When I'm home, I jog as part of my fitness routine. When I travel, hotel treadmills are often the only exercise option. And I'm always surprised at how much easier it is to run on a treadmill, even with an incline, than it is to propel my, er, mass over the ground.
Apparently Paragon feels the same way. The eighteen-hand, nine-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding faithfully does his dressage training and his four-times-a-week treadmill stints at home in Wellington, Fla.; but the hills and rolling terrain of Gladstone, N.J., took some getting used to, said owner/rider Heather Blitz, 43.
"He was huffing and puffing" on the grounds at the 2012 U.S. Olympic dressage selection trials in Gladstone, Blitz said. "That's why the piaffe and passage were a little flat. Normally they're not like that!
"He's much better now," Blitz said of her horse, who'd had another week to get accustomed to the New Jersey terrain when we spoke to her. "If I had it to do over, I'd have come earlier."
The Florida-based pair is the traveling reserve combination for the U.S. Olympic dressage squad. It's been a meteoric rise for Paragon, who at nine is young by Grand Prix dressage standards, especially for a competition that typically features horses that have been at Grand Prix for several years. Watching his lofty, elegant, seemingly effortless movement and his calm, focused demeanor in the ring, it's hard to believe that this is Paragon's first year at Grand Prix.
"He looks like he feels," Blitz said. "He's such a natural. He's not a stress case. He's really mellow and level-headed."
Blitz and Paragon have been together literally all of the gelding's life. She was there when he was born at his breeder's farm, Oak Hill Ranch in Folsom, La. Blitz liked Paragon from the start, and she bought him--but as a resale project.
Blitz trained the horse herself, and as a young horse under saddle he accompanied her to Denmark, where she spent several years. It was a fortuitous move for the youngster's development, she said.
"I was fortunate to be hidden away on the west coast of Denmark. There was no pressure, no expectations. I just rode him. I wasn't that demanding, except on the basics."
Over time, Blitz realized what she had, but she did not push her talented horse. By the time they moved back to the U.S. in 2010, Paragon was at Prix St. Georges level.
A Week in the Life
Paragon works six days a week, with "a couple of days hacking out. We'll just walk for miles and miles," Blitz said.
His training sessions consist of "short sets with breaks," Blitz said. "I'll work on things in the walk. The hard work will last only fifteen or twenty minutes, with no more than a couple of extensions. I don't do a lot of long and low at the beginning and the end," she said, believing the extra riding time to be unnecessary stress on the horse's muscles and joints.
Well protected with bell boots, splint boots, a fly sheet, and a fly mask, Paragon enjoys daily turnout (usually during the cooler mornings) and afternoon hand-grazing sessions.
"The turnout in Florida is pretty safe," Blitz said. "It's sand, and not hilly."
Paragon's management routine is fairly simple. His feet are "straightforward" to trim and shoe. The saddle fitter checks his saddle twice a year. Paragon gets periodic prophylactic injections of the joint-health products Adequan and Legend. Blitz isn't a big fan of equine chiropractic, but at regular intervals (ranging from once a week to once a month, depending on his competition schedule and the way he's feeling) Paragon enjoys a massage by the well-known equine bodyworker Sal Salvetti.
"His work is pretty unique. It's not just massage but gymnastic bodywork," Blitz said. Salvetti does a range of exercises with his four-legged clients, such as "getting underneath the horse's sternum with his back and lifting," she said.
Paragon's only real management issue, according to his owner, is that he's a hard keeper. "He just doesn't gain weight."
Yes, the tall, willowy gelding is the equine equivalent of the six-foot-tall supermodel who can shovel in Big Macs all day and not gain an ounce.
Paragon gets all the free-choice hay he can eat. "He could have a few more red blood cells," but "he recovers quicker than he used to" now that his diet includes the supplement Grand Complete, made by Blitz's sponsor Grand Meadows.
In addition, "I really noticed a difference" when Paragon began eating feed by Cavalor (another of Blitz's sponsors), headquartered in Belgium.
"He bloomed," Blitz said. She attributes the positive difference to Cavalor's "guaranteed protein source," adding that "they use a lot of puffed grains, which have less risk of overloading the horse's body with starch. Horses handle puffed grains better because they are digested in the hindgut instead of the stomach."
Heather's Horse-Health Tip
"I would suggest wellness exams so you can catch little things before they become an issue," Blitz says. "Dressage is hard work. Yes, it costs money, but have your vet come out and watch your horse work when he's fine, to get a baseline. Too often the only time the vet sees the horse is when something's wrong. If your vet knows how your horse looks when he's fine, then it'll be easier to spot any little changes in the horse's way of going and address them before they become a problem."