Saturday, December 14, 2013

Journey to the US Dressage Finals Championship.. A story of perservance and patience

Dressage takes patience.  And I can't think of a better story than Stephanie McNutt's that proves that fact.

Stephanie, Stella and Coco at home
I love her story because it gives me hope for all us struggling backyard riders.  The regular Joe's without sponsors or steady expensive trainers.  Most of us won't get to the US Dressage Finals but certainly her story gives us hope that we can continue to succeed and learn and move up the levels.  It reminds us that setbacks happen and the only thing we can do is brush off our breeches and get back on for another 20 meter circle.  And she is just darn nice... it does the heart good to see the nice people in the world succeed.

Its a long story but I promise the ending is worth it so stick with me.

Stephanie started her dressage journey with a true OTTB (off the track thoroughbred) right from the track.   They are typically a good choice, especially for a budget conscious amateur as they have the ability without the high price tag.   Unfortunately as their training started progressing, the gelding got his foot caught in a fence and he needed over 6 months of rehab to bring him back to soundness.  After his rehab she was able to adopt him out to a local farm.

She then found another OTTB - but this time she found one with a bit of training under his belt from an event barn.  He did well at home but did not handle the stress of shows and would come completely unhinged.

Stephanie and Merlot / Photo by Dorothy Anderson
Around the same time she found Merlot, a 4 year old gelding in Holland, and fell in love with his potential.  Sight unseen, she imported Merlot and began working with a local trainer more extensively who encouraged her to enter recognized shows.   With  her new horse working out well she found a home for the TB and thought she was on her way to learning dressage with a good partner.  In addition to working with her steady trainer, she also began attending regional clinics with top talent and Merlot and Stephanie steadily moved up the levels.  

It was difficult to find the time to ride as she was holding down a full time job and assisting her husband in his business but with a good partner, it was worth it.  Things were looking up!

Things were going so well she decided to breed her next mount and Vinny was born in 2004.    He was a "stunning black beauty" and a disposition that showed lots of promise.   As a colt, he had an infection that required him to be stall bound for 2 months.  The extra care and attention he received during that time proved dividends later as a horse that trusted his human family and craved their attention.  At three months old you could body clip him without a fuss.

In 2005, she bred again as a hopeful investment and little Levi was born.

Then disaster stuck.   At 13 months Stephanie noticed some odd gait changes in Vinny and by the time he was 15 months he was diagnosed with severe Equine Wobblers and was put down.

Then Merlot coliced.   And coliced again.  And again.  Two years of chronic colic followed along with numerous visits with the vets, trips to specialists and vet hospitals and lots of meds.  It became impossible to train because even a short ride in a trailer could set him off.

In 2008, after a visit to the regional vet hospital and a diagnosis of a thickened intestinal wall, he coliced a final time and he was put down.    Stephanie believes that he was "probably miserable his whole life but he did all he could to work for me" and hid his pain until it became too much.

Luckily she still had Levi and of course the thought of selling was out -- he was going to be her new mount.  Shortly after Merlot's death, Levi was broke to ride and they began their dressage journey.

He was a pleasant horse and things were going well.  The only issue she was having was struggling with bending.   As a precaution she had him vetted and was given a shocking diagnosis.  He had severe arthritis in his neck.    It wasn't a definite no go for riding though.  With growth and muscling he may be able to continue as a dressage mount. 

So she continued training and worked hard to get him fit enough to continue.  It was a no go though.  With the increased work, the inflammation only got worse and his dressage career was terminated.  He now lives the life of leisure as a pasture ornament in her yard and the occasional pony ride.

She'd given it her best.  She had the patience and drive.  She had the talent.  She had scrimped and saved to buy the farm to provide a good home to her dressage horses.  She had gone the route of OTTB. She had gone to the expense and risk of importing.  She had risked even more by breeding.  

And she had failed.

So she stopped.  It just wasn't worth the heartache anymore.  She couldn't stomach getting excited again over the possibilities and then the crushing disappointment and sadness that came from having to put down a horse -- your friend and your dream.  Levi would remain in her field as a souvenir of her dressage days but she was hanging up her spurs.

But she couldn't.

Slowly she started to "just look" at the horse ads.   Not to buy... just to see what was out there.

And then she saw her.   Stella.   A beautiful Oldenburg mare.  The ad picture was of her as the 5 year old Champion mare at Devon.   Still not looking but it wouldn't hurt to look at the video, right?  That was even better.  It wouldn't hurt to pay her a visit, right?

Stephanie and Stella - Photo by Pics of You
All the other horses in Stephanie's life were good horses but with Stella, the first time she sat on her it just felt right.  No other way to say it.   Sometimes its just love at first sight.

