “It seemed crazy, but I gathered my courage and climbed on in my jeans to try for myself. It was amazing! We were going around doing changes and half-passes, and Monty was forward, supple and powerful. I couldn’t stop smiling. After everything that had happened and despite losing my faith in him, I realized I still loved him and I had just wanted it to work so badly. It was the best ride I had ever had!”

Since that brisk November day, Van Norman and Monty haven’t looked back. “He went down to Florida that winter with Jami and it was like nothing had ever happened—he was back to the horse I had fallen in love with all those years ago when I bought him in California,” she says. “So far, there haven’t been any relapses, and he seems to be pain-free.” In June, the happy pair finally competed at their first recognized show together and earned a score of 74.800 percent at First Level. “Of course I was anxious about whether we would actually make it down centerline after all these years, but when I heard the score I was speechless,” Van Norman explains. “At last, Monty and I had become the partnership I had dreamed of when I bought him.” 

Monty continued to reward his owner’s confidence by earning impressive scores at the Regional Championships and a return ticket to Kentucky—this time for the 2014 U.S. Dressage Finals. “I feel like we have come full circle. Returning to Lexington with my horse of a lifetime to compete was a dream come true,” says Van Norman. 

“It’s been such a long, hard road for both of us, and being just a year removed from contemplating euthanasia, I always remind myself that every ride on Monty is a gift. 

There are so many people to thank who helped and encouraged us along the line, including my darling husband, Steve Hanson. I certainly didn’t know it would end up as well as it did with Monty, but despite our struggles, I feel so lucky to have him.” 

Epilogue: Laureen Van Norman and Montagny von der Heide placed 11th out of 34 competitors in the First Level Adult Amateur Championship at the U.S. Dressage Finals last November. “I am so inspired to keep progressing and excited to try to return to the Finals next year,” says Van Norman. “Monty was wonderful and I am still smiling about the whole experience.”

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