Sixteen years ago, when I began my search for my new dressage partner, the Internet was not around and looking for a horse involved pouring through newspaper and magazine ads along with hearing by word of mouth. No DreamHorse.com or YouTube virtual rides.
Knowing I was looking for a horse to continue my dressage dreams, one day a co-worker brought me an ad from the Enumclaw paper for a six-year-old Thoroughbred that was for sale. I called the number in the ad and made an appointment to meet the horse. It was love at first sight. As I walked down the aisle of the barn, this cute red head with a big diamond popped over the top of the stall door. He was very friendly and so sweet. Refire was a tall, lanky chestnut. I was in awe of how tall he was – 17 hands. I am 5’-8 1/2″ and was looking for a tall horse.
Refire was a “retired” racehorse. He had raced at a two, three and four at Portland Meadows and Longacres, winning two races and placing in two others of his 11 starts. I have a video of one of his wins at Portland Meadows and it is fun to watch him come up the track from behind and win the race!
He was bred in Renton by Charles Brown and owned by Brown and his partners John Stienbaugh and Phillip and Carolyn Warns. He has impressive bloodlines, going back to Bold Ruler on his sire’s side. His sire was Steel Emperor and his dam was dam Rippling Queen [by Cup Race]. Refire spent his early days running around Brown’s Renton field.
Carolyn Warns said they used to call him Ripper, as he tore up and down the pasture. He was her “baby” from the time he was one hour old, when she first saw him. He used to check her pockets for carrots and put his head on her shoulder. He followed her around like a puppy dog.
He was put into training at Donida Farms, which is one of the places we go for our dressage shows, with Steve Bullock as his trainer.
A Change in Careers
While at Portland Meadows his racing career ended when he developed bone chips in both his knees. Unlike so many negative stories about racehorse owners, the Warnses arranged for him to have surgery on his knees to remove the chips, and once again Donida was where he went for rest and rehab. When he recovered, they made the decision not to put him back on the track, but gave him instead to Sally Martin, a dressage trainer [and noted equine artist] from England who was at the time living with her aunt and uncle [Jean and Ed Welch] in Enumclaw.
However, part of the deal was that Carolyn would have visiting privileges. The Warnses continue to keep up with Refire’s progress, coming to watch at our dressage shows and via Christmas cards, pictures and videos.
Sally gave Refire another year off then restarted him as a saddle horse, with dressage in mind. Later, Sally decided to move back to England and could not take Refire with her, so she put him up for sale.
A New Home
I watched Sally longe him and then ride him in the covered area. Then I got on him and it was just great. He was still pretty green, but had all the basics and a good start. And did I say that he was tall! I left the barn all excited and the next day called back and told Sally I would love to be his new person.
I then coordinated with a vet for a pre-purchase exam. This vet worked with a lot of Thoroughbreds from the track and he told me that Refire’s sire, Steel Emperor, was noted for having a “big heart” and he himself had always wanted one of his foals. The vet check showed a sound-moving horse. With his past knee issues, the vet felt that going in the direction of dressage (or swimming) would be better than jumping him. I then sealed the deal with Sally. We arranged for me to take a couple lessons on him prior to taking him home.
Refire settled in at our five-acre place in Gig Harbor. He loves to work and will stand at the fence and watch me ride my other horse. He is the guardian of the farm – always on alert to anything going on in the neighborhood.
My main trainer, Jill Seely, in Port Orchard, has helped us for the past 16 years with our slow move up the dressage training scale. With additional help from Kari McClain in Olympia and Debbie Spence in Onalaska, we have stayed the course. As I had not ridden past First Level in my own dressage training, this journey has taken us quite a while.
While he is really bred to race, with his long back legs and being built a little downhill, Refire has been a wonderful partner, all heart, and he tries very hard.
The journey to where we are now has been fun, rewarding and sometimes frustrating, but not without its share of “moments.”
Our first horse show was very rocky, to say the least. As my husband watched it through the camera lens he thought, “Oh no, what have we got here?” The show arena was outdoors at a barn that also had cows for cutting (“killer cows” according to Refire). The cow smell, along with that person sitting in the back of a pickup truck at the other end of the arena (the judge), had all of his flight responses on full alert! We were doing the Introductory Test 1 – trot into the arena, halt at X, then walk. Well, that sounded easy enough, but it took forever to get the halt and then it was a sideways halt. The rest of the ride was a mix of a jiggy trot (who knew a horse could cover so little ground with sooo many steps!), trotty walk, sideways moves, a spin or two and one attempt to exit out the arena at A. Our score was a 35 percent, and the second test did not go much better.
