Dagmar Caramello
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Dagmar Caramello


About Dagmar Caramello

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C’est La Vie: The Heartbreak of an Unsound Horse

La in her element. La in her element.

Eventing is a sport of breathtaking highs and gut-wrenching lows, and every person involved in this sport has probably experienced each of these at least once, if not several times over. We carefully select our horses based on breeding, conformation, and other factors; we keep our horses in rigorous fitness programs; we consult regularly with our vets and farriers about our horses’ health and soundness; we provide the best nutrition that we can; and we carefully monitor our horses’ mental and emotional states at all times to ensure that they are happy.

We commit an inordinate amount of time and money to guarantee both our horses’ well-being as animals and their success as athletes. But even after all that we still have to accept the fact that, no matter the talent or the heart, some horses simply will not hold up to the demands of eventing.

After donating my would-be Young Riders horse to the Park Police after four years of vet bills and only four trips down the centerline, I was no stranger to the disappointment that is an unsound horse. I hoped that La, my new Oldenburg mare, would be my next upper-level horse.

I bought La in 2009 from a small dressage barn in Virginia. Her dam was competing at the Grand Prix level in dressage and her sire was a successful Grand Prix jumper. On paper, La had all the tools she needed to be a successful event horse. However, a period of time spent in a Wellington jumper barn had destroyed her confidence and had instilled in her an intense fear of jumping.

Through some connections who were familiar with her during her jumping stint in Florida, we determined that La had likely been exposed to some “alternative” forms of training. This manifested in a horse who, though very tidy with her knees, could not even stand in a jumping arena without panicking and washing out. The sound of another horse dropping (or even tapping) a rail was grounds for a complete meltdown.

I spent most of my first year with La just hand-walking over ground poles. This slowly progressed to exaggerated, somewhat erratic jumping until finally, about two years later, her brain started to catch up to her body (or maybe it was the other way around).

Once we established a baseline of trust, I cautiously introduced La to eventing. Her first year of competition was littered with Es, penalties of 20 and 40 points, and one RF. But finally, sometime during our second competition season, something just clicked.

After a handful of clean runs at the Beginner Novice and Novice levels, La transformed from a nervous, green, ex-dressage horse/failed jumper to a capable, confident event horse who would explode out of the start box in her zeal to get out on the cross country. After her second Novice, it was rare that La ever added a point to a dressage score.

We concluded the 2013 season with a spotless record at the Training level. The 2014 season looked promising, and I planned to move her up to Preliminary during the summer after spending the winter in Maryland. However, the year got off to a rocky start when La was diagnosed with Equine Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy (EPSM) in early March.

EPSM is an inherited metabolic disease caused by a dysfunction in the way the muscles synthesize and store glycogen. The disease is often characterized by lethargy, exercise intolerance, shifting lameness, muscle soreness, mild colic and muscle wasting.

Unfortunately, these signs can look like a lot of other problems, especially when experienced independently of one another, thus making the condition tricky to diagnose. By the time my vet and I came to the conclusion that EPSM was the problem, La had already lost a significant amount of weight and muscle and had been in only very light work for a couple months.

Although there is no cure for EPSM, it can be successfully managed through a low starch/high fat diet and a strict exercise regimen. With a diet change, La made a complete 180 (quite literally, overnight) and was quickly back on track to start the 2014 season, albeit a bit late.

We finally got to our first event of the year in July and ran two more Training events before I made the decision to move her up to Prelim in September. We did a fantastic cross-country clinic with Jimmy Wofford in August, and I was feeling confident about our move-up.

Photo: Amy Berbert

Photo by Amy Berbert

I continued prepping La for the new challenges she would face at Prelim, but in late August she started to tell me something was wrong. It began as a very mild lameness. For the most part, La worked out of it within 10 minutes or so.

This is also very common for the type of lameness you see in EPSM horses so initially I was not too worried about it. However, the lameness persisted. She had no irregular heat or swelling anywhere. No sensitivity. My vet and I poked and prodded and palpated daily while La stood by indifferent.

She did not display the typical head bob nor did she seem to favor any leg in particular. The lameness was so subtle, in fact, that you had a better chance of hearing it in her footfalls than you had in seeing it. For a month we tried test after test, treatment after treatment, with the lameness never getting better (but also never getting worse).

Finally my vet suggested I bring La in for a bone scan in the hopes of getting a conclusive prognosis. Three days later La was on the way to her appointment at Virginia Equine Imaging.

