The chances of a horse becoming a dressage champion has about the same odds as a kid growing up to become a professional athlete. Taking a kid with no previous athletic training out of the ghetto and turning him into an elite athlete is akin to the unlikely story of a local horse named Fynn.
Less than a decade ago, it was common practice to breed draft horses for pharmaceutical companies to produce a popular hormonal drug. While pregnant, the mare produces urine containing a chemical component critical in the production of Premarin, a drug now under scrutiny for unwanted side effects. In the heyday of Premarin production, a newborn filly, if she was big enough, might join the herd so the cycle could continue. Smaller fillies and most colts would be sent to slaughter.
Giant farms in Canada specialized in this process. A group of concerned animal lovers began to rescue some of the babies destined to be shipped to European slaughterhouses. They managed to save a small percentage by choosing those that looked appealing for one quality or another, and posting photos of them on the Internet to be "adopted."
In 2004, Adaire Heistand of Ohio had recently lost an aunt who loved horses. She wanted to rescue a foal in her aunt's memory.
"We decided to do so at the very last minute — literally it was the final hour," Heistand said. "All we had to go on were these little online pictures — less than an inch tall, some were quite fuzzy and taken from a distance. I narrowed it down to six foals and my husband chose Hawk (Fynn's original name) from that group. He was born in a huge farm field with at least a hundred other horses and probably didn't see a human for the first few months of his life. The rescue organization went in when the horses were being prepped for shipment overseas and pulled the ones people had committed to. His first experience with humans was being rope haltered and tagged."
Adaire brought Fynn home and trained him in basic "natural horsemanship." She loaned him to a summer camp for children when he was 4, but with Adaire expecting another child and Fynn becoming "bossy" with their old mare, Adaire asked her vet, Dr. Derek McFadden, if his horse-trainer wife, Karri, might be interested in Fynn.
Karri came to try him and taught Fynn a few basic skills. She was not overly impressed and thought he might make a good pleasure horse for somebody. Although she had other offers, Adaire wanted Fynn to go to Karri, so when Karri didn't call back a month later, Adaire called and begged her to give Fynn another chance. Karri agreed to come for a second ride and was shocked to realize that Fynn remembered everything she had taught him like it was yesterday.
"He just wasn't normal," was her comment, and she immediately agreed to buy him. Within three years, Fynn went from being a children's camp horse to competing at the Grand Prix, the highest level of dressage. This achievement normally takes even the best-bred horses in the world at least 5 to 10 years to master. As much as they loved him, with four children to send to college, Karri and Derek made the difficult decision to consider selling Fynn.
During a clinic in Camden with Olympic champion Michelle Gibson, Poland veterinarian and dressage competitor Candace Platz heard about Fynn. The first photo Karri sent Platz showed Fynn napping in his stall with his head in Karri's lap.
"Oh, boy, am I in trouble now!" Platz thought to herself. She flew out to Ohio to meet Fynn and instantly fell in love with him. Less than a month later, Platz took Fynn to a local clinic to train with London Olympian Jan Ebeling. Fynn's talent, charm and personality won over everyone, including Ebeling.
Later that fall, the pair went to Florida to train with Ruth Hogan Poulsen, for what Platz called "boot camp."
"I needed much more training than Fynn," she said. "I took four lessons a day. Of course it wasn't always with Fynn; that would be too much for any horse."
Dressage competition in the United States is governed by the U.S. Dressage Federation. By performing well in USDF-recognized competitions, Platz and Fynn qualified for the Region 8 (New England and New York) Dressage Adult Amateur Championships.
"I didn't think I was ready for such serious competition," Platz said. "I never expected to be eligible for Championships after only three weekends showing Fynn, but my trainer encouraged me to go in order to gain more competitive experience. I thought, what the heck, why not? I entered with the attitude that I was there just to learn and get to know my horse under the pressure of the competition arena."
Fynn had higher goals: He went on to win the Adult Amateur Grand Prix Championship and, as a result, has been invited to attend the first ever USDF National Dressage Final Championship to be held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, site of the World Equestrian Games.
On Nov. 8, performing among the most beautiful, well-bred, elite and talented dressage horses in the United States, there will be a small chestnut horse of unknown parentage named Fynn. Once destined to be slaughtered for meat, Fynn will now have his chance to compete as a champion, thanks to the women who rescued, trained and loved him.