Stella could do some 3rd level work but was only showing at 1st level.  There was a lot of work to be done but there was no hesitation... Stella was coming home with her. So in May of 2010 Stella came home and almost immediately they began their showing career by attending Lexington in June where they did 1st and 2nd level.   They finished the year as 1st level BLM champion.

Stephanie cautioned me that Stella is not an easy horse.  Despite knowing that she was the one for her, she has evasions and sticking points like every horse.   But she beamed, "when we both get it and it lines up right, there it is!"

But this relationship hasn't been without its own set of speed bumps.  The first winter home, she noticed what felt like a "parking brake" on when riding.  There wasn't lameness but she knew there was something wrong and after a series of blood tests, she found Stella had Lymes disease.  Luckily after the standard treatment, Stella came bounding back to her normal self.

Changes also were difficult.   After a successful 2010 year showing at 2nd and 3rd level, Stella was getting more anxious each time a change was anticipated.   "If you even thought change, she got emotional."  Stephanie decided to stay home in 2011 and "do my homework."   Her current trainer, Scott Hassler, encouraged her by letting her know, "they are in there, she just needs time."   He gave her a series of exercises to do at home and Stephanie schooled them over and over again so Stella didn't have time to worry about them.  Every horse is different and Stephanie has found that Stella is a horse where you need to push hard and "go to the wall" before she can push past her stumbling block.

She has also found that Stella hates coliseums so Stephanie prefers multi day shows where there is time for her to walk her MANY times around the coliseum to show her the ring, the judges stand and anything else that might scare her.
Stephanie and Stella - Photo by Pics of You

Although she visits Hassler Dressage when she can, for the most part due to geographics Stephanie trains at home alone with her mirrors as her guide.  I asked her how she records what she learns in lessons for her schooling rides and she said that she is very good about keeping the lesson in her "memory files".  While she tacks up she comes up with a lesson plan for herself and decides what she is going to focus on for that ride.  But of course, she also laughed that sometimes you have to "change the plan" because your horse has a different idea.

She rides 5-6 days a week and the length varies as she rides until its right but usually its 30-60 minutes each day.  Stella is not a bubble wrapped horse -- she goes out to pasture at least half a day but Stephanie does make a concession when it comes to a pasture mate for safety as she is with an adorable little mini named Coco who has minimal chance of harming Stella.

I found it remarkable that Stephanie is doing this on her own.  There is no regular trainer and in fact, the only person who has sat on Stella since her purchase was Scott Hassler and that was just once for a short evaluation.  She is certainly not a passenger on a horse trained by another.

Its been a whirlwind for the pair this fall.  For a woman who was once overwhelmed at the thought of doing a recognized show at 1st level, she has come far.  In mid October they were the Region 1 Region Reserve Champion.  At the BLM Championship the first weekend in November, Stella had a blow up at the E judge stand and lost focus.  Despite that they were able to pull a 4th place finish at 4th level.  And then the big finish for the year....

Stephanie and Stella - Photo by Diane Ritz
After returning from the BLM disappointment, just four days later they packed up to go to the US Dressage Finals to compete in the Adult Amateur 4th level.  After experiencing a flat tire on the multi-state trip, they arrived in the midst of a rain storm.  The stalls had canopies blowing in the wind terrifying the sensitive Stella and Stephanie felt she made a mistake coming to the show.  What if she coliced?  Was she pushing her too hard so soon after the blowup at the BLMs?  

They were third to last to complete the class and thankfully it went well.  Well enough that after her ride, she was in first!   After her class, she and Stella returned to their stall to apply polo wraps for the award ceremony so they missed the last rides that would confirm her final placing.  While they were waiting to enter, a staff member checked her number and then asked her dismount.  Looking at him with some disbelief, he confirmed it -- "Yup.  You won.  I need you to get off so I can get the cooler on!"

And so they began their victory gallop! 

Congratulations Stephanie and thanks for inspiring the rest of us!

Here is the long list of accomplishments for the pair:

#1 USDF ISR Oldenburg NA at Fourth level
#3 Fourth Level AA in USDF
#3 Prix St. George at Dressage at Lexington, VA
Champion  Adult Amateur Fourth Level US Dressage Finals
#4 Fourth Level at BLM
Reserve Fourth Level at Region 1 Championships

BLM Division A Champion Third Level
Region 1 Fourth Level AA Reserve Champion

Champion First Level at BLM

  Stephanie and Stella - Photo by Susan Stickle

I love reading your comments and about your dressage journey. Like reading about my journey? Click on the link to subscribe and you can receive all the updates via email.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love to get feedback and hear about your journey-- please share!