The Journey of a Baroque Horse

Finding a baroque horse and training him to the highest level of dressage.
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It was a successful 2009 show season. Tonico do Top won the Prix St. Georges Championship at the BLM Finals and the U.S. Dressage Federation's All Breed Andalusian Championship at Intermediaire I for his successes in the FEI dressage ring. I remember people applauding after this baroque horse's I-1 test in the famous Dixon Oval at Dressage at Devon. They seemed intrigued by this baroque horse. It was a wonderful moment for his owners and me, his rider and trainer. It reminded me how far he had come since his days as a parade horse in the Brazilian jungle.

Felicitas and Tonico showing. Photo by Susan J. Stickle.

Felicitas and Tonico showing. Photo by Susan J. Stickle.

The Adventure Begins
In 2006, my clients Linda and Joe Denniston decided they wanted to own a Lusitano that I could eventually show at Grand Prix and that they could later stand at stud. I was excited to be part of their dream, and the search began. We looked at endless videos of Lusitanos in the U.S., Portugal and Brazil. I was hoping to find a horse that could do a single flying change, had three good gaits and an extended trot. Finally, we came across a video of a stallion in Brazil. Tonico do Top was at Sucandi, a Lusitano farm owned by the Pass family. He was 15.3 hands and had just turned 7 in October. He had a big extended trot and did some flying changes. The canter looked passable, the basic trot was without any cadence and the walk was poor. But there was something about this shiny chestnut that fascinated us. Brazil is a long way to go just to look at one horse, so I requested more videos that included different views of the walk and canter to get a better idea about his natural movement, particularly without a rider. It was clear there was a lot of tension in his back when he was ridden, and that did not help the situation. I knew I would be able to improve the trot, but the canter and walk had to be respectable. His walk concerned me the most; I could see it had a good rhythm but no overstride.

Linda decided that the two of us should fly to Brazil, and the people at Sucandi promised there would be many other horses for us to see. We noticed an inviting photo on their Web site of a swimming pool and a table with delicious-looking drinks with umbrellas. We decided the trip would be worth it, no matter what happened. So we left on a cold December afternoon on a 10-hour overnight flight to Sao Paolo. Florian and Roberta Pass promised to pick us up from the airport in a bulletproof car, which did not boost my confidence.

To my surprise, Florian and Roberta were not old weathered horse people as I expected but a young couple who had gotten into horses through the interest of their daughter. Florian had moved from Germany but was not involved in horses there. We drove straight to their beautiful farm, which is set up like a bed and breakfast, framed by an incredible variety of flowers in every color and with exotic scents. The barn was a U-shaped concrete building with about 30 stalls, and a grass courtyard in the middle. During the day the horses were tied in their stalls secured by a metal bar.

We learned that Tonico was Brazilian-bred, born Oct. 8, 1999 (our fall is springtime in South America). He was sired by Emetico out of Jandaya do Top. Her sire, Babel, was chestnut and passed on the color. The breeder, Tonico Pereira, named the pretty foal after himself and sold him at a yearling auction. In 2004, Roberta and Florian found him in the jungle, where he was used in religious parades. At Sucandi, he was ridden and used as a breeding stallion.

When we approached Tonico in his stall, I had a shock. He had a beautiful neck and shoulder, but his back, although correct, was lacking any muscle definition. He gently sniffed me all over, and even though I meet new horses all the time, this was special. We saw all the stallions presented in-hand in the courtyard. None moved very well on the slippery grass. They acted like geldings?all except Tonico. He came out of his stall like a king, telling the world about it, but never once did he trouble his handler. It was a beautiful sight, and I was hooked, hoping he would leave the same impression under saddle. We saw many horses and then, finally, Tonico was brought out. As predicted, there was tension and no stretch in his topline and no straightness. The flying changes were rather voluntary, but we didn't watch long. I wanted time in the saddle.

The First Ride & Evaluation
Trying a new horse is like trying to find a common language. Was Tonico willing to talk to me, could he listen and would he try to follow my requests? His attitude struck me right away. I was impressed that, despite the tension, he was completely willing to listen, and he tried to figure out what I was talking about. I used some systematic exercises that showed him black and white, what reaction I expected from my leg, my seat and from my hand?and he understood! I could straighten him more and help him to balance, which in turn, really helped him to relax. That was the initial goal and all I could accomplish the first day.

We had a lovely dinner with Florian and Roberta, the perfect hosts. They even provided some German wheat beer to make me feel at home. (I am German but have lived in the United States for more than 20 years.) That night, we happily fell into bed since there was no sleep the night before.

