Update: Shortly after this story was published, Robyn Cuffey died Oct. 10 of pancreatic cancer. She was 69.
On a sunny September afternoon, several dozen eager spectators lined the rail at the State of Maine Dressage Association’s final show of the season. The first strains of Chubby Checker’s iconic hit “Pony Time” began to play, and Robyn Cuffey, bedecked in a homemade pink satin poodle skirt and matching jacket, rode into the arena on her diminutive 14.1-hand Arabian gelding, Dimitri. The pair showed off some of Dimitri’s best moves, including half-pass, leg yield, medium gaits and counter-canter, with a few flying changes sprinkled in just for fun. Their playful dance brought a smile to nearly everyone’s face, including Cuffey’s.
Although the demonstration was intended to highlight Dimitri, whom Cuffey adopted from the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals in Windham over six years ago, it carried additional poignancy for all present. In December 2022, Cuffey, 69, a lifelong member of the Maine equestrian community, was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. She has recently learned that treatments have been unsuccessful, and no further options remain.
“I was, and am, determined to keep going as long as I can,” Cuffey says. “I was happy that Dimitri had a chance to shine, and so many of my friends and family came to support us—a blessing.”
A blessing much like her partnership with Dimitri has been, for both partners. Most recently, riding Dimitri has helped Cuffey to endure her chemotherapy treatments that began in February.
“[Despite] not eating for days, I could still put my seat in the saddle and instantly go to work,” says Cuffey. “Dimitri was a star; with winter energy and hit-or-miss riding, he did his job every day. Dimitri was my reason to go out in the cold and keep trying.”
Cuffey was proud to make Dimitri’s third level debut at a schooling show earlier this summer. But when she first met the now 11-year-old gelding, it would have been hard to imagine them traveling down centerline at all.
The Hidden Horses
“He lived right down the street from me, and we didn’t even know it,” says Cuffey, who with her husband Robert owns Photo Finish Farm in Buxton, Maine. “It is about one mile down the railroad bed that goes from behind my house straight to where he was. No one knew there were horses there, because they were always shut in the barn.”
But one day, the two horses living on her neighbor’s property—Dimitri, who was still a stallion, and a second stallion, Czar—seemingly had had enough of each other. They kicked through the wall, broke out of their straight stalls, and made their way out into the middle of Maine Route 112, where the pair began fighting.
“When the police arrived, they had to get medical attention for Dimitri, and they told the owner she couldn’t have two stallions,” says Robyn. “So she had Dimitri gelded and kept the other horse a stallion.”
It seemed clear to those who helped that day—including the horse-savvy police chief—that the owners were both inexperienced and uneducated regarding equine needs and care. Now alert to the fact that two horses lived on the property, Robyn and other local equestrians tried to keep their eye on how things were going with the animals. But it was difficult; with no fencing on the property, the animals were never turned out.
“The owner called a bunch of us sporadically, asking us to come train her horses,” says Robyn. “We’d talk to her, and try to figure out the situation. But there was no place to do it, no ring, and no resources involved. They didn’t want to pay.”
Robyn would later learn that after the horses’ escape, the owners separated them so they could no longer see each other, then nailed them into their stalls.
“I don’t even know if they had stall doors,” says Robyn. “It might have been 2-by-4s. But the people isolated them from each other.”
Months went by, with local equestrians concerned but powerless to do anything other than watch and wait. At one point, the animals were seized by animal control, but later returned with the condition the owners build paddocks, which they did on either side of their house so the horses still couldn’t see each other. At another point, the stallion got loose again and was lost three days before turning up in Robyn’s field, and still later his stall floor collapsed, leading the owners to turn him out permanently in his paddock.
When the owners decided to leave Czar living outside without shelter—a violation of Maine law—officials thought they finally had their chance to seize the animals.
“But the owners put up a tent, so they could say he theoretically had shelter,” says Robyn. “He’s out in the bugs; he hasn’t seen grass hardly in his life; he can’t see another horse, and the fence is only about 4 feet high. We just knew he would end up in the street; he’s just pacing the fence, by himself. And Dimitri is still in the barn.
“My friends are calling me, asking what we’re going to do,” Robyn continues. “I hate to say it, but uneducated people don’t understand psychological stress—the psychological damage and PTSD—that comes from being alone. What they do understand is skinny. We had to wait for the stallion to get thin enough to have a reason to take him.”
As winter approached, animal control finally felt Czar’s condition had deteriorated enough to warrant seizure, and both horses ended up at the MSSPA. After several months in the court system, ownership was legally transferred to the organization, and the horses could finally begin to receive more advanced medical treatment and training. Robyn, who had assisted the MSSPA for years with restarting rescued horses, received a call not long after from Meris Bickford, their executive director.
“She asked me, ‘Who do you want first,’ ” says Robyn with a laugh. “I said, ‘Probably not the stallion,’ who’d just been gelded. So they sent Dimitri.”
A Life Dedicated To Rescue
Taking on the education of a largely unhandled 5- or 6-year-old wouldn’t be every trainer’s first choice. But for over 40 years, Robyn has devoted herself to the retraining and rehoming of Standardbred race horses. She is the founder of both the Maine Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization, a group dedicated to promoting the use of former racers for pleasure riding, and Futures For Standardbreds, a 501(c)3 nonprofit focusing on keeping these horses out of kill pens.
