My dancing partner has two left feet.

Feather PenSebastian:
my four-legged dancing partner.

On Friday, January 11th I left for a mini-vacation with family for Christmas. I figured I’d have time to write over the weekend, but when it came down to choosing between quality time with people I only get to see a few times a year or hiding in the bedroom to write, quality time won every time!

I’m back home now and have already spent a couple hours picking out great photos for this post so I hope you enjoy! This might be a long one.  (ALERT! I’ve just finished writing and I was right: Over 2,500 words ahead! You might want to wait until you’ve got some significant free time to read this post!)

I wanted to take some time and write about my horse, Sebastian, and give a little background on how our partnership began.

On March 6th, 2010,  I made arrangements with Sebastian’s seller to visit her family farm and check out the Belgian Warmblood she had listed for sale.  That afternoon, I made the decision to buy him.

At the time, some felt it was an impulsive – even insensitive – choice.  I tragically lost my horse, Montana, not two weeks before due to strangles complications and horsey friends were worried that I jumped too quickly into purchasing another horse.  I can understand their feelings and even questioned my decision for a while, but, in the end, I truly believe our partnership was meant to be.

My sweet Montana Man. I miss him still...

Montana

I’d like to share the story of my beloved Montana Man in a post down the road. He taught me so much in the short 9 months that I owned him. But, for this post, I need to focus on Sebastian or I’ll end up with a very long entry!  Be assured, however, that I was devastated after losing Montana so suddenly and violently.

I remember the weather very well.  It was late February and we had just come out of a cold snap.  The day Montana was rushed down to the vet hospital at the U of M the weather was starting to warm up and just a few days later, when I had to make the difficult decision to have him euthanized,  it seemed we would have an early spring.

I also remember being so sad each beautiful day – coming home from my college classes and sitting on my back porch in the sun. The weather was completely out of sync with what I felt like inside. I should be out schooling dressage and celebrating this gift of warm temperatures, I thought, not mourning the loss of my horse.  It was so unfair.

I was soothed by looking at horses for sale.  To get through this tragedy, I HAD to convince myself that there was another partner out there for me.  Maybe that does seem insensitive, but not having a horse of my own affected me more than I would have anticipated. I had planned a future achieving fun horsey goals, but half of what I needed was now missing.

I cautiously responded to a few ads, just getting a taste for what was out there.  My husband and I really didn’t have a budget for a horse purchase, but he recognized how important this was to me and we discussed ways we could make it happen (he’s AMAZING!).  We planned a road trip down to Madison, Wisconsin to visit two potentials.  On the way, we were going to stop and visit another horse in southern Minnesota.  All three were good dressage prospects and in the 15-16 year old range.  The week before we were set to go, I got an email from Sebastian’s seller.  When I first inquired, he had been spoken for, but that agreement had fallen through.  Since I was the second person who answered the ad, I was the next on her call list to see if I was still interested.  I was.

We made arrangements for a visit the next day.  This road trip would be a quick 1 and 1/2 hour drive.  When we arrived, I was told that there were three serious inquires on the wait list after me and that the sellers would need my decision that day.

Sebastian was in a stall when we entered the barn; his face turned to the back corner, napping.  He was taken out and tied.  Right away I could see that he was thin and under-conditioned, but he stood quietly and let me groom him all over, handle his face, ears, legs, feet, etc. no problem.  In fact, the strangest part was that he almost seemed to be someplace else.  Just going through the motions.

We saddled him up and I took him outside for a quick lounge.  In the middle of the pasture, in some mid-calf deep snow, I could see that he had nice looking gaits.  I remember when he picked up the canter I thought – WOW!  Will I be able to stay on that? He was obedient and seemed easygoing, listening to my commands.  We all walked back to their outdoor arena where there was a small path punched down in the snow.

I settled into the saddle and started by quietly asking him to walk around, change directions, halt, etc.  I cued him for a trot and quickly settled into a nice posting rhythm, although the trot was quite larger than many I had felt (I was warned that he was very “bouncy”).  Something magical started to happen, though, in that trot.  He started to wake up.  I felt a little more strength in his step and after a lap or two, he started giving me some “happy snorts”, snorting out in rhythm to his trot.  Personally, I think he was excited to feel my body in sync with his.  We were just happily, comfortably going along.  I played with this for awhile, also checking his sideways reaction with my right and left legs, and then felt ready to try that canter!