The next morning it took a while to find a snaffle bit I wanted to ride with, and Tonico's saddle was less than desirable. Since he had no back muscles, the saddle sat straight on his withers. I finally borrowed the daughter's children's jumping saddle, the only one narrow enough not to hurt him too badly. I spent a lot of time with Tonico working on his basic gaits and still felt happy about his willingness. My challenge of asking for counter canter without allowing him to escape with a flying change to the true lead put a considerable amount of pressure on him, but he never got upset. He just kept on trying. I wanted to address more collection, as in half steps or pirouettes, but he was clearly not ready. Still, I could feel him collecting on my seat and gathering himself for transitions and half-halts. To carry a whip was not possible?obviously there were too many negative associations.

When I came to the ring, I saw a gentleman teaching. I learned he was Orlando Farcada, at one time, the most successful dressage rider in Brazil. At 70, he still competes, and he trained one of Sucandi's horses with the intent of making the last Pan American Games team. I was curious to watch him train, and we set up a time to visit his farm the next day.

In the afternoon there were more horses to evaluate. These were youngsters, and we watched them free school in the ring since Linda was also thinking of buying a young filly for her breeding stock. There were two colts and a yearling filly from one breeder that stood out because of their warmblood-like movement. The filly was bay and already tall. Soon, a decision was made to bring her home to Linda's Cedar Rowe Lusitanos. Bora-Bora is now 16.1 hands, quite beautiful being ridden under saddle.

The day did not leave a minute to spare. Between riding or looking at horses and talking with our wonderful hosts, who shared our meals, there had been no opportunity for Linda and me to discuss what we were thinking about Tonico. All the other horses I rode did not interest me to the degree that he did. We finally stole away on a walk, admiring the orchids, and weighed the pros and cons. His walk was still very short; I saw only two steps with more promise of length. I was really not able to test the collection the way I would have liked to for a Grand Prix prospect. I also wanted to test him in the double bridle. But all of that would not have been fair at his stage of training and with his lack of strength in his back. Despite all that, I was falling for him (not very professional, but true).

We had one day left to test him, and I still wanted to include a trail ride on different footing and in strange situations. After riding him the following morning, I walked him all over the farm, and I learned that this guy was not afraid of anything. The deepest mud did not stop him in stride, and when I took him out on the dirt lane to the farm, a big truck passed, leaving little room, and he did not blink?a partner to go to war with so much confidence! A dressage ring would most likely pose little threat.

Portugal in the Rainforest
Later, everyone piled into the car for the trip to Orlando's farm. First, we drove two hours through the lush rainforest, where the flowers were amazing but visibility poor because it was raining. Next came a ferry ride and then a 20-minute drive to a little town. Suddenly, we took a side street, then another and before I knew it, we were driving on a sandy beach. The entrance to the farm was right off the beach?most amazing, as was the farm itself.

Orlando had recreated a place like the one his father had in Portugal, with a nice hacienda-style house and barn and a covered arena with a mirror along the entire short side. I was speechless. We were greeted with a wonderful meal and a cocktail that tasted dangerously just like lemonade. In no time, we had a great conversation going. Orlando's wife brought out pictures of him in Portugal riding between his brother and father in a parade before a bullfight. This was a family of bullfighters. At this point, I was trying with hands and feet to find out how he taught a horse canter pirouettes and posing the kind of question one would ask another trainer while Roberta did her best to translate. Orlando would talk about his father longeing the horses on the beach, in and out of the water for strength training. I could have listened forever, but we came to watch him ride.

Orlando had two competition horses. A bay warmblood mare from Argentina was the first one he showed us. She was at Intermediaire Level and very nice. After 20 minutes, he came over, dropped the reins and gestured for me to ride. I was surprised and honored. She was fun, and I ended up with a few one-tempis, which tickled Orlando.

Next came a Lusitano stallion that Florian and Roberta owned. He had an incredible piaffe and passage. Again, Orlando handed me the reins. Now it almost felt like a "Mexican ride off," and I worked on some extended trot to try to top his performance. Then his working student showed us two more horses for sale that I really did not want to ride, but I guessed I had to work for the food and drink, and Orlando kept cheering me on. Of course, we could not leave without more food and drink. It felt like we had spent a day in Portugal.

