Those who follow eventing might remember the moment Chelsea Kolman’s reins broke during her show jumping round at the 2016 North American Junior and Young Rider Championships in Parker, Colorado. At the age of 21, she rode an unlikely horse on the Area VIII team, who stood a chance to win team gold after cross country.
During show jumping, Kolman had to pull up when her reins broke before the fifth fence. As the clock ticked, her 18-hand Percheron/Thoroughbred gelding, Dauntless Courage, stood quietly while she leaned over and retied the rein. Then they kicked on and finished the round with more time faults than she cares to mention, but a newfound love for her longtime partner and forever horse.
There are few, however, who truly understand how profound that moment was for Kolman. “Our young rider story is the perfect story for us,” she says. “It just illustrates who we are as a pair.”
He Knew Exactly Who I Was
When she was a child, Kolman’s parents opened their own boarding facility in Nicholasville, Kentucky. They bought their first horses from a farm they came to discover mistreated the animals there. That experience profoundly shaped her perspective of people and animals, and the sometimes tenuous relationship between them.
“I met my first horses when they were six months old,” Kolman explains. They were sister Tennessee Walking fillies and Kolman was seven years old at the time. “They had been abused by the people who ran the farm. I couldn’t believe somebody could treat another being like that.”
The moments she witnessed there emblazoned themselves in her heart and memory. She ruminated on what she’d seen and heard until she realized that those fillies, and likely many other horses at that farm and others like it, had no say in what was happening to them. That was perhaps why they acted out. It came from a place of fear where they felt as if they had to fight to stay alive. So from her first horse on, Kolman put in the necessary hours and practiced an empathetic approach to help those horses and others from similar backgrounds build meaningful lives in a way that made sense and made them feel safe.
Living near Asbury University, Kolman also met and learned from its equestrian program’s riders who boarded at her family’s farm. “My parents would let the girls who didn't have enough money come to the barn and work off their board,” Kolman says. In her teens, two of those Asbury students told her about the police horses the university brought in for their riding program. “So, I went out to Asbury and I met Dante and Maverick.” The 18-hand 3-year-old pair towered over her. Maverick was black, Dante was brown, and both had a star.
After Maverick trotted around the arena and popped over cross-rails, “they turned Dante out in the covered arena,” she remembers. “He just trotted in a ten-meter circle in the middle of the ring because he was looking at a shadow. They were shocked when I told them I liked him; I liked the brown one.”
They stood the pair together again and Kolman reached a hand out under each of their noses. “I looked at Maverick and he put his head into my hand and let me pet him,” she says. “When I looked at Dante he paused for a second, locked eyes with me, and then took a step backward.”
Kolman didn’t see fear in Dante’s eyes. She knew what fear looked like in a horse's eyes and it wasn’t how Dante was looking at her. It was as if he was studying her, she remembers. “It was like he saw me. He knew exactly who I was at that moment. I had dealt with a lot of horses who had been through severe emotional trauma, but I never had one acknowledge my presence like that.”
Chelsea, He’s Yours
Kolman went home and told her parents about Dante. She had to have him. Her parents, though sympathetic, said they already had too many horses to take care of. As the weeks passed, Kolman couldn’t shake that moment between her and that big brown horse. Dante had seized her heart and mind, and she couldn’t figure out what that look had meant and why it felt so profound. Then she started to wonder why she had been invited out to see him in the first place if there had never been a possibility of bringing him home.
On her 16th birthday, Kolman’s mother picked her up from school with tears in her eyes. When Kolman asked what was wrong, she told her she had tried to buy Dante but that he had already been sold to someone else. It was time to say goodbye.
Something didn’t seem right to Kolman. “That was like dangling a carrot in front of my face just out of reach. I couldn’t understand it, but I wasn’t going to go back and say goodbye,” she says. “But I was 16 so really didn’t have much say in the matter.”
When they arrived at Asbury, the students who groomed him seemed oddly confused. Again, something didn’t seem right. Nevertheless, they went to retrieve Dante so Kolman could say goodbye. She remembers clenching her fists as they trotted him around the corner with a big bow on his neck. She thought they’d put it on him for his new owner. She didn’t actually connect the dots until her mother said, “Chelsea, he's yours!”
A Fear of Failure
Dante had gone through nine different trainers at Asbury. He knew how to walk and trot under saddle when he got there but had two favorites with whom he actually got along. “There was one girl named Renee, who he was very fond of,” Kolman says. “She was able to accomplish the most with him.”
