On the Way Down

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“Oh, the ole’ gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be…” You know the tune, and here’s a new ending: “But she can still do a lot for me!”

What goes up must come down, including equine performance levels, which are inextricably linked with age, just as with us humans. No matter your discipline, a veteran or made horse may be just the ticket to make your beginner or novice rider into a winner and a satisfied, long-term client.

Not Done Yet

Green horses can be a great idea when a professional is involved and time isn’t of the essence, but green horse, green rider? Not ideal, as most will agree. Finding the perfect horse on the way down, however, can inspire a match made in heaven. Older, experienced horses are usually much less expensive—a desirable attribute in this challenging economic climate.

To find them, just look around—at a show. Use your contacts to ask which horses might benefit from a job change, so your rider can ultimately benefit, too. Riders on mentor horses are often smiling, relaxed and confident—making learning that much easier, and pleasing proud parents.

With the help of trainers Kelli Clevenger and Jessica Dalton of Countrywood Farm in Chino Hills, Calif., mom Laurie Magnan bought a former breeding stallion and jumper once ridden by Margie Goldstein-Engle. He was known as Hilltop Cordini at legendary Hilltop Farm, Inc., and was admired for his technique and temperament, says Magnan. A 1992 Holsteiner—direct son of Cor de la Bryere—he was a 2000 Winter Festival Circuit Champion in Wellington and was approved for the Oldenburg NA as a breeding stallion.

“We bought him for our daughter Chantelle, 15, who will be using him for Long Stirrup and Modified Children’s Hunters eventually—she’s ridden seven years. Cordini can no longer jump any higher than three feet and won’t pass a vet exam, but he is priceless to us,” says Magnan.

The gentle jumper is also ridden by an 82-year-old man. “It’s beautiful to see this proud horse taking care of his rider, who walks with a cane and wears a back brace to ride,” she adds.

Cordini’s sense of responsibility is keen. “He knew [my daughter] was scared to death, so he would never leave a stride out, or take a long distance. He would always chip in right in front of the fence so that she wouldn’t get jumped out of the saddle. He would add strides to be balanced and flowing, but not scary. I’d often see his ears flicker backwards as he approached the fence, as if he was asking for input, then when he’d get the ‘I’m scared to death’ response, he’d prick his ears up, adjust his stride, and get to the fence in the perfect spot.”

Voices of Experience

Suzanne S. Stern of Albany, Ga., leased a horse, age 19, through a trainer friend for her daughter, age 16. “It’s a wonderful story and he was everything I wanted for my daughter. What a teacher!”

“Mr. Studly”—not his real name, Stern admits respectfully—“cleaned up” in Children’s divisions in the northeast, amassing 52 pages of show records before he underwent successful colic surgery. “He never really felt up to doing 3’6” again,” she says.

“My daughter is a lovely rider, not especially confident and did not aspire to great heights. She loved Mr. Studly and he loved her. We quickly discovered that though he is a stunning horse and very talented, he’s also very particular about the ride he gets. It boils down to this: if he doesn’t get what he wants, you don’t get what you want. He taught her so much. My daughter has gone off to college now, and Mr. Studly has retired to my farm. We love him dearly.”

Instilling good basics is something Suzanne S. Musgrave understands, as a trainer with 20 years’ tenure, now at Deerfield Eventing in Marshall, Va.

“The right horse is critical to developing a competent and confident rider,” says Musgrave. “An experienced horse often forgives a novice’s mistakes, making the learning curve safer.”

Musgrave buys a lot of schoolmasters, and she does a lot of networking to obtain them as they finish their upper-level careers, and does a lot of maintenance to keep them sound. The result: “Everyone has a great time and stays safe.”

There is one caveat, though. “The student that only rides the schoolmaster may sometimes think they are better than they are,” she notes. “The horse covers mistakes for them, and shopping for the next horse can be a revelation.”

One step at a time, though, as Musgrave knows: “A few years ago I was loaned the ultimate schoolmaster. He was the only horse to medal at the Olympics, Pan Am’s and WEG. Heyday couldn’t run the ****s any more, but still loved to go. I had a once-in-a-lifetime horse.”

Saving More than Money

Buy a discarded, talented and patient horse and you may save a very useful life, says Mellisa Warden of Tehachapi, Calif., a 12-year teacher establishing her own new barn, Cantwaitillater Farm.

“A lot of people don’t want the risk. Most rescue horses are so appreciative of you taking a chance on them that they will return it tenfold. If you have a little love, patience, and are willing to put yourself financially and emotionally on the line, you can have the best partner of a lifetime. Don’t we all deserve the same—whether human, equine, canine, etc.? We all need a chance.”

Warden practices what she preaches, taking auction and rescue horses under her trainer’s wing. Her successes include three rescued off-track Thoroughbreds making their way in U. S. Pony Club competitions and eventing. Warden shares this buying advice:

1) “I rarely vet a horse. Horse ownership is a crapshoot, and you have to be willing to win or lose. I always put a limit on what I will spend and stick to it. I won’t take a horse with a soundness issue or any major flaw.”

2) “I’d never done an auction horse before and although it’s risky, it’s an eye-opening experience. Because of rescuing one of my horses and his success, I’ve urged others to do the same. It’s hard to believe he was going to be dinner for someone.”

Sharon Ellingwood, co-owner of Nicholas Villa Stables in N. Stonington, Conn., takes in horses, too: A volunteer with Saddlebred Rescue, Inc. (www.saddlebredrescue.com), and a winner of the USEF’s Heroes for Horse Award for extraordinary work, the 501(c) non-profit purchases horses at last-stop auctions. Members take them home, do proper veterinarian/farrier work, ride and drive them and evaluate them for appropriate jobs.

“Many of the horses, if not most, wind up in lesson barns as school horses doing a job they are well suited for. Some return to the show ring. These are definitely horses on the way down—almost all the way,” says Ellingwood.

A horse aged 16 to 20 can’t do a full-time job, but there’s no shame in giving them employment, she believes. “Many are serviceably sound for teaching lessons—beginner’s walk-trot, for trail or therapeutic riding or as recipient mares. It’s not just ‘warehousing.’ We call them our ‘treasures,’ because you know what they say: One man’s trash…”

In every day life, recycling just makes sense. The same holds with horses, too.