In It For The Long Haul

APRIL 2020.

The gift was perfect, yet bittersweet: an antique wooden hat and glove box in which to store the ribbons, test sheets, and photos I’d collected with my beloved horse, Dante. Our 16 years had passed too quickly… if only I’d more time.  

 Neapolitano Slatano IV (Dante) was born April 8th, 1997 number four in the Lipizzan line of Neapolitano Karla from Jordi Lipizzan of Minnesota.  

As Dante got off the trailer at my boarding barn in Florida, I fell in love. I’d been offered a six-month lease with an option to buy and of course I wanted him: a handsome dappled grey five year-old with black legs, mane, and tail, and as round as a house. Surely we would rock the dressage world together. 

I was surprised to learn that Dante had only three months under saddle — Lipizzans aren’t started as two or three year-olds. This led me to Lesson #1. 

Lesson 1: Patience 

Dante and I weren’t going to rock the dressage world any time soon. We weathered the ups and downs of gaining an element, losing it, then getting it again. Our training came in two steps forward, five steps back.  

With encouragement from our trainer and clinicians we eventually started showing at schooling shows and some rated shows. When I read about the USDF rider medals, I set my sights on the Bronze Medal, requiring two qualifying scores at First, Second, and Third Levels.  

Lesson 2: Persistence 

Our show career was off to a tough start. Judges commented that Dante lacked basic talent, mobility, and range of motion. He also had a four-beat canter. Yet Dante had the kindest eye and was a willing partner. My heart was in it for the long haul. It took nearly 10 years for us to squeak out the scores for the Bronze Medal. It was worth the wait. 

Lesson 3: Expectations   

Next, I set my sights on a Silver Medal, which required qualifying scores at Fourth Level and Prix St. Georges. Ambitious, but I felt we could do it. In the meantime, we moved from Florida to Central Oregon. While Dante thrived, the judges in Oregon were just as tough as those in Florida. I saw a greater variety of horse breeds in the show ring, but our scores didn’t improve. 

Indeed, Dante had a less than ideal conformation for dressage. The Neapolitana line was intended for Airs Above the Ground and pulling cannons. We persisted, nevertheless. 

Lesson 4: Mental Toughness 

When a judge says, “You should be riding two levels below what you’re showing,” it’s hard not to take offense, especially when your trainer felt you were prepared.  

Another judge gave me a score of 4 for “not letting your reins out fast enough in the extended walk” plus an error of minus 2. Learning not to take tough comments personally was an important lesson. I’m grateful for all that judges do for our sport… but sometimes you have to set a test sheet aside. 

Lesson 5: Take the Time You Need 

To prepare for Fourth Level, trainer Natalie Perry suggested that she do some of the training under saddle. Given that Fourth Level was new to me, this made sense. Natalie would tune Dante up, then have me get on.  

We made significant progress. And when clinician Tina Steward called Dante my ‘Silver Medal Horse,’ I was thrilled. To my surprise, Fourth Level was easy. We earned our scores at one two-day show! I was sure we’d get our Silver Medal that next season. 

Lesson 6: Don’t Get Ahead of Yourself 

Oops! It’s a huge jump from Fourth Level to Prix St. Georges. We took time off of showing to train, returning to the show ring in earnest three years later. We earned 61.2 at our first show of the season, so I assumed we’d need only one more show to earn our score. Little did I know,  

as clinician Tina Steward, says, “The horse is the clock.” The horse sets the pace at which we can progress. 

Our summer passed with scores of 58 and 59 — just inches from the 60% we needed. With show season coming to a close, I resigned myself to trying again next year. Fortunately, my husband Bob said, “No. We are going to Medford.” 

This last show of the season was a three-hour trek over the mountains — and no one else from our barn was going. But Bob had an inkling that something was wrong with Dante… that we were running out of time. I agreed to go.  

Lesson 7: Ride Like There’s No Tomorrow 

Dante’d had harmless melanomas for years.“Don’t worry,” friends said, “they won’t kill your horse.” When a bump on Dante’s tail burst open, our veterinarian suggested we lance it after fly season. And while Dante was lifting his tail to poop and laying down more often, I thought/hoped, “He’s just tired.” 

Setting my concerns aside, we trailered to Medford without the support of my trainer and barn buddies. A bit rattled, our first ride wasn’t even close to the score we needed. I had little hope we’d do well the following day, but it was our last chance of the season.  

The next day I rode like there was no tomorrow. When we left the arena, I sat on Dante, patting him, thinking about our ride, and everything leading up to this one. It was a moment to savor.  

When Bob brought the test sheet, I saw that we’d earned 60.00. We had grown together in leaps and bounds—and, finally, a couple of judges saw that. We came home on Cloud Nine, happy to give Dante the week off. I made plans to earn the Bronze Freestyle bar.  

We made an appointment to have Dante’s tail cared for. Worst case, it might need to be docked. 

Lesson 8: Appreciate What You Have, While You Have It … 

Dr. Krebs, DVM removed a melanoma on Dante’s tail and one outside his rectum. Checking further she found an inoperable tumor in his bowels. The prognosis was vague: maybe a year? I thought. Perhaps we’d just trail ride. 

Dr. Krebs disimpacted Dante and we went home. The next week, we returned. Disimpact, return home. Repeat. This time Dante was all bloody. 

“We can’t do that again,” Dr. Krebs said. 

I held back the tears. We might still have time to trail ride? 

On October 31st, 2018, I came out to feed and found Dante down and in obvious pain.  

I called Dr. Krebs. It’s time. 

I gave Dante a double dose of Banamine to ease his pain. When he got to his feet, I gave him the hay he loved, standing with him, petting his neck, knowing it was his last meal. 

Dante is buried on our property under the trees he enjoyed standing beneath. Medford was the last time I sat on his back and we were One. 

Lesson 9: Let Your Heart Break 

When I think that Dante gave me his best, earning that final score when his body was struggling, I am in awe. Our partnership was full of beauty. He was a rare breed and a rare personality, with rare capability—and he died of a rare disease. As I mourn his loss I also celebrate all he gave me.  

Lesson 10: Embrace Gratitude 

Dante’s box holds the tangible record of our show history:  

110 rides in 16 years 

25 rides at PSG to complete our Silver Medal 

Of course, our history is about more than a medal. Dante gave me a lifetime’s worth of lessons: about riding, partnership, emotions, and commitment. And while I lost him long before I was ready, those lessons live with me. 

Know, too, that it’s never too late. Dante was 21 and I was 69 when we achieved our Silver.  

Lesson 11: Look Ahead & BAmazed 

Call it fate—or divine intervention—but a new horse came into my life with uncanny timing.  

Two months before we had any inkling that we’d lose Dante, Bob announced that he wanted a trail horse. We went to look at rescue horses and later came home, not with the horse of Bob’s choosing (who was running around crazy), but with Dooley, a kind and willing chestnut gelding.  

When Dante left my life, Dooley was waiting in the wings ready to fill the hole in my heart. In the past 16 months he’s gone from being completely unbroken to schooling Second Level. As I go through my memories of Dante, my heart hurts, yet is full of gratitude. The partnership I’m building with Dooley is based on the foundation of everything I learned from my beloved Dante.  

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