Thursday, May. 23, 2024

From Rescue To Ribbons: Auction Find Becomes Dressage Ambassador



One evening in May 2021, Southern California-based show jumper Tiffany Sullivan was enjoying some Nutter Butter cookies and scrolling online when the sales photo of a petite skewbald Paint caught her attention. The low-end Texas auction house where the gelding was located is notorious for being a final stop before heading across the border to slaughter in Mexico. And although Sullivan, who competes through the grand prix level, certainly didn’t need a down-on-his-luck Paint horse of unknown breeding, soundness, and training, both his markings and the kind look in his eye spoke to her. On impulse, she sent a message to the rescue who had shared his post and made a purchase.

When the allegedly 10-year-old gelding arrived at her facility in Lake View Terrace, just outside of Los Angeles, he was underweight, unhealthy and in need of immediate corrective farrier care. He was also a little head shy, and scars on his face made Sullivan suspect he had suffered burns in the past. Other than that quirk, the gelding seemed to have an easy-going temperament. Sullivan spent the better part of three months restoring him to good health, determined he was closer to 14 or 15 years old than 10, and named him Nutter Butter, a tribute to both his palomino patches and the cookies she was eating on the fateful evening she found him.

“It was worth all the time and the effort,” Sullivan said. “He was as sweet as I had hoped.”

Beyond giving the barely 15-hand “Nutter” a safe place to land, Sullivan didn’t have a specific plan for him. She wondered if perhaps he might be suitable as a guest horse, a mount her friends could hop on to take a leisurely stroll around her ranch. However, with a busy show schedule that frequently kept her on the road for weeks at a time, Nutter’s training was not a top priority, and Sullivan was simply happy to know she had made a positive difference in the life of this one horse.

No one could have predicted that Sullivan’s spur-of-the-moment decision to save Nutter would end up also changing the lives of several aspiring equestrians—and in the process, allow a fellow professional to regain her sense of purpose.

Auction find Nutter Butter became the founding member of California dressage instructor Sarahbell Kleinman’s lesson program. Photo Courtesy Of Sarahbell Kleinman

From Cattle Ranch To Dressage Ring

Lifelong horsewoman and dressage trainer Sarahbell Kleinman found her passion for the sport almost by accident. Kleinman grew up on a cattle ranch in Washington state; she has personally gentled and started 32 BLM mustangs, trained Icelandic horses both here and abroad, and along the way, acquired the nickname “Cowgirl Sarahbell” for her ability to handle horses others couldn’t. She was in her 20s and working with Icelandics near San Diego when she was contacted by the owners of a “ridiculously fancy dressage horse” who had injured his rider after bolting under saddle.

“At the time, I knew nothing about dressage,” remembered Kleinman, 41. 

But she agreed to work with the horse anyway, and eventually met his regular trainer, dressage rider Elizabeth Ball. Ball introduced Kleinman more formally to the sport of dressage, and almost immediately, she was hooked. After working for Ball for a period, Kleinman went on to groom professionally, first for Olympic team bronze medalist Sue Blinks and later Rebecca Rigdon and David Blake. Although initially hired as a groom by each employer, they all recognized Kleinman’s skills in the saddle, and helped her to find riding and competition opportunities. By 2016, she was competing at Prix St. Georges.

“I think I’m particularly good at one thing, and that is reading a horse’s emotion,” Kleinman said. “I know when to ask, and when to back off. That’s how I’ve gotten so far without growing up doing dressage.”

Kleinman found the San Diego dressage community to be close knit, and both highly supportive and nurturing of her growth as a horseman. But when she relocated to the Los Angeles area in 2016 to join her now husband, Gideon Kleinman, for several years she struggled to find her footing.

“They were so respectful of me as a horseman, and there was a lot of trust there,” Sarahbell said of her employers in San Diego. “I’m so thankful to them for giving me that chance and letting me develop my skill set and my gift. But Los Angeles doesn’t have the same community. It’s so spread out, so separate. It’s just a different vibe.”

Although she found employment with several top dressage riders in Los Angeles, Sarahbell began to doubt her own abilities.

“I really lost myself,” she recalled. “I went backwards, and I wasn’t getting anywhere.”

Thanks To A Friend

Frustrated and depressed, Sarahbell began confiding her doubts with close friends, including Sullivan. To Sarahbell’s surprise, nearly everyone she spoke with encouraged her to strike out on her own. She was skeptical at first, but Sullivan in particular was supportive, offering Sarahbell a place at her Hillside Farms to launch a business of her own.


