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Dark Horse Chronicles: Ranch Horse Goes From Packing Hunter's Game To FEI Centerline

At first glance, 14 year old gelding, Bruce, is just your typical run-of-the-mill ranch horse. "He's basically an unregistered, mix-matched, mutt horse. He has no papers. When you look at him he looks like just your ordinary loping horse - big butt, short front legs", says his owner of nearly ten years, Washington-based dressage trainer, Brandy Jones.

Brandy Jones and Quarter Horse-Cross Bruce. Photo  by Mary Cornelius

(Brandy Jones and Quarter Horse-Cross Bruce. Photo by Mary Cornelius)

Bruce came from humble beginnings on a working ranch where he came to know the countryside as a packhorse. Jones explains, "His owner was a hunter, and he would carry elk and deer. So Bruce was the fortunate horse that got to pack dead animals home. I think that's one of the main reasons he's so sound of mind is because the first two or three years under saddle were all just working on the ranch and being out in the field."

However, Bruce's days on the ranch were numbered due to his less than ideal physique. "He isn't as stocky as most Quarter Horses. That little bit of Thoroughbred that he has in him influenced him to be a bit leaner and taller. He's 16.1, so he's a bit taller than your standard reining horses. His trot is huge - that's his power gait, and all I can think is if that is what you had to sit all day long working cattle I don't think he would be a comfortable horse."

So soon into his packing career, the lanky Quarter Horse-cross found himself listed on Dream Horse Classifieds where one of Jones' students ran across his picture. In addition to pursuing dressage, the student also taught some beginner lessons and was looking for a good mount for new riders. She quickly arranged to see Bruce in person and while she was definitely interested in him, it wasn't until she arrived at the ranch that she knew she couldn't leave without the gelding. "When she got there he was tied to a barn and he was soaking wet because they'd just given him a bath, but it was December and there was snow on the ground" says Jones. Poor Bruce was shaking in the freezing temperatures.

Luckily, Bruce came home with the student, and from there his situation quickly improved. However, despite his contentment and easy-going demeanor Bruce turned out to be a little too much work for beginners. Jones explains, "His mind is very good, but he's not so steady in the bridle and has some contact issues. So he sat around for about two years." Finally though, the stars aligned for the former ranch horse when Bruce's owner asked Jones if she'd be interested in putting some rides on him in preparation to lease him out or sell him. Jones didn't hesitate.

Within 30 days Bruce had found a new owner - this time in Jones herself. "He was so uncomplicated and I'd had a really technically challenging horse for twenty years before that and he just was the exact opposite" Jones recalls. "I just fell in love with his workman like attitude. Whatever I wanted he was going to give me."

(Photo by Mary Cornelius)

Upon acquiring him, Jones even decided to keep his ranch name, "Bruce". "He came with the name Bruce and it kind of fits him because he's like an honest man. When it came time to pick a show name for him my mom was a big Bruce Springsteen fan so it was hands down that we were going to go in that direction." With that in mind Bruce became known formally as none other than "The Boss".

Though a natural "Yes-Man" at heart, dressage wasn't easy for Bruce. "He is built like a roping horse, he is built downhill. So there were a lot of issues upfront in terms of balance and trying to get him to be able to stay steady in the contact and not always be on the forehand. Even though his brain is great, I wouldn't say he's an easy ride because you're constantly thinking about - is he balanced, is he staying with me?"

Regardless of his downhill build, Jones says Bruce offers a lot of potential when you scratch beneath the surface, including gaits that improve exponentially with his work. And according to Jones, she hasn't been the only person who has tapped into Bruce's little secret. In just one clinic, famed dressage trainer, Conrad Schumacher, became a big fan of The Boss.

"Here's Conrad just quietly watching us, and he of course doesn't care that I'm on a Quarter Horse, he just sees a dressage horse that's willing and a rider that's trying. We're working in the trot and he turns to the crowd and says 'This horse, he's the best Quarter Horse I've ever seen and I have taught many Quarter Horses, but this is the best mover I've seen'. And I just died. It felt so good to be validated that we belonged there."

Jones says judges have also taken notice of Bruce's cooperative demeanor and his surprisingly elegant gaits. According to Centerlines Scores the combination has earned him very respectable scores, including personal bests of 69% at both third and fourth level.

"I brought him out at third level and he was so well received. I got great scores and he enjoyed it, I could tell he kind of liked to be the center of attention. And judges were I think pleasantly surprised when he came into the arena and they saw the quality of his work and his work ethic, so we got rewarded for that." Jones confesses though that one of the greatest threats to their scores is when Bruce loses his self-carriage. "When Bruce loses his balances it's a lot different than when a fancy warmblood loses its balance. It's a little bobble for them, but for us it's like, OH JESUS!"

Jones credits accuracy and diligence to saving their tests as Bruce's conformation becomes an increasingly bigger hurdle as they progress up the levels. "When we got up to Prix St. Georges things definitely got a bit tougher but we were still scoring in the mid sixties and the judges were very rewarding of our transitions. Everything that doesn't require extravagant movement like - your centerlines, your halts, your walks - all the places I know I could get good points, including our lateral work, I just tried to make sure that it was on point and that our geometry was good. I didn't want to throw away points, because we had to fight for every point we got."

Despite the challenges, Jones believes that Bruce's improvements are a true testament to the fact that dressage can benefit all horses by teaching them to use their bodies most effectively. "It' definitely gotten harder since we hit the FEI levels to (produce) what the judges are looking for. That being said, I feel like the work has made him move better. The piaffe work has made him learn to sit, so he's more active even in the trot, which has helped with the passage - and let me tell you he's a passage machine!"

Jones, who competes against other professionals admits, " It's hard to get the scores we know that we are capable of getting" but finds comfort in knowing that Bruce is "a good role model for the underdog." Jones goes on to explain that she feels Bruce is an example of the power that a good brain, even with an average body, can have on potential. "He never overreacts, and it's nice for people to see that kind of willingness and proof that people don't need a super fancy horse, especially not right away, you can start with something that you can really work with, mold, and enjoy. One of the things that I love most about Bruce is that he is so fun. That's the point, we're supposed to have fun."

Jones' idea of fun includes a healthy set of goals, including reaching Grand Prix soon. "I'd love to by the end of the show season be looking at I-2/Grand Prix, and I don't think it's unheard of. I think it's something that we can touch. I'd love to get my gold medal on him - it's something that has been alluding me for years."

"I do have a little secret wish that someday I would love to take him into a CDI. It's a bucket list kind of thing. I wouldn't go into it expecting to win at all, I just want to participate in it and show that this common horse that was found on a ranch can do this. He can compete at this level and hold his own."

Together, Jones and Bruce seem to take their challenges in stride, deciding with each new goal that they are better off having tried, than to have played it safe.

Jones admits, "It's a little risk, but he's game for it, so why not go for it?"

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