When two vets call you at your office in the middle of the day and tell you, “I’m trying to come up with some good news for you here (pause),” you know you’re about to have your heart broken. In a matter of 10 minutes, I learned that my teammate of five years, whom I had hoped to be competing with at the upper levels for years to come, might, with aggressive treatment, have a very, very slim chance of returning to her current level of work. There was very little hope of her progressing beyond that. Both vets suggested a career as a low-level dressage horse.

This news sparked weeks of fluctuating emotions not unlike those you experience when mourning the death of a loved one: sorrow, anger, resentment, guilt. Over the coming weeks I would become angry with myself, then with her, then would feel guilty for feeling that way.

Some days I would inexplicably resent her, and knowing this was nothing she could help, would feel guilty for that, too. Some days I got myself excited by the prospect of starting a new horse, would look around the CANTER website for a while, and then would feel extreme guilt for that.

I continued to stop by the barn after work every day to groom and hand-graze her. Most days I didn’t want to, having preferred to just hide from the entire situation, but I always felt better when I did. I was happy to see that La was completely oblivious to this turn of events and seemed content to be hanging out and eating instead of working.

While I was trying to deal with this flood of emotions, I was also trying to be as practical as possible — something that is very difficult for me as I tend to think with my heart, not my head (something I’ve learned will get you into trouble with horses every single time).

So what do you do with a retiree/lay-up when you pay full board and don’t have your own place to keep her? I knew that I did not want to sell La or give her away. And even if I did, she was going to need a significant amount of time off before I was able to move forward.

At this point my priority was finding La a suitable living situation at a lower cost. Fortunately, the equine community is a tight-knit group and I received an outpouring of offers to take her in.

I’ve been reflecting on why this whole thing has been so hard to deal with emotionally, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that it was the surprise factor. When I’ve ended relationships with other horses, it has been because I was ready to move on to something else.

Was I sad when they left to go to their new homes? Sure. But in knowing that you will be selling that horse, you can begin to emotionally distance yourself from them so that it doesn’t hurt as much when they leave. But with La, I wasn’t ready to move on. We had really only just hit our stride, and I was looking forward to the future with her more than ever.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve returned to the realization that the Fair Hill August horse trials would be the last time we would ever leave the start box together. I think it’s the finality of it that’s the most nauseating.

La has been at her new home for a few weeks now, dedicating herself to perfecting her feral look — fat, furry and filthy. I recently hopped on her bareback to talk a short walk, and in less than five minutes she was back to her standard rodeo antics — snorting, hopping  and rearing (things she has always been well known for) — obviously very pleased with herself as we pranced back down to the barn.

With the peace of mind that La is thriving in her new home, I have begun the process of shopping for another event prospect. Most days it’s fun and exciting, though some days I feel hopeless, as if I’ll never find anything better than her. I constantly struggle with the idea of replacing her even though I know she could never really be replaced.

La is not the first horse I’ve owned, nor will she be the last. She is, however, the first horse I’ve really brought along by myself, so she will always occupy that little corner of my heart.

La’s full name is C’est La Vie, and never has a horse been more aptly named. The French phrase, which translates to “that’s life,” serves as a reminder that things happen that are beyond our control. We can’t blame ourselves, our horses, or our sport for it.

So maybe it’s time I take a lesson from her, accept that “that’s life” and try to move forward.

An Eventer Goes West

Little Greys. Elevation: 9,600 feet Little Greys. Elevation: 9,600 feet

I recently returned from a trip out West, and after seven days of riding through extreme Wyoming wilderness, let me tell you…those horses give a whole new meaning to the term “work horse.”

The definition of a tool is “an article intended for use in work,” and the horses I rode that week certainly met that definition. At first glance I was not impressed by their shaggy, dull coats, overgrown manes, and bulging bellies, but over the course of a few days I noted how enthusiastically these horses approached their jobs. And although they didn’t do so particularly stylishly, or under the pressure of a stopwatch, they tackled questions each day that would have rattled even the toughest of event horses.

September marks the beginning of the elk hunting season in Wyoming, so every fall my boyfriend heads west to hunt and guide for a commercial outfitter.

This year I was lucky enough to visit during the outfit’s set-up week which gave me the opportunity to enjoy all that the camp had to offer before the first clients arrived. This included a small herd of horses which the outfit rents from a local cowboy (An actual a cowboy. Not just a guy in Wranglers).

Camp is located 25 miles inside the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Getting from camp to the closest town, Alpine, Wyoming, requires an hour-long drive on a dirt road. During this drive you will regularly encounter massive potholes, grouse, mule deer, and free-range cows who are perfectly comfortable with the idea of planting themselves directly in your vehicle’s path.

