Like most plus-size riders, whenever I see a new article or study about the effects of rider weight on horses posted online, I break into a cold sweat. Not because of the article content itself, but because of the inevitable comments that ensue on social media. They range from the insensitive to the stupid, and often venture into the territory of downright cruel.
So when Eurodressage recently posted an article titled "The Influence of Rider Size on Changes in Equine Back Dimensions, Muscle Tension, and Pain," I clicked with no small amount of trepidation. You can read the article yourself and draw your own conclusions about the limitations of the study design but here are mine: there are a few key points which plus-sized riders (and those who teach them) should take away from this study, even as the study acknowledges it’s hard to make clear correlations from the data gathered.
1. We all know this, but it’s imperative to ride a horse whose size, conformation, and soundness is appropriate for your weight. Check in with your vet and your coach / trainer regularly and ask for their honest feedback whether your weight is making your horse uncomfortable.
2. Ride in a saddle that fits not only the horse, but you as well. While this applies to all riders, it’s particularly relevant to those of us who are large / heavy. There are fewer saddles with large seat sizes on the market, especially in the used market, and not all horses have the back length to accommodate a bigger saddle. Big riders are used to sacrificing our fit for correctly fitting a saddle to the horse, but this study suggests that riding in a saddle that’s too small for the rider may create pressure points on the horse’s back, even when properly fitted to the horse. It’s worth the investment to get a saddle that fits you both.
3. Be prepared to face the uncomfortable truth - your horse might not always be appropriate for you. As age and injuries take a toll on your partner's strength and soundness, or if you weight increases, compromises might be required. This may mean reducing workload and / or ride frequency, committing to losing weight, or focusing more on activities like ground work or long lining.
Just keep showing up. Today wasn’t the first time I’ve heard these words of wisdom, but I was reminded why they are perhaps the most valuable words of advice for riders of every level in any discipline.
When things get too busy, too stressful, too cold, or just too hard, it’s tempting to put riding on the back burner and take a little break. Don’t. Just keep showing up.
When every ride feels like two steps backwards, keep showing up. When your mind is spinning from stress at home or at work, keep showing up.
When winter sucks away every ounce of your motivation, keep showing up. When you’re overwhelmed with anxiety or frozen with fear, keep showing up. When you suddenly have a breakthrough, keep showing up. When you hit that goal you’ve been working towards for months, keep showing up.
The only way to make progress is to just keep showing up, day after day, week after week. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
Over the past few years, I have met some amazing Canadian riders who have impressed me with their accomplishments, whether reaching the highest levels of FEI competition or overcoming incredible personal challenges just to get in the saddle. I wanted to profile some of their achievements and their stories, so decided to to start a new blog series called Amateurs (Not) Like Us.
If you missed the first installment featuring Jennifer Black, check it out. Today I'm excited to introduce you to an inspirational rider named Anne Leueen. Many of you already know her and her horse Biasini from her popular HorseAddict blog. Anne is a wonderful source of information, news, training advice and really all things dressage, but she's also a highly accomplished re-rider who has found success in the FEI ring in her 70s. How does this self-described "vintage rider" do it? We asked her:
When and why did you start riding?
I started riding when I was about 7 at a dude ranch in Arizona while we were on holiday. I started to ride on a regular basis at age 10. I went after school with a friend and my parents leased a horse for me.
When and why did I start to focus on dressage?
I never imagined I would focus on dressage . As a teenager I was eventing at Pebble Beach and I thought dressage was a joke. I had a 30-year gap from age 19 to 49 when I did not ride. When my daughter started she was interested in dressage, and by then I was 50 so I thought it would be more sensible if I did not jump and tried dressage instead.
What were your initial goals?
Initially I just thought I would like to get back to competing. After a couple of years I set my sights on the Prix St-Georges. When I told my 10-year-old daughter this she burst out laughing.
How have those goals changed over the past few years?
I rode my first PSG in 2013. Then my horse got ill and had to be put down. I was heartbroken as we had come up the levels from Training to PSG together. I got another horse and within six months I lost him as well. I thought about stopping riding but realized that if i gave up horses I was going to get old quickly. That was when I got Biasini. I do not have the goal of getting to the Grand Prix. I am currently 71 and Biasini is 15, so that would be an unrealistic goal. And that's fine with me. We are currently competing at the I-1 level and I am aiming for the Century ride, where the horse and rider's ages added together equal 100. Dressage Canada does not have this award yet., so I am going to go about getting that set up for myself and other elder riders!
You have dealt with some serious health challenges; how have they affected your riding?
The year my daughter started riding I was diagnosed with Systemic Scleroderma, an autoimmune disease in the same family as Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis. I was pretty ill, with all my joints inflamed and skin thickened and tightened all over my body. It can also affect the lungs , kidneys and heart, but I was lucky and did not experience that.
