Once Upon a Horse: Contessa’s Story

As a child, my parents, who loved me dearly, did the best they could to prevent my entering the horse world, although they did begrudgingly send me off to camps and riding lessons.

Some of my earliest rides were with my cousin Jay on his naughty pony.

Any pleas for a horse of my own fell upon deaf ears.  When I pointed out the fact that my grandparents lived on a very large farm that just so happened to be horse free, I was told that my grandmother hated horses after having a team run away with her during a harvest when she was young.  My dreams of having a horse of my own unrequited, I galloped though the ravine in front of my house, across the fields of my grandparents’ farm, and just about anywhere there was some open space. I contented myself with any exposure I had with horses, while realizing that every fiber of my being was dedicated to the pursuit of one day having a horse of my own.

From stick horses to this ingenious cardboard horse, I was bound and determined to have a horse in my life.

There were a couple of times when I nearly got my very own real life horse; the most prevalent being when my parents considered purchasing a huge barn adjacent to a wonderful trail system.  They were planning to renovate the massive upstairs loft into a home, with my bedroom having a staircase leading to a 6 stall haven.  I opted instead to go off to boarding school.  My parents thought I was crazy, but I believe we choose our paths for a reason, and I never doubted for a second that one day I’d have a horse, and my deep love for them never faltered.

Fast forward to college. My path had taken several twists and turns before crossing with Katie’s, a fellow student who introduced me to my equine soul mate, Contessa.  It was “chance” that we sat next to one another, that we began discussing horses.  How elated I was to be invited to the barn where Katie kept Ray, her Paso Fino gelding.  And how wonderful it was to be able to choose to ride one of the three horses: Tammie, an off-the-track Standardbred, Spook, an off-the-range Mustang, and Contessa, the rangy looking spotless Appaloosa.  Tammie proved boring.  She preferred trotting briskly to the left.  Spook lived up to his name and wasn’t one for confidence building.  Yet three-year-old Contessa, unmuscled and mangy looking, captured my heart in the fall of 1998.  It was love at first sight.

Katie and I would go to the barn most weekends to ride.  While Contessa was extremely green (she had been “broke” at age 2, ridden for 60 days, then basically became a pasture ornament), she took good care of me.  I hadn’t ridden for a few years but picked it right back up, enjoying every second of my time with the cantankerous little mare.  So one day, when Tom, the owner of the barn came out to tell me that someone was interested in buying Contessa, I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach.  By that time, I couldn’t imagine my life without her.  I suspect that Tom took pity on me, so he told me I could have “first dibs” if I had the cash.  This is where the Fates stepped in: as it happened I’d just received a check that week for school books and supplies.  Rather than spend it on mundane items to further my academic education, I opted to buy a horse.  At long last, my dream was realized.

Contessa and I, Autumn 1998

Katie and I moved our horses to a nice barn with a huge arena, plenty of turnout, and a Hippotherapy program.  I worked with Contessa nearly every day, making the long drive to the barn and back, on top of school and work.  To this day I have no idea how I maintained straight A’s.  I was driven to provide Contessa with nothing but the best I could afford at the time.  I hired Debra Klaben, a wonderful instructor that helped us progress as a team.  I took lessons with Mike Gehrls, then the head trainer of Tempel Lippizzan Farm to learn a classical seat.  Both Debra and Mike stressed the need for a deep reverence for the horse, and both instilled in me the notion that your horse is your sacred partner, your equal, your friend.  Sure you guide them in the “dance,” but they are no way “just horses.”  It’s probably no surprise that it didn’t take much convincing for me to adopt this view; I’d believed it all along.  But Debra and Mike were instrumental in helping me better communicate and understand my beloved mare.

Riding Neapolitano IV Blythe at Tempel Farms

When my husband and I moved from Chicago to Washington, I was insistent that we have a place of our own. My husband went to work at Microsoft, while I was teaching in Auburn. We had two horses at that point: Contessa, and my husband’s horse Traveler.  We picked a place that had some acreage in Puyallup, and set up an arena to ride in.  At this point I was doing dressage exclusively, going to some local schooling shows when my schedule would permit.  Contessa loved going to shows; she’s always enjoyed being on display, and I marveled at the fact that issues we struggled with at home seemed resolved at the shows, and we took home our fair share of ribbons.

Three years of driving from Puyallup to Redmond took its toll on my husband, and we decided to move up north and go into a boarding situation.  We could only afford one horse, so I gave Traveler to a friend and sold my fancy dressage prospect HS Evening Diva to an up and coming trainer looking for a young horse.  Selling Contessa was never an option.  It would have been like losing an appendage.  We found a barn with wonderful amenities, and I began working with a trainer, grooming her horses in exchange for lessons.  We struggled with Contessa’s behavior as we tried to advance in the levels.  It seemed as though we’d be perpetually stuck at Second Level, and we both became frustrated.  We’d begun working with an amazing vet, Dr. Steve Latimer, when we moved up to this barn, and he determined that Contessa, despite being only 7, had degenerative joint disease in her hocks, and began a protocol of HA injections regularly.