Before Kolman sat on him for the first time, she wasn’t scared but she watched him carefully. Thanks to the horses she’d come up riding, she had learned a little about what she called silent language. Like Renee, she was able to get on him without any conflicts, and they walked and trotted safely, but she also felt that he had come with a different set of instructions.
“I always say that foundation is important. And it's really hard when you have to undo something in a horse’s head,” Kolman explains. “I believe he interpreted something in his upbringing in a dangerous way. Somewhere along the line, communication got mixed up and he thought his job was to fight to stay alive.”
The police program from which he came had trained him for a specialized purpose. While Kolman learned that the vast majority of horses understood it, Dante had trouble and she suspected his upbringing was to blame.
“They have what is called a colloquium,” Kolman explains. “It's a big auction where police departments from all over the country gather to watch the horses run through a series of tests.”
The horses completed tasks like walking under a basketball hoop while a child plays and standing nearby a vehicle while fireworks explode inside. He also failed the test twice, as well as his parade test, so they had to sell him.
“It almost was like you couldn't even punish him because he was punishing himself so much,” Kolman describes. Dante was a PMU baby, born from a mare whose urine was collected to produce the drug Premarin. Sadly, many PMU foals are often sold to slaughter industry.
“I don't know what happened to him when he was a baby, but I know those horses are often mistreated,” Kolman says. He was born in a group of 13 and nine were sold by their photos alone, virtually sight unseen. “His life was spared by someone picking him out of a pile of pictures. It's a picture of him running in a field in Canada next to his mother.”
With all this in mind, Kolman trained him slowly and gently, the way she always had with all the horses in her life. “I would tell him, ‘It's fine, you don't have to shoot sideways if I put my hand on you, but I don't want you to run me over if something touches you either.’ It was a very broad spectrum that I had to slowly narrow down to specifics with him because whether you were telling him he did a good job or not, he felt like you were telling him he was the worst horse on Earth.”
You’re Never Going to Disappoint Me
As they progressed, Kolman first aimed him at the show jumping ring, having come up in the hunter/jumper ring herself. “I would jokingly say we're going bowling because he would just crash through the jumps,” she says. Then, slowly and safely, she showed him a cross-country field where the fences wouldn’t budge so easily.
“I took him out cross-country schooling twice,” Kolman says. “And after that, he would jump anything.”
She introduced him to a few more schooling shows before letting him step over a handful of Novice courses and up to Training. She felt like they were on to something and he kept getting better and better. Kolman already knew that he had the heart and talent to go on, his desire to jump across the country proved that, but she was missing one thing; she didn’t have a trainer.
When Kolman competed in the Training division at the USEA American Eventing Championships in Tyler, Texas, she was 19. She loaded Dante into the trailer and drove there by herself. “I checked into the hotel by myself, checked in at the show by myself, and I intended to compete by myself,” she remembers. “I was flying by the seat of my pants,” and she knew it. She also knew fellow Kentuckian, ICP certified level IV instructor, and owner of CW Event Team, Cathy Wieschhoff, was there and decided to approach her to ask for some help before her dressage test.
“After she gave me a lesson, she said, ‘This is bad. This needs some work.’ She said if I wanted to call her when I got back home, I could.” Wieschhoff helped Kolman and Dante around the rest of the phases at AEC and, as per her not-so-subtle recommendation, Kolman called her when they returned to Kentucky.
Wieschhoff helped the pair jump the oft wide gap between Training and Preliminary. After she finished her first FEI event in 2015, the CCI* at the Hagyard Midsouth Three-Day Event, “I went to Cathy the next week and told her I wanted to do young riders.” Kolman says. “She said, ‘Chelsea, that's Intermediate and you're 21. You would have to be at the Intermediate level now.’ To which I replied, ‘What, you don't think we can do it?’ She answered, ‘I mean, we can try but it's not likely.’ That was fair enough for me.”
Wieschhoff understood Kolman’s background and her natural horsemanship tendencies and helped her refine what she knew worked with Dante in order to answer eventing’s questions. She worked on Kolman and let Kolman communicate with Dante the way she knew worked. But perhaps most importantly, Wieschhoff, like Kolman, saw the potential in Dante to which so many others seemed blind. While she knew it wasn’t always easy for Dante, Wieschhoff agreed that he had the heart and will to step up.
