Tuesday, May. 21, 2024

From Rescue To Ribbons: Scruffy Neglect Case Becomes Young Rider’s Winning Jumper

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When Naomi Gard first met the thin, scruffy-looking 15.1-hand pinto gelding on a cold day in January 2017, she wasn’t immediately impressed. “Skipper” had been seized by local authorities due to neglect about a year earlier and was brought to Sound Equine Options, a rescue in Gresham, Oregon, critically thin. After he was back to a healthier weight, their trainers started assessing him and determined that he was herd-bound, a little spooky and probably unbacked.

“But he also seemed really willing,” remembered Gard, who was 14 at the time. “He was smart and picked up on things fast.”

After years of leasing and riding whatever project horses her trainers had available, Gard dreamed of developing a show jumper of her own. Unbeknownst to her, her non-horsey parents, Josh and Xiomara Gard, had been searching for a horse for their daughter for several months. A friend referred them to Skipper, who was estimated to be around 10 years old and was perhaps an Arabian-Saddlebred cross. Naomi, however, had a hard time seeing the rough little gelding as the horse of her dreams.

Skipper first photo

Skipper shortly after he arrived at Sound Equine Options rescue as a neglect case. Photo Courtesy Of Naomi Gard

“I thought he’d be a fun little project for a while, then I’d either have to rehome him or send him to be a trail pony,” Naomi said. “I never thought he’d make it to this.”

“This” is earning a tri-color ribbon in the 0.80-meter division at Desert International Horse Park (California) in the first rated show for either of them. At home, they are schooling to at least 1.0 meter, and have taken clinics with legends of the sport, like Anne Kursinski.

Their path has not been linear. Along the way, Skipper not only overcame his challenging past, he also helped Naomi begin to acquire the skills necessary to fulfill another life-long dream—becoming a professional horse trainer.

Starting From The Ground Up

After the Gards adopted Skipper, who had come with the name Skip To My Lou, they made arrangements to board with a trainer in Sherwood, Oregon, two hours from their home in Tillamook. Naomi’s mom would drive her back and forth to see him. It was a rough transition.

“He screamed for a solid 24 hours,” Naomi recalled. “The next day, I took him out and did a bunch of grooming, gave him cookies, and a lot of hand walking. That seemed to calm him down quite a bit.”

Because Skipper’s training history was unknown, they decided to completely restart him, beginning with longing, before reintroducing tack. Naomi soon learned that patience and cookies were the keys to Skipper’s heart, and he made steady progress. Soon, Naomi was laying over him, and when he seemed accepting of that, it was time to try a proper ride.

Skipper rear

Naomi Gard had some challenging moments with Skipper in their early months of groundwork together. Photo Courtesy Of Naomi Gard

“The first day I got on him, he just turned and looked at me like, ‘Oh, you’re on my back now. Cool,’ ” Naomi remembered with a laugh. “My trainer walked me around on him. He seemed more interested in the cookie—we took that as a win.”

Naomi continued to work with Skipper under saddle and schooled him over his first few fences, unmounted, at the end of a longe line. He caught on to new concepts so quickly that Naomi suspected he had some training. But when Naomi and her trainer had differences of opinion on how to proceed, she moved Skipper to Happy Horse of Course, the home base for trainer Julia Mattson.

“He loved it there,” says Naomi. “[Julia] did a lot of positive reinforcement, and her idea was to take them out of the arena as much as possible. Then, when you bring them back in, they’re happier.”

While working with Mattson, Naomi and Skipper rode mostly in the field and on trails. He learned to cross bridges and water.

After six months of training with Mattson, whose farm was a hour away, Skipper could walk, trot and canter under saddle, most of the time with steering. He was ready to move “home” to a neighbor’s farm, where Naomi would manage his daily care and continue his training, by herself.

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One Hurt Foot And Two Steps Back

Skipper had only been home for about a month when he had an accident in the field, slicing off a large chunk of his right hind hoof. He was prescribed six months stall rest and hand walking, with strict attention to hygiene. Naomi spent her days at the barn, attending school online and cleaning Skipper’s stall multiple times per day.

“He very much did not appreciate the stall rest,” she said. “But it gave us a lot of time together.”

By the time the injury healed enough for Naomi to resume work under saddle, Skipper’s training had regressed. He seemed full of pent-up energy, which Naomi attributed to his confinement. But when he started rearing, Naomi asked a friend for help.

“We changed the bit to something softer and the saddle to something that fit better,” Naomi said.

Soon, Naomi resumed riding Skipper out in the open, using hill work to help him build muscle. By the time they returned to the arena, Skipper was fit enough to begin more serious work. Eventually, Naomi introduced jumping under saddle.

