Nearly 10 years ago, palomino Paint Daffy’s Son Shine decided the western pleasure life wasn’t for him, and Alex Belton went along for the ride. Now she’s preparing to earn her U.S. Dressage Federation silver medal on the 20-year-old horse.
“It’s been such a long journey. I’m so proud that we’ve made it this far,” she said.
Belton grew up in Central New York, and she received her first palomino pinto pony, Rise And Shine, or “Sonny,” when she was 11.
“We had Sonny until he passed away in 2015,” said Belton. “I know you’re not supposed to do it, but I was looking for horses, and I saw another palomino Paint, and I said, ‘I have to buy this horse.’ ”
Daffy’s Son Shine, or “Coqui,” was 10 when Belton bought him in 2010. He hadn’t done any dressage, but he had done a little of everything: cattle work, jumping and western pleasure, and Belton bought him to be a 4-H all-around horse.
“I tried doing some breed shows with him, but primarily started doing dressage when I realized it was something I wanted to focus on,” she said. “It turns out he doesn’t like to be slow and be a western pleasure horse. He would rather have a large stride and move around the ring a little bit, so we switched exclusively to dressage in 2013.”
Upon her graduation from Cazenovia College (New York) in 2017, Belton traveled with Coqui (Sunny Review—Artisan) up and down the East Coast before landing in Lexington, Kentucky, two years ago for a job with the USDF as education coordinator.
“I think being fortunate enough to be able to take him to all of the places I’ve gone has helped our relationship,” Belton explained. “I’ve had to move around a bit for work, and I was able to take him to Florida with me and work with a dressage trainer there, and I was able to work with him at Hilltop Farm [Maryland] where I did my college internship. Now I’ve brought him from New York to Lexington with me for my newest adventure. We’ve been together nonstop for 10 years, and I think that’s been really beneficial.”
Because of his stock horse roots, it’s taken creative thinking and a lot of hard work to get Coqui to the higher levels of the discipline.
“I do think it takes a little more effort to figure out a way to make it work,” admitted Belton. “It’s taken me almost the 10 years that I’ve had him to get to where we are, whereas if I were to ride a more traditional horse, it probably would have taken half or a third of that time.”
Hard work is no problem for Belton though, and she’s found a silver lining in training her stocky, long-backed gelding: “I think the long back has helped him,” she explained. “There are some movements where it does hinder him, like coming back into collection work, but other things like stretching down in training and first level, it was easier for him because he was able to stretch more easily, reaching forward and down like a ‘normal’ dressage horse should do.”
Belton, 25, says the collected work is harder and has taken the longest to achieve.
“Now we’re working towards piaffe and passage work, schooling that at home. He seems to be getting it quite well,” she said. “The fourth and Prix St. Georges-level work is coming quite easily to him. Now it’s just a matter of putting it all together for a test.”
When the two head to competitions, they’re hard to miss.
“I get so many comments,” said Belton. “People come up to me and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe you’re out here with a horse like this! It’s so nice to see something different in the ring.’ I don’t think anyone has ever been negative about us out there, at least not to my face, but it’s definitely something. When you go to a show, and you’re the only one with a horse of that color who is little and stocky—it’s different. You’re the odd man out!”
When it comes to the scores, Belton believes they’ve been fair throughout her horse’s career, and she expects to be held to the same standards as others competing regardless of breed of horse.
“I think it’s been an uphill battle, as far as the scores that we get,” she said. “[Judges] don’t treat me, on my 15-hand palomino, any differently than they treat the 17-hand European-bred warmblood. They don’t treat me any differently, and they hold me to the same standard, which I appreciate! I don’t want to be singled out. I want to be held to the same standard, and I want my horse’s movements to be as good as they can be. Competing against those horses only make us fight harder to be the best we can be each time we go down centerline.
“It’s amazing to me that he has stayed so strong and sound,” she continued. “All of the farriers that I’ve used over the years have been great, and it really comes down to good management. He gets basic joint maintenance, some injections once or twice a year, and you can definitely tell that over the years he’s gotten a little stiffer and is slowing down a little bit. But he goes into the arena every day and is so willing to work. For the most part he doesn’t question anything that I ask him to do. Sometimes he’s like, ‘Are you sure you want me to do that?’ But then he puts his head down and gets to work like, ‘OK!’ ”
Though Coqui is still going strong, Belton knows their time together in the show ring will come to an end eventually. When the time comes, she’ll be ready.
“I have been looking for another competition horse,” she said. “I just want to see what’s out there. I don’t need another palomino, necessarily, but I would love it to be something of color. I’m all for having color in the dressage ring and switching it up. Not to bash chestnuts or bays, but I love to go in the ring and stick out. Whether it’s a good thing or bad, they will still remember me.”
While Belton is setting goals for the future that include riding at the Grand Prix levels, for now she’s just enjoying the time with her four-legged best friend. As for Coqui, he will get to retire when he decides he’s ready.
“I’ve been with him for so long, I could never let go of him,” said Belton. “He will stay with me until the end.”
Do you ride and compete an unusual breed? Email Lindsay at email@example.com for a chance to be featured on coth.com.