“I felt like I wasn’t good enough, and Tiffany kept winking at me and said, ‘Yes, you are,’ ” Sarahbell said. “She said, ‘Sarahbell, if you take the risk, it will be OK.’”

With Sullivan’s encouragement and support, Sarahbell finally made the decision to establish her SBK Dressage in August 2021. She and her two horses arrived at Sullivan’s ranch not long after Nutter did, and when Sullivan headed out on the road with her own horses, she asked Sarahbell to work with the Paint.

“Sarahbell is a wonderful person and horse woman, with experience in multiple equestrian disciplines,” Sullivan said. “She also has a unique talent to find the best in any animal, no matter its personality or challenges. It was a no-brainer to consult with her as I started Nutter Butter under saddle. We both loved this challenge, and did a lot together.”

Nutter Butter has instilled confidence in many new riders, including Sarahbell Kleinman’s sister Trigg Bell. Photo Courtesy Of Sarahbell Kleinman

“Tiffany really subsidized my beginnings by having me ride her horses, and giving me work,” Sarahbell said. “When she asked if I would mind riding Nutter, I told her I didn’t care if it was him or her grand prix horse. So I started working with him, and Tiffany and I go back and forth, whether he was broke or not, but I think no way. He didn’t know anything.”

Despite this, Nutter’s inherent good nature meant he was unfazed by having a rider on board, and Sarahbell proceeded to introduce him to essential ridden basics at the walk and trot. 

“He is 100% a walk-trot horse,” Sarahbell said. “He is just now, two and a half years later, being able to pick up both leads at liberty. Maybe someday he’ll canter with a rider—but I don’t really see the point. He offers so much value as he is—why push the little dude?”

While Sarahbell worked with Nutter, she was simultaneously shopping for a lesson horse to help build her business. It wasn’t long before she realized she had the perfect fit in Nutter—but after all Sullivan had already done for her, Sarahbell said it took some courage to ask her friend for one more favor.

“And Tiffany just said, ‘Of course I would do that for you,’ ” said Sarahbell, who is now Nutter’s official owner. “She teases me now—she reminds me she has a pasture for him, and he can retire anytime. But I keep telling her she can’t have him back yet, because he seems to keep helping person after person.

“He is bombproof,” she continued. “We have these beautiful boxwood hedges around the arenas, and the worst he is going to do is walk through the bushes with someone. If people aren’t riding back to front, or start pulling on his face, he’ll walk [them] back to the barn like, ‘This isn’t appropriate.’ He tattles on people all day long—he’ll tell me if they’re scared, or if they need to calm down.”

‘Together Their Self-Confidence Grew’

One of Nutter’s first students was Sydney Fraser, a young rider who is also dyslexic and a neurodivergent learner. Her family had recently relocated from Santa Barbara, California, to the Los Angeles area so Fraser, then 12, could attend a nearby school specializing in educating and empowering students with divergent learning styles. But the transition was difficult for Fraser; in the past, she had benefited from equine therapy, and her mother Brandi Fraser was seeking a leasing opportunity that would benefit Sydney’s physical and mental heath. Brandi contacted Sarahbell not long after Nutter joined the SBK Dressage family, desperate to find a good fit for her daughter. 

“Both of my parents were special needs teachers,” Sarahbell said. “I have a lot of knowledge and expertise from my mother, Cheri Dietzen, and when I called her, she said, ‘You are the person to do this.’ ”

Sarahbell Kleinman’s student Sydney Fraser (pictured) has become a key person in Nutter Butter’s life. Elena Dotoli Photo

Nutter and Sydney were a perfect match from the beginning. She was interested and committed to working with a rescue horse, and spent hours with him, ultimately drawing out his personality. As Nutter began to shine, so did Sydney.

“Together, their self-confidence grew, and Sydney went from longe line riding with him to finding the love of dressage through their year of work together—and Nutter learned how to be the best schooling horse and to stay out of the bushes,” Brandi said. “Thanks to her work with Nutter, Sydney is now competing in dressage, and is proudly representing her new school in the Interscholastic Equestrian League.”

“She 100% changed his whole life,” Sarahbell added. “She has a talent I cannot teach anyone. Sydney can tell, if she’s asking something, when the horse understands, and she always softens and gives. She’s been an amazing student.”