On returning to Sucandi, Linda and I stole away to one of our rooms to talk. This was our last night, and we still had not made a decision about Tonico. There were obvious question marks about the quality in his walk, but I thought all other shortcomings could be improved with training that would foremost build muscle and strengthen his back. That would help greatly to improve his basic gaits in length of stride and suspension. At dinner, Linda made Roberta and Florian an offer that would allow us to bring Tonico and Bora-Bora home. They graciously accepted the offer, pending the veterinary exam.

We had saved the last day for a vet check so we could be present. The vet team came with a portable developer for the X-rays. We would take them home to our own vet to read, and the final decision would depend on what he saw. Taking X-rays turned out to be a nightmare since Tonico did not want to be confined around his legs. He was put in a stock stand they had, and the confinement calmed him immediately.

Before we left, I gave instructions not to ride him anymore until he was shipped to the States.?On the flight, Linda clutched the X-rays to her chest, as much for support to hold her up as not to lose them. We were totally exhausted, and I vaguely wondered what happened to the time we were supposed to relax by the swimming pool. In the end, Tonico passed, but little did we know that it would take two months to see him again.

Training Begins
Our veterinary Dr. Roger I. Scullin approved the X-rays, but there were blood tests for the import that had to be cleared. And, of course, all of this happened during the Christmas holidays, which does not speed up anything that has to go through government-run laboratories. Finally, at the beginning of January, the horses were cleared to ship to Florida and go through a five-day quarantine. While there, Florida had an outbreak of Herpes virus, so the poor horses were stuck. By now, it had been so long since we had seen them that we started to wonder if we really bought the right horse. What were we thinking, taking on a horse with a short coming in the development of his back? Will I really be able to make him move big? And, how about his not-so-great walk?

Seeing Tonico do Top again was like the second date after you meet someone and fall in love at first sight but then are parted for a long while. Was it maybe the candlelight or the wine over dinner that made you think you were in love? Finally, in February, the horses traveled north, and the first stop was Linda and Joe's Cedar Rowe Lusitanos in Rocky Ridge, Maryland. The filly would stay there. Tonico would stay overnight before Linda brought him to me at First Choice Farm. On the next day, I remember watching Linda, who is on the short side, walking her stallion through my barn door. As they stepped inside, he seemed to grow to 17 hands. He started screaming and dragged her to a stall, while striking out with a front leg. She just managed to get him inside. What happened to the polite sensitive stud we had seen in Brazil? Since he had lived in a stall with solid walls and a courtyard set up, this environment was completely new to him. Now he was in a stall with open bars on both sides. Often I have stabled stallions next to each other, which worked fine. But this guy greeted his neighbors with quite a show?striking, rearing, throwing himself against the walls and kicking (never mind his vocabulary). We have since lined his stall with rubber mats, and I chose a couple of friendly geldings to live next to him. After a while, the novelty wore off, but then he began weaving and biting his sides. I hoped that the company of the other horses and regular work focused on relaxation would make a difference over time.

The other challenge for Tonico was an adjustment to the weather. He had come across the equator, so there was not just the change in temperature, he had never been in a cold climate. Despite a pile of blankets, he thought it was summer (no hair); what a shock! Not ideal conditions for anything, but I started in with his work.

The Training Begins
Right from the beginning, I told Linda that Tonico would not be ready to show in 2007. I wanted to focus on his retraining. My biggest goal was to work on the connection so he would reach into the bridle. By doing this, his back would develop strength. For that to be possible, I first had to find a saddle that would fit his weak back, but since I work for Gene Freeze the owner of County Saddlery, that was easily taken care of. Gene also helps me regularly with my riding, and he kept his eyes on Tonico and me during this retraining period.

We assumed there was also discomfort in Tonico's back and Dr. Scullin treated him so he could work pain free. We checked his back frequently since a newfound self-carriage also could make him sore from time to time, until he built strength enough to carry himself. It was amazing how proper work made the horse physically more comfortable in a short period of time.

A student of mind made a great comparison. She said that sometimes this type of horse moves like a "jack hammer in front instead of a swimmer." Tonico's knee action in front was pronounced and, in the beginning, everything seemed to channel through the front legs, while his movement stayed flat. When he was nervous or I tried to engage him more from my leg to encourage the hind leg to bend more, his front legs would start pounding the ground. You could hear him land hard in front. I guess it was hard to forget the parades he used to do through the jungle. He would speed up and then lose relaxation. So I had to start with his tempo, trying to keep him relaxed and stretching to my hands. The second I began to work on impulsion, I would lose his tempo.

