Finding our Way
I have ridden my entire life, starting with a tiny Shetland mare I was much too big for, gripping her sides with bare legs and cantering around like a wild child, hair flying without a helmet. During my teens I took my Quarter Horse gelding to 4-H shows and gymkhanas and we did quite well, but what I dreamed of was jumping. The bigger the fence, the better. However, my farm family thought such things were for sissies and didn’t think I should ride “English.” In spite of this, I managed to find an old jumping saddle and learned what I could.
Then in college, through my university’s collegiate team, I was able to get a job as a working student at a large sporthorse barn. It was there that I was introduced to dressage. The primary focus of the stable was hunters, jumpers, and equitation, but they had an excellent dressage trainer who had ridden at the highest levels. All of her clients were older women. I thought they were boring. I liked dressage, but only in terms of what the training could do to improve my riding jumpers.
Life happened. I sold my horse and got another. Sold her and had two daughters. I started a small school horse program for beginners then had to close the program due to economic reasons. I was never able to afford the big A rated shows my coaches showed at, but I was able to find a way to keep riding and jumping, and in 2014 I bought Johann, the 2008 off the track thoroughbred gelding I still own and ride.
At first, we struggled. He had been overfaced by big jumps before he was strong or ready before he came to live with me and he would get worried. Over the same period of time, I was growing disillusioned with the hunter/jumper world. The sport was becoming more and more expensive. I had been interested in eventing for years. I boarded my horse at a stable with over 200 acres of trails. We both loved galloping through the fields, jumping fallen logs and old fences, and crossing streams. After some hand-wringing (too much so, I think) I decided to try eventing.
The switch was not a smooth one. I started working with a well-known eventing coach who assured me we could ride prelim within two years, yet we struggled with dressage. Although we would ride clean in stadium and cross country, our dressage scores were abysmal.
Then at an event in California, Johann stopped at a down bank and I fell off him and off the down bank, flat on my back, knocking the wind out of me. The pain in my pelvis was excruciating. I was able to get up and walk away, but because of the subsequent weakness and pain I felt real fear any time I faced a jump. Worse, my coach was not sympathetic. She thought I should just get over it. At our next event, she yelled at me while schooling dressage, which made me tense, which made Johann tense. Our score was crap--a 42. Because of the weakness in my pelvis, I couldn’t use my seat, or get my legs under me properly in stadium, and my horse raced around like a lunatic. He stopped again in cross-country and I fell off again. I was completely demoralized. I had fallen more in the previous six months than I had in the prior thirty years.
It should seem obvious to anyone reading this, but it took me some time before I realized that none of what I was doing was fun anymore. I wondered what was the point? How was it benefiting Johann or me? I finally understood that I needed to take charge of what was happening and listen to my body. I took some time off to heal, changed my focus, and began caring for the both of us.
During this time, a woman who owns a stable nearby invited me to participate in a clinic with a Grand Prix level dressage rider from Los Angeles. This seemed like a good place to start.
The clinician loved my horse. Over the course of two days, she was able to help me to get my horse moving forward and reaching into the bridle in a way he never had before. As he stepped up under himself, I could feel the spring in his movement. I felt utter delight at this development.
The clinician told me she thought my horse had the makings of an upper level dressage horse. You could have picked my jaw off the floor. My horse? Johann? All I had heard for over a year was how much trouble he was. I almost cried, I was so moved. I finally understood then that if I was going to be successful, in addition to bringing the joy back into my riding, I needed to find a new coach.
I began taking lessons with a local dressage trainer. Within one lesson I felt more at ease and confident than I could even imagine. As I took lessons and my horse improved and became stronger and more supple, I grew to really love dressage. For the first time in years, I felt challenged and captivated by what we were learning. When I went out to the barn to ride, inevitably, I would skip the jump saddle and tack up for dressage. I wanted to reach those upper levels the clinician claimed were within reach.
As time has passed, this feeling has only intensified. We still jump--I really LOVE cross country. But finding the joy has meant taking a breather, listening to myself and my horse, and trusting my instincts. It has paid off. Years ago as a working student I thought dressage was boring. I was wrong. Dressage is fascinating. It is challenging. And most of all, it is utterly delightful.