He took the right lead willingly and I could have cried.  That boy had a beautiful canter just like Montana.  It looked big, and felt amazing.  I remember having to try a few times to get the left lead when we changed directions, but when we got it, we sailed around nicely that direction, too.  It might sound crazy, but I felt like his soul was starting to stir.

I dismounted after about 30 minutes, gave him a pat, and lead him back to the barn.  Once there, he again became the quiet and perfectly obedient tied horse, but just seemed a bit disconnected. I thought, maybe he just needs a special person.  Someone with which to form a bond.

I asked to have some time to talk it over with my husband.  I didn’t even have a place lined up for horse board as my current barn was still under strangles quarantine.  His sellers said they could give me until the afternoon.  They were happy I had come out to see him, liked the way we looked together, and really wanted him to go to a good home.  That being said, there was still a list of people waiting to hear my decision and they were looking to get him sold ASAP.

We talked on the drive, stopped at a diner, and made a list of pros and cons on the back of a paper place mat.  He was younger and less expensive than any other horse I was looking at.  He seemed obedient and quiet, but were concerned about feeling pressured into a decision.  I had never bought a horse on my own before – I was relying on just me and my knowledge to fall back on. Was I ready? Was he the one?

In the end, we decided to say yes. If I didn’t think it would work out down the road, we could try to re-sell him to one of the other interested parties.  If that happened we would lose money and run the risk of buying a horse that might have health issues (no vet check), but I thought his impassive eyes as he was tied, and the way he started to wake up when I was riding him and I followed my heart and decided to give it a shot.

Events started to fall into place.  On the drive home, I got a call from a potential boarding facility where I had previously left a message.  It was right on the way, so we stopped in to check it out.  Randi and Matt Golden at Golden Stables were easy-going, knowledgeable horse people with experience in barefoot trimming and putting weight on horses – both things Sebastian needed.  It would more than do. As it turned out, Sebastian would be moving there the very next day.

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In the next few hours, I talked with Sebastian’s sellers and arranged for him to be transported to his new home.  Also, a lesson instructor of mine, Jen, would be driving by his place the next day and agreed to take a look at him before they put him into the trailer for the trip over.  I told them that since I had verbally agreed to buy him, I would, but wanted Jen’s opinion either way.  My stomach was in a knot all day until I got the phone call from her.  Sitting up straight, I answered the phone just saying, “So??” She laughed. “He looks O.K., if he’s the one you really want.”  And I was happy with that!  I knew we’d learn so much more in the coming days – as long as she didn’t see any glaring issues, I was happy to proceed.

And learn we did!

Sebastian was purchased from his sellers about 7-8 months earlier from the U of M, Crookston.  Jen was at the campus when I talked to her, and agreed to ask around a bit for his story.  They called him “Bear”. It seemed he had a history of lameness in his front feet until his shoes were pulled.  Once his hooves had grown out, he was sound and so they kept him barefoot (hence my desire to keep him unshod).  The other issue they had with him was that he would spook quite largely at the crowds in the stands during horse shows.  He unseated enough riders that he could no longer be used in this capacity.  This was interesting information for me since he had acted so quietly when I was on him, but that was outside and not in a horse show environment.  Well, I thought, we’ll just have to see how that plays out.   Other students said he was quite bouncy and not the horse everyone enjoyed riding. From my understanding, that, compounded with his spooking issue, is what lead the university to put him up for sale. (The sellers I bought him from got him because she used to ride dressage, but they decided shortly after to focus on Haflingers and put him out to pasture for the winter and decided to sell him that spring).

I hit the jackpot of information later that week.

A friend pointed out that he had a well known name in his bloodline.  Weltmeyer, named Stallion of the Year in 1998, is Sebastian’s grand-sire. After digging a bit, I found this website for his sire, Wundermeyer. And, searching a bit more, my husband found an old online advertisement for a horse that matched Sebastian’s description.