I started back riding to share a leased horse with my daughter. The Scleroderma stopped progressing, but then I was diagnosed with colo-rectal cancer. I had a major surgery to have several working parts removed, and now have a permanent colostomy. The year after the cancer surgery my Scleroderma began to go into what the doctors described as a "dramatic" remission. Today I have only minor symptoms. I was not then and am not now on any medication that would have caused this improvement. My "miracle cure" was that I bought myself a horse! That was 20 years ago.
How do you define success at dressage for yourself?
This is a tough question. I do not measure it by my test scores. I think I measure it by achieving improvements in the things I am working on with my coach.
As an amateur what have been the biggest obstacles to success?
I have to say I have not really encountered any obstacles as an amateur rider. The USDF has awards to encourage amateurs and older riders. I have my Masters Challenge awards for riders over 60 right up to the FEI level. It is nice to have something to work towards and fun to get a nice diploma, elegant picture frame, and a medal.
What have been the most helpful tools or strategies in achieving success?
Good coaches! To me there is nothing more important than investing in good training. I am very lucky to have a very good coach in Florida, Luis Denizard ,and my home coach here in Ontario is [Canadian Olympian] Belinda Trussell. She had Biasini from the age of 4 until I bought him at 9. So I have had the benefit of a well-trained horse. He's not an easy horse to ride, but is very well-trained. Also Belinda does not treat me like a 70-year-old rider and she pushes me to do better and then even better.
What is your career highlight to date?
Last year Biasini and I were the Reserve Champions of the Adult Amateur division at Intermediare 1 in the White Fences Championship Series in Florida. This year we were Reserve Champions for the FEI Freestyle. I celebrated both of those.
Biggest setback to date?
To be honest any setbacks I have had have not been that bad. I'm not just being a social media Pollyanna about this. I am extremely fortunate and my setbacks are just first-world problems.
What's the most important advice you can give fellow amateurs?
Get the right horse for where you are now. Don't get sucked in to getting a big fancy mover when what you need is a sensible horse that you can enjoy. The horse I came up through the levels with was not a big fancy mover, but he was consistent and he gave me confidence. We learned together. I would not be able to ride a horse like Biasini if I had not had Tommie. And when you get the right horse, make sure you have access to a good coach and trainer who can help you achieve your goals. Finally, especially if you are older, it is paramount to maintain a very good level of fitness. I have to be fit to be able to ride well. We all do.
If you've been to a Toronto-area dressage show in the past few years, you've probably noticed Jennifer Black and her Clyde / Hackney cross Brixton. At 17.3, his size alone makes him hard to miss. With few amateurs competing at the FEI levels, and even fewer of them doing it on a draft cross, the pair stands out from the crowd.
I've enjoyed watching this pair with amazement (and no small amount of envy) as they moved up the levels consistently year after year, conquering a new level each year. In 2018 they made their FEI debut at PSG and Brixton was named Small Tour Horse of the Year by Equestrian Canada. Last year they moved up to the I1 level and Jennifer was EC's Reserve Small Tour Rider of the Year.
For the last two years I have had the pleasure of boarding at the same barn as Jennifer and Brixton, and watching them train in person. And now it's my pleasure to introduce them to you!
Meet Jennifer Black
Horses: Brixton (2010 Clyde x Hackney gelding), Modern Art aka Momo (2018 Hanoverian filly)
When did you start riding, and specifically focusing on dressage?
I started riding when I was 6, doing pony club, then hunters, then eventing. I started focusing on dressage in 2013 after a 10-year hiatus from riding while I was in university. I knew I wanted to show and dressage was my way to do that.
Where did you find Brixton and how long have you had him?
I bought Brixton in 2013 from his breeder (Shady Maple Farm) as 2-year-old. I chose a draft cross because I wanted an A+ temperament, meaning if I couldn’t ride for weeks, I could get on and not die.
Who do you train with?
I started Brix under saddle on my own. I was looking around the internet and saw a video of Meredith Risk competing with a Clyde / Hackney cross named Jacob in the I1. I thought why can’t I do that? So when he was almost 4 we started training with Meredith at Nobleton Dressage, and we've been there ever since.
What were your goals then and how have they changed?
My initial goals were to give Brix a good foundation and hone my own dressage skills, and maybe get out to a few schooling shows. When I evented, dressage was something you suffered through to get to cross country. I knew there had to be more to it than that.
Once we started training and competing, my goal changed to seeing how far we could go together. And level after level he kept surprising me, and I kept surprising myself. Our first show at Training Level was in 2014 when Brix was turning 4, and we made our FEI debut at PSG when he was 8. I'm very proud of that progress. My personal goals now are to do a decent Grand Prix at some point, whether it’s on Brixton, or Momo, or another horse.
What is your competitive highlight so far?
