Lessons from a schoolmaster
So everyone wants to know how my big adventure with Leah Wilkins at Aislinn Dressage went. In short it was fun, amazing, humbling, exciting, and eye-opening.
First of all, everyone at Leah's beautiful farm was so welcoming and generous with their time and I appreciate that so much! Leah even arranged for a wonderful photographer to take pictures, leaving Debbie free to take notes and videos for me.
I don't want to scoop my own Horse Sport article so can't give everything away, but will give you the Coles Notes version of my morning. Leah selected two completely different horses for me to ride: Quaderna (Quad), a 21-year-old Lusitano stallion trained to Third Level, and Amusant (Austin) a 22-year-old Hanoverian who was Leah's first Grand Prix mount and former Young Riders partner. He also happens to be a big chestnut grandson of Weltmeyer, just like my GusGus, so of course I fell immediately in love with him.
I'll be honest - I have never ridden a PRE or Lusitano or any of the Iberian breeds, and have never been a huge fan. Until last week I would have just said they weren't my type. The big chestnut Hanoverian with the huge lofty stride? That's my type and probably the type of schoolmaster most amateurs picture themselves on. Which brings me to my first lesson learned: be careful what you wish for.
His relatively small stature and short, comfortable gaits are exactly what make Quad such a joy to ride. He is light in the bridle, super responsive to the seat and so easy to sit I felt I could relax and do next to nothing while riding him. Everything feels accessible and maneuverable unlike Gus, who feels a bit like driving a school bus sometimes due to his size. This type of horse is a real confidence-booster to a nervous amateur like me, not only because he doesn't so much as bat an eyelash at the avalanches of ice from the arena roof, but because he makes everything feel easy and fun.
Biggest things I learned from Quad? You really can half halt and / or make downward transitions without using your hands! With him I could ride as quietly and softly as I want to ride on Gus.
Best moment? Experiencing his party trick of piaffe and passage. What a treat! Simply the coolest feeling ever. I think I giggled and grinned like and idiot the whole time.
Moving on to Austin was a whole different experience. Equally fun and amazing but a lot harder and definitely humbling. I really, truly thought I understood what it means to ride with your core, and that I knew how athletic dressage riders are. I. Had. No. Idea.
This is a horse with so much suspension, so much loft, you could go out for coffee on the first stride and be back in time for the second. I have never experienced anything like this trot in my life. I got launched towards the rafters on the first step and, after what felt like an eternity, landed back in the saddle only to be launched back into the stratosphere. I did finally manage to keep my balance enough to complete a 20m circle, but only just. Again I was giggling the whole time, partly because of how ridiculous I felt simply trying to post the trot and partly because the feeling of power and thrust beneath me was so cool.
And did I mention my abs? Oh God my poor abs. It took every ounce of balance and strength I had to maintain what I thought was upright posture - upon looking at the pictures it's clear I didn't come close to succeeding. The fact that Leah makes it look so effortless in sitting trot gives me a whole new level of respect for riders of these huge movers.
When Leah first suggested I try a canter I demurred - if I couldn't trot around a simple circle I suspected the canter would be a disaster. I was wrong. It was HEAVENLY. I could have sat there and enjoyed the feeling of balance and power all day. When I half halted I felt for the first time in my life what it really means to compress a horse like an accordion and not lose all that power and energy.
So...what's the verdict? Can an amateur rider learn something valuable in just one lesson from a schoolmaster? Absolutely yes and everyone should do it. But check your expectations about the type of schoolmaster you need. If, like me, you need to work on fundamentals like position, balance and independent seat and hands, the perfect schoolmaster may not be the huge Warmblood you picture in your dreams, and it certainly doesn't need to do the Grand Prix. Work with your trainer to find a suitable lesson horse that allows you to work on you.
In Horse Sport I will go into more detail about key learnings and tips for my fellow ammies, including where / how to find these rare lesson unicorns, approximate costs and a few important things to know before your first lesson. Stay tuned - I'll let you know when the article is going to be published.
In the meantime, please enjoy a few photos from my incredible adventure. Big thanks to Doug Palmer for taking such great pictures.
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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.