I sent an email to the name on the advertisement and found the person who had originally imported him from Europe! Sebastian/Bear lived with that trainer for a few years and successfully showed Hunter/Jumper 2’6″ and 3′ around Minnesota, Iowa, and Colorado.  He could be quite spooky and needed a good amount of time (and a good lounge) to fully relax on show grounds.  I was warned that he needed a patient hand – it was suspected that he had a rough start in Europe – and that if he did spook it was often big and the situation could accelerate quickly.  I was also told, though, that he was quick to learn and had a good work ethic.  He took jumps willingly and easily and had a nice, sweet personality.  When he was moved to a new barn by his then owners, they didn’t really want to deal with his flighty habits, and he was donated to the U of M in Crookston.

My information had come full circle.

After absorbing all of this, I understood Sebastian a bit better. After owning him for almost three years now, I know even more.

Sebastian is an extremely playful horse with LOTS of energy.  Since I’ve owned him, he has been strictly on pasture board and I’m convinced this has helped his spookiness.  Remember, when I bought him, he had been out to pasture chillin’ with the cows for almost 8 months.  I’m guessing this was just the vacation he needed to re-set his mind and come back to work willing and calm.

He does have big gaits, and I can see how that would be intimidating or uncomfortable for a rider who wasn’t used to it (or made it worse by trying to make him go slower). I’ve kept him barefoot and haven’t had any lameness issues.  He doesn’t enjoy stalls and appreciates extra time out or for hand walks during shows and if he gets unhappy it can often manifest into spookiness.  But with a patient attitude and a lot of personal love and attention, so far we’ve had a good go!

I bought Sebastian in 2010.  We spent a year just slowly learning each other – and helping each other heal.

Images from a Dressage lesson, June 2010:

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My dressage trainer, Leah, took him to his first show in 2011, where he showed Training level and scored between 65% and 68% in four tests over the weekend.

Great scores at that show, combined with no major spooking mishaps, gave me the confidence to bring him to a schooling show in August, where I signed up for Intro B and Training 1 each day. The results? A 75% and 76.2% on my Intro tests and a 68.7% and 65.8% for Training 1.

Our First Ribbon!

Our First Ribbon!

When Leah drew that first test out from behind her back in the barn aisle and I saw that we earned a 68% – and a blue ribbon to boot – for our first trip together down centerline, I BURST into tears, running into Sebastian’s stall to give him a gigantic horsey hug and cry into his neck. I started to believe that, just maybe, I could pick up where I left off after that tragic loss. I knew Montana could never be replaced, but maybe I had found a new partner to help fill the hole he left.

Putting Intro firmly behind me, I did a second schooling show in September and broke 70% twice with my four Training tests over the weekend (73% being the highest score).  I won a couple of great year-end awards and broke into tears of pride more than a few times during my dressage club’s annual awards ceremony.  I was just so proud of my sweet man.

For the 2012 show season, we dug in to more dressage and I took him to two schooling shows, showing both at First Level. We broke into the 70’s three times that first show and stayed in the very high 60’s the rest of the season.

Now, we are working on that bridge from First to Second Level.  I’m excited for this challenge, but am also committed to show only as long as both he and I are happy doing it.  Truly, he deserves to enjoy his job as much as I enjoy riding him.

Of course he’s not perfect. We’ve had our struggles and arguments.  We’ve had good days and bad days. And, while I wouldn’t recommend purchasing a horse the way I did – many risks! –  this was one gamble that certainly paid off.  Out of tragedy came this amazing partnership.

My dancing partner has two left feet. And when we dance, we are like one.

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2 responses to “My dancing partner has two left feet.

  1. What a lovely story, Amy! I often wonder how I’ll cope when Prince is no longer in my life (he’s 31 now, and every time I’m out there to feed him I wonder how many more times I will see him). Your story is inspiring. Thanks for wrtiing it!

    • It is so hard when special animals are lost. We just have to be thankful for every day we get, don’t we? It feels like you have owned Prince forever and he is so lucky to have you in his golden years! As to this story, when I reflect on the details, I realize it was quite a magical experience (under the circumstances). Everything that month felt very surreal. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

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