By LeAnn R. Ralph
BOYCEVILLE — It is a story of starvation and neglect.
Of patience and skill and courage.
And ultimately, it is a story of success.
McKayla Hohmann, 13, of Colfax, and Humble Hazel, a champagne-colored mare owned by Karen Lee of Boyceville, were part of a three-horse first-place team at the U.S. Pony Club national competition in training-level dressage at Lexington, Kentucky, in July.
McKayla and Hazel also took second place overall at the national competition in a musical freestyle performed to a Led Zeppelin arrangement.
McKayla is the daughter of Candice and Wade Aspen of Colfax and Scott and Sarah Hohmann of Osseo.
Hazel and McKayla were among 160 horses and their riders from around the United States, Canada and Australia who had qualified for the national competition.
In September, McKayla and Hazel won the Region 4 United States Dressage Federation championship in training level, junior rider, in Iowa.
“McKayla is a very good rider. But we stay very focused, too, in our lessons,” Lee said.
Although McKayla has been riding since she was a little girl, she only started riding dressage in January of this year. In addition to weekly riding lessons, Lee coached McKayla and Hazel for both the national and the regional competition.
“Hazel and McKayla are a great team,” Lee said.
McKayla says Hazel is a fun horse to ride and that she really enjoys showing the mare.
At 58 inches tall at her withers (14.2 hands for people who are familiar with horses), Hazel is technically a pony, although she is muscular and well proportioned with more of a “horse body” than a “pony body.”
But life was not always so great for Hazel, who was one of 27 mares and stallions rescued from a farm in Trempealeau County in 2008.
The horses had been left to fend for themselves in a dirt lot without food and little water.
No one is sure how long the horses were there or how long they had gone without being cared for.
Several horse rescue organizations teamed up to rescue the horses. And that’s when Lee got involved.
Lee has been a professional horse trainer for more than 30 years. She is the owner of Hay River Equestrian near Boyceville and has competitively shown dressage horses at a variety of levels.
Dressage starts out with an introductory level, then a training level, and moves on to first, second, third and fourth levels. After that are several even more advanced levels, ending with the highly advanced dressage that is an Olympic sport.
The rescue organizations asked Lee if she would go with them to rescue the horses.
“I thought, this won’t be that big of a deal. But I also think people who rescue horses are not necessarily horse trainers, so this turned out to be kind of a huge undertaking. I was gone from home for ten hours. It took us about eight hours to round up the horses,” Lee said.
As it turned out, the 27 mares and stallions had never been handled by human beings. They had never had a halter put on them. They didn’t know that the people had come to help them.
“The whole herd was so timid, they kept running away and you couldn’t get near them. There was a paddock 40 feet by 40 feet. We used what was on the old farm, old gates and that kind of thing. We put hay in (the paddock), but they were so frightened, they wouldn’t go in for the hay,” Lee said.
It was a deeply frustrating situation. Here were horses who were starving and malnourished, but they were too frightened to seek out the food that had been brought for them.
“The longest part of it was getting them into the paddock. It took a lot of convincing. It didn’t take that long to get them into the trailers, using old gates, once we got them into the paddock,” Lee said.
In Lee’s estimation, in spite of their poor body condition and being infested with intestinal parasites, the horses seemed fairly healthy, with no coughing or runny noses, and none of them were lame.
Because there were 27 horses all together, the rescue organizations had to find places where the horses could be cared for until they could be shipped to their new homes.
When Lee was asked if 11 of the horses could stay in the round pen at her farm near Boyceville, she agreed.
(A round pen is just what it sounds like — a round pen that is used for training horses. You could also think of it as a corral.)
During the two weeks that the horses were at Hay River Equestrian, Lee had an opportunity to observe them — and one light-colored mare caught her eye.
That mare was Hazel.
When the rescue organizations came to get the horses, Lee said she wanted to keep the mare.
She also ended up keeping another little black stallion.
Lee said that the mare, estimated to be four years old, was 150 to 200 pounds underweight, and that the little black horse, who was somewhat smaller than the mare and estimated to be three years old, was about 150 pounds underweight.
