Pulling up to her first CDI at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (North Carolina) in April, Patricia Borders felt more than a little out of place.
For starters, she was competing on an American Saddlebred, a breed whose high head carriage and knee-snapping gaits make them unlikely candidates for the dressage arena. At 71, Borders had less dressage experience than most of her fellow competitors, many of whom were half her age. And although she felt close to the 11-year-old mare she bred, weaned and started herself, Oh Fiddledeedee, she was otherwise alone amongst the warmblood brigade.
But not for long.
“Come to find out that I’m the last to go before the awards ceremony,” Borders said. “I had an entourage of zero—no trainer, no groom, not even a driver—so I start trying to figure out how I’m supposed to get way back out to the stalls to get my wraps and towel and everything. The next thing I know, everyone there is just rallying behind me. The ring steward sticks my wraps in under the gazebo. When I came out of the arena, people were coming from everywhere to help me wrap, wipe down and get back in there. It was just the best feeling.
“I have to say, in my experience, those are the kinds of people that ride dressage,” Borders continued. “Everybody has been more accepting and more appreciative of my horses than I would ever have imagined.”
Before switching to dressage 18 years ago, Borders had a strong reputation in the saddle seat community. She grew up on a small acreage in Griffin, Georgia, and learned her love of horses from her father.
“My daddy grew up on a farm, and he preferred to work with horses rather than mules,” Borders remembered. “He brought me a pony when I was 3 years old—brought it home in the backseat of a car. It was a Shetland pony, and those little buggers are mean, but my daddy always said if I could learn to handle that Shetland I’d be OK the rest of my life, because that would be the toughest. And he was right!”
Borders traded the Shetland for her first American Saddlebred when she turned 8. Her father liked the horse because he was pretty, but perhaps because of her experience with the pony, Borders cared more about his willing disposition.
She started competing in saddle seat equitation on the local circuits on the weekends and over time learned to start young Saddlebreds. By young adulthood, she had worked her way onto the national scene as a rider, breeder and trainer.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life being a big promoter of American Saddlebreds,” Borders said. “I’ve gone to clinics and fairs. I worked two years on the Saddlebred booth at Equitana when they had it up in Louisville [Kentucky]. I’ve always been one of the breed’s biggest fans.”
Borders describes Saddlebreds as friendly, willing horses with an exceptional drive to please their riders. She also called them “game for anything,” which she put to the test when one of her foals came out just a little bit different.
“To be honest, she looked like she was put together by a committee,” Borders joked. “She wasn’t very high headed, and she had a beautiful, well-balanced gait, but she didn’t wave her legs the way Saddlebreds are supposed to do. I got to talking with a friend about her, and they said, ‘Hey, why don’t you take up dressage?’”
Then in her early 50s, Borders had only recently retired from her career in corporate banking, and it felt like a good moment for a change. Before even backing the mare, Reba McIntyre, Borders enlisted the help of dressage trainer Laura Wharton-Mero.
“Boy howdy, it was a hard way to go!” Borders said with a laugh. “I was working with a horse who didn’t know anything, and I didn’t know anything. I was just blessed to find a trainer who was willing to stick it out and work with me.”
Reba (Snowy River—Reagan’s Rainbow) struggled most with her walk and her extensions, which Borders said is common in Saddlebreds.
“Breeding and training Saddlebreds, the goal is to have the head as high up in the air as possible, really coming straight out of the wither, with flexion at the poll so the nose comes straight down—pretty much the antithesis of what we’re looking for in a dressage horse,” Borders admitted. “You really have to teach them to use their whole body. But if you start them for dressage at the very beginning, they’re so willing, and they try so hard for you, I think a lot of them would really love the sport.”
For her part, Borders struggled to adjust her body to a more active form of riding. Unlike her horse, she didn’t have the benefit of starting from scratch.
