Iron Horse Dressage: A Whole New World

Last week, the Owl had the good fortune to be invited (oh all right, I invited myself) to Iron Horse Dressage in Framingham, an incredible horse facility that opened in spring 2020. Designed and built by Weston resident and architect, Wendy McKelvy, it is the most beautiful horse barn I have ever visited–and yeah, I actually have been in a few, mostly in Brazil, though this is the largest by far. If you’re a dressage rider and have your own horse, you’ll want to get yourself on the waiting list for one of the 33 “stalls” (spa spaces? luxury suites?) at Iron Horse. Wendy credits the popularity of the place to the three amazing trainers at Iron Horse–with a combined 100 years of experience between them, they are the barn’s most valuable players. But the fact that this place is gorgeous does not hurt.

The first thing you notice when walking in the facility is the open view and natural light down the long barn hallway (Breezeway? Stallway?), as well as the 32-foot high ceilings–Wendy designed it to provide the best ventilation for the horses. The floors are radiant heating and the temperature kept at 50 degrees which is comfortable…for the horses. It’s all about the horses, people, which are treated like royalty. Well, not really, these horses work hard five days a week, with a couple of off days to trot around Callahan State Park, which is right next door. Keeping fitness levels up is critical for a dressage horse–and any owners who need to absent themselves more time than is good for the horse can count on the care and training of Iron Horse staff.

Okay, I have waited long enough to gush about the horses. Most dressage horses are “warmbloods” which are coveted for their agility and trainability. No, I didn’t know that until I looked it up. I have learned more equine terminology in the past week than in a lifetime (Ed: and any mistakes in this blog post are mine only). Wendy describes them as the figure skaters of the horse world–muscular and graceful athletes. I would describe them as huge and gorgeous. These are not the Brazilian ranch ponies I have known, including my nemesis, the always unpredictable Veneno (Venom), who decided that the term “heir and spare” as related to the Owlets meant he could attempt to kill…well, all of us. A story told on a former blog, when you have time. Or not. .

On my tour of the facility, I met Andie (Andromeda), Roxie, Joker and Wubbo. The latter is beyond doubt the most gorgeous horse that I have ever “met”, with the softest ears, most intelligent eyes… and a complete disdain for my attempts to take his photo. He just arrived from the Netherlands a couple of weeks ago and I suspect he was named for a famous physicist who was the first Dutch citizen in space. In all seriousness, I would like to pop up a chair in the hallway and just watch these elegant beasts walk around. I’ll get back to the horses soon.

Wubbo getting toasted

The building has everything just right for the horses–space for the farrier (horseshoe guy), a “locker room” for the trainers, and a separate enormous one for the clients, plus bathroom with shower for when you are stinky horsey (okay, I admit, I do like the horsey smell but apparently there is a limit), a laundry room, a blanket drying room (!!!), feed room, and the dry sauna also known, at least to me, as the horse toaster (I think it is actually called the solarium). By the way, I did question the blanket drying room until I found out that all of these horses are clipped all winter long — they work hard and the winter coats would be too hot. Instead of their own horsehair, they layer blankets just like us hearty New Englanders layer Patagonia and LL Bean. There is also a very comfortable viewing room that looks out on the arena–horses and riders see only large mirrors from their side, so they’re not spooked by the Patriots losing, or whatever.

What do you know about dressage? Unless you’re in that world, I am guessing not a lot, except what you’ve watched at the Olympics. Take a quick peek at this helpful video…These are the most highly trained animals in the world, and train from age 4 in the elaborate lead changes, prancing around, and yes, they dance, if you count graceful movements accompanied by music as a foxtrot. Horses can become Grand Prix athletes at age 10-12 which is considered their “prime” but many compete into their twentieth year. On the day I was there, the music was not on and there were no synchronized routines, but there were two horses in the huge ring–one trotting around for a vet to check, and one doing some recovery work from an injury. Where is the Micheli Center for Horses? I don’t know. About half to two-thirds of the resident horses at Iron Horse compete, and many are at the highest levels. The three trainers are highly decorated champions themselves.

Arena

One of the many cool things at the facility is the specifically designed flooring. Wendy explained to me that it was better for the horses’ balance to have a variety of surfaces — so there are heated tiles in the long corridor, an almost clay-like low dust surface on top of a shock-absorbing padding in the arena, and a different soft surface in the Kraft trainer and lunge building. The arena is enormous–80 feet by 230 feet, with garage door windows that can be opened in good weather. Big Ass Fans (yes, that is the name used on the Iron Horse website) keep the ventilation moving. My favorite fact is that there is such a thing as a horsey Zamboni (Hor-boni?) which drags the surface at least twice a day to keep it tidy.

BAF

In the stalls, there’s a rubbery mattress under the straw–this comfy surface make the horses want to lie down which is the best for them for sleep and “take a load off.” By the way, the water “bubblers” in each stall automatically fill–but the owner can keep track of how much the horses are drinking through an electronic water meter. World-class athletes need to hydrate.

Winston and Churchill, Leonbergers Extraordinaire

One of the other things impossible not to charm at Iron Horse is the roaming group of beautiful dogs. Checking in at various moments were Leonbergers, a brown Doberman, a couple of border collies, and I have no idea the breed of others. They would come by when I was chatting with Wendy, give the horses a respectful space, and then they were off to investigate whatever else caught their sniffers. The exception to the sniff and go were Wendy’s Leonbergers, Winston and Churchill, who were more than a little obsessed with her, and would plant their 120-pound butts on my foot so they could gaze at her while she was talking. They accompanied the entire tour.

Two enormous whiteboards at the barn track information about each horse–one their daily plan and notes, and one tracks their food. The horses spend a large part of their day out in their paddocks–they have individual ones as apparently, they don’t all get along–kind of like any community (ahem). One mare named Sammy likes only two other horses in the whole barn and so her mapped paddock has to be between these two. Who knew how much tactical time has to be spent on placing horses?

Sammy is cranky also because of her “slow eater” straw bag

We also looked at the 72-foot Kraft trainer where six horses can walk around in circles all day (this reminds me of, well, me), and then there’s a lunge ring in the middle for some happy horse exercise. In 2022, there are plans for a large outdoor arena.

As we gazed out over the back acreage (they have 84 acres there), Wendy told me that the location had once been a tree farm. When Wendy and her husband bought the place, they were surprised by how many people stopped by that first year, sad because they couldn’t cut their tree there as they had for the last forty years. So Wendy and husband Michael planted a tree farm farther back on the property. Unfortunately, those trees won’t be mature for a while, and Wendy’s husband felt bad about that. So they buy and place a bunch of trees now in their field for those regulars to pick out one day a year.

Trees waiting for adoption

And that long post summarizes one of the most pleasant hours I have spent in Owling. The credit for the warm and friendly atmosphere of this spectacular facility lies with Wendy McKelvy. At every stall there was a scratch or pat for Taxi or Andie or Wubbo, and a story of each horse. There is such a deep love of what she does that it emanates from the facility like radiant heating. Wendy was also incredibly patient with me and my million questions–I could write a novel, marginally accurate probably, about all I learned and loved at Iron Horse. In fact, all of the people I met there were just incredibly nice, warm and inviting.

Wendy with Taxi, the only palomino at the barn

The Owl hopes to be invited back at some point to watch those horses dance. And have her feet warmed by Leonbergers. Thanks, Wendy, for the visit!

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Iron Horse Dressage is located at 32 Nixon Road, Framingham, MA 01701 | (303) 803-8015 http://www.ironhorsedressage.com

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