A living symbol of American freedom knows no boundaries in his new career.
He was born an American icon. As a wild U.S. mustang he symbolized independence. Surviving wasn’t easy in the rugged desert landscape of Palomino Valley outside Reno, Nev., but as a young colt he knew nothing but the freedom of the desert wind.
Until the day the helicopters came.
Nine years later, this striking dun stallion trotted confidently in the company of champion warmbloods around the historic Dixon Oval as the first mustang to ever compete at Dressage at Devon (Pa.).
But defying conventional expectations has become a way of life for Padré.
Shortly after his capture in 2001, Padré was adopted by Ric Redden, DVM, of the International Equine Podiatry Center in Versailles, Ky. In partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, Redden was conducting breeding studies between mustangs and domestic horses to examine the effects of genetics and hoof health and structure. The young stallion was chosen to stand at stud as part of the research.
Not long after Padré began his duties as a 2-year-old, Patti Gruber of Vernon Hills, Ill., happened to bring a horse to the IEPC for treatment. While there, Gruber saw the mustang stallion, and he created an immediate impression.
“He had naturally pure gaits and, despite his wild background, had a temperament to die for and would come right up to the fence,” Gruber remembered. “After seeing him, I teased Dr. Redden for years that if he ever really wanted to know what Padré could do, to call me.”
A Life Changing Phone Call
Three years ago, that call came. “At the time, I was looking for an Art Deco-bred pinto warmblood for myself but ended up with my little mustang,” said Gruber. ” I’m not exactly sure why, but when I got the call, I just couldn’t say no.”
The manager and dressage trainer for Jerry and Sandi Grossi’s Wayfarer Farm in Wauconda, Ill., Gruber already had experience working with a variety of horse breeds across multiple disciplines from team penning to reining. She specializes in helping beginners or riders moving from other disciplines to understand correct dressage basics, and she also enjoys working with nervous or temperamental horses.
From her previous experience with another formerly-wild mare, Gruber knew she’d be starting basically from scratch with her new project. Padré had only 30 days of training as a 3-year-old, and another month before traveling to his new home.
But the 15.1-hand stallion was a willing student, and Gruber delighted in teaching him. Soon after he arrived, Gruber participated in a dressage clinic with a locally-based German trainer, who couldn’t begin to guess his breed.
Despite the short time in training, Padré impressed the clinician with his ability. Gruber was skeptical, but she entered him in a schooling show, and the stallion won both of his “Green as Grass” tests with scores in the mid-60s and claimed the division’s high-point award, all within a month of coming home.
“We did better than I could have ever imagined for his first show,” said Gruber.
Gruber and Padré continued their dressage education by participating in numerous clinics, including riding with Steffen Peters during the 2010 Midwest Horse Fair in Wisconsin. “He said he could see something really special in us,” said Gruber. In addition, Padre’ was named an ambassador for the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program, and he represented the program at this spring’s Equine Affaire in Columbus, Ohio.
Living The Good Life
Despite his wild youth, Padré has enthusiastically embraced domestic life. “He’s very funny—he doesn’t like to go outside if it’s raining or if he doesn’t have a warm enough blanket on,” said Gruber. “He loves marshmallow peeps, jelly beans, peaches, bananas and french fries.”
Even though he remains a stallion, Padré is turned out with a group of geldings. “I can ride him on a completely loose rein with mares, and he never bats an eyelash. He stays on a very even keel,” said Gruber.
Although devoted to Gruber, Padré can at times be particular, and he’s not always cooperative with strangers. “They have to come in and introduce themselves,” she said. “He wants to be respected, and people have to understand that even once domesticated, a wild horse will still have the instinct to be wary.”
Padré can be mischievous under saddle. “There are days when he is playful during rides and will buck at the canter with his hind end without missing a step with his front end,” Gruber said with a laugh. “If I nag him too much with my spurs, he picks up a back foot on the side. He’ll kick at my foot to tell me that he got the point!”
He’s Not A One-Trick Pony
Padré doesn’t fit the traditional mold for a mustang—he enjoys variety and bucks the stereotypes of what breed of horse is necessary for a given discipline. “I have no reason to say ‘no’ to anything with him. If someone says, ‘Hey Patti go try this,’ off we go. He’s up for anything,” said Gruber.
