As the visitors approached, a skinny bay Pinto stood back from the herd. Like dogs at the local animal shelter, the horses on this forlorn feedlot in northern Minnesota crowded the fence, desperate for attention and a ticket to freedom from what was almost certainly going to be an unhappy ending. But hungry and lice-ridden, that sensible colt seemed to see no point in pushing his way to the front. On that crisp fall day, one could never imagine that the gangly youngster, now known as “Thor,” would one day carry his rescuer, Amy Sletten, down centerline at the 2016 U.S. Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® in the equine paradise of Lexington, Kentucky.
“Obviously, you come to an event like the finals and you see all of these amazing, fancy horses,” said Sletten, 38, of Shakopee, Minnesota. “But even so, we’re living proof that someone can be right there, too, with a $325 horse from a feedlot. Hopefully, our story will inspire people not to give up because there’s always hope that they can achieve their goals, no matter what they ride, what their challenges are or where they come from.”
The pair’s date with destiny at the Kentucky Horse Park last November actually began 11 years ago when Sletten, who had recently returned home to Minnesota after completing her Masters, was in the market for a new mount. “As a recent graduate, of course I had an incredibly small budget,” said Sletten, who purchased her first pony at 14 with money earned by babysitting. “So I had to look for something really young or untrained.” Through other private sellers, Sletten had a few affordably priced prospects in mind and had other appointments to look at those horses. But they weren’t quite right, and her sister encouraged her to consider a rescue from a local feedlot. “I looked around the kill pen and as hard as it was to walk away, there just wasn’t anything that appeared to be the right one,” she explained. “So the man told me that he had another field down the road with some additional horses that were being ‘fattened up.’ We headed over and, sure enough, they were all skin and bones and many were lame, but since they were too skinny to send to slaughter they had earned some extra time.
“The whole group came up to the fence to see us except this one Pinto, who we estimated to be about 2 years old. We went out in the field and he was quite standoffish at first—not afraid, just watching—and I immediately thought, Hmm, that one’s interesting,” she remembered. “All of a sudden, the horse took off and the whole herd followed him. He circled the field and came running back toward us with his long mane flying, and I saw that white streak down the left side of his brown neck and it just hit me like a lightning bolt. I had to have him. It was that instantaneous—I knew he was the one.”
Without any hesitation, Sletten wrote a check for $325 and caught the scrawny youngster, who followed her right onto the trailer, stood tied and never moved a muscle the whole way home. “He was likely a PMU baby [born from a mare whose urine was used to produce Premarin, a hormone-replacement therapy drug]. At that time, there were lots of PMU babies sold at auctions from farms in North Dakota and Canada who ended up in kill pens and feedlots across the country,” she explained. “Despite his unlikely start, he’s been an easy, wonderful and curious horse ever since that day. I think he knew I was his ticket out.”
That fall, Sletten started groundwork and lightly backing him and over the winter the pair enjoyed trail-riding and their partnership blossomed. “We trotted for the first time down the trail and he learned to canter under saddle in the snow,” Sletten explained. “The next spring we went to Missouri and rode in the Ozarks for a week and he was one of the most solid and confident mounts and outrode horses many times his age. He’s not a deadhead, but he’s just so sensible. I got so lucky with him.”
For the next seven years the pair continued their adventures, camping and riding throughout virtually every horse park in Minnesota, western Wisconsin and northern Iowa as well as in the Black Hills during a year spent living in Colorado. But they also began dabbling in dressage. “Growing up I always watched dressage when I could and thought it was so cool and beautiful and I never lost the desire to learn more about it,” said Sletten. “Then as I began to understand more about the sport and the training, I appreciated the developmental aspect of it in bringing a horse along in the right way. I wanted Thor to enjoy longevity in his career and I realized that learning to move his body in the right way would help with that.”
In 2013, Sletten and her steady partner began taking lessons and working on basic dressage. It was a struggle for both: Thor tried hard but had conformational and physical challenges; meanwhile Sletten, who had grown up riding her pony bareback, had never even learned how to post the trot. “I did a dressage schooling show for the first time about five years ago,” Sletten remembered. “I bought the little test book and was practicing the tests on my own. Unfortunately, the show wasn’t the greatest experience, but a year or two later my sister and I decided to try again with some more lessons.”
