Make them earn their Check…a dressage blog

Promise this is the last previous dressage blog I will run- please feel free to comment on any of the posts! that’s my favorite part- generally the comments are better than my posts!

Tango Dressage

Reading the responses and postings from adult amateur riders compels me to address a common misunderstanding between instructor and instructee.  In a fellow blogger’s comment section I referenced the different psyches involved with teaching teenagers and teaching adults. (see comments)  This generated some discussion on why adults may have specific concerns.  Alas,  I too am an adult and have indeed suffered injuries from riding.  I however, seem to believe more in some adults than they believe in themselves.  This is usually illustrated when we first meet and are setting long-term goals.  Almost invariably if I ask a teenager what they would like to accomplish they say “I want to ride in the Olympics.”  Lofty goals indeed.  We then discuss what kind of dedication is involved in reaching that kind of commitment.  When I ask an adult with seemingly the same ambition and enthusiasm the identical question I usually get a somewhat…

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Anything worth Doing….

“Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly!”  Zig Ziglar

Goodwood the greatest schoolmaster of all let me make lots of mistakes!

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome when pursuing dressage is perfectionism.  This is a problem especially pervasive to the adult amateur.  Most young riders seem content to attempt an exercise repeatedly, with no apparent doubt that eventually they will get it right.  This is generally not so with adults.  It is not uncommon for adults to worry if the first or second attempt at an exercise does not “feel” right.  This worry is usually a result of erring on the side of kindness, as the rider expresses concern for not confusing or “messing up” the horse. 

I believe that one cause of this confusion is that many of the classical dressage books are written from the perspective that a rider will be learning on a horse that is more educated than the rider.  In this case, when the proper aids are given, the results will be consistent.  Unfortunately, in this day and age, particularly in America, this is not so common.  Frequently an instructor is training a horse and rider combination through the levels together.  It is a lucky rider that has access to schoolmasters in which to learn the exercises properly before attempting them on their own horse.

Another aspect of perfectionism that inhibits a rider’s learning process is the reluctance to show imperfections in front of spectators.  When others are watching, particularly those perceived to be negative in nature, many riders become very distracted and unwilling to attempt new or difficult exercises.  This is problematic for the trainer as a productive training session should revolve around exercises in which the horse and rider are having difficulties.  A minority of the lesson time should be spent covering exercises that have already been mastered. 

So, keep in mind that it is fine to make mistakes, the horse will forgive you and you will never get it right without working out all of the possible errors.  If it were so easy to perfect the exercises in one or two attempts we would all be riding Grand Prix in two months!  If the people watching don’t understand why you are incorrectly riding that half-pass over and over again, be patient.  In time it will be perfect and you will have the scores to validate your efforts.  It is not important, or likely that everyone will understand.  Give yourself a break and go out and do it poorly!  It’s worth it!

Don’t let the Ads fool you…..

1 Connemara + 2 shows = 1 Bronze Medal


Almost everyone in the dressage community can tell you the bloodlines of the horses winning in topsport dressage.  Breeding  programs in the United States have become increasingly popular and successful.  Almost every page in dressage magazines boasts advertisements of well-bred, super athletic, descendents of top scoring dressage horses.   If the price is right it is even possible to purchase a clone of one of these world-renowned athletes.  With the availability of these super athletes burgeoning every year there are only two questions left to answer.  Can I afford him?  Can I ride him?

While it is true that to place successfully in dressage, a warmblood of quality breeding is the most obvious choice; however, to show successfully or to ride successfully, a top-bred warmblood is not the only option.  In fact, depending on the experience and athleticism of the rider, a big, fancy moving horse can be intimidating and frustrating.  This is fantastic for the professional that needs a horse to compete, but can be heartbreaking for the amateur that would really like to participate in more than just paying the bills.

This is not to dissuade riders from purchasing warmbloods, I am a big fan and, in fact own a Contango baby myself.  This is instead to encourage owners of other breeds to continue in their pursuit of dressage, and to encourage prospective buyers not to rule out other breeds when selecting a suitable horse.   Whether you have chosen dressage for competition or just to enjoy the ride, most all breeds can be successful and fun.

