June 2020 - Dressage News & Views: An Ode to Older Horses
Written by by Nan Meek
Thursday, 28 May 2020 03:20

dressage news

Three senior steeds epitomize graceful aging.

by Nan Meek

Older horses come in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of “older.” Some horses are old at 15, worn out from being “used hard and put away wet” as the old saying goes. Others age gracefully until well into their 20s and beyond, transitioning from show ring star to schoolmaster to pasture ornament. And who hasn’t known a lesson horse, calmly packing little kids around the rail during pony camp, year after year. I knew one pony who continued his career as a “packer” until he was almost 40.

I’m lucky enough to have three older horses in my life right now, and they all enrich my life in immeasurable ways.

Helio at sunset.

Helio: Handsome as Hello

My oldest, at age 30, is handsome Helio, a Spanish warmblood gelding who knows he’s the hottest thing on four hooves and demands a level of pampering normally required only by A-list celebrities. I originally acquired him in partnership with my friend Annamae, with the intention of showing this Prix St. Georges level schoolmaster at some point. Annamae showed him once, my life got crazy busy, and I discovered that I could have more fun per hour by riding him in lessons and clinics.

Thus, time marched on, until I woke up to discover that Helio had turned 30 while I wasn’t paying attention, and I owed him a major equine birthday party. Although he spent most of his life being the pampered show horse, he transitioned into life as a pampered clinic star with remarkable aplomb. Once he discovered that absolutely everyone at a clinic was looking at him the entire time, he was happy to have the undivided attention of clinicians such as Andreas Hausberger, the First Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School.

My neighbors, even the dressage queens, are avid trail riders, and they convinced me that Helio would love the trails as much as they did. I’d ridden the trails here on the San Mateo County coast on previous horses, but couldn’t quite picture Helio following in their hoof prints. After all, this is the horse who doesn’t like getting wet or dirty. He’s never told me this, but I suspect he doesn’t like it when his mane gets too long, either. How can I tell? After a freshly pulled coiffeur, he tosses his head and puffs up his chest as if to tell the world what hot stuff he is.

Imagine my surprise when he took to trail riding like … not like a duck to water, since water is the only part of trail rides he detests. No rivers or streams, not even a trickle of water in a curbside culvert. He won’t cross any of them. Anything else, however, is fair game. Deer in the bushes are cool. Barking dogs behind a fence, not so much, but he just looks and carries on. His favorite is riding at the head of the group and taking a new trail he’s never been on in his life.

Helio proves that you’re never too old to learn something new.

Mischa in his younger days. Photo: Jana Peterson

Mischa: Angel By Name, Angel By Nature

At 20 years old, my Lipizzan gelding Mischa is the sweetest angel. He even has the wings to prove it – he portrayed the winged Pegasus in a costumed musical performance, much to everyone’s delight, including his own.

His registered Lipizzan name confirms his angelic status: officially, he’s Neapolitano Angelica II-1. That gives away the clue that his dam was Angelica (meaning angel-like) and his sire was from the Neapolitano line that originated in Italy. It’s no wonder that he resembles the elegant baroque white horses in Italian renaissance paintings, a distinction he shares with the world famous Lipizzan stallions of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.

Mischa came to me as an older fellow that a friend was thinking about buying. His soundness didn’t meet her needs, so she didn’t snap him up, which was a blessing for me. Helio needed a buddy to keep him company, so Mischa stayed with me. He was sound enough for about a year of gentle dressage and trail riding before it became clear that he needed to become the classiest pasture ornament in the neighborhood.

Since his retirement, he has specialized in grazing and cuddles, provided the lush tail that visiting children love to braid, and kept a watchful eye on the wildlife that come down from the hills to share his field when he’s tucked up at night in his cozy stall and paddock. He and Helio visit over a shared fence line and through the window between their stalls. I can look out my window and watch them mutually grooming, their teeth scratching the other guy’s withers, and only occasionally ripping a hole in the other guy’s fly sheet.

It’s not all peaceful grazing and mutual massage for Mischa, however. The other day, the shadow of a hawk who was riding the thermals above him startled him, and he went from grazing to capriole in less than 10 seconds. “Doesn’t look lame now,” commented my farrier, who was there to shoe Helio. Of course, handsome Helio paid absolutely no attention, because really, it wasn’t about him at all.

Mischa proves that good friends don’t care about egos.

Nan and Celtico.

Celtico: Solid Gold Saint

Also 20 years old, Celtico is a horse that is truly worth his weight in gold. This grey Andalusian can attack the trails of Montara Mountain one day, and the next day shine in the dressage arena. He’s the horse that everyone wants to accompany them on the trail when they’re riding a nervous new horse. He’s the solid citizen who packs around little girls in matching pink tutus and cowboy boots, and he’s the horse that you want to be riding on a windy day, when tree branches crack on the hill overlooking the arena and deer jump out of the bushes.

Celtico belongs to my friend Claudia, who generously lets me ride him whenever I can break away from work. She says it’s actually Celtico who lets me ride him, because he likes me better than other riders. I tell her what he really likes are the copious carrots and bottomless bags of low-starch, low-sugar horse treats that show up with me. But I hope he likes me, because I think the world of him.

Claudia bought him eight years ago, when nobody else would. He didn’t have much training, and he was blind in one eye. His walk was a pace, his trot was choppy, and his canter resembled an egg beater.  Mutual friends told her he’d never make it past Training Level, but there’s nobody more determined than Claudia when she makes up her mind to do something. I knew she’d succeed, and she did.

Today, Claudia and Celtico have a CDS Reserve Champion Second Level Freestyle title to their credit. Celtico now has a swingy walk with a nice overstep. His trot comes in true collected, medium, and extended flavors. And his canter is a lovely big, round, uphill three-beat dream. I’m particularly fond of his lateral work – all I have to do is think renvers, and he does it. That pretty much also goes for shoulder-in and the rest of the lateral movements, provided I’ve warmed him up well. Can you tell that I love riding him?

There’s a deeper reason that I admire and appreciate all that he is, and all that he’s become, and that is his character.

Celtico brought significant baggage when he moved to Claudia’s barn, which we speculate stems from the accident that cost him the sight in his right eye. Generally he’s a calm guy, he can get really wound up when he’s asked to learn something new, like flying changes, or when he sees something new, like a giant wolfhound that’s the size of a pony but doesn’t look like a pony at all.

When Celtico does something well, you can feel his pride. From a rider’s perspective, there’s nothing like nailing a perfect transition, for example, and feeling your horse’s respond to your quick pat on the neck and “good boy” praise. Those moments of communication with Celtico make it a joy to ride him.

When he doesn’t understand what’s being asked of him, he gets very upset. Watching from the sidelines, you can see his frustration and anxiety build. When you’re the rider in the saddle, you can feel the tension throughout his body. He tries his heart out, but when he doesn’t think he can do what you ask of him, or he doesn’t understand how to do it, his fear and anxiety overwhelm his brain and his emotions. Thankfully, those moments are increasingly rare, and they are far outnumbered by the days when Celtico shines.
Celtico proves that what you overcome makes what you achieve all the sweeter.


A lifelong horse owner, Nan Meek lives on the scenic San Mateo County coast where dressage courts and riding trails overlook the Pacific Ocean. She competed in dressage to the Prix St. Georges level with her late beloved Lipizzan Andy (Maestoso II Athena II-1), and now practices the discipline of dressage with her handsome Spanish warmblood Helio Jerez 2000 and dotes on the newest family member Mischa (Neapolitano Angelica II-1).