She’s Not Horsin’ Around

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MEEKER — It wasn’t Beijing, but, for Susie Mihal, it might as well have been.
“This is like the Olympics for the horse world,” Mihal’s friend Lori Farris said of the Grand National and World Championship Morgan Horse Show in Oklahoma City. “This is the championship for the United States and the world.”
Mihal, of Meeker, competed at the Morgan Horse Show on Oct. 4 and 5. She has participated in the event several times, and she came away a champion again. She was a reserve champion four years ago with a different horse.
“I won world championship in dressage training level amateur,” Mihal said of this year’s competition. “Then I was reserve world champion in dressage first level amateur.”
Dressage is a French word, which means training.
“(Dressage) is basically a training system where you try to develop the horse’s physical and mental abilities, until he can perform more complicated maneuvers,” Mihal said. “You have to go through different levels to gain strength and agility.
“With dressage, you’re looking for a partnership, not a dictatorship,” Mihal said. “You want the horse to perform, not out of duty, but because he wants to. That’s where the beauty comes from. Basically, it gets harder each level you do. The highest levels are what you would see at the Olympics.”
The show is a big deal in horse circles. As the event’s Web site reads, “All eyes in the Morgan world will once again focus on Oklahoma City in October of 2008.”
So, for Mihal, the Morgan Horse Show was her Olympics.
“I was thrilled,” she said. “They do all sorts of disciplines at the show. Dressage is just one. I think there were 2,500 horses competing at the show.”
The horse Mihal rode at Oklahoma City is named River Song Zydeco.
“I have all of my horses named after a musical term,” she said. “He’s a 7-year-old Morgan gelding, bred and raised and trained here in Meeker. He’s never been ridden by anyone outside of me.”
Once a month for the last three years, Mihal has trained with an instructor, Cynthia Spalding, who is from Missouri.
“She will come to Colorado for a weekend, and I will do a lesson with her for each of the three days she is here,” Mihal said. “I do want to give credit to my instructor.”
This is the second year Mihal has competed with River Song Zydeco.
“He’s competed against traditional dressage horses, and he’s on par with them,” Mihal said. “He’s definitely a unique individual horse within the breed, not to brag. He’s definitely the best horse I’ve ever raised, especially for this discipline.”
At his age, River Song Zydeco should be able to compete for many more years.
“Generally, they start showing around age 4,” Mihal said. “You want to wait until they are physically ready, because it is fairly demanding work. With the way dressage works, you want to maintain the horse’s ability to work throughout its lifetime, so it can still compete into its 20s. So, (River Song Zydeco) would be considered green in the dressage world.”
In Oklahoma City, Mihal competed against riders from big horse farms, and she more than held her own.
“We come from Meeker, so they don’t take you very seriously,” Mihal said. “They don’t give you much respect. You only have one horse, while they have a whole score of horses and riders. I show up with my short Missouri trainer and me. Then when we started coming in with ribbons, then they started showing us more respect.
“That’s kind of fun, competing with the biggest boys in the business,” Mihal said. “Most of the riders have professional trainers, even though they are amateurs. And here I was, baling hay earlier that week, which I don’t think many of them did. But that’s what makes it worthwhile. I wouldn’t want to do it that easy, just get on a horse that somebody else trained.”
Becoming a champion in the Morgan horse world takes years of training and dedication. But the good ones make it look easy, Mihal said.
“It’s a long journey,” said Mihal, who has been competing for 10 years. “Most of the Olympic riders, it takes them about eight years to get that horse to the highest levels, and that’s with constant training. It’s much more difficult than it looks. But people who are good at it make it look really easy.”
Just like at the Olympics.