Nutter gave Sydney, now 14, so much confidence in the saddle that she soon outgrew what he had to offer—but despite moving on to a new mount, the bond between horse and human remains unbroken. When Nutter was named the official SBK Dressage mascot, Sydney painted his portrait.

“It’s so cute because if Nutter’s person can’t come, I can look at her and say, ‘Can you get Nutter out’?” Sarahbell said. “It’s amazing how well he goes for her, better than anyone else, even if she hasn’t ridden him for a month. She’ll ride him around bareback, and play with him in the round pen.


“That kid is why I’m still doing this,” she continued. “Out of everything I do every day, I feel like that’s a good use of my time.”

When Sydney Fraser leased Nutter Butter, she’d spend hours bonding with him out of the saddle, which helped bring the horse out of his shell. Photo Courtesy Of Sarahbell Kleinman

But Nutter wasn’t done making a positive impact. Another of Sarahbell’s clients, who had minimal animal experience of any kind, came seeking lessons before a dude ranch vacation. Not only did Nutter get her ready for the trip, afterward, the client returned and said she preferred riding Nutter to random horses, because she had formed a connection with him. Nutter has helped other clients regain lost confidence, practice the fundamentals of dressage, or simply learn to enjoy riding again.

“It’s been person after person—I’m flabbergasted by the number of people who he’s either built their confidence, or they’ve ridden him and then became completely obsessed with dressage,” Sarahbell said. “Every time I think he’s done everything he can do, he seems to get better and better and stronger and stronger.

“Nutter keeps bringing these people into my life, I think because he is a rescue,” she continues. “The type of person who is happy with that experience has ended up being my ‘people’. Most of them outgrow him within a year and have bought their own horses. He has been this unbelievable gift of a business partner.”

“I love the concept of horses and people rescuing each other,” Sullivan added. “Nutter Butter is a perfect example of these bonds.”

Showing His Stuff

In December 2023, Nutter made his show ring debut, taking two amateurs down centerline at introductory level. Sarahbell admitted she wasn’t sure what to expect from him, but by day two, Nutter proved to be a “total ham.”

Nutter Butter made his show ring debut with actress Beth Behrs in December 2023. Photo Courtesy Of Sarahbell Kleinman

“One of my riders came out of the ring and said, ‘He just looks at the judge, perks up, and is totally there for the scene,’” Sarahbell said with a laugh. “I have a fairly fancy show horse, and I’m always trying to get nice pictures of her, and she always looks like a donkey. But Nutter is all about it—you want to take a picture, he poses for the camera. There is something so special about him.

“The judges love him,” she continued. “The best comment I’ve gotten on a test wasn’t on my test—it was on his test. The judge said, ‘Horse seems to enjoy dressage.’ I read that, and I was in tears.”

Nutter has taught Sarahbell that horses like him play an important role in promoting the sport of dressage to a wider audience.

“There has to be an entry point less than an $80,000 horse,” Sarahbell said. “It brings me a ton of joy, working with this particular horse and seeing people getting excited about wanting to show at the lowest levels. Now, they’re part of the local club, they want to work on their geometry, to work on their position. We have this whole new set of people who are willing to show intro or training level.

“There are people who stay home because they feel they have to be good enough to show at a certain level,” she continued. “In my eyes, if you want to be good at dressage, you have to go down centerline, and you have to play the game more than once a year. If you can only go down center line at intro A and B, but you can do it 10 times and get good at your geometry, then you should do that—because why not? I feel a responsibility as a trainer to normalize that, and to make it more welcoming.”

Sarahbell plans to write and illustrate a children’s book about Nutter, and she hopes that his story will inspire someone else to take a chance.

“I think it’s important we’re showing people it’s OK to bring a regular horse along, and they can do well in the show ring,” Sarahbell said. “Are they going to break 70%? Maybe not. Do they put in good quality, accurate tests where it looks like the horse enjoys himself, and the rider isn’t terrified? One thousand percent.

“Nutter isn’t a one-note thing,” she continues. “He’s done so much for me, for Sydney, for this sport, and he is also representing rescue horses. I’m down to be that person who says, let’s make this sport accessible, and also maybe somebody will take another little horse and think, ‘Dressage is good for me and my horse, and I enjoy it—and that’s enough.’ ”

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



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