Debbie and the dream of horses

Juneau couple live out dream with champion Arabian gelding

When faced with a life threatening illness, what’s the next step? For Debbie Canaday, it was to live out a lifelong dream.


Dayton Canaday, Debbie’s husband, said she was feeling down after recovering from the illness, and so he asked her, “Well, what would make you happy?”

“I want to get a horse again,” Debbie responded. “I want to compete. I want to finish a dream.”

Debbie joked that it was kind of a midlife crisis, to which Dayton added, “A man or a Harley would have been a lot cheaper.”

With the help of friend Leah Kadush, Debbie went in search of the perfect horse — a chestnut western pleasure horse.

‘Chestnut’ refers to the color and ‘western pleasure’ to the style of riding.

After scouring the internet, Debbie and Kadush went to see the promising horses, spread across many states. Horse after horse turned out to be not quite what they were looking for, and they felt the same when they arrived at the McDaniels’ Barn in Chico, Calif. But while Debbie halfheartedly talked to the McDaniels about the horse they had come for, Kadush wandered the stalls.

Despite the coloring, a gray dappled Arabian caught the attention of Kadush, who summoned Debbie to check him out.

“This horse came up, ‘Look at me, I’m your number one horse,’” Debbie recalled.

The horse may have been the wrong color, but there was something about him that drew Debbie in. She asked the McDaniels if he was for sale. The answer was no.

“They had had some bad experiences with him. He was a bit of a nervous Nellie,” Debbie said. “The wrong individuals tried to ride him to disastrous effects, so they were not energetic about showing him again.”

They brought Sshaq out for Debbie to see, despite insisting he wasn’t for sale. Now officially known as Sshaq++++// — the double ‘S’ comes from his sire, Sshameless, and the symbols denote his accomplishments with the Arabian Horse Registry — it’s pretty clear Debbie saw the potential he had (for ease of reading, he’ll be referred to only as Sshaq).

“He has an aura, a sparkle,” Debbie said of Sshaq, glowingly, “There has to be a physical attraction so when you ride in the ring it makes the judges want to look at you. It’s what sets you apart from the 30 other bodies riding around the ring — that confidence, that showy attitude.”

Debbie “test-drove” Sshaq, with Kadush filming, and the pair went back to the hotel room and scrutinized the film.

They went back to the barn the next day. Sshaq whinnied at Debbie, nuzzled her jacket and generally charmed her. Essentially, Sshaq picked her.

What Debbie wanted when she started searching and what she found in Sshaq were different things. Her dream chestnut western pleasure horse turned out to be a “green-broke” gray-dappled Arabian gelding, initially broken western, but with little riding experience.

The Canadays described it as a typical situation, the trainers’ horses only get trained when they aren’t busy with other horses.

After some discussion, the Canadays approached the McDaniels with an offer in mind. The numbers matched and fate was sealed. Sshaq was about to become an Alaskan.

Neither Debbie nor Dayton are from Alaska, but they call Juneau home and have for some time. Alaska was Debbie’s 50th state she visited, and it stuck. Dayton came to the state in the ‘80s and was part of Alaskan Brewing’s original Brew Crew. The couple met in 1996 during a blind date set up by friends, and while Dayton said they wouldn’t call it love at first sight, they were intrigued and married two years later. The couple were living on Admiralty Island when they first got Sshaq, who they quartered at Fairweather Stables, with Debbie traveling back and forth every two weeks for training.

Debbie was horse-obsessed as a child and worked in professional barns for a few years out of school. It was 29 years between the time she stepped away and when she found Sshaq. Dayton also had a little experience with horses — he logged with a horse in North Dakota in the 1970s — but nothing like what he’s experiencing now.

When they first started competing Sshaq in 2010, Debbie competed the horse in nearly 30 different classes, which was all but unheard of. But the Canadays figured they had paid their way to ferry the horse and trailer from Juneau to British Columbia, so they were going to get the most out of it. Despite a long delay in Ketchikan, which included a visit to the vet to suture a gash Sshaq managed to obtain, Debbie competed Sshaq in the competition and rode away with numerous awards.

Sshaq’s most formative years of training took place in Juneau, though he’s currently boarded in Washington. After a few ferry trips costing more than $3,000 each with the 30-foot trailer, the Canadays spent most of 2013 in the lower 48, putting in 38,000 miles traveling from competition to competition, from barn to tack shop to arena.