From there it is another hour on a two-lane public highway until you reach Jackson. In other words, camp is very remote and you can forget about updating your Facebook or checking Instagram once you’ve left town.

Leaving Camp

Leaving camp

With the exception of getting back and forth to the airport, vehicles are unnecessary. In Maryland, you can pull your truck off the side of the road then hike a short distance to your tree-stand, deer blind, or what have you. However, the Wyoming wilderness is far too dense and too treacherous for even the best 4×4, not to mention that a standard pickup is about four feet too wide for the narrow trails.

So why not hunt on foot? Even for an experienced hiker, tackling these mountains on foot is ambitious.

In order to get anywhere within range of the notoriously elusive elk that make their home in the Little Greys Mountains, one must travel anywhere between five and ten miles in, and another one or two miles up. Instead, hunting clients hit the trails (I use “trails” loosely) on horseback every morning, well before the crack of dawn, often riding three or more hours in order to reach their hunting destinations by daybreak.

Talk About Hill Work...

Talk about hill work…

While there are a few main trails leading to various parts of the immediate hunting area, much of the riding in the Little Greys involves making your own trails.

This means hugging the edges of shale cliffs, crossing rivers, maneuvering up and down steep grades, slogging through elbow-deep bogs, and picking your way around, over, and through fallen trees and heavy shrubbery. Given their size, strength, and speed, horses are simply better suited to the task than are vehicles or humans.

Its even more fun in the pitch black.

This was even more fun in the dark.

In addition to carrying their riders, horses are also responsible for hauling equipment and, after a successful hunt, entire elk. Let’s assume that each hunter weighs between 180 and 200 pounds. The western saddles the horses wear average between 30 and 40 pounds.

In addition to a cumbersome bow or rifle, some of which can weigh up to 15 pounds, which is secured at the horse’s shoulder, each hunter also brings along a day pack stuffed with food, water, ammo, and several layers of clothing. Let’s figure that’s another 15 pounds. So on an average day a horse may be carrying anywhere between 230 and 270 pounds.

To put that into perspective, racehorses usually carry between 112 and 126, depending on the race. I would guess an event horse carries something in middle—between 150 and 180 pounds. So although these horses aren’t traveling at top speeds, nor are they catapulting themselves over giant cross-country jumps, they are hauling hefty loads over very tough terrain for hours at a time. And that’s on an average day…

Modeling his day-to-day wear.

Dressed for the day

On a good day, though, a horse might be charged with hauling an (almost) entire elk back to camp. An elk can weigh between 500 and 800 pounds depending on sex and age. When an elk is killed, it is gutted and quartered on site, and packed back to camp on horseback (say that ten times fast).

Although pack horses may be led by hand or ponied behind another horse, thus eliminating the weight of a rider, tack, and supplies, they are still carrying 50-60% of the elk’s live weight. While two horses are usually required to split the weight of a large bull elk, one horse may be all that’s needed to pack out an immature bull or a cow elk.

The amount of elk that is brought back to camp (in one trip) is also largely based on how far it was killed from camp and how rough the terrain will be for the horses upon return. Finally, a trophy bull’s antlers are an average of 55 inches tall by 46 inches wide. They are essentially a small tree. Strap a small tree to your event horse’s back and see how far you get.

Packing out a bull.

Packing out a bull

As if their sheer strength and tenacity weren’t enough, I was also impressed by these horses’ attitudes. While some were spookier than others (I mean, she did spook at a giant moose. Standing directly in front of her. In the dark.), and some tested their greener riders (Actually this was all the same chestnut mare. Surprise!), most of the horses seemed happy to be out there doing their jobs.

Even after five or six hours of steady climbing, these horses never got cranky or lazy, and were happy enough to take a quick 20-minute grazing break and a couple sips out of a stream before continuing on. And once we got back to camp, all they required was a quick groom before turning back out into their corral for the night. No ice. No poultice. No nothin’.

Taking a break.

Taking a break

The horses were of indistinct breeding and they certainly weren’t pretty. They didn’t demonstrate acceptance of the bit, elasticity of the steps, suppleness of the back, or engagement of the hindquarters. They didn’t propel themselves over countless fallen logs with any particular grace or style. But they were sound and sturdy and they tackled their jobs with the dedication and professionalism we all expect from our own horses.

The Old West is not lost. The working horse may have become outmoded with the invention of the steam engine and the automobile, but he never became obsolete. Out West horses are still used for many of the things they were 100 years ago.