New trainer Heather Salden-Kurtz had Sletten and Thor start over at ground level with Intro tests and the pair kept plugging away, but progress was excruciatingly slow. “We have not always done well. In fact, our first year at Training Level we never broke 60 percent,” she noted.
“What Thor may lack in flashy movement he makes up for in heart. He is also so incredibly solid and easy to work with, and I think that all the years we spent traveling around camping and trail-riding have made him a sound and steady guy. He can travel across the country and settle into wherever he is. I never have to worry about puddles in the arena or scary stuff outside.
“At the same time, I went into this not realizing all the physical challenges he would have with this sport,” Sletten continued. “He’s so crooked and throws his haunches to the left all the time. He also has some lateral tendencies. And I had no idea. So with Heather’s help we’ve gradually addressed issues like straightness as we’ve moved along. We’re moving into Second Level now and it’s a challenge getting him more uphill and forward. He’s super supple and over the years his canter has really improved. It just takes time. He’s also surprisingly light on his feet for a drafty-looking horse, which I hope is a pleasant surprise for the judges when we trot into the arena.”
Sletten admits that even though she never gave up, receiving one poor score after another started to take its toll. “Not getting above a 60 percent during an entire year of hard work—yeah, it was incredibly frustrating,” she said. “I really wanted to succeed and there were definitely times where I wanted to quit. But I decided not to beat myself up about it and just kept working. I realized I had lost sight of the bigger picture of just being there with him, doing this journey together.”
Overcoming their physical challenges and frustration with slow progress, as well as inexperience and a bad case of show nerves, Sletten and Thor finally figured out a way to turn it around. A close call in a stall accident gave Sletten a wake-up call about what was really important. “I realized that scores really don’t matter. What matters is him and our relationship, and from that point on I just let it all go. And in our next test we got a 69 percent.”
Last year was the pair’s 10-year anniversary together, and when Sletten discovered that her USDF Regional Championship was to be held on the same weekend as the date she had pulled Thor from the feedlot a decade prior, she made it their goal to qualify; and they did. Inspired by their success, Sletten decided that the 2016 finals would be the next objective. “I had a plan in place and we got our qualifying scores for both Training and First Levels much earlier in the season, which also allowed me time to put together a freestyle. I did my Masters in Turkey and wanted to use Mediterranean/Middle Eastern music, which is very distinctive and unique, but I think it really works with him and has sentimental value for me because I lived there for several years. To our delight, it all came together at last year’s Regionals and we received a wild-card score for the finals!”
In a fortuitous twist of fate, Sletten found herself achieving a goal she had only dreamt of when she and several friends first traveled to Kentucky in 2013. “We came to the inaugural finals to watch, and I said to myself, Someday I’m going to ride here,” said Sletten. As Sletten’s trainer, Salden-Kurtz was equally delighted to share the pair’s journey. “Amy is my first student to make it to the finals. I couldn’t be prouder of how far she and Thor have come.”
Sletten, who works by day as a project manager in the software industry and often braids for others to help offset the cost of showing, is quick to credit Salden-Kurtz as a key to her success. She also points to the support of her friends at Cross Creek Stables, where Thor is a barn favorite. “I’m so lucky to be at a wonderful barn. We all go to shows together and have fun. We’re like a tribe —everyone helping each other and we move around like a herd. That’s my social life, so my evenings and weekends are spent there,” she explained. “And everybody loves Thor at the barn. One of my dear friends at the barn was getting married and asked me if Thor could be in the wedding. It was held in an apple orchard and she rode him through the trees to the aisle in her wedding dress. He was rock-steady, even when swarmed by kids at the orchard while awaiting the bride. He was so perfect for her on her big day!”
Many of those barn mates, as well as her parents and sister, all traveled to Kentucky to cheer Sletten and Thor on as they competed on the national stage in the First Level Freestyle Adult Amateur Championship, finishing 13th in the huge field of competitors with a solid score of 65.167 percent. “Being at the finals was just amazing,” she said. “But I had no expectations other than to share that special experience with my best friend, and I am so beyond proud of my big guy. He came from a rough beginning, ended up in a place where he could have easily lost his life, but has gone on to become that horse that you have once in a lifetime!”