From Endurance to Dressage
Camping at Montana de Oro, summer 2009
.... also known as "Sweetie-Petie-Pie" around the barn and "Fast and Faster" on the trail.
For several months I've tried to write this post. I just haven't been able to find words that are eloquent enough to describe her. And after writing several drafts, I still can't. Montoya was a very special horse and everything that I write, or attempt to write, comes out sounding trivial. I really wanted her story to convey how special she truly was. Even though my words won't leave the impression I want them to, I hope you'll try to see past them and recognize what a spectacular horse she was.
Montoya was hell on wheels, a bitch when she needed to be, and a monster trail eater. If you needed to get somewhere, anywhere, all you had to do was think, go, and you'd be there. And if you were already hustling down the trail, she could find another gear. I never used up all that was in the tank. It made her difficult to ride because I never knew if she was on the verge of being over-ridden. In fact, she always acted as though I was holding her back. She always had more to give. Even in the last moments of her life, she offered more.
My time with Montoya started on a very late December night in 1998. Jim Bumgardner was supposed to have arrived late in the afternoon with a trailer full of horses for me to look at. He was late, very late. The temperature was in the 30s and it was after 9:00 p.m. before he pulled into the barn area. Even though it was late, he wanted to continue on to Ridgecrest, several hours to the east. So without any more delay, my group of friends helped unload five or six mares from the trailer. Several were given an immediate no; one looked sick with a snotty nose, one was too small, and one was priced out of my budget. Two or three were left standing in front of us.
I don't remember much about the others, but Montoya caught everyone's eye immediately. She had the most amazing mass of tangled mane that any of us had ever seen. Even in the dark it stood out. It hung down past the tip of her shoulder and nearly touched her knee when she lowered her head. Her forelock covered her entire face and was the same flaxen color as her mane. Her tail, also lush and thick, was red. When I got close enough to stroke her face, I found that her mane and forelock were matted with tar weed.
A friend trotted out the remaining horses for me to evaluate. Montoya had the nicest movement of the group, and she looked sound. We all agreed that she seemed to be the best endurance prospect of the bunch. Jim Bumgardner had to return our way in a week or so and offered to trade her out for one of the others when he returned if I found that I didn't like her. I gave him a check, and he gave me her Arabian Horse Association registration papers. We later discovered that she was quite well bred with a mostly Russian ancestry. She was nine years old.
Jim Bumgardner didn't have to come back for her. I kept her. Over the next few days I cleaned her up and began a decade's long effort to control her unruly mane. The tar weed wouldn't clean out of her forelock, and I was forced to cut most of it off. It grew back in record time and hung to the top of her nose for the rest of her life.
I bought Montoya in the middle of a December night based solely on a trot out. At 27 years old, it never occurred to me that she wasn't broke or that she would be too hot for me to ride. I could ride anything. Literally. I did discover that while she was broke, and I use the word very liberally, it had been many years since she'd been under saddle. And she was hot. Fiery hot. Fortunately she wasn't a bucker, and as long as we were going forward, she was happy.
Lakeside Classic 25-miler - April 1999
I took Montoya to her first endurance ride that April, just four months after buying her. Trailering, camping, and standing tied were taken in stride. All she cared about was working. She tolerated everything else. We rode the limited distance 25 miler at Lakeside in just over three hours. We flew over the course as though she had wings. I remember cresting a hill at the halfway point and saw the vet check just over the top. Montoya had never been to an endurance ride and didn't know what to think of the mass of people and horses in the middle of the trail. Her head snapped up, and she slowed her methodical charge. She was completely baffled, but like she would do for the rest of her life, she made a mental note of the strangeness of humans, and continued working.
The first year that Montoya and I competed together we completed seven endurance races; a 25-miler, five 50s, and a 75-miler. We traveled to Oakland (San Francisco Bay area), to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, to the Pacific Coast, and to Los Angeles and beyond. We even drove to the east side of San Diego for a race where we could almost see across the desert to Mexico. It was a rewarding, and exciting, first year together.
The next year we rode several 50 mile races and completed three one-day hundred milers. We earned 6th place in the lightweight division for the AERC Pacific Southwest Region. It was quite a year. Montoya and I continued to have many exciting race seasons. In 2002 we earned the Fire Mountain Award of Excellence for completing a series of races with the same horse/rider team: the 4-day 200 mile Death Valley Encounter, the 20 Mule Team 100, and the Eastern High Sierra Classic 50.
