Six years ago, Clara Etzel thought her dressage career with More Coffee Please was over as he sat recuperating from a navicular disease diagnosis, complete with scar tissue on his collateral and impar ligaments.
But with a good farrier and veterinarian, combined with the diminutive Quarter Horse gelding’s determination to please, the pair pressed on and made their FEI debut in 2012. They spent last year campaigning at Intermediaire I, and Etzel is hoping the now-20-year-old will carry her to her first Grand Prix rides. They finished 2013 as the American Quarter Horse Association High Point champions at Intermediaire I.
“I kept going,” said Etzel. “He hasn’t said ‘no,’ and he still wants to go and wants to work. He doesn’t shut down. He’s so willing to learn and work with me. I just kept teaching him new things.”
Etzel, 23, bought More Coffee Please (Expensive Coffee—Shockamora, Shock Em) when she was 13, and he was a 10-year-old competing in western pleasure and halter classes.
“I guess he was going way too fast for the little Quarter Horse jog that they do, so [his owner] said, ‘This isn’t what he was meant to do,’” said Etzel.
During his pre-purchase exam, “Reggie” was diagnosed with arthritis, but Etzel was smitten. “On a scale of 1 to 5 when I bought him, the vet said he was a 3,” she said. “I still got him. He was the horse for me.”
Despite her interest in eventing, when Etzel bought Reggie she decided he would be more suited to dressage, so she began to focus solely on it. She trained with Joanne White of Timberlane Stables in North Royalton, Ohio, and spent time as a working student there before deciding she wanted to pursue dressage as a career.
When Reggie was diagnosed with navicular disease in 2008, Etzel was devastated because they were ready to move up to third level.
“The biggest challenge was maybe his breed and the way he’s built,” she said. “Conformationally speaking, he’s very long in his body and his back. He’s only 15.2 hands, so he’s very tiny. He was already 10 when I got him. Not many horses when they’re 10 are going to change their careers and go ahead and advance in a new career. It was a lot of getting instructors that would say he’s not going to go beyond first or second level.”
With patient treatment, including special shoes and shockwave therapy, Reggie came back by the end of the year, and the pair earned the scores they needed for their bronze medal.
The following year, Etzel began attending Albion College (Mich.) where she earned her British Horse Society assistant instruction certification. But Reggie became unsound again when Etzel was unable to find a farrier who could shoe him properly. After several months of stall rest and walking due to his severely contracted heels, Reggie recovered again, just as Etzel started her own business, Clara Etzel Dressage, in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“When he was laid up with the navicular, we had almost just begun to hit a breaking point [in our training],” said Etzel. “He was doing all the third level work, he had started the flying changes, and then that happened. Then I thought, ‘Is that solidified? Is it going to regress? Is it ever going to come back?’ Once he was brought back from that, I was just really evaluating him. I appreciated his temperament for being able to have him as a partner, but I thought that if I could find a good set of professionals behind me, good farriers and vets, that he would be able to come back.”
With the help of trainers Tonya Grant and Carole Grant, Etzel earned the last few scores she needed for her silver medal aboard Reggie. She also graduated with a bachelors of science degree in administration from Central Michigan University in 2012.
While Etzel admitted it’s been a challenge to bring an unusual breed up the levels, the education and rewards she’s received from her longtime partner make the journey worthwhile. A fast learner, Reggie picked up piaffe at 19 and certainly doesn’t act his age.
“He does have a little bit of this looky, funny personality,” said Etzel. “He’ll be 21 this year, and he still gets spooked by things. It’s funny. He’s a horse that’s going to take care of you and be very obedient, but he still does react to his environment, which at his age is kind of fun.”
Etzel admitted she’s experienced some difficulties showing Reggie at the higher levels because of his conformation and gaits.
“You really do have to ride hard and ride accurate and be on top of it because there aren’t points that you can really make up for if you don’t have the spectacular mover,” she said. “Because of his conformation and certain limitations he’s had, I’ve had to be creative as far as how I approach something and recognizing how I approach something. You can’t expect them all to learn the same way and advance the same way, so it’s definitely helped me be more aware and compassionate in my training, and patient.”
Etzel hopes to continue showing Reggie until he tells her he’s had enough. She’d like to compete at Grand Prix this season to get experience.
“Even now in my lessons and in my showing, I still learn things and feel new things that I haven’t experienced on him before,” she said. “I never thought that he would be able to ever get me my bronze medal, let alone get me the scores I need for my gold medal at Intermediaire I. I haven’t set any kind of limitation on what I thought he could do, and he’s exceeded any kind of expectation anyone ever had for him, especially with all the issues that came up.
“It’s just been so fun to have him in my life and if anyone can have a horse that you have that kind of relationship with, it’s so rewarding,” she continued. “I don’t know if I’ll have another horse that I’ll have that relationship with.”