Tuesday, Apr. 23, 2024

Robert Kelley’s Rehab Project Turned Out To Be A Diamond In The Rough

This amateur dressage rider helped his horse Nikko transform from rogue to schoolmaster with some loving care and patience.

Nikko’s description at the rescue organization read something like this: “Not suitable for dressage,  professional ride only.”

But there was something in his face that forced Robert Kelley to take a second look at him, even though amateur dressage is his hobby and his passion.



This amateur dressage rider helped his horse Nikko transform from rogue to schoolmaster with some loving care and patience.

Nikko’s description at the rescue organization read something like this: “Not suitable for dressage,  professional ride only.”

But there was something in his face that forced Robert Kelley to take a second look at him, even though amateur dressage is his hobby and his passion.

“He is the cutest thing in the whole world,” gushed Kelley. “I just fell in love with his personality.” He had no idea this neglected and unhappy equine would be winning ribbons for him in the show ring and teaching him about dressage a year later.

Kelley, 47, wasn’t looking for another horse. A full-time ballet instructor, he was already working at the barn to cover the expenses of his competition horse, and then there were the homebred 2-year-old and a broodmare with another foal on the way living at his Santa Cruz, Calif., home. The last thing he needed was another mouth to feed.

And as Kelley is a relatively inexperienced rider, it didn’t seem appropriate for him to try and turn around this horse that had thwarted professionals.

But Nikko had run out of options, and Kelley just couldn’t say no. “He had totally shut down,” said Kelley. “When you got on him all he would do was rear straight up.”

Like many horses that end up at rescues, Nikko’s past was a bit hazy. Carrie Coe and Pamela Miller of Seven Oaks Farm had trained the Swedish Warmblood gelding until he was 7 years old, but what happened next is unclear. He eventually competed through Prix St. Georges level, but he began to sour and lose interest in his job. He ended up at the rescue after ditching his adult amateur rider one time too many.

“I think he’d been beaten up pretty badly by somebody somewhere in between,” said Kelley. “If you put your leg on him he would fly into the air any way he could. He would freak out on the crossties. I just couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t carry a whip—I couldn’t even look at a whip.”

Kelley was determined to see if he could help Nikko turn the corner, with the help of his trainer, Sandy Howard.

Taking It Slow

For their first six weeks together, Kelley hardly rode Nikko at all. “The horse was clearly uncomfortable, so we put some Vienna reins on him so he would stretch and longed him,” said Howard. “We let him build up some back muscle and waited to see if he was really sound.”

When Kelley did ride him, it was on hacks around the farm, always asking him to stay in a long, low and relaxed frame.

“He only reared up once, and that was way back in the beginning when I got on him,” said Kelley. “He took three trot steps and reared straight up. So I decided to walk for another week and a half. Any time we ran into a stumbling block, that’s what we did. We just went back to walking around the farm.”

Kelley and Howard also examined every detail of Nikko’s program to determine if he was truly comfortable. He started living out 24/7. They added basic supplements to his feed, and Howard’s daughter Anne performed some physical therapy on him.

Howard also spent a great deal of time helping Kelley work on his position to aid Nikko’s recovery.

“I’m a proponent of rider biomechanics,” she said. “We’ve really worked on Robert being in the right place with his seat and being able to be an efficient rider who does not weigh this horse’s rather weak back down.”


Kelley worked with a saddler to make sure correctly fitted tack kept Nikko pain-free. A reactor panel saddle proved quite useful for protecting Nikko’s sore back.

Slowly, Kelley started to ask for more from Nikko, but he encouraged the horse to stay long, low and working over his back.

“He immediately tried to take up that upper-level frame, where somebody had forced him into being,” said Kelley. “That’s generally his nemesis. That’s right where he’ll go if he gets nervous—he’ll immediately go into a fake upper-level frame, way behind the vertical.”

But the biggest step forward came from Howard’s equine dentist, Richard Miller, who discovered hooks that made it impossible for Nikko to work in a dressage frame with his mouth closed.

“A horse needs to have forward and backward motion a little bit to eat, although mostly it’s side to side and up and down,” said Miller. “But when you collect a horse there’s a lot of forward and backward motion. His head goes up and his jaw goes back. As the head comes down, the jaw is supposed to move forward.  If those hooks are there, it can’t happen.”

Not Your Typical Amateur

A former professional ballet dancer, Kelley found horses by accident seven years ago. He had ridden as a child, but a fulltime dancing career followed by a fulltime teaching career at The Studio of Classical Ballet, along with the job of artistic director at the Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre, left him little time for a hobby.