“If it has four legs, she respects it. That’s what drew me to her,” Kolman says. “I have always been the girl who just kind of walks in somewhere with the big brown horse. I was the one with the Percheron who was too big, too heavy, too fat, too whatever. While Cathy is very blunt and honest, she also understands. If I screw up and have a bad day, her famous line is, ‘You’re never going to disappoint me. You’re upset because you disappointed yourself.’”
That line hit home for Kolman and her relationship with Dante. After months of training, the pair finished one Intermediate event and Wieschhoff said, “You're going to Young Riders.”
There’s Nothing That Can’t Be Done
Kolman joined fellow Area VIII riders, Margaret Ragan and Woods Baughman at the Colorado Horse Park in the summer of 2016 to form their NAJYRC team. Kolman and Dante pulled a 55.6 on dressage and sat 11th overall after the first day.
“The cross-country course was definitely unlike any course I’ve ever ridden,” she remembers. It was long and undulating with complex combinations and tables set to max height. She and Dante finished under the time allowed, but after getting in too deep to one of the fences, they set off its frangible pins which cost them 11 faults. Still, her team stood in gold medal position going into show jumping.
Kolman was the last rider to go for her team in the event’s final phase. She and Dante trotted in fully prepared to bring that team gold home to Kentucky. Then her rein broke before fence five. She remembers at that moment, instead of thinking that there was nothing that could be done, she thought, “There’s nothing that can’t be done.”
“That is my relationship with him,” Kolman says. “That relationship is to get it done. There was no, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm not going to finish.’ I ride all of my horses bareback and bridleless because we have understanding partnerships. It’s something that is so deep that tack doesn't make a difference.”
After 20 jump faults and 30 time penalties, Kolman exited the ring and approached her teammates uncertain of what to expect, but somehow stoked by that simple moment of understanding between her and Dante. The horse that once ran circles in the middle of the indoor to avoid a shadow; the horse that had failed out of police academy twice; the big brown horse so many people thought was too everything to do anything. He stood quietly for her in the middle of the ring and understood exactly what she was trying to do without saying a word. Then, when she asked, he simply did his job and finished for her.
Kolman’s teammates welcomed her with smiles and congratulations upon finishing, and they all proudly bit into their team bronze medals on the podium together at the end of the day.
That’s the Kind of Relationship We Have
Kolman and Dante went on to compete through 2018 at the Advanced level, and she’s become known around Kentucky and the greater eventing community as one of the go-to trainers who can decode that silent language spoken by difficult horses. And perhaps that silent language she speaks with Dante even helped her feel his struggle with Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM) before he ever tested positive for the neurological disease.
“I could feel he wasn’t right,” she says, remembering an uncharacteristic performance on cross country at the Millbrook Horse Trials that August. “I could feel it because that’s the kind of relationship we have.”
It took some time for Kolman and her vets to zero in on the right treatment after they diagnosed his EPM. When his condition began to improve, she learned that legging him up again would become its own challenge because of his size and draft blood.
“From Preliminary to Advanced, it’s always been a straight shot with this horse. We’ve never had to take a Plan B route,” Kolman says of her career’s trajectory with Dante. “It was the first time I had to stop and think, ‘How can I do this differently.’”
Dante has since been nursing some soundness issues with his hind feet and hasn’t ventured back into competition yet, but even if he never gallops cross country again, Kolman says Dante doesn’t owe her anything. “My goal is to keep him happy. His is my pet, my best friend, my soulmate,” she says. “I walk in the barn every day and say, ‘you just let me know when, buddy. We’ll retire and go to Mexico.’ But something tells me he’s still got a little left in him.”
She also looks Dante in the face every morning and tells him he's Superman. “And he thinks he is Superman,” she says. “I know it sounds cheesy, but I think people meet their soulmates at different times in their lives and in different ways. I think I was lucky enough to meet mine at 16, and I genuinely believe that in that moment, when Dante looked at me, we found each other.”
About Chelsea Kolman
Chelsea Kolman owns and operates Dauntless Performance Horses, based out of Top Venture in Nicholasville, Kentucky. Having competed through the CCI**** level of eventing, she focuses on eventers, young horses and horses with behavioral issues. In her training and teaching program, she utilizes her background in natural horsemanship to use groundwork and other training tools to help horses and riders become confident and achieve their goals.
Practical Horseman thanks public relations agency Athletux for their assistance in the preparation of this article.