Much of my work was to straighten him through subtle lateral work. The idea was for him to track closer under his center of gravity with both hind legs. His haunches wanted to travel right all the time. It was hard to get a prober bend to the right with flexion in the poll and yield in the body. Particularly in the right lead canter. So for example shoulder in right and hunches-in left were a big focus in our work.

He was very anxious about the whip, but I carried it regularly and desensitized him. I would lay the whip on him in the halt and "love" him with it by rubbing it all over. Once he trusted it, it became a wonderful tool. I started taping him with it when I achieved a good stretch in his topline. Not a stretch on the buckle but a stretch within the connection, meaning I could put my hands forward and his nose would follow, while he released his neck out of the withers, so his back could lift. In that moment I would tap him right on the croup, with the result of a much bigger elevated stride with suspension. This way the tempo did not get quicker but the stride got longer, and all of the sudden he trotted with cadence. He also associated the tap with the stretch, so later, when I taped him, he would reach for the hand, grow in the withers and put in a bigger gear. Once this happened I knew I would be able to change the quality of his collected trot and canter. Most of this work happened in the rising trot.

There was, of course, a similar problem in the canter. Tonico would get short and tight with any thought of collection. So a lot of my work happened here in a half seat that allowed him to use his back?cantering slowly but with a longer stride and lift through his back.

Once springtime arrived, we started turning Tonico out. He had settled in his stall and had almost stopped weaving. You still had to be careful to walk him down the aisle on the mare side. In the paddock, he would be focused on marking his territory, and he would maybe graze a little, but most of the time was spent chasing his tail and biting his sides, working himself up into a sweat. It was clear he was not able to relax yet, and so his time outside was limited. You also really don't want your horse to have marks on his side, where your leg and spur is positioned! You could get eliminated for that at an FEI jog. During the first summer, Tonico had to wear a light sheet most of the time for that reason. Today, his behavior in the paddock is completely normal, even though we keep one paddock just for stallions or geldings, since he is still territorial and does not need the extra stimulant of other smells.

I started working Tonico on the hills. You can find pictures of him in an article that I wrote about working up and down hills for Dressage Today in Feb. 2007. It was interesting: He could manage to go downhill, since that requires the ability to collect, even though he had trouble lowering his croup. He also had trouble lowering his croup in the rein-back, so I would back him a few steps uphill, so he had to use himself differently.

Going uphill was a different story. He really struggled to lengthen his stride and use his back in any gait, so I didn't push it. I had to wait until the fall of 2009, when all of a sudden, he was able to float uphill with a long neck and a swinging back. What a thrill!

Tonico's First Outing
Linda had organized a Lusitano show in Lexington, Virginia, that first year in August, and I decided it might be a good time for our first outing. They had a "hack" class that I could show in and get a feel for Tonico away from home. Linda had to leave on Wednesday, so she took him along, and I was going to catch up on Thursday afternoon. Since she had not been handling him and I now knew how studish he could be, I told her to leave him in the stall. I was a little worried what he would be thinking about leaving all of a sudden without a person he knew. He had had enough changes in his life in the last eight months.

When I got to the show, he had sort of fallen apart. He had been running in circles and the dried sweat was all over him. With other horses walking down the aisle, some of them mares and foals, one had to be very careful in his stall. He was clearly relieved to see me. I organized his stall, gave him a quick bath (an adventure in itself) and later got him ready to ride.

The indoor was full of horses being worked in-hand. Linda suggested I work him outside. I decided her horse was there to be seen, and I might as well find out what happens in a crowded warm-up. I could have not been prouder of him. His mind stayed with me, even though he checked out every other horse and knew which one was a mare or a stallion. This is still the case in a crowded warm-up area today. Horses without saddles seem to be a lot more attractive. He has one foal on the ground so he knows what it is all about.

Yes, his front legs were flying, but the whole movement stayed more connected and flowing, so he had passed an important temperament test. Bob Orten, a friend of mine, who has been handling breeding stallions for years, saw him and thought Tonico was over 16 hands, which tickled me since he is only 15.3 but with a big presence. The next evening, Tonico showed well in his class, despite some jigging in the walk and won his class over Linda's older stallion Jalifa, ridden by Brendan Curtis.

The following fall and winter was dedicated to improving Tonico's basics. In the winter, I had a visit from an osteopath, Stefan Stammer, from Switzerland, who has an incredible hand to work on horses. He was skeptical how much more Tonico would be able to improve but, by then, I had had so many good feelings on him that I trusted that dressage would be just as much physical therapy as anything else. Stefan still helped him a lot and has worked on him since then twice a year. When he saw him move, during his last visit, he was truly excited seeing the horse's wheels turning with a beautiful swing in his back. Now it was finally time to start thinking of showing.

