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Is It Worth It?

Is It Worth It?

By Betsy Kelleher

     On the lunge line, Rocky has a strong reaching trot. He was bred, however, to be gaited. Under saddle, he moves in a short stepping slow gait that is smooth but not much to look at in a gaited horse show class! One judge commented that she expected more animation. So did I! But when I ask for more, he often goes into a trot.

     I’ve wondered if I should just let him trot and do regular dressage like I’ve always wanted. But Rocky was bred to gait and I’ve worked for years to keep him gaiting. I also know how much easier that gait is for my old back when riding the trails. I really believe that Rocky is still trying to figure out what his feet can do.

     For anyone who doesn’t already know this, Rocky is gorgeous tri-color paint, double registered as Tennessee Walking Horse and Spotted Saddle Horse. He has a great personality, is friendly and curious and usually calm, very willing, and he tries hard to please. He is sorrel and white but his mane and tail are black and white and luxuriously thick. I’ve cut several inches off his tail twice, because he steps on it when backing. And it is still dragging on the ground, a good eight inches below his fetlocks. He turned ten years old in June and we’ve had him for five years. We tried to sell him for awhile with no success (too many horses), and one potential buyer said he was too slow to keep up with her gaited-riding friends.

     While reading “The Horse That Wouldn’t Trot” by Rose Miller of Goshen, Indiana, I was impressed by her use of dressage to improve the movement of her gaited horses. I helped edit Rose’s book, and we keep in touch by email. Rose has a great story to share about her struggles to earn success in the show ring and her faith that overcomes so much along the way, including the loss of her daughter to cancer. Her book is a mixture of personal memoir and the history of the Tennessee Walking Horse. Her observations regarding the practice of “soring” are informative and heartbreaking and her refusal to use such practices to win is inspiring. Her website is

     I’ve had gaited horses for six years now, and I’ve discovered that quite a few riders use dressage for their gaited horses. There are instructors available across the country, and certain areas have horse shows with gaited dressage classes. Whether I ever show or not, dressage training is good for both horse and rider.

     So back in March, I started Rocky with two lessons a week with Cynthia Medina, using dressage exercises. She understood my goal to extend his gait and improve his movement. It soon was clear that his rider needed to work on a few things before we could bring out Rocky’s best. I had trouble keeping him straight when stopping or moving off and just couldn’t get enough impulsion.

     In April, Rocky’s neck had a big swelling that went down with penicillin but came back later. It turned out to be a deep abscess which had to be lanced, flushed out and drained. It healed nicely, but with that and the hot weather, our lessons were postponed for a couple months.

     And now we are back with our lessons, and I’m seeing improvement. Rocky works best with constant rein contact, and he has a lovely headset that is becoming more consistent as I learn to hold him properly. My legs, however, get tired working for more impulsion. For a lesson in July, I decided to use a pair of English spurs I had bought with Rocky in mind. Never having used spurs before, I wanted to try them first during a lesson. From the first touch, I saw a difference. And the lesson ended with an exciting surprise!

     We worked on straightness while warming up, which improved with the use of the spurs. As Rocky moved forward with more impulsion, he also moved straighter. Cindy had me doing transitions to develop Rocky’s balance, moving from lengthened stride at the walk into his gait, then down to four steps of walk, then back into gait. I had to work to keep the headset consistent throughout the exercise, since I usually relax too much at the walk, letting Rocky’s frame fall apart. I had to practice maintaining a good working walk for those four steps. Rocky was responding well to my cues with only a light touch with the spurs, and he was moving out in a nice gait that was less choppy. I was feeling pretty good about our efforts as I sensed our lesson was near its end.

     Cindy asked for another transition. “Give me four steps of walk,” she called out, but in that moment I was feeling a free running walk with more impulsion than usual and I just couldn’t stop. I told Cindy to wait a minute and I kept Rocky in that lovely gait for a fourth of the arena. I must admit I was praising Rocky loudly, and I could hear Cindy praising us as well. I could feel his rear end working under me and his front end light and moving out and I just wanted to enjoy the moment! Cindy calls it a “motor boat” movement. It was a fantastic ending for the lesson.

     Sometimes I’ve wondered if all this effort is worth it. It takes many lessons before having one wonderful breakthrough like the first day I used the spurs. Rocky has been a good trail horse with a slow easy gait. How much more do I want from him and what good is all this improvement? Perhaps the feeling of that one moment gave it all meaning. Cindy’s help has gotten me beyond where I could have gone on my own. I need a pair of eyes on the ground and a push from someone who knows me and my horse and our goals. Part of it is the relationship itself and feeling we are working together more effectively. Part of it is seeing Rocky develop greater potential.

     I wonder if God ever asks himself if everything He has invested in my life is worth it. I remind myself that my salvation and my eternal life cost Jesus a terrible death on the cross. He was willing to give His life for me and I don’t want to take that for granted. If I listed the ways in which God has worked in my life, encouraging and guiding and helping me understand things, it would take many pages and hours to finish. I am humbled and overwhelmed with a grateful heart when I consider it all. I have seen His hand at work, and I have no excuse for not believing in His great love and power. But am I worth it?

     Romans 3:23 says “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” No one is worth the price that Jesus paid. But verse 24 states we “are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus”. His wonderful love has given us value and worth. His work in our lives makes the difference.

     Like the gal in the TV commercial, I can say I AM worth it—but only because God has worked in my life to help me be more than I was before. God loves me too much to leave me alone. He is always with me, protecting, guiding and encouraging, and working things out for my good. Through His Holy Spirit, I can move beyond places I could reach on my own. With His help, I can learn to move on a straighter path. With His strength, I can keep on going in spite of discouragement and trials. And when I see Him face to face one day, it will most definitely be worth it all. 

(Originally published in the August 2010 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)

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