My biggest highlight was probably the Saturday I1 at Angelstone last August. I rode a pretty great test (almost clean) and could have cried when I was leaving the ring. It kind of felt like it all came together and Brix tried extra hard for me. It was pretty special.
It's quite rare for an amateur to progress up the levels this far and this quickly, let alone on an "off breed" horse. What's the secret to your success?
Success is progress. Some days that’s nothing more than bending your left elbow and some days it’s getting a clean line of twos.
The biggest factors in attaining success for me have been having an excellent, supportive trainer, and clearly defined goals. Make sure you have a trainer who repeatedly produces the results that you want to attain, both in their own horses and with other amateur clients . Do you like the way the horses go? Do you like the way the trainer rides? Do you share the same philosophy?
You also have to ride as often as you can. Just keep showing up, even when it gets hard. You won’t get to where you want to be without putting in the work.
With respect to preparing for horse shows, watch the pros ride tests in person or on YouTube, including the lower level tests. You may not have the same fancy mover but there is a lot to learn, for instance how they ride their lines, and where they start their movements. It’s a wealth of information.
What have been the biggest obstacles / setbacks for you?
As an amateur, the biggest obstacles are always time and money. Not only does it cost money to care for a horse, and to pay for good quality lessons, training show fees and more, when I am riding, I’m not billing, so I’m not getting paid.
I’ve learned that there are actually enough hours in the day if you wake up early enough. Being super organized helps as well, and planning your day/week out in advance. I also find that riding and being around horses in general gives me the energy to do a great job for my clients, and to be organized at home (although my husband would like to have me around more). Inevitably you will miss social events and get home later than you’d like.
For competing, I save most of my vacation time for the summer so I can have days off before and after the horse show, which makes it less stressful. I am lucky to have a somewhat flexible schedule, and a trainer who will accommodate me. Also if I can’t ride, I know my horse is getting a good training session in with Meredith.
I have been lucky with only a few setbacks with Brix. I had one really bad test in July last year. About 50 people were watching and I could barely keep him from barrelling through the ring. We pretty much just rode the pattern and kind of did some of the movements. I let myself cry for 5 minutes, and then gave him two days off, and then rode the test in my first lesson back. I immediately felt better.
The biggest setback is that Brix currently has an injury. He is supposed to come back 100% but it is hard to lose the season (even if there is no show season due to COVID) and it will be particularly hard getting him in shape again.
What's the best advice you can offer to other amateurs with competitive goals?
My most important advice for amateurs is to (1) work with a good trainer and (2) just ride as often as you can.
Make the time, even if it means waking up at 4:30 am to get to work early so you can make it to the barn in time for a lesson. Don’t miss an opportunity to train if you can help it. And most importantly, enjoy and spend time with your horse; they’re not machines
.Writing for a number of equestrian magazines has given me the amazing opportunity to meet, interview, and feature some of my dressage idols. Almost all the articles I write are about professionals competing at the highest levels of the sport, or rising stars working their way onto the international scene. They are incredible and inspiring athletes, but not necessarily relatable to the average amateur on a budget, with a less than fancy horse, juggling to fit lessons, training time and shows in around work, family, and other commitments.
Amateurs like us represent by far the majority of dressage riders in Canada. Many of us will never compete any higher than First Level - if we even compete at all. We do the best we can with what we have, setting goals that fit our skills, budgets, and available time. If we meet our goals - whatever they may be - then we are successful and should be proud of our accomplishments, no matter how big or how small.
But what about the amateurs who aren't like us? Over the past few years, I have met some amazing Canadian riders who have impressed me with their accomplishments, whether reaching the highest levels of FEI competition or overcoming incredible personal challenges just to get in the saddle. I wanted to profile some of their achievements and their stories, so decided to to start a new blog series called Amateurs (Not) Like Us.
The first amateur in the series has inspired and influenced me personally, so stay tuned for the first installment, featuring Jennifer Black and Brixton. And if you know an incredible Canadian amateur with a great story to share, please let me know!
Discussion time: The following quote came from a poster on the Chronicle of the Horse Forum, in a discussion about why so many amateur dressage riders never get past Second Level. For a lot of people it ultimately comes down to time, money, and other life priorities, and that’s ok.
The problem is when people want to progress, and invest the time, money and sweat in progressing, but still fall short of their goals. Why? Poor coaching? Lack of rider ability? Lack of horse talent? This COTH poster had an interesting perspective:
“[The riders] I refer to as the "yes buts". These are people who want dressage to do it their way. They don't want to do it dressage's way. The ones who want to go to a dressage clinic in a western saddle on a horse they trail ride 3x per week and expect the clinician to be overjoyed at the prospect of teaching them western dressage.
The ones who insist that literally every professional they see doing the sport in pictures is riding incorrectly, and that the only person they know who rides "like the old masters" is some kook down the road who "studied with Nuño", charges $75 to longe, but wont actually get on.