By January 2008, it had been almost a year since the chestnut Lusitano stallion Tonico do Top arrived from Brazil. I had chosen him as a Grand Prix prospect for Linda and Joe Denniston, who have been the most faithful and generous supporters. Tonico had shown at Second Level in Brazil, but when we purchased him, I made it clear that we would have to spend the first year laying a foundation for improving his basic gaits and for his understanding of the aids. Typical for his breed, if you work on the basics, the movements kind of happen. Our biggest problems remained at a basic level.

During his first year of training, we took Tonico to one outing, which confirmed to me that he was well-behaved but could be tense in certain situations. In 2008, we had thought to start him at Fourth Level, but, when the time came for the first entry, he was also ready to show Prix St. Georges (PSG) so our goal became qualifying for Dressage at Devon. We would have to wait until the following year at Devon when, at Intermediaire I, he would finally perform in the famous Dixon Oval.

Typically, I don't show often, but that season I had a Grand Prix horse I was planning to take to the CDIs on the East Coast, which meant longer travel and more stress for the horses. We selected the March Magic show in North Carolina for our first outing. I hoped the horses would have enough time to settle in at the show. I was concerned about the stabling, since Tonico remained "stud-ish" around other horses, and I remembered last year's outing, where he had a meltdown as horses walked past his stall. So we were prepared with all kinds of tarps to change his stall into "solitary confinement" and, of course, we brought along some Vicks? VapoRub to smear in his nose, hoping to distract him, if necessary.

The stabling at the show was great with solid walls and doors and nice windows. Tonico settled in better than I had dared to hope. To this day, though, we have to pick up any fresh manure in his stall or he will sniff it, squeal and kick the wall. (I guess he is too sexy for himself!) Walking him in-hand was a chore since all the other horses were a big attraction, and it was hard to keep him relaxed.

Riding him the day before the show reassured me that he was rather brave in his surroundings but that he was completely aware of every horse in the vicinity. He would let me know about every mare (white is his favorite color). It is amazing how few riders really respect the personal space for each horse in the warm-up areas. When other horses came too close, he would pin his ears back and immediately tense, and it would take a couple of turns to recover. Tonico was ready to show off, but, with all the tension, it was much harder to keep the swing through his topline; however, that is not unusual. Altogether, I was pleased by his effort to work for me, despite all the distractions.? I was soon to find out what would happen when we went down the centerline together for the first time.

The next day, as Tonico came into the indoor, he was all alone for his first Fourth Level class. I could feel his anxiety, but he really stayed on the aids. As we cantered down the centerline, I could feel that he knew something was up, and the tension increased even more. Nevertheless, he gave me a test without big mistakes and won the class with a 68.18 percent. I was most proud of the 8 a judge gave us for "submission." She recognized his tension and his willingness to stay completely on the aids despite it.

All the work on the basics had paid off, and each movement of the PSG could be used to regain his attention: The lateral work helped to keep him focused on my leg. Giving in the rib cage helped his back to swing. I also pay close attention to riding good corners at home to keep my horse on the aids. The corners are one of the few places in the arena where a rider can recover.

My worry about how judges would receive this chestnut Lusitano was relieved. In the PSG, he scored 69 percent and came in third. Linda, Joe and I could have not been more pleased.

Our next outing was a local clinic with Conrad Schumacher. It was my first time riding with him, but I have always liked his approach. The indoor had large windows with views over the fields, where groups of horses were turned out. As I entered, Tonico got one look out of those windows and immediately thought that we had come for a different purpose. Conrad was probably wondering what I was doing there with this little red bundle of testosterone. We ended up with a lesson of many small circles and work on the relaxation of the walk, continuously trying to work on the connection to get Tonico longer in the neck and swinging in his back, clearly what the horse needed. Conrad grew to love this little guy, and when he saw us last, in March 2010, we were working on the whole Grand Prix with a huge improvement in the relaxation of his topline and his walk. The horse had become a totally different mover by then.

We chose three more shows that spring, and with every one we gained confidence. It became clear that he would not shy from a flowerpot, but a crowded warm-up could ruin our preparation. I learned that he would go through any footing, but that he also might be concerned if no one else showed up in a downpour at 8 a.m. I'm sure he wondered what I was thinking. I realized that even though he really stays on the aids, he still notices the white horse being hand-grazed behind the ring, and that horses without saddles must mean there is a breeding shed around. Even though Tonico stays on the aids, this internal tension can be difficult to get rid of, particularly if you cannot re-create the same situation at home. So exposure was very important, and I could tell that he relaxed the more often we showed.