Winters were always hardest.  It seemed as though she’d never fully warm up to be sound, so we would do only light work and have to start all over again in the summer.  We were at the point when we were having to do hock injections four times per year.  The vet bills were racking up and we were still stuck at 2nd level. Dr. Latimer recommended that we switch to a more forward seat, to lessen the wear and tear on her hocks that going up the levels in dressage would inevitably cause.  So, rather than sell the horse or lease her to a hunter, I opted to switch disciplines and learn to ride all over again.

One of our first jump lessons

I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never ridden in a close contact saddle.  As a kid I’d ridden western, then switched to dressage.  I confess I knew nothing about saddle fitting at the time, and I relied upon a saddle fitter to guide me.  My previous experiences with saddle shopping were limited exclusively to the tack stores, where the employees would help me select the right saddle based upon my needs – they weren’t affiliated with just one brand, so I felt good that I wasn’t being taken for a ride.  In retrospect, the saddles that I’d opted for were never perfect for Contessa, but we made do.

So when I had a professional saddle fitter actually come out and help me get a custom fit saddle, I was confident that we’d be on the right track.  After all, I was spending around $3,000, so it had to be good, right?  I waited and waited for my new “custom” saddle to come, and when it finally arrived, I was excited to begin working with Contessa on this new endeavor.  Contessa loves to jump.  Granted we’re limited to about 2’6″ max, but for someone who prefers all four legs on the ground, I’m happy to stay within the limits.

I was amazed at how quickly Contessa took to jumping.  My trainer at the time did about three training rides and taught Contessa to go to the base of the jump, and to this day she’ll put in a half a stride to make it over when I inevitably screw up my timing.  Contessa, who many would describe as a “hot” horse, has been a patient and forgiving partner as we began this new venture together.  But I noticed that she was much bolder about jumping than I was.  I chalked it up to being in a different saddle than what I was used to.  I had difficulty with riding in a half seat, and the higher we jumped the harder it was to keep my legs underneath me.  I was convinced that it was a reflection of my inability as a rider, and I was becoming discouraged.

To make matters worse, Contessa was experiencing random lameness issues.  We’d be going strong for months and then have a sudden setback, usually related to her back, and after some time off, we’d start the cycle over again. I’d have the chiropractor out monthly, have acupuncture and massage done to help alleviate her discomfort.  I performed all the stretches, and did all of the recommended exercises, but still the problems ensued.

In 2007, Dr. Latimer began performing IRAP on Contessa’s hocks.  I marveled at the incredible results.  Contessa was sounder than she’d ever been, and rather than have to have quarterly injections, the IRAP was lasting an entire year, and there were significant amounts of synovial fluid left in the joints by the end of the cycle.  We were managing her arthritis in ways I couldn’t imagine, and we were back to being a happy, healthy team…for the most part.

This saddle had no hope of fitting me; it was not nearly forward enough for my long leg. Notice how much my leg extends beyond the flap, causing instability. Notice too, the fact that I'm having to ride with draw reins to keep her head down and under control.

Looking back, our problem was saddle related.  It started out insidiously enough.  Contessa’s behavior became more and more difficult.  She’d hollow out and race for the jumps, and when riding on the flat she became spookier than ever before.  It seems I could never really get her back up and “collected” without the use of leverage bits and running martingales, draw reins, etc.  I began to feel more and more insecure when riding, especially over fences.  I would land and my shoulder would dip down to the right, causing Contessa to become more and more aggravated.

Over time, Contessa developed coffin joint arthritis in the right front foot, which led to an even greater degeneration of the left hock that resulted in a large vet bill to help manage the issue.  I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that her arthritis was in the right front, after spending a year and a half of having her rider be unstable and falling to the right.  I believe this arthritis is a direct result of my instability in the saddle.

I had everyone out to look at Contessa, and there were numerous times when I would break down and sob because I didn’t know why she was suffering let alone what to do about it.  I had the saddle fitter out to check the saddle and watch me ride.  She said nothing.  Contessa would become enraged when presented with the saddle, attacking the crossties and being beyond girthy.  When she reached the point where she would rather rear than go forward, I finally accepted the fact that it was the saddle.  It could be nothing else.