The Bucking Horse and Rider, which dates back to 1918, is the state symbol of Wyoming—the “Cowboy State.” During my week in Wyoming I saw more cowboys and their horses than I did cars. You could drive in to the city of Alpine to buy a saddle, but not a pumpkin spice latte.

The West’s relationship with the working horse is a long-standing one, and it is one that continues to this day. I’ve grown up in a culture in which horses are considered pets, companions, and athletes, so it was eye-opening to experience a culture in which horses, though still central, are a means to an end and not the end themselves.

Thats me. Riding off into the sunset.

Thats me. Riding off into the sunset.

Although I can’t say I wasn’t excited to return to Maryland for the fall event season, I can say that my experience in Wyoming was an educational one. Not only did it force me to broaden my horizons by participating in a new type of riding with a new type of horse, but it allowed me to really appreciate these awesome horses—horses who I had initially dismissed as “just trail horses.”

I can’t wait to go back.

Learning on School Horses

Early Days of Eventing with Duchess Early Days of Eventing with Duchess

In the world of horses, there are two kinds of people: those who are born into it, and those who are not. I am what I refer to as a “first generation rider,” meaning that I got into horses on my own, not by virtue of my parents.

While I’m sure there are exceptions, the story usually goes as such: Those with parents who owned, trained, or rode horses in their former, childless lives, probably learned to ride on their own ponies in their back yards or at local boarding farms. The rest of us learned to ride on school horses. As a first-generation rider, I learned on the latter.

I found horses when I was five years old, despite growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. At the time, my dad was an English professor at the University of Maryland and my mom was a graphic designer for National Geographic.

While we were by no means “city slickers,” horses were still a foreign concept to this suburban family and were, I’m sure, no part of the life my parents imagined me living. Nevertheless, an innocent trip to a family friend’s farm changed all of that, sparking the beginning of a whirlwind romance with horses, a sport, and ultimately, a way of life.

It all began on my family’s annual summer vacation to visit my grandparents in Massachusetts. Although we normally spent our days at the beach (or when it rained, at the dreaded antique shops), on this particular day my grandpa brought us to meet his friend, Vicki, and her horses at her small, backyard farm.

As an introverted only child, I was happier to play with my dog than with my friends. My love of animals carried over into all species, and I was immediately taken by these gentle giants. After introducing me to Bud, a 20 (maybe 30)-something-year-old Appaloosa with no teeth and all the patience of an old plug, Vicki strapped a helmet to my head and hoisted me into the saddle. Little did my parents know that this casual ride around a dusty arena would prove life-altering.

I returned from vacation that summer knowing I wanted to take lessons. Fortunately, I hail from Maryland, where lesson barns are a dime a dozen. Some quick research on my parents’ part brought us to Reddemeade, a large lesson and boarding facility located in Silver Spring, Maryland. On Saturday mornings they offered a free introductory lesson, and after my second time on a horse I was hooked.

My dad signed me up for weekly lessons which I approached with gusto. And while I’m sure it’s hard for parents to put much stock in the “commitments” of their five-year-olds, as children tend to be impulsive and fickle, my parents, nonetheless, encouraged me to pursue my interests, never baulking at the financial commitment that my riding hobby would require.

We weren’t “Ralph Lauren rich” in the way that many non-horse people imagine horse people to be, though we would have been considered upper-middle class. This did not mean, however, that my parents immediately ran out to buy me a pony. In fact, it would be six years until I would get a horse to call my own.

It quickly became evident to my parents that riding did not just require a financial commitment, but an overall commitment to a new lifestyle. By the time I hit seven, I was regularly competing Reddemeade’s lesson horses at local dressage and hunter shows. By eight I had started eventing.

This, of course, required more lessons and more time spent at the barn (so much so that my dad eventually started lessons, as well). In addition to my regular weekday lesson, I was earning my second weekly lesson through Reddemeade’s working student program. It was at this point that I officially achieved “barn rat” status.

At eight years old, my two best friends and I essentially lived at Reddemeade. We groomed, tacked, hot-walked, pulled manes, swept, raked, scrubbed, hosed, dusted, and helped feed. There is that important step between becoming a rider and becoming a horse(wo)man that is necessary for all riders to take if they wish to succeed in this sport.

Fortunately, lesson barns like Reddemeade give kids who have not grown up around horses the opportunity to take this step. As a kid who grew up in the suburbs of D.C., who didn’t have the luxury of walking out the back door to ride her own pony every day, my time spent working and generally existing around Reddemeade was pivotal to my education as a horsewomen.