If Tonico was tense the day before the show or in the warm-up, I kept working on being able to stretch him in all gaits or even within movements like half pass and pirouettes. I didn't ride a full stretch but I was continuously testing to see if he would lengthen his neck. This has a very relaxing effect on the horse and helps to keep his back swinging.

Tonico traveled well with my Grand Prix horse, Roulette, but on the way home from Ohio, Linda's trailer started rocking while caught in a traffic jam. Tonico had already been agitated before leaving; there was something about those Friesians in the stalls behind us. I slipped in the back to find him trying to mount the hay bag. I had to make my way around Roulette, who was tied in a full stall in the front and slip to the side of Tonico. Climbing onto the partition, I was able to secure the hay net far enough away from him so his front legs were safe (that is already one of my safety precautions anyway). It took quite a while to settle him, and I was amazed at how mindful he was of me, even at his stage of arousal. This was the only incident ever in the trailer.

As we progressed through the summer, Tonico started to be able to collect more without getting tense and short in the neck, which would be the requirement to move up the level.

In the fall, we took Tonico to Saugerties in New York, where we showed Intermediaire I for the first time. At Dressage at Devon in Pennsylvania, we showed in the huge Prix St. Georges classes, and he was just out of the ribbons. In general, judges seemed to like Tonico. In that particular test, two judges scored us over 65 percent and the third gave a 61. One of the judges approached me, saying she and the other judge had loved my little guy.

I still had a problem jigging in the walk, which is very "expensive" since the walk has a coefficient of two. I knew our scores could be improved, if I could get a handle on that. So I worked on the walk daily and tried to improve the connection from my leg to my hand and to the bit. This is important because I wanted him to truly collect and step forward, rather than taking short, quick steps. If he fell behind my leg, I kept moving him in a shoulder-in or shoulder-fore or I worked on a few walk pirouettes. And while he has improved tremendously, in the show ring, his nerves can make him curl up a little in the walk, giving him a tendency to jig instead of connect. This will take time.

Altogether, the first year was a success beyond expectations. Tonico had won several Fourth Level and PSG classes and the majority of his scores were over 65 percent. He won the PSG All-Breeds Award for the International Andalusian and Lusitano Horse.

At Tonico's first outing in 2009, he won Intermediaire I with a 67.2 percent and was second at PSG with a 69.7. We chose two more shows in the spring, and I was asked to ride in the Dancing Horse Challenge, an exhibition class during the Potomac Valley Dressage Association's Ride for Life. Linda Denniston has an original gaucho outfit, and she talked me into wearing it. She put a rose in my hair, and we did a freestyle to the music of Carmen. It wasn't easy for an old conservative German, but I really had fun.

Most remarkable was our practice ride the day before. I had the first time slot and was already in the beautiful indoor. Everybody was asked to leave, so they could turn off the lights completely, and then they would be able to play with the light effects. I decided to stay. As everything went dark, my stallion never faltered. He just stayed on the aids when they turned a yellow light on, creating the strangest shadows. I had only practiced to the music a couple of times, but when they turned it on, he immediately knew his job. His sensitivity and intelligence continuously surprises me. What a character!

In the fall, we went to three shows; one was Dressage at Devon. Finally, we would be showing in the Dixon Oval, the main arena. I had decided not to show Tonico the arena before the actual test. What a luxury. Usually we are out there early in the morning for our short time allowed around the arena. He gave his very best, and the crowd gave him huge applause. Again, we were just out of the ribbons, but we finished the show season by winning the Bengt Ljungquist Memorial Championships at Prix St. Georges with a 69.7 percent.

Tonico shows a lot of promise for the Grand Prix work with pretty pirouettes, piaffe and passage, but it takes time to put all the details together and develop the strength it takes, particularly for the transitions. So our new goal is to get to Grand Prix in 2011.

This experience would not have been possible without Tonico, who never feels small and makes me a better rider every day. Professionals like me depend on sponsors, owners and friends like Linda and Joe Denniston and Gene Freeze, who are excited about the sport and trust us to develop their horses. Also, Tonico and I couldn't have gotten this far without my veterinarian, Dr. Roger Scullin, and my farrier, Dean Geis. My working students are important, too. They work endless hours, making sure all the horses get the best care.

What a wonderful journey it has been from the rainforest and jungles of Brazil to the Dixon Oval.

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