In addition to his dressage training, he was introduced to in-hand work by a western judge and trainer to try showing in halter classes at American Buckskin Registry Association shows.
“Just as something different to do, we went to a show and won first time out and were named reserve champion stallion,” noted Gruber. “He had just learned to trot in-hand that week to prepare for the show.”
Padré also tried hunter under saddle classes, placing second, third and fifth out of 15 horses. “There’s nothing he can’t go and do,” said Gruber. “People, whether it’s judges or spectators, are fascinated and don’t really know what to do with him, since he looks and moves a little differently from horses he competes against. He challenges people’s perceptions.”
Gruber next decided to try dressage sport horse breeding competitions. In their first outing at Silverwood Farm (Wisc.), they claimed third place in the 4-year-old and older stallion class. Encouraged by the judges’ reception, she entered Padré in the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Breeders’ Championship Regional Finals, where they took home the blue ribbon for 4-year-old and older stallions and the reserve grand championship.
At Home In The Dixon Oval
Devon wasn’t part of this year’s game plan, but Padré’s achievements convinced Gruber to try to make it happen. A call to the Devon breed show organizer assured her that the mustang would be a welcome addition, and fundraisers helped secure money for the daunting trip. Community support for the odyssey was tremendous, and after arriving in Pennsylvania the reality of how far they’d come finally hit Gruber.
“Just knowing the caliber of horses here, but still I’m standing among them in the championship class with my little wild stallion without the genetic gifts and generations of selective breeding that these horses have—that was my proudest moment,” she said.
Gruber knew Padré’s exceptional temperament and lovely, natural movement would be highlights for her partner.
The judges agreed, awarding him the blue ribbon in the in-hand 4-year-old and older stallions class and the overall reserve stallion championship.
“This horse showed very consistent and clear rhythm at the walk and trot,” noted judge Janine Malone, “and in particular, the walk was active and ground-covering.”
“This stallion was by far the most correct in his class,” said judge Hilda Gurney. “Mother Nature did a nice job producing a nice-moving and very well-mannered mustang.”
Proudly sporting his BLM freeze brand on his neck, Padré seemed right at home in the Dixon Oval among traditional warmbloods.
“This has exceeded my wildest dreams,” exclaimed Gruber. “I’ve never been to Devon before, and it had felt so far out of the realm of possibility. But everyone here has been so welcoming, the judges so kind, the officials so generous and helpful. I wish every show could be like this, and I could not have asked for a better experience. I wish I could tell everyone to come here.”
Devon Breed Show manager Melanie Sloyer was also thrilled to see Gruber’s stallion succeed. “We were delighted to have Patti and Padré come to Devon, and I thought it was really exciting that they did so well,” she said. “It’s nice to know that a non-traditional breed can be successful in the sport, and I’m sure he will be an inspiration to many others.”
Not only has Padré opened the eyes of people in the dressage and overall horse community, but he has also helped educate non-horse people about an important part of American heritage.
“Mustangs are still out there and need our help, and I’ve met so many people who don’t realize that there are still wild horses,” said Gruber. “I didn’t have a choice whether Padré came out of the wild or not, but I do have the choice to give him the best home I can possibly give him and to give him the opportunity to do as many things as he can as long as he enjoys it.”
Inspired by their Devon experience, Gruber has big plans for her exuberant stallion. They are currently schooling third level, and she would like to return to Devon in the performance division. “Right now we have a little too much ‘fly’ in our flying changes, but it’s coming,” she said. “The sky’s the limit with him.”
Despite his past stud duty as part of Dr. Redden’s research, one thing Gruber is certain will not be a part of Padré’s immediate future is breeding. “With so many unwanted horses out there and the current economic situation, I just don’t feel that it would be responsible at this time for me to breed more horses,” she said. “However, I may consider freezing some semen for future breeding to perhaps some select warmblood and sport pony mares.”
In the meantime, the little dun stallion has become a celebrity with his own Facebook page, and Gruber is enjoying their time together.
“Over the year and a half we have been working together, Padré has presented me with challenges and victories. I am a better trainer because of him. I am lucky to have many horses to train, but the best part of each day is when I work with Padré,” said Gruber.