As the sport evolves the trend is moving towards the lighter boned, more elastic warmbloods that produce extravagant gaits.  This is evidenced with horses like Totilis, a big moving warmblood that is setting world record dressage scores.   While some fault his gaits, there is no denying he is influencing what is considered “popular” in dressage today.   In order to refine the once heavier warmbloods breeders have skillfully introduced bloodlines of more “hot-blooded” horses.  The result of this selective breeding is horses that display much more fluid, dramatic gaits; however, with these extravagant gaits comes the hotter nature of the lines that are bred in.

As an instructor of riders of all levels I would rather teach a person how to improve the gaits, and master riding on a horse that they are physically and mentally capable of handling.  If that horse is a warmblood that’s great, it makes showing a lot easier.  If it’s an Andalusian, Connemara, Thoroughbred, Appendix, Quarter Horse, Appaloosa, POA, Arab, whatever, bring it on.  Don’t let the advertisements scare you, when you can improve the gaits of any horse and promote the relaxation that the old-style warmbloods are known for, you are in the running.  See you at the score board!

That sounds Farrier…

Some of the most interesting barn conversation I have ever had has come from farriers.  I could write a whole series of blog posts on farriers I have known and the stories they have told but I wouldn’t want to be excluded from future stories, they’re too great!  Both horses had to be shod yesterday so Farrier and I had a long time to talk.  As horse professionals in the same community the experiences we have with different horses, owners, vets, barn owners and other members of the community parallel each other. 

We were talking about toe clips and side clips and the effect of each on different shaped hooves and he recounted a telephone conversation he had with a young farrier that had called him to ask a few questions about shoeing.  The young fellow had asked how he felt about toe clips, and the response was that he would have to see a picture of the hooves in question.  The question was, of course, hypothetical so the young farrier asked “just on the average, everyday horse”.  This is once again, an unanswerable question as the “everyday horse” varies widely depending on the individual’s clients and even among those clients the hooves will not be the same.

This is a question that mirrors one that I think about in the training process from time to time, especially when it comes to training horses that have come to a trainer with previous baggage or are horses non-traditional to the discipline in which they are being trained.  Many strict classicists write that there is one way to correctly train.  I am not disputing any of these techniques, they are all proven effective.   It is presumed in most writings, I believe, that the horse has been started correctly and that it is of an “everyday type of horse” that the author is used to seeing.  It would be difficult to write a book addressing every type of previous training issue or every approach for different breed types, but I contend that horses must be treated as individuals, and a classical approach should be the desired standard but allowances must be made for the individual.

Whether you are talking about hooves, horses or students a philosophy or program must have a sound and proven structure.  But the professional must be able to see the client as an individual, with a history of its own, in order to determine if inherent or learned traits must be addressed in a manner that humanely directs them back to the classical structure.    The goal is the same, the path must always be humane but the history, conformation, or psyche of the hoof, horse or client must be taken into consideration if a classical result is to be achieved.

Twinkle, Twinkle you’re a star…

After decades of studying Europe’s breeding philosophies, America is holding her own in breeding quality, competition horses.   This is an accomplishment in a country where breeding restrictions are unheard of.  In the years to come, America will be producing horses with the athleticism and talent comparable to Edward Gal’s Moorlands Totilas or Anky’s Salinero.

Every year there are impressive ceremonies celebrating breathtaking freestyles and record-breaking Grand Prix rides from horses that are bred to be more expressive and athletic with each generation.  However, the only ceremony that has actually brought tears to my eyes was on a video I watched of Britain’s Horse of the Year Show.  This is an incredible horse show, where riding of all types, and horses and ponies of all breeds are revered.  I’m not sure what year this particular ceremony took place, but after all the prize givings for the top competitors were complete, two well turned-out older horses were led into the arena.

As the two noble horses paraded around the arena, adorned with roses around their necks, the announcer explained that these horses were there to represent all school horses, worldwide, that have selflessly taught the most accomplished competitors to the most passionate pleasure riders.  The two “representatives”  were then offered as many apples and carrots from huge silver bowls that they cared to eat.  Everyone in the coliseum was standing to applaud these generous horses that offer so much, to so many. 

I have been lucky to have known so many great horses in my life.  I will always be grateful to every horse that has taught me on my journey towards a career and life with horses.  But a special thank you is in order to the patient ponies and horses that carried me about while I tried to figure out this thing called riding.  Much love to you all…Fred, Twinkle, Piccolo, Sam, Bayboy, Young George, Cadbury, Ushi……(and all the rest!)