“He really seemed to like it,” says Naomi. “Once we started jumping, he would try to drift toward them as soon as we entered the arena. I had to remind him there is such a thing as a warmup!”

Naomi worked mostly on her own, supported by feedback from an occasional clinic. It was late 2018 before the pair attended their first show together. When they did, Naomi was thrilled to win their first class—a crossrail jumper round.

For the next several years, Skipper competed at schooling shows. Naomi spent most of her time working him on the flat, over cavaletti, and hacking in the hills. But as the fences got larger, and Skipper began refusing, Naomi knew she had hit a wall. She reached out to jumper trainer Meg Dunne, and the trajectory of both horse and rider’s futures shifted in an unexpected direction.

Learning How The Pros Do It

Dunne was familiar with Naomi and Skipper, who had attended clinics at her facility in Tualatin, Oregon. Dunne had extensive experience working with what she calls “repurposed” horses and knew just how to help them over their hump.

“Naomi is a really good rider, and Skip is a really nice horse,” Dunne said. “But we needed to get over some mental hurdles, change the training a little bit, and get him some of the maintenance he needed.”

First, Dunne introduced Naomi to Dr. Janine Wilson of Oregon Equine, an FEI veterinarian, equine sports medicine specialist and chiropractor. Thanks to Wilson’s bodywork, Skipper soon began to move more symmetrically, and almost immediately, his attitude under saddle improved.

“From there, we really focused on the fundamentals of flatwork,” Dunne said. “It was about having him get a correct hind end, getting him to reach underneath himself, then helping him work through his back, wither and poll.

“Training correctly, regardless of whether the horse you have is a rescue, an off-track Thoroughbred, or a warmblood you imported, means training them with a foundation of flatwork and then infusing them with confidence,” Dunne continued.

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“Meg has helped me so much with my flatwork, not only to get it better, but so he will stay sounder, for longer,” says Naomi. “He has loved her program. When I first took him to Meg, I could not get him around a 0.70-meter course. Less than a year later, we were jumping 0.90 and 1.0 meter.”

Impressed by Naomi’s work ethic, Dunne offered her a position as assistant trainer and show groom. Naomi experienced her first taste of the atmosphere at “bigger shows” like those at Canada’s Thunderbird Show Park. This unmounted show mileage paid off when Dunne invited Naomi and Skipper to come with her to the Desert International Horse Park in November 2022.

“I wasn’t nervous, because I knew how the shows run, and I knew what I needed to do to make my life easy,” Naomi said. “It took us two days to get there, but he handled the trip like a champ. It was our first ever rated show—we went for a big one!”

Skipper DIHP

Gard and Skipper took home a reserve champion ribbon in the .80-meter jumpers at their first USEF-rated show, Desert Holiday I, held Nov. 29-Dec. 4, 2022, at Desert International Horse Park (Calif.) ESI Photo

Changing The Narrative

Naomi’s goals for the show were to reinforce the lessons learned at home. When she entered the arena for her first class, a timed round, Naomi knew she needed to establish her pace and let Skipper take a good look around.

“Skip sometimes gets very spooky, and because he’s so small, he needs that fast gallop going,” Naomi said. “I just wanted him to have a good experience on the first day, and get around and be confident.

“He walked up to the ring like, ‘This is my time to shine’, ” Naomi recalled. “He was so game and just wanted to go. I tried to really balance him in the corners and get him pointed straight at everything.”

To Naomi’s surprise, they left the ring in first place. But they had gone fourth in the order, and Naomi didn’t think their time would hold. In fact, it wasn’t until a friend watching the results online texted her congratulations later in the day that Naomi realized she and Skip had won.

“To go out there and have the horse I made myself go and win—it was a dream come true,” Naomi said.

The pair would go on to earn the 0.80-meter division reserve championship and completed several 0.90-meter classes during their two-week stay at DIHP.

As Skipper approaches his 15th birthday, Naomi recognizes that long term, her special equine partner will likely be happier jumping at a lower height—and she hopes his next rider might be someone coming up through Dunne’s program.

“He loves little kids and treats them with such carefulness,” she said. “I’m hoping maybe he can do .60s or .70s with a little kid, and once he’s ready to retire, I’ll take him home.”

“The big goal is to create a sound-minded and -bodied horse that we can pass on to somebody else, who gets to teach a few more riders,” Dunne said. “So the narrative isn’t always, ‘He’s a rescue’, it’s, ‘He’s a rescue who is also one heck of a show jumper.’ ”


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 mwright@coth.com.

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