It was a chance conversation with the parent of one of his ballet students that landed him back in the saddle after 30 years away. Cindy Marchese is a riding instructor, and during one particularly rainy year, ballet lessons just weren’t in the budget for her daughter. Kelley learned of this and offered her a scholarship. Marchese initially accepted, but when she learned of Kelley’s childhood riding experiences, she suggested swapping for riding lessons instead.

“It ended up as a trade that lasted seven years,” said Kelley. “I walked up to her barn, and I never left. I jumped on my first horse, and I was hooked again.”

Although dressage is often compared to ballet on horseback, the transition wasn’t so easy for Kelley.

“There’s a lot of similarities and a lot of complete differences [between ballet and riding],” he said. “Ballet is that daily training of your body and your mind, just like dressage. And there’s also the performance comparison. A show is a performance.”

However, physically the two athletic pursuits couldn’t be more different. “In ballet you center your energy in the high chest,” said Howard. “When people have learned to do that as a style of organizing their body, they make really lousy riders because you need to center your energy in your pelvis.”

But Kelley was determined to be different, relying on his experience as a teacher and a student to help him.

“For the first four months I trained with Sandy I wasn’t sure it was going to happen,” he admitted. “I think I can communicate with Sandy on a higher level because I know where everything in my body is.  I think a lot of people don’t have as much body awareness—how could they after 30 years of ballet? I’m a good student because I was a ballet dancer, and all you do as a ballet dancer is take direction.”

Although dressage was the direction Kelley wanted to take, he found himself increasingly specializing in rescues and rehabilitation cases. He started with a mare, but she died while foaling four years ago. Then he lucked onto another mare, a Hanoverian with a collateral ligament tear.

“I got her going pretty well,” said Kelley. “I went really slowly with her. She’s my broodmare now. It just wasn’t up her alley to show. Now all these people call me with rescue horses. I’m a ballet teacher—there’s no more cash there!”

If he could afford to rescue more horses, Kelley would. “That’s my absolute dream to have a rescue facility,” he said. “There are so many good horses out there that just haven’t hit the right situation and haven’t been given the right chances.”


Kelley thought he was done rescuing horses after rehabbing his mare. He bought a Westphalian gelding, Simsalabim, and started to get serious about dressage, working with Howard to show at training and first level. He placed fifth at the Great American/Region 7 Championship last year with Simsalabim in the adult amateur training level division.

A Surprising Result

And then Nikko walked into his life. Kelley wasn’t sure the horse would ever do dressage again, but he felt that it was worth giving the horse another chance.

“I didn’t have any expectations or any timeline,” said Kelley. “Nikko was just a fun boy to have around. That’s probably why he did so well [for me] because there was no expectation. It was just whenever he wanted to do it.”

Nikko got his opportunity to prove to Kelley that he really was on the road to recovery at the Pebble Beach Dressage Show (Calif.) in July of 2007. Kelley had to scratch Simsalabim at the last minute due to an injury and begged show manager Connie Davenport to let him substitute Nikko.

“She was absolutely fabulous in letting me switch levels,” said Kelley. “I just expected to go down and see what happened.”

Kelley had never taken Nikko away from Howard’s American Sporthorse facility and had no idea what to expect. So he entered six training level classes and hoped for the best.

He got more than the best, winning five of those classes and tying for the Adult Amateur Perpetual Trophy with a score of 70.71 percent in training level, test 2.

“He was absolutely stellar in the ring,” said an enthusiastic Kelley. “The only time he freaked out was when they did the national anthem for a [Fédération Equestre Internationale] class. The crowd stood up and cheered, and he spooked, but what horse wouldn’t?”

While some local professionals thought it was silly to enter the horse at training level when his education went so far beyond that, Kelley is in no rush.

“If he stays in training level for two years, he stays in training level,” said Kelley. “It’s not about how far he goes, it’s about how happy he is. It was a lot of time, but I definitely think he’s worth it.”

Howard believes that Nikko will be able to go back up the levels, now that some time has been spent making him feel well and strengthening his basics.

“He kept his nose down, and he’s very obedient and not above the bit doing his transitions, but it really didn’t translate to his back,” said Howard. “Now he is starting to do that, finally. I’m not interested for
Robert to have your typical schoolmaster that does all the tricks with head up and back down. That is so typical that you buy yourself a schoolmaster that has hit the end of the line because the basics are so bad it can’t compete. I would like my students not to have that experience.”

The pair is starting to practice more advanced work now that both Kelley and Nikko are ready. “A little bit of leg yield, a little bit of half-pass,” said Kelley. “We got our first flying change yesterday. I just asked for fun. I asked for it, and he gave it.”

Howard predicts that they’ll be competing at second level in 2008, but Kelley isn’t too worried about it.

“Who knows where it will go from here?” he asked cheerfully. “I’m only going to go as far as he’s happy. I refuse to go any further. The minute he shows any resistance, we’re done.”

Sara Lieser




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