“I had no idea it was going to be so difficult. Your body parts have to operate so totally independently of one another, and the older you get, the harder that becomes,” Borders said. “That’s kind of hard to explain until you get there. I’m very athletic, but when you get older, your body parts aren’t quite as kind as they once were. I remind myself of that competing against people in their 20s and 30s, and I know I need to work that much harder.”
After 12 years of stretchy circles and slow-and-steady progress, the unlikely duo rode their first Grand Prix. They put up a 50 percent, which Borders knew they could improve upon, but shortly thereafter “Reba” developed bone spurs.
The pinto mare made a full recovery and might have been able to return to the FEI ring, but Borders felt like she’d worked hard enough. She also had a second dressage project waiting in the wings: another homebred Saddlebred mare, Oh Fiddledeedee, named in tribute to one of Borders’ favorite films “Gone With the Wind.”
“I’ve always done very selective breeding for a long time now just to replace my own horses as they’ve aged out,” Borders said. “I’ve always had the philosophy that if I bring something into the world, I’m responsible for it for the rest of its life. If it gets sold, they always had the option to bring it back. And I keep track of those too.”
“Deedee” reaped the benefits of the knowledge Borders gained with Reba, and the two of them sped up the ranks. They found their niche in musical freestyles, where they broke 70 percent in at the Labor Day Dressage Classic I (Georgia) this year at Intermediaire I.
Borders hopes she and her 11-year-old mare (Callaway’s Northern Kiss—Sleepy Creek’s Vivian Leigh) will make a strong enough showing at the GAIG/USDF Region 3 Championships to earn a bid to U.S. Dressage Finals (Kentucky). And, with “a little luck,” she thinks Deedee will make it to Grand Prix in another couple years.
Either way, Borders has one more iron in the fire on her small farm in Woodstock, Georgia.
“I knew after DeeDee that I was only going to breed one more horse, and I wanted it to be special,” Borders said. “So I thought, why not cross one of my Saddlebred mares with a warmblood? I did a lot of research and found what I thought was just the perfect stallion: Rousseau. Well, when I got in touch with Susanne Hassler, who managed his breeding at the time, she said, ‘Sorry, we don’t breed to Saddlebreds.’ I was crushed! So I thought, you know, I wonder if I sent a video of this mare moving—would that change her opinion?
“So I did a nice video and sent it to her, no expectations,” Borders continued. “Right away she wrote back and said, ‘Oh, yes. We will breed to this horse.’ ”
Borders got exactly what she wanted with K Eleanor, her now 4-year-old Dutch Warmblood-registered mare out of Sleepy Creek’s Vivian Leigh. Eleanor inherited her refined face and delicate bone from her Saddlebred dam but got the uphill carriage and ground cover of her sire.
Borders started her last year with help from young horse trainer Jen Scherrens, who continues to school her a few days a week.
“ ’Ellie’ hasn’t exactly relinquished the idea that she’s the pilot and I’m supposed to be the copilot,” Borders joked. “She’s such a quick thinker; she can be a bit of a smarty pants. I might be asking for trot, and she’ll be like, ‘I think we’ll canter now! Let me show you what I can do!’ Still, I think she’s going to be a nice horse for me. She moves like a warmblood with great overstride in her walk. She’s just got that Saddlebred intelligence which training wise is working a little bit against me right now.”
Given the chance to start over, Borders thinks she would have made a real go at breeding Saddlebred crosses for the sport. As it is, she’s grateful for the time she’s been given, and for what she’s got left.
“I know there are not going to be too many years before I won’t be able to do this anymore,” Borders said. “That’s why I’m not breeding anymore. If I did, they’d outlive me, and I don’t want that burden. Now I’m just focused on the riding, and I got to tell you even after 18 years of riding dressage I still feel like a novice.
“I’m just another regular person who’s passionate about horses, working hard every day,” Borders concluded. “I figure I’ll just keep trucking along.”
Do you know of an unusual breed competing in hunters, jumpers, eventing or dressage? Email Kimberly at email@example.com.