But because the black horse had a smaller body mass, the amount he was underweight was a higher percentage of overall weight.
And that meant the little guy was not in very good shape.
Lee decided to keep the black horse, too, because she was afraid he would not survive being shipped to another location.
Lee named the black horse Amore.
Slow and easy
With the help of a friend, Lee began working with Hazel and Amore.
Hazel has light brown eyes, which is unusual for a horse. It would be logical to think she was named for the color of her eyes, but she was actually named after the deceased aunt of Lee’s friend who helped work with the horses.
Amore got his name because you couldn’t help but love him.
“We started out trying to get them used to us. We put their halters in the grain buckets, and they had to stick their heads by the halters to get at their grain. That’s how we got them to be confident enough to let us put a halter on them,” Lee said.
Taking adult horses that had never been handled and turning them into horses who like to be around people and are safe to ride and take to horse shows was a long, slow process, Lee said.
“Amore was not afraid of people or kitties or dogs or anything alive. But he was afraid of objects (like halters and saddles). Hazel was the opposite. She was afraid of anything alive, people, dogs, cats. So they were opposite of what they were afraid of. Objects, no problem for Hazel. Anything alive, no problem for Amore,” she said.
Hazel was so afraid of people that she would tremble when anyone came near her.
“We spent the first year just letting them get used to being petted and handled and learning how to let us pick up their feet,” Lee said.
“It was a year before they started to act like normal horses. When we put the saddle on Hazel, she didn’t care. No problem. Amore bucked and bucked and bucked. It was an inanimate thing. He was afraid of the saddle. They were so opposite in their reactions. But the riding part of it was pretty uneventful. They were tame enough by then,” she said.
Many of the 27 horses rescued from the Trempealeau farm did not receive any training.
“If they were anything like Hazel and Amore, I can see why. Amore had a very loud response to the saddle and the bridle. I can see how that (kind of reaction) would intimidate people. Hazel had a loud nervous reaction to people. You had to be fairly assertive in your interest in petting her or she would talk you out of touching her,” Lee said.
“The natural horsemanship people back away when a horse gets uncomfortable. I had to pet Hazel through her discomfort or she would have never allowed it. She was so stressed about it. If I had stayed in her comfort zone, we would have never gotten anywhere,” Lee said.
“These horses belonged with professional trainers. It was dangerous to desensitize Hazel,” she noted.
“When I look back at the pictures the rescue people took, Hazel is in most of them. I think she was really curious about the people. I think the curious part helped a lot,” Lee said
Lee also thinks that having two of the rescued horses from the same herd was comforting for them and helped them both to eventually realize no one meant them any harm.
Lee said she really did not have any idea when she first saw Hazel and Amore that both horses would turn out to be such good horses.
“I really had no idea. I just thought I was doing something charitable. But I’m not really interested in doing something that is only charitable and not making them the best they can be,” Lee said.
“I’m a practical person. Why not do something with them? And another thing is, am I always going to be healthy? What if I’m not? Will someone else be able to take the horses and ride them and enjoy them? Yes. They will now. Leaving them wild, even if you trained them to lead and to have their feet done, they would still not have a stable outlook if something happened to me. When you make them good horses, you make their future more stable,” she said.
Looking back on the experience, Lee says she wishes she had kept another of the rescued horses.
“There was another mare that hung out with Hazel and Amore, and maybe I should have kept her too. But at that time, I had never done any rescue horses. Later on, I trained a couple of 15-year-old Lipizzan mares, and they were easier than I thought they would be. The other mare (with Hazel and Amore) was a little older. You could tell by her teeth that she was probably ten or 12,” Lee said.
“I wasn’t sure if she would be able to tolerate the training. Hazel was about four. Amore was three. I wasn’t sure about the older horse and if she would adjust to training. I know now, with my other experience, that she probably would have done just fine. I am thinking the other mare was Hazel’s mother,” she said.
Lee calls Hazel her “go to” horse for riding lessons.