Over the years, we entered many more endurance races including two more hundred milers and a handful of multi-day races. We also enjoyed week long camping trips and trail rides with friends. Taz's mom rode Montoya in four endurance races while Taz was in training and later injured. I even bred her to one of Sheila Varian's stallions in 2004, but she lost the fetus at two months. It was one of the saddest times she and I shared, but it wasn't meant to be. Montoya was never ill, and suffered only one minor injury. It took a year of long slow work, but she recovered fully and continued her endurance career.
Speedy G and Montoya DSA - April 2009
Montoya was also a leader and buddy to three of my other horses. She kept Sassy company until she finally moved on to live with a new family. She was a rock of stability to Mickey Dee, a project horse who became much more. And of course she helped Speedy G adjust to life as an endurance horse.
In January of 2010, Montoya colicked and was euthanized. The necropsy revealed a blood clot that had broken loose and found it's way to a capillary that provided blood to her intestines. When the blood flow stopped, a length of intestine died. Surgery would not have saved her.
Montoya's death was such a sudden and terrible loss that I found it very difficult to read the thoughtful condolences that were sent to me. I appreciated them, but I couldn't read them. I tucked each one away to be read someday in the future. Taz's mom wrote a lovely tribute that I have never shared with anyone. I think it's time. Here it is.
Miss you Sweetie-Petie-Pie!
Sassy's story is not remarkable in any way. There was no love at first site, no fireworks, and certainly no surprise births. Sassy's arrival marked my first adult purchase outside of school or marriage. I think it was the first time that I did something completely on my own as an adult. I was 24 years old.
I married my husband the summer that I finished earning my teaching credential. I left my college town and joined him in Bakersfield, far from my own family and friends. I was lonely, but I made friends quickly, and dove into my new career. Within about six months, the horse bug resurfaced. I am certain that my husband believed the horse thing was just a childhood passion, but I knew better. One afternoon I opened the phone book to search for a nearby stable in hopes that I might at least find a rental option. Just minutes away from our apartment was a place, and after a quick chat, the owner told me to come on down. He pulled out a large appaloosa gelding and asked if I'd like to try him out. After a quick ride in the arena, I asked what it would take for me to get to ride him whenever I wanted.
A leased horse. I think his name was Skyhawk.
I honestly don't remember all of the details, but I entered into a simplified feed lease where I simply paid his board bill, and they took care of the rest. I don't remember discussing it with my husband, but I do know that he came out and took pictures of my "new" horse. I leased him for a few months, but quickly realized that he had some training holes, and I didn't want to waste my money training someone else's horse. I "quit" the lease option and put the money I was paying toward board in the bank. My husband received a small bonus at work that fall and generously gave me several hundred dollars to use as I wanted. It also went into the bank.
Sassy in the summer of 1996.
By spring, I had saved about $750, and I started reading the classifieds each day. Back then of course, horses were relatively cheap and dozens were listed in the paper. I searched eagerly for a big quarter horse mare that could easily tote me through the hills on the edge of town. I have no idea why my eye caught the listing for a five year old Arabian mare. I hated Arabians. I always said they were like riding a fence rail ... skinny and ugly! Even so, I secretly took the classified section to work and put in the call. After work that afternoon, I drove across town to a little house with pasture out back. There stood a small, dappled gray mare. She was quite cute and had the softest eyes I had ever seen on a horse. I now know that Arabians are well-known for their lovely and expressive doe eyes.
I didn't tell anyone that I was buying a horse. Not even my new husband. Sound familiar? I wrote the man a check for $800 and told him I would be back the next day. The problem was that I had no truck or trailer, no halter, no tack, and no idea where I might even keep her. Even so, I wasn't worried about how I'd get Sassy home. I had a horse again and that was enough. When I got home, I had an enormous smile plastered on my face. No amount of effort on my part could subdue it. My husband knew what it meant immediately. His first words weren't even a question. "You bought a horse!" Yep. And my already wide smile got wider still.
[A side note: I should have known even way back then that he was a keeper. How many young husbands would be "okay" with a wife making such a large purchase without even the courtesy of a consultation? I love you, sweetie!]
When I arrived at work the next morning, I found a co-worker who had horses. She and I had just started a new friendship, and I felt comfortable asking for her help. She doesn't remember this, but she quickly called her barn manager who arranged for a truck and trailer to go pick up my new horse. I gave the address where Sassy lived and agreed to pay the driver $50 for his time and effort.
