This Ohio dressage trainer and her PMU draft cross were a match made in dressage heaven.
If there’s one thing a real horseman knows, it’s that you never know a horse’s true potential until you give it its best opportunity to succeed. For every professional trainer who rides an expensive, well-bred warmblood, there are 20 riders across the country whiling away on a wide variety of breeds, and every once in a while, one of them discovers a diamond in the rough.
It was three years ago that Karri McFadden’s husband, Dr. Derek McFadden, an equine veterinarian, came home from work and mentioned a horse he’d seen on a client’s farm. He was a coming 5-year-old PMU Belgian-Quarter Horse cross, and as such, the vast majority of trainers would have ranked FEI dressage right up there with running in Triple Crown races or winning 100-mile endurance rides in terms of his least likely careers.
But Karri, a dressage trainer based in Clarksville, Ohio, paused before writing off the 15.3-hand gelding, named Fynn. She was admittedly underwhelmed by their first meeting, but she agreed to sit on him to see what he felt like, thinking he might make a decent sales project suitable for an adult amateur rider.
Fynn’s training had been minimal, so Karri found her first tasks were to put a bit of steering, brakes and a go button on him. And while she felt she’d made some progress over the course of that first ride, she didn’t make it back for another one until a month later.
But the first thing Karri noticed when she settled back in Fynn’s saddle was that the little gelding remembered everything he’d learned from her weeks before. That’s when the first in a series of light bulbs came on in her head.
Despite Fynn’s ho-hum trot and complete lack of a left lead canter, Karri sensed he had a brain that might soak up her training like a sponge. It was April of 2009 when she officially took him on as a project horse.
“I first met Karri when she brought me in to teach a clinic, just two weeks after she purchased Fynn,” recalled Florida-based Grand Prix rider Chrissa Hoffmann. “I remember it like it was yesterday. He was 4 years old, and she couldn’t get him to canter left, no matter what aids she used, so I asked her to do a flying change to get him to take the left lead. She looked at me like I was crazy, but then, bam! There it was! I said to her then, ‘Don’t sell this horse!’ And the incredible journey began.”
In that first year, Karri took Fynn to his first rated show and scored 71 percent at training level. He progressed so quickly that she soon moved him up to first level, then bumped him up to second. By the end of his first season in the show ring, Fynn was scoring 69 percent at second level.
“He’s an extremely fast learner, with no desire to get away from the aids,” said Karri, 37. “He’s smart but never uses his smarts as an evasion, and that makes him give 300 percent. He always says, ‘Bring it—bring me another lesson!’ ”
The gelding’s upward trajectory continued in 2010, as he picked up percentages in the high 60s at third level. In 2011 he made the natural progression to Prix St. Georges, where his scores remained solid, and now Fynn, at the tender age of 8, is showing his true colors by mastering the skills for Grand Prix.
Fynn will always have less reach than most top-level dressage horses, but Karri also appreciates the flip side of the coin: Collection is easy.
“His ability for piaffe and passage is incredible,” said Hoffmann. “It’s absolutely effortless for him. It’s almost as if, when you see him do it, he’s laughing, saying, ‘What’s the big deal? I got this!’
“I hand it to Karri,” Hoffmann continued. “Conformationally, he’s built more draft-like, so she’s had to work through some of those issues. I trained an off-breed myself to Grand Prix, and it’s not easy by any means. But when they have the mind like Fynn and mine did, to ‘want to do it,’ there is no other better quality in a horse.”
In May, Karri and Fynn competed at Majestic Farm’s (Ohio) Ride For The Roses show and won both Grand Prix classes with scores of 62.97 and 68.60 percent, earning Karri her U.S. Dressage Federation gold medal in one fairytale weekend.
It’s All About The Process
Now that Fynn has reached the top level of competition, Karri is focusing on stretching her 7s into 8s. When Hoffmann advised her she needed to “invent a new trot” to get the reach and suspension required for better scores on her trot half-passes and asked her to do a “medium trot passage,” Fynn obliged, and, like magic, the needed engagement, swing and loft Karri was looking for appeared.
“My horse is a rock star,” Karri said. “Each ride, he just gets better and better. He never likes to be wrong, so if he hasn’t gotten the full understanding of what we’re trying to do, I have to stop and try to think of how to explain it to him. But that’s why he’s so reliable in the show ring. He’ll always perform well if he understands what I’m asking of him.”
Karri has never been one to latch onto “breed prejudice.” Many of her students own non-traditional dressage breeds and compete successfully with them. On any given day, you might see one of Karri’s students on her Spanish-Norman (an Andulasian-Percheron cross) preparing for third level classes, a New Forest Pony with FEI-quality gaits (much loved by his petite rider and currently successful at first level) or Quarter Horses, Bashkir Curlies, Fjords and Connemaras trotting around her ring.
“All horses can be trained, and all horses can do dressage,” Karri said. “I love how dressage changes the horse, and I truly enjoy the training part of it. Riders complicate riding. When there’s a ton of clutter in the communication, it’s unrecognizable to the horse. But if you break things down simply enough, the horse knows what you’re asking.”
Karri’s short-term goals with Fynn are to continue competing at the Grand Prix level and adding expression when possible. After that, “I’ll start over with a new one! For me, it’s all about the process,” she said. “I’m going to let that play out. This horse came to me three years ago when he was turning 5 and was barely broke to ride. I’m proud of all that we’ve been able to do in such a short time, but what I’m most happy about is that he’s remained a willing partner who gives his heart to me every day and every ride. You can’t ask for more than that.”
This article was originally published in the September 2012 edition of The Chronicle Connection. To learn more about the Connection and view a sample issue, go to chronofhorse.com/welcome-chronicle-connection.