“If I’ve got someone that I don’t know how well they ride, Hazel helps me. She automatically adjusts to their level,” Lee said.
“We do tease Hazel sometimes and tell her that her angel’s wings are folded back beneath the saddle,” she said.
What makes Hazel so good at teaching beginning riders?
“The horse has empathy for fear. Most horses cannot tell the difference between your fear and your anger. Hazel seems to have a sound understanding, that if you are afraid, she relaxes more. Fear and anger are hard for horses to distinguish between. With Hazel, if someone is frightened, she slows it down for them. A rider’s fear does not frighten her,” Lee said.
It is an amazing range for a horse to be able to work as a lesson horse, have empathy and compassion for the beginning rider who might be very frightened, then go into the show ring with a young rider and win a national competition and a regional competition, and also to go into the show ring with Lee, a professional trainer who has been working with horses for 35 years.
Lee has shown Hazel through the second level of dressage.
“You don’t get a horse with Hazel’s qualities very often. One of my first horses, one of the first ones I trained, his name was Dancer. He was an Arab. Not a highly bred Arab. But he would do anything. And he had empathy for the rider. He would slow down if you were having trouble. I was 19 at the time. Now I’m 50. He was the only other horse like Hazel that I’ve come across. They do not come along very often,” Lee said.
“Hazel, aside from her color drawing attention, goes to the horse shows, walks around, and she looks non-intimidating. Until she enters the arena. Then, she’s so confident she can do all the pieces, it’s fun to watch. The first recognized horse show she was at, a grouse flew into her box stall and landed on the floor. She stood there calmly and had no reaction to it. The lady (whose horse was in the stall) next to me wanted to buy Hazel for her granddaughter,” she said.
Chronicle of the Horse
“The Chronicle of the Horse” is a weekly horse magazine that covers international sport horse competitions and has a circulation of 70,000.
After McKayla and Hazel won the Region 4 competition in Iowa in September, the horse and rider team were featured in “The Chronicle of the Horse.”
“I knew Hazel was special because I’ve been around her. I didn’t realize she would be special to other people. At the Regional championships — and I’ve never had a horse win before — they go in with the top three horses and do a victory lap. They also announce information about the horse’s breeding. And they go on and on about the breeding,” Lee said.
The focus on the breeding of the winning horses gave Lee a moment of pause.
Hazel is a rescue horse. There is no pedigree for her. Lee doesn’t even know what breed Hazel could be classified as.
“For Hazel, there was no breeding. There were 27 mares and stallions in the same pasture. So I told an official at the show, ‘there are no bloodlines for this mare. She’s a rescue horse.’ The Chronicle of the Horse picked up on that. It’s a national horse magazine published in Virginia. They wrote a little writeup on Hazel and McKayla. They usually write about the international competitions, not a local regional show like this,” Lee said.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought any horse of mine would end up in Chronicle of the Horse. It was really nice. McKayla had a nice, focused ride, and Hazel and McKayla did really well,” she said.
Next year, McKayla is planning to show Hazel in FEI ponies, which is a class for riders ages 12 to 15 and is between second and third level in dressage.
Hazel also will be doing her other lesson duties.
When asked if Lee would do it again with rescue horses like Hazel and Amore — who also has been successfully shown at introductory level, training level and first level dressage by one of Lee’s students — she says, “probably not.”
Then again, maybe she would.
“If I had a serious student who was willing to make the long-term commitment, I would do it. But not for me personally. Would I help someone? Yes. As long as everyone understands it’s a long-term project. It’s not a quick fix. It takes a couple of years,” Lee said.
“There are no guarantees. With the unknown history of the horse, especially if it might have injured itself in the pasture at some point, that rescue horse may not have the ability to become a good horse,” she noted.
Lee, of course, also is willing to work with people who have horses they have owned for a while and want to improve their riding skills.
“I’m happy to work with people who want to be more comfortable riding their horses and who want to improve their horse’s performance and their relationship with the horse,” Lee said.
For more information, visit Lee’s website at www.hayriverequestrian.com.