I learned horsemanship from working around the barn, but I learned to ride from the backs of Reddemeade’s diverse collection of school horses. Given such a variety of mounts to learn on meant I was constantly having to adapt to horses of different shapes, sizes, personality types, and athletic abilities.

And while many of the instructors indulged their students by regularly assigning them to their favorite horses, my instructor, Steve, took great pleasure in matching us with the hardest school horses, arguing that we would never really learn to ride if we were never challenged (I think he also just liked to torture us).

The tougher of these horses included Jake, an old, retired racehorse who was notoriously lazy. No amount of kicking could convince Jake to trot (let alone canter), especially if you were anything short of five feet tall. There was Nikki, a cheeky mare with a dirty stop that could land you in the dirt before you even realized what had happened.

There was Sam, another mare, who terrorized her junior riders by galloping countless laps around the arena while her passengers either cried and clung to her mane or bailed.

I had a long-standing love affair with a flighty Thoroughbred mare named Madge who taught me the foundations of an independent seat and a light hand.

And then there was Duchess, the horse who I completed and won my first event on at eight years old. She was reliable when given the right ride, but would tell on you when you dropped your eye to a fence (looking at this list now, I can see where my affinity for opinionated alpha mares might have come from).

Then there were the saints, like Rojo and Cheyenne—the point-and-shoot types who always came home from the local shows with blue ribbons. Horses like these are staples in any lesson program and are the horses every kid fights over. They play the role of teacher, coach, teammate, babysitter, and friend all at once.

Their gentle natures and willingness to forgive instill trust and confidence, and their unwavering tolerance allows even the greenest riders to learn from their mistakes without paying for them. But no matter their personalities, all school horses have a lesson to teach their students, and what those lessons are manifest in countless ways.

First Show with Belle

First Show with Belle

After four years of riding lesson horses with my instructors, I was finally ready to graduate to the next step. I had several school friends who had their own horses and I wanted desperately to have one, too. As a little kid in a lesson barn, I didn’t encounter many other kids my age who had their own horses.

But at school I realized that other kids my age did actually have their own. And they got to play with them, groom them, ride them, and compete them whenever they wanted. Commence begging parents for horse.

While I’m sure finances played a big role in why my parents didn’t jump to buy me a horse, I think the bigger reason was that they wanted me to prove myself. My parents saw more value in instilling in me responsibility and a solid work ethic than they did in keeping up with the Jones’ and buying me a horse of my own.

They also may have taken into account the fact that I was nearing those critical adolescent years in which horse-crazy little girls decide to either stick to riding for life or to abandon it for shopping, parties, and boys. At nine, however, I did not understand or appreciate any of this and thought it was, like, totally unfair.

Finally, we came to an agreement: I would join EquiShare. If I enjoyed it and could commit to it for at least a year, we could look into a lease.

EquiShare is a leasing program developed by the former owner of Reddemeade which “offers all the pleasures of riding without the obligations of owning” (www.reddemeade.com). Members can sign up for as many horses, in as many time slots, on as many days of the week as they would like. And although using the horses in lessons is certainly an option, EquiShare is unique in that it also allows members to ride independently.

This program was incredibly valuable to me as a rider for two reasons. First, while owning and riding one horse can be beneficial, it can also be restrictive. With EquiShare I was given unlimited access to a group of 10-15 horses.

This meant that I continued to be exposed to horses of all skill levels and backgrounds. Some horses were seasoned schoolmasters who had retired from upper-level competition, whereas others were still fairly green. Second, the program allowed me to explore and develop my riding skills on my own. In addition to weekly dressage and jumping lessons, my friends and I spent a lot of time galloping around Reddemeade’s cross-country course and exploring miles of surrounding trails.

This introduction to riding encouraged active, effective riding, developed problem solving skills, and instilled in me a sense of confidence and independence. While never done recklessly, the riding I did as kid (both in lessons and on my own) constantly presented me with new challenges, tested my skills, and pushed me outside of my comfort zone.

After two years in EquiShare I finally graduated to a lease—a horse named Kodak. A year later my parents bought me my first horse, Valentyno, who would take me to a one-star by the time I was 15.

As a little kid, I didn’t necessarily appreciate, or even recognize, what lesson horses had to offer me (especially after rides that ended in grass-stained pants, in tears, or in both). But now, at 25, with 20+ years of experience riding an assortment of horses—from racehorses to eventers, from young to old, from green to advanced— I understand why learning on a variety of horses was so valuable and I am thankful that I was given the chance to do so. My instructors may have conducted the lessons, but it was the school horses who taught them.