Riding Sassy at the Caspar's Park Challenge 50-miler in 1998
Sassy and I had a lot of fun together trail riding. She was also my first endurance horse. I "raced" her for several seasons until she began to develop some lameness issues. Endurance riding is very hard on horses. Not many of them can withstand the concussive forces that come from trotting mile after mile. It eventually became apparent that the job of endurance mount was simply too hard for her so I decided that being a family horse was the best job for her. Another co-worker was looking for a smaller, well-broke horse for her kids to ride. It was a perfect fit.
That co-worker who helped arrange Sassy's transport is Taz's mom. At the time, she had a gray Arabian mare named Abby. We rode those two little mares hours and hours and mile after mile. Thanks to those two Arabian mares, the friendship that grew between us has lasted almost two decades. The most important lesson that Sassy taught me was one about building and maintaining friendships.
I am glad I never did find that big quarter horse. My life took a very different path than what I had planned when I bought that Arabian.
And then there was Corky. She was probably my first "heart" horse. Montoya was the second. You know the ones. They're the ones that touch you deep down inside. "Heart" horses know you better than anyone else, even better than your spouse might. They get you, and they love you completely anyway. Don't misunderstand. I loved Sunny, Nakota, and Gideon as well, but it was just different with Corky.
Corky actually came to me from the very same family that gave me Sunshine. I still had Nakota and Gideon at home, so I don't remember exactly why I started hanging around their place after school. Maybe it was because Nakota had just delivered and had a foal at her side. Whatever the reason, I started riding Corky in the afternoons. I would ride the school bus to Garberville, which is 9 or 10 miles down the highway from my Dad's house, and my stepmom would pick me up after she got off work.
During one afternoon visit, Chris, the owner, asked why no one wanted to buy his horses. I know now that he was just "fishing." I will, I exclaimed eagerly. Of course I would, why would a third horse be any more expensive or any more work than the two I already had? Chris nodded his head knowingly and asked how much money I had. Two hundred bucks.
The money was in a savings account that I am sure was, in my Dad's mind, destined for something practical. Probably college, or some other event that was in the far distant future. I am not quite sure why I felt that he would be okay with me emptying my "for-my-future" savings account, but the deal was struck.
I don't remember the money exchanging hands, and I can't even remember how we got Corky home, but once she was there, a whole new set of adventures began.
Corky taught me a lot about riding a forward horse. She was fast, athletic, and fearless. We vaulted logs, swam in the river, galloped long stretches, climbed steep hills, and occasionally rested in the shade of the redwood park at the edge of town. I even rode her the three miles to school one day, with Gideon ponied to the side, as a model for the Junior High Ag class.
There wasn't anything that Corky couldn't do. She gave me a powerful confidence: with horses I felt knowledgable; with boys I felt empowered to be their equal and more; and with my school work I knew college was a realistic goal. I don't understand how the relationship with a horse can cause such great changes within us, but Corky was one of those who did that.
When it came time for me to leave home and go to college, Corky had to find a new home, but I couldn't bring myself to sell her. It didn't seem right to sell a best friend and confidant. Instead, I found a woman who simply needed a horse to love, and I gifted Corky to her.
I occasionally meet horses like Corky. And I recognize them immediately for what they are. Heart horses.
Read Part 1 Here
I was near tears and my Dad, bless his heart, couldn't figure out quite what was so upsetting. I think he may have said something like we'll find 'em, as though they were obviously close by. We were in the middle of the Pacific Coast Range and the nearest highway was some miles away. Of course he was right. She was close.
I don't know if it was my Dad, or me, who decided that I should go by foot, but that's what happened. I started climbing the hill from the bottom, and my Dad drove the bike back up to the corral to see if she had come back. I climbed the hill, ducking under branches and crashing through thick underbrush, keeping my eyes peeled for Nakota's red coat. And near the top, I caught the flick of a tail swatting at a fly.
I approached cautiously, not at all sure of what I'd find. When I got close, I gasped in dismay. Nakota was standing over her foal, who was caught in a tangled mess of branches and bushes. His slender little legs were crooked and bent at awkward angles, and I wasn't even sure he was alive. I reached out and touched her hip gently. She nickered, but let me get closer. I knew I couldn't move him byself so I started shouting to my dad that I'd found them.
I was never so relieved to see my Dad's outline as when I saw him emerge through the brush. I pushed Nakota back, and my Dad gently reached under the foal and untangled his little legs. I remember seeing his heart beating through his little ribcage as my dad carried him in his arms up that steep hillside. I don't remember a halter, but Nakota followed along politely. I do remember thinking that Nakota knew we were helping. She stayed behind me as we followed my dad, but she did keep her eyes on her baby.