But we prevailed, and in the next show a couple months later, he was much more confident (and there were no cows). He halted and did the test, although quickly, but much more relaxed. I had tears of joy in my eyes when we finished our test, halted and saluted at X.
For the next several years we went to schooling shows all over Western Washington – down at Peteton Farm outside Olympia, up to Bridle Trails in Kirkland and Bits and Spurs in Snohomish. We also competed locally at the Lower Puget Sound Dressage Club (LPSDC) schooling shows, here on the Kitsap Peninsula.
My friends still remind me once in awhile of how “wild” he was in his early days. He was very exuberant when asked to canter. My test reader usually stepped back from the arena at this move – but we never left the arena! He started off tense and I would ride him in three classes with the hope that the last test would have him somewhat relaxed.
Finally we were ready for the big time – the rated shows. I took Refire to one of his first rated shows at Donida, where all his racehorse training had begun. When we first arrived, we walked around the show grounds and he looked like a giraffe – head stuck nine-feet in the air. But after about 20 minutes, he decided grass was king and started to graze. Phew.
But through all his craziness – I never felt he would hurt me. He did not rear, he did not buck, he just was tense and went fast.
It all paid off in the end. Refire is such a show pro now. He is actually now referred to as a “schoolmaster.” Who knew?
Refire will now stand at the trailer all day long or wait quietly in his stall when at a show. We (he is part of this too) earned our United Stated Dressage Federation (USDF) bronze medal a few years back. You have to earn two scores from different judges of 60 percent or higher at First, Second and Third Level. We are now one score away from our USDF silver medal. This requires two scores of 60 percent or higher at Fourth Level and Prix St. George (the next level above Fourth Level). It’s been tough to get that last 60 percent score. We have been showing Prix St. George for four years. But it beats being stuck in Training Level!
We got a fourth place at Second Level at the Region 6 Championships in 2000. The championships were held at Fox Ridge that year and it was so fun to ride the victory lap around the arena with the ribbon around his neck! We have won numerous awards from Equestrians Institute, LPDSC and Washington State Horsemen at various levels in our sport of dressage.
Refire also loves trail rides. On his first trail ride one of my friends rode my mare Velvet and Refire kept trying to be right next to her. I realized that he was used to being in tandem after being ponied at the track. After lots of long trail rides, he gained his confidence and now we head out, just the two of us. In fact, when we get done doing our arena work, we leave the arena and I let him choose – the barn or the trail – he heads down the driveway towards the woods at a nice forward walk. And he slows down on the way home.
In 2005, at a fundraiser auction for my local Junior/Young Dressage Riders, Debbie McDonald (one of the top dressage riders in the world) attended and was donating lessons at her barn in Idaho. My friend Diane and I had a little too much wine and bid on them and won. It was the opportunity of a lifetime! We took our old boys (Refire was 19 and her horse GP was 20 at the time), trucked over to Hailey and had our two lessons each. Our lessons were wonderful and McDonald’s place was beautiful. She is so down to earth. It was the best horsy day of our lives!
My friend, Jane Hiner, and I did musical pas de deux for a few years with our matching OTTBs (off the track Thorough- breds). Her horse, Saratoga Passage, who was Washington’s top money-making Thoroughbred, and Refire were both big red boys with white matching diamonds on their foreheads. Wrapped in white leg wraps they looked alike. We did our bit to “Run for the Roses” and a combination of that and “Eye of the Tiger.” It was so much fun! We rode at one show in front of Hilda Gurney. (Gurney is the first American dressage rider to place at the Olympics and on her “Grade A” American Thoroughbred Keen.)
Saratoga Pass passed away last summer, but Refire continues to be very healthy and sound. He only had a few months of being stuck in a stall when he was about nine, due to a crack in a front hoof that would not go away. My vet and farrier worked together and opened up the front of the hoof wall down to clean healthy hoof. He had to have a cast on his hoof and actually handled the stall rest quite well.
Refire is on a daily joint supplement now, Luberysn, as he is 22 after all. And for the past two years he has gotten a yearly injection in a front fetlock due to a little arthritis.
We will be going for that last score for our silver medal this summer. We plan to have fun in the process. Our journey may have been slow to the FEI (Federation Equestre International) levels, but I feel so fortunate to have had such a kind, willing, hard-working partner with me on this journey. I look forward to many more rides on my boy!
Refire (WA), 1987, h., Steel Emperor—Rippling Queen, by Cup Race.
Raced three years, 11-2-1-1, $5,524.