Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Holly and Atrevido on course at Championships (Larry Williams Photography)

Holly and Atrevido on course at Championships (Larry Williams Photography)

Written by Judy Heinrich; Photos submitted

Many Ways a Champion

At the urging of friends, Tryon resident Holly Dake decided to join them on the Paso Fino Horse Association show circuit for the first time this past summer. What started out as just something fun to do ended up with Holly and her 20-year-old gelding, “Atrevido de Estrella,” winning the PFHA National Obstacle Challenge Amateur Championship.

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“I hadn’t been in a show ring in more than 20 years,” Holly says. “But Atrevido was just fabulous. This horse knows how to do it all.”

Having a horse that knows how to do it all is a far cry from Holly’s earliest days with horses. She grew up in Connecticut where, she says, “I started begging for a horse as soon as I came out of the womb.” When she was 10, her father gave in to her entreaties by getting her a half-Arab Pinto weanling.

Fortunately there was an active 4-H club nearby with a very good instructor who helped educate both Holly and her young horse. “I learned how to ride western and did all kinds of things, including shows at county fairs,” Holly remembers. She also had to work to pay for all her horse expenses.

As an adult Holly moved to California and got into Paints and Quarter Horses. She later moved to New Mexico and continued riding there.

Meanwhile Holly’s parents retired to Polk County in 1983. When her mom died in 2004, Holly moved here to help care for her father. She and her longtime boyfriend, David, bought land in Stoney Brook and were planning to build a farm. Sadly David died suddenly before those plans were realized. And then, within a year, Holly lost her horse, a Peruvian Paso, to colic.

“It was a very rough time in my life,” Holly says. “I was just grieving. Then a friend offered to bring me a horse to ride, a Paso Fino, and it was Atrevido. Getting him was a real blessing. He took care of me. Riding the trails with him became my therapy.”

Holly first saw Atrevido when he unloaded at her farm at the age of 16, and she admits being puzzled: “I thought he looked more like a Quarter Horse than a Paso Fino.” But he actually had been bred at a famous Paso Fino farm and had earned Championships and Reserves in various classes for his first owners. The friend who lent him to Holly had been his second owner and had continued to show him. But he had also been trail ridden all his life and had been trained with Natural Horsemanship methods. He became such a partner to Holly that she eventually made their relationship permanent by buying him.

When her Paso Fino friends asked her to do the shows with them last year, Holly decided the only class she was interested in was trail/obstacle. “I like to be in a show class where my only competitor is myself,” she explained. “In the trail class you have to navigate over and around obstacles like bridges, backing through figure 8s, dragging a log or bag of cans between cones, trotting through a wagon wheel of poles at different heights, and lots of other things. To do it well you have to be able to move each of your horse’s feet one at a time.”

Holly prepared for the class by researching different obstacles that might be used and then creating similar ones to practice on at home. She also took Atrevido to the farms of friends who had different types of obstacles. And she says a large part of their practice took place out on the trail using natural obstacles and creating circumstances to practice, like dragging a limb or jacket behind them. The goal was to sharpen Atrevido’s responses to her cues and make all of their movements fluid and smooth. She confirmed that they were on the right track when she and Atrevido won the popular trail class at FENCE’s Spring Open Show against more than a dozen competitors of different breeds.

One choice Holly made added to the pair’s challenge at the Paso Fino shows. She was the only competitor who rode in Western tack, which meant she had to guide Atrevido through their intricate maneuvers with both reins in one hand, neck-reining as western riders do. Holly laughs that it’s also a riding style that lets her show off the vintage western shirts she collects.

The PFHA show season started at Clemson and then Gainesville, Ga., and Holly was surprised to win at both shows under all four judges. However at her next show, which was in Asheville, “I blew it,” she reports. “It was totally my fault. Atrevido was moving a big ball forward between two rails and I accidentally hit it with my foot and bounced it out of the rails.” They ended up coming in third. But the pair had already qualified for the national obstacle championship and at the Asheville show they qualified for the national costume championship, too.

When they went to the National Championships in Perry, Ga., Holly had so much faith in her horse that she didn’t even practice: “I just walked him around the showgrounds for exercise.” It was an unorthodox approach but didn’t stop them from winning the Obstacle Championship and taking fifth in the Costume championship.

Their success is a fitting end to Atrevido’s show career, in keeping with Holly’s promise: “He has gotten very arthritic and when I was thinking about showing him I told him, ‘If you’ll do this for me, I’ll let you retire afterward.’”

Holly still takes Atrevido out for easy trail rides to keep him limber and he is still the boss horse for his stablemate, five-year-old Paso Fino “Tuckaway’s Monte Cristo,” and companion mini donkey, Ella.

While Monte is gaining confidence on the trails, Holly is adding another experienced trail horse, a Missouri Fox Trotter, to her herd. That one will also have to learn to accept Atrevido’s leadership because, after all he’s done for Holly, he’s not going anywhere. •