One day, before founding the nonprofit, Robyn wrote an article for a local harness racing paper, stating that she would help retired racers to find new homes.
“My husband says, the day the article came out, when he went to work in the morning we had four horses, when he came home, we had five, and by the time we went to bed, we had six,” says Robyn. “People just dropped them on my doorstep. SPHO was built on people who adopted my horses, horses that people left in my yard. And this is me, just knowing left, right, stop, go on a horse—that’s how it started.
“I can’t even tell you how many hundreds of horses we’ve had here and found homes for,” she continues. “My husband has nothing to do with horses, and the lucky thing for me in the beginning was he didn’t know one brown horse from another. If they weren’t all in the same place at the same time, he didn’t know how many we had.”
Robyn’s philosophy was to treat each Standardbred as an individual, working with them to determine whether they would be best suited as a riding or driving horse, and at what potential level.
“I get them to where they’re going to go, then I find them an owner who wants to do that job,” says Robyn, who enjoys driving as much as she does riding.
Falling For Dimitri
Robyn got her start in the sport of dressage many years ago riding a formerly unwanted Standardbred pacer. Realizing she was going to need some help, Robyn connected with a dressage instructor who would come to her farm. She soon realized she had found an equestrian sport that suited her personality.
“The thing about dressage for me is, I am very Type A, and there is never really any end,” says Robyn. “With dressage, there is always something else you can work on or get better at.”
When Dimitri arrived at Photo Finish Farm, Robyn was impressed by how well-adjusted the gelding seemed. Despite his years of isolation, he didn’t act excessively spooky or nervous—but there was still plenty for him to learn.
“He had no great social skills, as he hadn’t been turned out with other horses, so he had to learn that,” says Robyn. His former owners “handled him like a dog, [so] he had to learn how to pick up his feet, to get out of your way—basic Horse 101.”
It wasn’t long before Dimitri was ready to begin work under saddle—and Robyn soon found herself resisting thoughts that she may have found herself an ideal dressage partner.
“He’s little; I’m little,” says Robyn. “I think, ‘I don’t really need him.’ But then I think, ‘He’s got a nice canter’.”
But then, a few months later, Dimitri hit what Robyn calls a “rebellious” period. Based on her long history of working with rescue horses, she figured Dimitri could be reaching his physical limit, or perhaps his work ethic didn’t match the demands of more advanced training.
“We’d gotten to first level and were schooling second, and he was getting grumpy and didn’t want to be tacked up,” Robyn says. “If it was too physically hard, I didn’t want to keep pushing. My instructor suggested treating him for ulcers.”
Robyn was skeptical: By then, Dimitri was living outside in a herd 24/7, with unlimited access to grass and hay, a lifestyle that is textbook for ulcer prevention.
“But I wasn’t thinking about how many years he lived in a closet,” she says. “I finally started treating him for ulcers, and it turned him right around. That was my fault, not his.”
Soon, Dimitri was back in top form, and the pair were playing with shoulder-in, half-pass and even flying changes.
“And he just loved it,” Robyn says. “He is clever—a little too smart—he tries to out-think you through the whole test, like, ‘I know this is coming next, so I might as well do it now.’ I’ve ridden up to fourth level before Dimitri, so I knew the requirements. It keeps me interested, and I think it’s a good sport for him, because it keeps him interested.
“He almost needs more work, not less,” she continues. “He’s a thinker. You don’t ride this horse out in an open field on a loose rein.”
Robyn credits her “summer” instructor, Judy Westlake, and her “winter” instructor, Cassi Martin, with helping prepare Dimitri for his third level debut, which happened in July at a schooling show at Life’s A Ride Equestrian Center in Saco, Maine. The pair worked their show schedule around Robyn’s treatment schedule. At their first outing, Dimitri received comments such as “exuberant” from the judge.
“He did fine, but he’s a little drama queen,” says Robyn with a chuckle. “We get comments like, ‘He loves half-pass, doesn’t he?’ Yes, except we’re supposed to be in shoulder-in.
“When Judy was here last time, I said, ‘Ninety percent of our problem is submission,” Robyn continues. “She said, ‘No, its 100%!’ OK, we’re working on it.”
‘Throwaway Horses … Are Worth Something’
Robyn acknowledges that most of the rescue horses she has worked with have gone on to be pleasure riding and driving mounts, and that Dimitri’s higher level of performance is the exception. However, she believes there is inherent value in taking the time to make whatever horse you are working with become the best they can be, and that is part of what she wanted to showcase in their demonstration ride.
“I’ve mostly had ‘throwaway horses,’ ” says Robyn. “But whether they are a race horse or a rescue horse, they are worth something. Look at Dimitri: How many horses do you know doing third level? He lived in a closet for years, and now, he’s schooling third. For any horse, that’s an accomplishment. For one who started at 6, essentially untouched by human hands …”
Robyn pauses and clears her throat.
“Dimitri doesn’t know the difference,” she continues. “But I felt he needed a little credit, as a rescue. People need to support rescues. You don’t have to take one to help one. You don’t have to buy fancy; you have to have some skill and put in some patience, and depending on the horse, there can be some gems out there.”
Do you know a horse or pony who has been rescued from a dangerous situation to become a healthy, trusted competition partner today? If you think you have a good candidate for “From Rescue To Ribbons,” let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.