Dad carried the foal into the corral and set him down carefully. Nakota needed no encouragement to enter. She barged though the gate, eager to check out her baby. We closed the gate, and watched a foal try to rise for the second time. It took him a while to get on his feet and stay there, and once up, he did the same thing that all newborn foals do. He suckled at his momma's armpits, legs, belly and finally found her teats. After his escape, Nakota kept herself between her foal and the fence. There was no way she was losing him a second time!
Once everyone was safe, my dad and I took a look around. We think that Nakota laid down close to the fence and delivered her baby. When he eventually got up, he was on the wrong side. In his confusion, he must have headed the wrong way, and probably fell down the steep side of the hill. Once he was buried amongst the branches, there was no way for him to rise.
In the end, he grew up to be a very sturdy fellow who followed us around like a puppy dog. He had no fear of ropes, loud noises, or motorcycles! I eventually needed a more forward horse than Nakota, and as promised, I gave her back. Since I had raised the foal, he was mine to keep and do with as I wanted. I named him Gideon after the young man from the book of Hebrews. One of its meaning is mighty warrior. When Gideon was two, I left home for a study abroad. I sold him for $200 to a man that I knew to be good with horses.
As with Sunny, Nakota and Gideon each taught me many lessons. Nakota let me learn about "breaking" horses in the gentlest way possible, while her son taught me something about the miracle of life. Both were special teachers.
You met Sunshine not too long ago. Nakota came as a gift when we had to euthanize Sunny. She was by a local Quarter Horse Stallion named Red. Her owners thought enough of her that when the time came for me to move on to another horse, she was to be returned. And oh, she might be pregnant.
Isn't that how it goes? Free horses always come with something extra. And in this case, it really was a something extra!
Nakota was somewhere around three years old when she came to me. She wasn't broke to ride, but there was no hurry-bone in that mare. I lunged her a few times, carefully placed a saddle on her back, and tied the leadrope to the halter to make a set of reins. And I just rode her. I didn't know that un-broke horses could buck like the devil. She didn't, and before long, we were trail riding all over the dirt roads of the mountains behind our house or ambling along the Eel River.
Little by little Nakota's belly got bigger and bigger. I kept asking around if anyone thought she really might be pregnant. No one knew, and no one thought to call the vet. She either was or she wasn't. Early one morning we found out that she was.
My corral was up a little trail above the house. My dad's property is covered with dense brush and trees and if not removed, it gets pretty thick. You couldn't see the horse fencing from the house down below. I ran up and down the trail at least a million times each day. It was a well-worn footpath by the time I went to college. Each morning at dawn I would throw on rubber boots if it was raining, or just go barefoot if it wasn't. I zipped up the trail to throw hay and fill the water trough. On school days, I would hurry back home and climb back into bed for a few minutes. On weekends or during the summer, I would hang around and groom or just visit.
I know it was a morning in March 1987, but I am not sure if it was a school day or not. Just like every other morning I ran up the trail, grabbed Nakota's flake of hay and tossed it into her corral. Right away I knew something was wrong. She was agitated and pacing the fence line, not her normal routine. I looked around in the pre-dawn light and noticed that her robust belly was gone and each rib was standing out. I also noticed a goopy mess on the ground that I quickly realized must be an afterbirth. I looked around for a foal and was dismayed that there didn't appear to be one. Where could it have gone?
I clearly wasn't able to solve the problem, but Nakota seemed determined to try. I threw open the gate and watched her plunge over the side of the steep, brush covered hill. I whipped around the way I'd come, and rather than follow her through the brush, I ran to get my dad. I am pretty sure he heard me yelling from all the way up the hill because it took him about ten second to get up and fire up his motorcycle.
I should pause here and talk about that motorcycle. All of my horses were very comfortable with the roar of the bike as it was the way my dad zipped up and down into town and around the property. On hot days, cold days, and especially on lazy days I would beg for a ride up to the horses so that I didn't have to walk. I had been riding on the back of my dad's bikes since I was so small that my arms didn't even wrap all the way around his waist!
So when I heard the bike fire up, I was on the back in seconds directing my dad down the hill over which Nakota had charged. I was hoping to intercept her before she went any farther down. We looked for her for quite a while, but she was nowhere to be found. Now I was missing a foal AND a mare.
Read Part Two Here
About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at Second Level. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2021 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2021 Pending …
8/7-8 SCEC (***)
10/30-31 SCEC (***)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
6/26-27 SCEC (***)
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
2021 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2nd Level Qualifying
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 60.610% Bhathal
2nd Level Qualifying
5 Scores/4 Judges/61%:
Stuff I Read