Updated: Jun 5, 2020
It is every amateur dressage rider’s dream to have a ‘schoolmaster’ horse to learn on. That dream came true for me 5 ½ years ago, when Westfalica (Ella) came into my life. My coach had been looking for a horse for me for two years, as I needed a more sane learning partner than my Dutch Warmblood, Odin. When she saw the listing for Ella on-line, she said immediately that we needed to go look at this horse. She knew the bloodlines and, in fact, had ridden both the sire and dam of this horse. The fact that Ella was in Colorado was no problem – my coach made the arrangements to try out the horse, and I booked two return tickets for the following Saturday.
Ella’s travels had taken her far from her birthplace, which happened to be Brinkman’s Equitop breeding farm at New Norway, Alberta – less than an hour away from me! As my coach was friends with the Brinkmans, she knew this horse as a foal. Ella was the high-selling horse at the Alberta Warmblood sale as a three year old, bought by a professional trainer and competitor, and taken to Florida for training and showing. From there, she was bought by a Young Rider from Colorado, and Ella took that young woman all the way to the North American Young Riders Championship. Then, at 15 years old, Ella needed a new home and an easier career. Ella turned out to be everything we were looking for in a schoolmaster. She ticked all the boxes – well-trained, confident in the arena, sound – except one. She was 16.3 hands – a giant of a horse for me! But since these horses are so rare, I decided that I had to accept a big horse to get all the other traits. She did end up with a couple of quirks, but nothing that couldn’t be dealt with in a professional stable. She was a bit funny about bridling, and wouldn’t accept the bit until she had stretched and yawned and got good and ready! She was also impossible to catch in the paddocks unless all the other horses were coming in too. Then she would wait patiently at the gate to come in.
Once I started riding Ella in lessons, her size was not an issue. She was so well-behaved that she gave me no reason to be afraid. My coach said that Ella was the most confident horse she had ever seen. We did a couple of shows a few years ago but, with retirement of my first coach and beginning lessons with her successor, the focus became more on my learning than on the show ring. With Ella, I know full well when I get something right. I feel it clearly in my body and in her acceptance. She is also very quick to let me know when I am hopelessly wrong in my feel and aids. That is the very essence of a schoolmaster.
With the passing of Maddy and my purchase last year of a young Andalusian mare as my next dressage prospect, it has become time to bring Ella home from the stable for semi-retirement. Now, taking a horse that has always been in the very structured environment of a competitive stable and putting her out to pasture to live the life of an outdoor horse is not without its trials and adventures. There will probably be some to report on in the next few months. But Ella is adapting to life outside with her new pasture mate, Willy, and seems to really enjoy the space to move about, continuous access to grass, and pushing Willy around. A bonus is that a swelling that had been present on her hock for a year is now gone – from all the moving around in the pasture.
But the story I want to tell today about Ella is her pivotal role in beginning my training as an EFL instructor. After my introductory workshop at Eponaquest, I came home with some new skills and a determination to be able to catch my horse in her paddock and bring her in when I wanted to. The first day back, I told the stable hands to give me 20 minutes outside with Ella before they came to help me. Entering her paddock, I knew that I needed to watch for cues from Ella that I was entering her ‘space’, be respectful and ask permission to come closer. It was easy to see when I reached her bubble, so I paused for a second before going forth to snap the lead on to the halter. Not so fast! she said with her body as off she ran. Okay, I wasn’t sufficiently present and grounded to connect to her. I got that. So, I again approached until I saw her proximity response, stopped, and waited. Waited for what seemed to be forever, while every cell in my body screamed “Catch her!” I willed myself to stay put, breathed deeply and evenly and watched for Ella’s response. I don’t know how long I stood there, but it was a long time. Then, suddenly, something shifted and I caught Ella’s eye. She looked at me differently, and I knew that I had connected to her. I just walked up to her, keeping that connection to her eye, and snapped the lead to her halter. She turned to look at me and said very clearly with her face “You finally got it. What took you so long?” I had figured out what she needed in order to accept the human, and it changed everything. I have seldom had trouble bringing Ella in since, but it is because I no long try to ‘catch’ her. That day showed me what is possible in communication and connection.