Q: What makes Horse Nation awesome? A: The equestrian enthusiasts who call it home. We’re sharing your stories in this new series by Jennifer Ferrell.
Calling all Citizens of Horse Nation! Everyone has a story and we want to learn more about yours. Drop us a line and we'll profile you in an upcoming “Citizens of Horse Nation” feature.
One might think a Pepsi vending machine, advice from a terminally ill father, an ex-racehorse with famous connections and learning dressage skills via barrel racing would have nothing to do with one another. Dennis Cuevas can prove you wrong.
After all, it was a thirst that brought Dennis to first discover his affection for horses. Growing up in Virginia Beach, the closest convenience store was actually a vending machine at the farm up the street from where he lived. He and a friend would sip on their Pepsis, walk around the barn and visit with each of the horses.
It was a few years later, after he had moved, that Dennis and another friend decided they needed to find an outlet for fun besides evening Happy Hours after work. They signed up for a six-week horseback riding course with the Fairfax County Park Authority. Though he was the only male in a group comprised primarily of mothers and their young daughters, he stuck out the entire class and made it to the end. Everyone else dropped out with the exception of him and an 8-year-old girl.“I was a bit self-conscious about being a grown man in a lesson with a little girl,” says Dennis, “but that little girl was really good and I did not want to be shown up by her!”
Officially bitten by the horse bug, Dennis sought out a barn to continue his riding and found Bill Dunigan in Maryland. While Bill was a past president of the Virginia Dressage Association, his forte was barrel racing. Dennis was happy that he had finally found a male influence for his riding and the occasional spin around the barrels gave him a better feel for collection and extension.
In 2003, Dennis found Reddemeade Equestrian Center and began taking lessons. After a few years of taking lessons, he joined their leasing program called Equi-Share and became attached to three equine members of the pool: Sarge, Marilyn and Jacob.
Driving home from the barn after lessons each Sunday evening, Dennis would call his father and tell him about his ride. He said that his father liked hearing about all the different horses he rode. When his father became ill and was in hospice care Dennis and his partner, Tim, were able to spend time with him and were given some valuable advice: He told them to love and take care of one another and to live their lives to the fullest. Dennis says that in essence, he was telling them to be happy.
A few months after his father passed away and having “lost” Sarge and Jacob to retirement from the Equishare program, Dennis decided to take his father’s advice to heart and purchase his very own horse.
Reddemeade offers a seminar about how to buy a horse and Dennis signed up, more so because he was curious about what it would be like to own a horse than thinking it was something he would actually do. Looking back now, he says the class did give him a realistic expectation of the costs and time involved in horse ownership.
Dennis eventually found Tatsuji, a 10-year old, 16.1 hand, bay Irish thoroughbred gelding by Kentucky Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus. Once owned by Jerry and Ann Moss (you may have heard of another little racehorse they’ve owned named Zenyatta), “Tate” was trained by John Shireffs in California. Though he won his debut at Santa Anita his racing career ended not long thereafter. It was in 2011 that Dennis found him and bought him from Olympic eventer Stephen Bradley.
Owning Tate has presented some challenges for Dennis and plenty of learning opportunities. Tate got kicked in the field when an older gelding grew tired of his playfulness–now he has his own private paddock and socializes over a fence. Another time, he hit his head in his stall.
Still, Dennis has no regrets and says receiving a compliment from a stranger about his horse or having a great ride makes it all worth it. He even brings his lunch to work everyday to offset costs so he buy more things for Tate–he says he looks forward to daily Tack of the Day emails. He's also grateful that Tim is so understanding and not only puts up with the amount of time a horseback riding hobby consumes but has also built tack trunks and done other odd jobs around the barn. He even tolerates all the “barn talk” when at a “horsey people party.”
Dennis has been working with instructor/trainer Katrina Benson Dodd and says she has been instrumental in his riding. He says she's a great instructor and they have a lot of fun in their lessons. “Katrina keeps me on my toes but keeps it fun. She's very patient too, especially on days when my riding is just off. She's not only my instructor but a friend.”
In many ways, Tate has changed Dennis' life. He has gone from missing his life in the city to enjoying suburban life because of its proximity to the barn. Future plans have changed from envisioning a retirement beach house to a country property with a barn and a pasture.
Says Dennis, “I imagine my dad smiling down at me knowing that I am fulfilling a dream of mine.”
Jennifer Ferrell lives in Alexandria, VA with her two basset hounds Bonnie and Clyde and Thoroughbred gelding, Gem.