One thing that came from the long ferry rides they once faced was a little trick the Canadays taught Sshaq that has caught the attention of horse owners everywhere. The Canadays said people would come to see Sshaq pee in a bucket, which has proven as handy in travel as in the arena, since Debbie discovered after a skittish performance that a full bladder makes for a nervous Sshaq in the ring.

Taming Sshaq’s nerves and building his confidence were the keys to success for the handsome Arabian gelding. Debbie said when they first took him home, he wasn’t comfortable in his own skin. The McDaniels only agreed to sell Sshaq because they felt they had found the right person for the horse.

“It did take a quiet-demeanored person to handle his lack of confidence and spookiness,” Debbie said.

She also talked about having quiet hands — Sshaq competes in Dressage, a competitive equestrian sport showing off different gaits and movements — it’s sometimes called horse ballet — and Show Hack events (Show Hack is dressage with all riders showing at once), as well as Hunter Pleasure, Halter and Sport. For dressage and show hack, especially, the key to success is in subtlety.

Debbie’s ability to use the lightest of gestures to communicate with Sshaq is another indicator of the relationship developed between horse and rider.

“Dressage is 90 percent body, 10 percent hands,” Debbie said. A flick of the finger, squeezing of thighs, “To the casual eye, you can’t see the cues. It’s like the horse and rider are one.”

To this day, she still thanks the McDaniels for selling her Sshaq, often sending them updates and photos.

The newest photos sent probably included Debbie astride Sshaq, festooned in roses and ribbons, with Dayton holding the pewter trophy Debbie had coveted since childhood; her dream come true. She and Sshaq were national champions. In her youth she had qualified for national competitions but money was too tight. As an adult and with the support of Dayton, she made it.

The Canadays were underdogs in the competitions. They took care of all the training, grooming, transport and other needs themselves in a field known for owners with deep pockets. Many horse owners pay to board their horses, have them trained, transported, and hiring help during. It’s hard to describe the amount of work that goes into showing a horse if one has never seen the extent of it all. Everything from feeding and watering, cleaning the shoes, grooming and saddling and little cosmetic things. And with all the events Sshaq competed in, there would be numerous changes in gear and costume.

Despite the obstacles, Sshaq pulled in an impressive number of awards this year, in both regional and national competitions. The Canadays noticed near the end of 2013 that Sshaq was number one for the year, with 475 points to his name. The pair seemed more than a little disappointed that they were unable to compete Sshaq in the final few competitions of the year, giving up the No. 1 spot, but responsibilities at home brought them back to Juneau. Debbie had earned the No. 2 spot before stepping away from competing.

With the award she had always wanted under her belt — fastened by a garish belt buckle she also won — the Canadays are still trying to decide whether to continue competing Sshaq. The deal was one year, but both Debbie and Sshaq are in their prime for competition and even Dayton received an award showing Sshaq in Eugene, Ore. Whether they retire with their wins or continue on in hopes of loftier achievements, the Canadays had a banner year in 2013, following a dream and proving what they were capable of as a team.


Debbie provided a list of awards Sshaq++++// has earned with the Canadays:

Arabian Horse Association awards

2013 US National Champion Dressage Training Level

2012 Canadian National Champion Sport Horse Geldings - Open

2012 Canadian National Champion Sport Horse Geldings - ATH

2012 US National Champion Reserve Show Hack - ATR

2012 Canadian National Champion Reserve Show Hack

2010 US National Champion Reserve Show Hack - ATR

2010-2013 US & Canadian Top Tens x22

2013 US & Canada Regional Championships x14, Regional Reserve Championships x9, Regional Top Fives x14

United States Equestrian Federation awards

National Champion - Arabian Dressage Amateur Training Level

National Champion - Arabian Hunter Pleasure open

National Champion Reserve - Arabian Halter

National 5th - Arabian Sport Horse

Region 5 (Washington and Alaska)


Arabian Dressage Amateur Training Level

Arabian Hunter Pleasure Open

Arabian Sport Horse

Arabian Halter

Reserve Champion:

Arabian Hunter Pleasure Amateur

Region 4 (Oregon)


Arabian Sport Horse

Arabian Hunter Pleasure open

Arabian Halter

Reserve Champion:

Arabian Dressage Amateur Training Level

Arabian Hunter Pleasure Amateur

Region 7 (Arizona)


Arabian Halter

Reserve Champion:

Arabian Dressage Amateur Training Level

Arabian Sport Horse


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