Bridget Hay is proof that a jaw dropping dressage horse doesn't have to cost a lot of money. What it does require though is time, determination, and some luck. The New Jersey based trainer struck gold with the perfect combination of these qualities with a colt by Freestyle, that she named Fitzhessen. With 'Fitz' Hay discovered her talent for developing young horses into nationally competitive dressage mounts, winning the Intermediare I Region 8 Championships and preparing for Grand Prix with Fitz before he tragically passed from laminitis at age eleven. Today, Hay continues to "make her own horses" bringing up Fitz's siblings including her current rising stars - stallion, Faolan and mare, Fauna. Hay's adventure has taken her from foals to FEI competition, but blue ribbons aside, the accomplished trainer has discovered that she loves the journey of raising horses just as much as the Grand Prix finish line.
(Bridget Hay Pictured on Stallion, Faolan. Photo by Sue Stickle)
What originally drew Hay to the idea of breeding her own horse though was simply a tight budget. She says, "I couldn't afford to go out and buy finished horses so I just made them myself! I found a cross that works a long time ago, and that was discovered with my late horse Fitz. So we've been repeating that cross. After I raised Fitz I bred his two full brothers, one of which is the stallion (Faolan) that I'm competing now."
Hay keeps her breeding program intentionally small. She prefers to handle the care of her horses entirely herself, carefully monitoring them through each interaction from grooming to lunging.
"I only have one or two foals generally per year, sometimes none. I do like having the babies! I have one right now that I need to sell simply because I can't afford to keep them all! I prefer to sell them when they are at Fauna's stage - when I've done something with them. I've shown that horse third level, we've done the FEI six year old test, and she does fours and three's and starting pirouettes and she's just coming six. She just trains so easily that it makes me love the F (Freestyle/Florestan) line - they have great work ethic!"
Hay's says her adoration for youngsters lies in their unlimited trainability, a quality she believes can be lost in later years if not properly cultivated.
"Young horses are like a blank slate. In my experience they naturally give you the right answers often, especially when you first start riding them. So the rider just has to be very clear about what they ask. Older horses that have learned bad habits are so much harder, I think. An older horse that's only been ridden by amateurs and gone through second level I find that they are harder to train because they are set in their ways and what they know. They will get more stiff and will react. A young horse will naturally let you get in there and manipulate them and they don't even know for example that they are in a half pass. They are just letting you ride their body."
Despite a malleable beginning, Hay cautions that young horses can come with a challenging adolescent period.
"Oh yes, they go through that at about five or six, not all of them, but some of them. They decide 'wait a minute, this is hard!'. Generally though they get through it pretty quickly and some of them never go through it. It's not uncommon though."
In order to preserve a young horse's naturally positive work ethic, Hay believes riders must be mindful of both a horse's physical and mental development.
"They are all different. You need to let them go at their own pace. I have one horse that's much larger and he hasn't had the same work ethic as the others, and I knew he would take longer. He's just shown through third level at seven, where as Faolan I showed through the I-1 CDI. Mentally he needed to develop because he won't take the kind of pressure that my stallion would. You can't have the same expectations of each young horse."
Not only do young horses mentally develop at different rates, their bodies do too, and Hay explains that it is the rider's responsibility to be careful that they are giving their horse enough time to build up the strength to do what is being asked of them.
"I can tell if my horses are tight in the back, and I'll try to figure it out wondering 'why?' 'did he do too much yesterday?' I talk to my vet all the time. I also take note if they resist, and observe if I can also feel a tightness or stiffness. If that's the case I'll talk to the vet, or we will back down and do a half day. With my horse Faolan I would feel it in the CDI's where if we did two back to back two weeks in a row he would be really tight and I would know that he was sore. It's pretty much in how they feel, and I don't even mean lameness. I notice and feel everything little thing and I talk to the vet all the time."
Hay warns that ignoring even subtle differences in the way a horse is moving or carrying itself can have a snowball effect, exacerbating the issue.
"That's when you can have injuries or damage their work ethic. You don't want to push them through something that they just can't physically do. If I have a horse that's being really resistant I'll immediately talk to my vet. Horses tell us when something is wrong."
According to Hay there is a lot that riders can glean from working with a horse in the saddle in terms of their health, but also in regards to potential. The seasoned trainer has been surprised more than once by a young horse's transformation after just being started.
(Bridget Hay pictured on mare, Fauna. Photo by Sue Stickle)
"Fauna changed a lot. I didn't realize how nice she was because the rider can influence them a lot too. All of the sudden they start moving under saddle and you can manipulate them a bit I'll think 'oh wow, this one can really move!'. You see how their brains are too, and if they will let you in there, and let you manipulate them. Of course knowing breeding and knowing gaits, you can tell a good quality horse, but you don't know how rideable they are going to be. That's a risk you take when you buy a young horse that isn't started. It could have no work ethic and it's gorgeous and moves for a million bucks but you get on it and it says 'yeah, no thanks'. One of mine was afraid of the rider. I didn't have time to start her so I sent her out to someone and he said 'I ride her awhile, and stop and let her relax and she turns around and looks at me and loses her mind', and then one day she finally got used to it, but it took time and with unstarted horses you just never know."
Breeding and raising your own horse is undoubtedly a gamble, but Hay still prefers to roll the dice than go horse shopping.
"I've never had the money to go to Europe and buy a horse but it makes me not ever want to. I like having the horses to myself because then you mold your own creation, they are in tune to me and my riding. I don't have to ride someone else's horse which they've installed all of the buttons on. To me the horse is trained to the rider that trains them, and it's easier when they are trained to you."
In addition, Hay insists when training young horses there's enormous gratification even in the small victories. Each hurdle she and her horses conquer is another piece of this dressage puzzle that bonds them closer together.
"The whole process is great. You see them change so quickly, especially when they are smart. Another thing is the relationship you develop. To make them want to work for you then you must have that relationship, and with all of the horses at my barn who I have raised myself I have a very close relationship with them. To me that is so important. They have to want to work for you. If you don't have that I don't think you'll ever have that connection in the show ring. In my experience having them from the day they are born has been very helpful. My horses know nothing else, they've only ever had me so they don't know that anyone else could ever ride them, own them, or show them. They look to me for everything."