You're never allowed to bend the horse more than 3 degrees, or you're doing rollkur; you're never allowed to actually pull on the reins like you expect an answer, so you should just barrel around murmuring good pony good pony and hope that eventually christ will lay hands on the horse and it will start voluntarily offering a half halt that actually goes through.
They will spend yeeeaaarrrss doing the training level Olympics with these pros and it doesnt occur to them that they havent seem an actual half pass performed since the 80's.
They are so obsessed with lightness and harmony that they literally never apply an aid with enough expectation that they get an answer to progress past training level. Yes, at all levels the lightness should be feather light - but this happens because the horse knows he has to LISTEN to light aids, and isn't allowed to just ignore them for decades.“
I see a lot of this in real life, and even more of it online, where self-styled experts gleefully tear apart successful riders and coaches, despite having no track record of successfully riding, training or teaching up the levels themselves. They cling to some ideal of what “classical” dressage should be, often without any real understanding or experience in training. My coach is fond of saying “There is no such thing as ‘classical dressage’ and ‘competition dressage,’ just good dressage and bad dressage.”
There’s nothing wrong with riding at Second Level or below forever, if you are having fun. There’s nothing wrong with not competing at all, if competing doesn’t bring you joy. But if your goal is to progress, and you find yourself stuck at the same level with the same problems year after year, something has to change. It might be your mindset, your physical fitness, your time commitment, your financial commitment, your coach, or some
combination of the above.
Have you ever felt stuck in the “Training Level Olympics? What did you change in order to progress? Head over to Facebook and join the discussion already underway there, or share your thoughts in the comments below.
If you follow my Dressage Addict Facebook and Instagram feeds, you probably already know that last I week I ticked an item off my bucket list, by having a lesson with Canadian icon Cindy Ishoy. Caprice was an absolute star, as usual, and didn't put a foot wrong. I worked harder than I've worked in years and realized that I'm stronger than I think. Meredith's not going to let me take as many breaks now, which is going to hurt!
Lesson-wise, as with any good dressage trainer, there was no magic. Simple, consistent riding of the horse from back to front, working on the basics of my position, and keeping Caprice moving honestly forward to the contact. Really forward. Way more forward than my muscles are used to in sitting trot. Farewell comfort zone!
For me, the magic was simply the opportunity to learn from a legend, the person who inspired me to take up dressage. So many people commented on how lucky I am and they are right. But those of you who grew up in the GTA are probably thinking, "What's the big deal? Anybody can call up Cindy and book a lesson or clinic."
That is a big deal. A very big deal.
I was 16 years old and still living in Newfoundland in 1988 when Cindy and Dynasty danced their way to Olympic bronze, along with Ashley Holzer, Gina Smith and Evi Pracht. At that time I had never seen a double bridle in real life, didn't know that reins could be be used for more than turning your horse's head, and didn't have a clue that "on the bit" was a thing, let alone understand what it meant. I had no idea what I was watching when I saw Cindy and Dynasty, but I knew I wanted to ride like that.
Being able to call up a Grand Prix rider to book a lesson was unthinkable. At a time when nobody in the province had competed any higher than the equivalent of Second Level, even watching somebody ride the Grand Prix was unthinkable. Even after living in Ontario for 19 years I've never quite gotten over the thrill of watching my trainer school her upper-level horses at home, or hanging out by the warm up ring at shows, seeing riders in person who were once simply mythical names in a magazine to me. I've had the pleasure of knowing Cindy for a few years now and have interviewed her a number of times for articles, but having the chance to ride in a lesson with her was very, very special.
The opportunities that arise out of living and riding in the GTA are easy to take for granted if you've never owned horses anywhere else in Canada. It seems entirely normal here to have a choice of stables with indoor arenas, and of competition venues and show circuits. On any given weekend we can audit a clinic or book a lesson with national and international stars. Riders have a choice of farriers, a choice of vets, and even a choice of equine hospitals with MRI machines, surgical suites and rehab facilities. We've got countless equine nutritionists, message therapists, acupuncturists, physiotherapists, and even psychics to keep our horses in peak physical and mental condition.
The depth of talent and resources here in Ontario is astounding. Not everyone else in Canada is nearly so lucky. Watch for an upcoming blog post about a new rider development program created by Ontario Equestrian, aimed at using those resources to help more Ontario riders reach the podium. In the meantime, I'm happy to share my good fortune with you, by sharing two of the exercises Cindy had me work on. Good luck!
This one sounds deceptively simple (and maybe for other people it is, but not for me!). Ride a three loop serpentine, wall to wall, with simple changes through walk over the centre line, and a 10m circle each time you reach the wall.
About the author
I'm a middle-aged, overweight, rusty re-rider who refuses to let any of that get in the way of my passion for dressage.