From a young age, Larisa Quirk of Laytonsville, Maryland, was passionate about horses. She began her riding career in hunter and equitation divisions, but later expanded her skillset and gained experience across a variety of disciplines including field hunting, eventing, dressage, western cutting, and side saddle. In addition to riding, Larisa began volunteering at Days End Farm Horse Rescue (DEFHR), in Woodbine, Maryland, as a young teen.
It was at DEFHR that Larisa built a strong connection with a feisty Thoroughbred mare named Starbucks whom she eventually adopted in 2014. Despite challenges at the outset, the pair built an unflappable trust in one another and had a successful partnership jumping and eventing, even participating in bridleless jumping demonstrations.
Larisa’s positive experience with the mare debunked any preconceived notions she initially had about rescue horses lacking athleticism, and in 2017, Larisa adopted a small bay filly from DEFHR that she named Aria.
At the time of Aria’s adoption, Larisa had already embarked on a career in the dressage ring, and currently works as the assistant at First Choice Farm for international dressage rider Felicitas Von Neumman-Cosel, also in Woodbine, Maryland. Felicitas’s training philosophy aligns well with Larisa’s, incorporating a horse’s specific needs and allowing the horse to express itself all while following classic dressage principles. Now, Aria is the beneficiary of this methodology, thriving under Larisa’s tutelage as a budding dressage star.
Born for Dressage
Aria was born at DEFHR after her mother Isadora—who was one of approximately 700 animals seized from a neglect case in North Carolina—arrived at the facility pregnant. Though Isadora was initially emaciated and highly parasitic, she was fully rehabilitated and carried her pregnancy to term.
Because of her close connection with DEFHR, Larisa was familiar with Isadora’s story. At the time, Starbucks was aging, and with extra encouragement from her barn mates, Larisa decided to pursue the adoption of Isadora’s little filly. Even early on, Larisa could see that she had the mind and athleticism for the dressage arena.
“When Aria was three months old, she was already doing proper one tempi changes in the paddock while running circles around her mother,” Larisa recalled smiling. “She looked quite proud of herself!”
Since Aria was weaned at the time of adoption, Larisa was responsible for giving her a solid foundation. Aria was a strong-willed horse from the beginning, so Larisa had to figure out the best ways to make progress. As Aria matured, they did a lot of groundwork including going through obstacles and going for walks by herself as well as with an equine buddy. Once Aria learned to accept a bit in these exercises, Larisa continued her mare’s progression with light ground driving to help her understand flexion and bend. They then worked on lunging in a circle as well as tracking down the long side of the arena.
“I learned fairly early on that Aria is incredibly smart, and she responded best to a lot of praise and reward, as well as time to process what she learned. Pushing too much at once would only result in taking a step back,” explained Larisa. “All of these training tools are great mentally and physically for young horses, but you really have to keep the sessions short. The consistency of working with them every day, or almost every day, is great, even if you just do ten minutes.”
A Winning Personality
Some might be surprised by Larisa’s choice of a rescue as her dressage partner, but she isn’t just looking at what immediately meets the eye. Rather, the characteristics that Larisa looks for in a young dressage prospect are more of the intangible qualities unique to the individual horse.
“The biggest thing for me is personality,” Larisa noted. “I love a spirited horse, but curiosity, willingness to learn, and respect are also very important to me—more so than conformation or movement. I have seen and ridden some horses with what would be considered poor conformation and they were incredible athletes. I’ve also ridden some horses with near perfect conformation that had no ‘try’ and it made them difficult partners. Movement goes into that as well. A horse can have spectacular free movement, but without willingness, you can only go so far.”
Step by Step
Now that Aria is six years old and started under saddle, her training regimen has evolved as she continues to develop. Like any young horse, there are some exercises that are easier and others that need more polishing. Larisa continues to challenge her mare in a supportive and productive way with the knowledge that proper training and muscle development will have a positive effect on the horse’s overall movement.
“Aria seems to love her stretchy trot and also enjoys doing counter-bend exercises as well as small serpentines down the long side at the trot,” Larisa stated. “It helps so much with her straightness through her body and overall balance. She still has a hard time rotating her pelvis to get her hind end underneath her, but a few steps of rein back can help align her body correctly.”
Through their progress, Larisa is keeping a measured approach with some key short-term goals. While Aria has started to travel to new places, she still gets a little nervous. Larisa is hoping with additional practice they can attend shows and clinics in a more relaxed manner.
“Aria’s potential was, and still is, endless,” Larisa described of her personable, curious, and treat-loving mare. “She’s very much enjoying being a dressage star, so I’m looking forward to taking her to a few local shows this year and showing off her beautiful movements and spicy personality!”
Like Felicitas and Larisa exemplify in their work, patience and mindfulness are paramount when working with horses as they all learn in different ways and at varied speeds. Felicitas has instilled in Larisa that small steps are big steps therefore slow, incremental progress is still progress. Aria’s story helps to demonstrate the importance of looking beyond the standard requirements for a dressage horse and proves that you don’t need to have a notable pedigree to be successful. Quality training of a young horse that is happy and enthusiastic in their job makes all the difference.
“Every rescue horse is wanted. They are just in a temporary home, looking for their permanent one. Aria is truly the perfect advocate for the rescue horse,” Larisa concluded.
Days End Farm Horse Rescue is a rescue member of A Home for Every Horse.