How a rescued pony and a determined trainer are changing the way we view size in competitions.
Professional dressage trainer Ashley Kennedy, with her long auburn hair tucked under a ball cap, lovingly drapes an arm over the back of her talented equine partner—a 13.3 hand bright chestnut pony mare named Creekside Izzy. How is it that a trainer, steeped in the ‘bigger is better’ mindset that pervades the competitive dressage world, came to own and compete this diminutive dynamo?
Kennedy explains: “Izzy came from a local auction so we don’t know much about her background. A rescue farm owner purchased her originally, but the mare’s behavior [became] so bad that almost no one could ride her.” When that behavior degraded to downright dangerous, the owner appealed to Kennedy for help. She accepted the challenge and thus began her journey to turn this spitfire of a pony into a classically trained dressage partner.
Moving Izzy to her own facility, Kennedy began the arduous process of gaining the mare’s trust. “Thank God she wasn’t bigger!” she remarks, recounting how Izzy would spin, rear, leap, run backwards, and become so distraught that she was unaware of the rider. When asked how she dealt with this, Kennedy explains: “If the horse is at ten emotionally, you have to be at negative ten. Never get upset with her.” She laughs as she recalls how whenever Izzy would perform what she called her unplanned “airs above the ground” routine, people would line up outside the arena just to watch.
The retraining started with thirty days of groundwork to establish boundaries and cement their relationship. It progressed to just walking under saddle. It was slow, a lot of work, and at times, Kennedy confesses, she questioned her decision. What possible future would this small mare have? But she persevered.
Following two years of training as well as physical intervention, supplements, massage blankets, joint injections, and whatever it took to make her comfortable, Izzy’s erratic behavior gradually transformed into brilliance under saddle. Last year, Kennedy successfully showed her at First Level. Izzy’s behavior changed and not just in the show ring. Now that Kennedy can ride her around the farm bareback using just a halter, she reflects on what Izzy has taught her. In addition to the toolkit she developed for addressing various training challenges, Kennedy also acquired the ability to empathize with and validate her students’ emotions associated with riding challenges. She knows what it’s like to “sit on a loaded weapon” and have to perform before a judge or clinician. Because she has been there, done that, and fixed it, she can teach students how to keep their emotions in check and tailor training to address what each individual horse and rider need to perfect their partnership. Her motto encapsulates this philosophy: “Ride what your horse needs.”
The Way Ahead
As for Izzy’s future, Kennedy plans to keep her forever. Additionally, she happily points out, the dressage community is becoming more accepting of small horses so much so that ponies are much more popular lately. She praises the National Dressage Pony Cup (NDPC) competition, which showcases the talents of smaller mounts in their own classes. That’s not to say that ponies cannot compete against the big boys. In fact, at one show, Izzy held her own quite nicely against enormous warmbloods, Kennedy recounts– which just goes to show you, size doesn’t matter if you have the right moves!
Ashley Kennedy is the head trainer of Kennedy Dressage based at Final Decision Farm in Woodbine, Maryland. She continues her studies with Grand Prix trainer Eugene Abello in Florida. Get in touch with her at: KennedyDressage@gmail.com.