Like many of my clients, I was in a state of saddle denial.  The saddle was “custom made”, so it couldn’t be the culprit of my horse’s behavior and lameness problems.  I was trusting the “professional saddle fitter” to help me find the perfect saddle.  Later I had learned that with this particular brand of saddle, that would be impossible.  Despite costing over $3000, this saddle was “semi-custom” at best.  I received a long forward flap, but it was nowhere near as forward as it needed to be for me to be stable and secure. My leg was on top of the block, and this caused me to be unable to stay balanced. I should have been told to find something else, that I needed a more custom saddle; I should have been sent elsewhere.  I’d like to think it was a matter of ignorance on the part of the “saddle fitter,” but the cynical side of me thinks that there was a $3000 sale to be made.

Finally fit in the right saddle, Contessa and I have had a much more harmonious relationship.

I should have listened to my horse.  I should have seen the behavior and understood the root causes.  I should have known better.  I harbored some serious guilt, blaming myself for my horse’s suffering.  After all, it’s my responsibility as her caretaker and guardian to ensure that she has the proper tack.  I struggled with the feeling that I let her down, and it broke my heart. And I was startled at how immediate and incredible the shift in Contessa’s behavior and overall demeanor changed when we finally got the right saddle.  She was a different horse, a happy horse, and (knock on wood), we’ve ended our “on again, off again” cycle.  We still need IRAP, but she is sound, turning 16 this year and moving better than ever before.

As a result of my own personal saddle nightmare, I began studying saddle fitting, and I was in in the perfect venue: a tack store.  I was sent to England to learn proper fitting techniques by the Society of Master Saddlers, the only organization in the world that has a cohesive system for educating and overseeing saddle fitters in Britain, where they must be licensed to practice.  It blew my mind to learn that in this country, “saddle fitters” work for a company, selling their saddles.  There is no system for education here, no guarantee that the “professional” has any idea how to properly fit and reflock saddles.  And I vehemently believe that our horses pay the price.

Sure there are good saddle fitters out there, saddle fitters that have a good understanding of what constitutes proper fit, who have a sense of ethics that travels beyond the particular brand of saddle they represent.  But there is such a lack of education about saddle fitting among the horse population in general that causes riders and trainers to be at the mercy of saddle fitters that may be less than scrupulous. I’m hoping to help put an end to it.  Because frankly, I don’t want anyone’s horse to have to go through what Contessa went through.

We owe it to ourselves and our horses to learn as much as we can about saddle fit to ensure that our horses are as comfortable as possible.  We need to be able to detect if there is a

Contessa, my equine soul mate, the mare that started it all.

saddle fit problem, and know when to call in a professional.  We should be versed enough in saddle fit that we can discern who is a knowledgeable saddle fit professional and who is not.  Because, as Monty Roberts beautifully stated in his book Horse Sense for People, “The horse owes us nothing.  They have fought with us in wars, plowed our fields, fed us and remained the most faithful of servants.”

Because of Contessa, my best friend and most faithful companion, I have discovered my life’s work.  I’ve been blessed enough to have been trained by true masters of their art, not just on how to fit saddles, but on how to fully reflock saddles.  Because of Contessa, I am continuing my education, studying equine biomechanics, anatomy, and massage.  Because of Contessa, I am deeply committed to working with veterinarians, massage therapists, chiropractors, and other equine practitioners to help my clients and their horses.  Because of Contessa, I am driven not by greed, not by glory, but by the need to help prevent others from making the same mistakes I made, so that everyone can have healthy, happy, sound horses.

Copyright 2011, Anderson Equine Saddle Fitting Services, LLC

  1. #1 by Elaine Barner on August 8, 2013 - 7:43 am

    Dear Dawn, I met up with your mom and dad yesterday to watch the Lake Forest Day parade which has become a yearly tradition of ours. Naturally we update each other an what our “children” are doing. That is how I got your wonderful email site. Your story of your lifetime dream and deep bonding with Contessa is amazing…and very moving. You are a very talented writer and have a great story to tell. Your heartfelt feelings and sincerity are so evident. Your parents are very proud of you (don’t worry, their bragging is quite under control!). It is a joy to hear and now read about how your passion and compassion for horses is filling your life with such dedication and fulfillment. My very best wishes to you, Dawn. Love, Elaine

  2. #2 by Georgene Williams on January 17, 2015 - 4:55 pm

    Dawn, I read your story and am so excited about my appointment with, I am right with you. All I want is no pain for my horse Bell, and of course a good fit for me. She is a little appy cross and just wants to please. I believe pain is what causes most of are issues. Like your mare she wants to bite the saddle and anything near it. Also when I was in a lesson she would do this little hop thing and hold here breath, maybe I am causing it or the saddle. She Also Has a Very Minor hock issue and my vet check said it should not be a issue for me. Can not hardly weight to make her comfortable. She really is a dear and I love her to peaces.

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