Dressage Life: Transitions - Dressage Today

Dressage Life: Transitions

Life's toughest challenges and transitions are easier with a horse by your side.
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Jane Burrows and Zander | © Susan Sexton

Jane Burrows and Zander | © Susan Sexton

Transition--there's so much in this word. Life is a process of transition, some of it enjoyable, some not so much.

Riding has been my passion for 25 years and has seen me through life's transitions even as riding was, in itself, transitioning. When I discovered dressage, I was sure I was only some hard work away from a Grand Prix debut on my first warmblood mount, but the planets weren't quite aligned in that order.

At first, I was confident my FEI goals were on course because I had purchased all the horse I could afford, and she had the most important quality back in the day: BIG. She was a pretty mover and, as long as you had the 40-inch inseam required to steer her 18-hand frame around the arena, ample talent for this amateur. After struggling with the difficult, and all too common, decision to move a beloved horse along to a more appropriate owner, I let her go and pinned my dreams on the next in what would be a line of six such hopefuls to date.

At horse number 3, I took some good advice and bought an aged schoolmaster, who, while stiff and difficult, still taught me a lot. After a few years with her, and much domestic debate on the price of these animals, I bought a younger Dutch Warmblood, confident he would be The One, moving the schoolmaster on to her final school horse home. Sadly, six months later, The One was struck by lightning in his pasture when one of our violent Texas storms erupted overhead and took his life. Uninsured, my little family fortune was buried in the pasture, and I was horseless.

Fortunately, the individual who had sold him to me had another horse she was willing to sell me at a reduced price. Her sympathetic gesture got me back in the saddle and my hopes soared once again. This next horse really was "The One." He owned me. He was so exquisite, people would make comments like, "That's the most beautiful animal I've ever seen!" He really was, and I told him I loved him out loud everyday, apologizing for the weighty responsibility he shouldered for my total happiness.

Our relationship endured as we "transitioned" through his seemingly endless infirmities: EPM, pulled suspensory ligament and broken pelvis (yes, they can recover from that) to name a few. I invested thousands in vets and clinics and lessons with every professional we had access to. After six years of work, we were finally enjoying Third Level movements and playing with tempis and passage. He had all I needed to make my dreams come true, and he owned my heart.

Meanwhile, though not interested in another horse at the time, a friend of mine knew of a three-year-old Dutch Warmblood DWB in need of a good home. Sparing the details of why he was available and affordable, I agreed to take Zander home, let him grow up, then began breaking my first horse at the age of 52! This "transition" was actually liberating and very, very satisfying. He's a seriously forgiving animal!

Life began its next "transition" on December 12, 2007. After spending all night in the ER with my husband and his recurrent kidney stones, we came home to put him to bed and feed the horses. It was a nasty day, windy and spitting a cold rain. Neptune was cozy in his stall out of the weather so I went to the kitchen to bake Christmas cookies.

Four hours later, I went out to check him and found him in horrible distress. His stall door was knocked off the track and he was covered with shavings, manure and urine. I roused my husband out of his morphine-induced stupor, wildly beating on the bedroom window while trying to manage the colicking horse on the lead. He called the vet and stumbled outside to help me keep the horse on his feet. Unable to stop the gut pain, we managed to get him in the trailer and to the surgical suite where the vet discovered that 26 feet of his intestine was necrotic. We had no choice but to humanely assist his "transition." There was no humane way to assist mine.

I was in pure agony for months, my husband finally admitting that he sometimes thought I loved the horse more than him. (Amazingly, he was OK with that.) But as the shock wave of this loss softened, it was apparent that God had opened a door after closing a window, and I turned my hopes and dreams to that other sweet horse just waiting patiently in the pasture. It was as if God knew he was going to have to break my heart, and he'd blessed me with Zander to help me through it. I resolved to start the now 4-year-old horse on his dressage career path and began in earnest.

Four short months later, however, my next and most profound "transition" was revealed. I was diagnosed with breast cancer (DCIS and Invasive for those of you who can relate). Chemotherapy, bilateral mastectomy and radiation were prescribed and I was forced to put life on hold while I navigated a difficult year and a half of doctor appointments, treatments and surgeries. Through it all, I managed to keep some weight on my youngster's back for his good but it's what he did for me that I can't repay. Zander was always out there looking for my company (and a cookie) when I felt up to a visit, propping me up when I wilted under the weight of the "transition," and quietly waiting for me to emerge a stronger woman and better human being.

Cancer has a way of defining us as it proves how strong we can be while at the same time making our spirits more porous and sympathetic. I face post-treatment scans soon, which will determine where we go from here medically. But whatever "transitions" my future holds, the horses will remain in my life and make them worth living through.

FEI may still elude me, but, the divine relationships I have enjoyed with my equine partners have become even more precious than any goal I might reach. I thank God everyday for the horses. I'm confident he is saving the best "transition" for last.

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