What do you get when you take a huge (and handsome) Clyde / Hackney cross, and add in a determined amateur owner and a highly skilled and supportive coach? Proof that dressage really is for any horse, of any breed.
I'm not going to pretend that breeding doesn't make a difference, because of course it does. If you had serious ambitions to compete in Formula One car racing, you probably wouldn't try to qualify in a Toyota Corolla. But if you are an average person looking for a safe, fun and affordable car to drive every day, the Corolla might be a perfect choice.
Dressage horses are much the same. If you genuinely plan to ride at the CDI level and represent your country on the international stage, your chances will be much improved if you are competing on a purpose-bred horse with strong performance bloodlines. However most of us don't have the ambition, skill, time or money to even dream of showing at that level. Most of need the Toyota Corolla of horses; dependable, cute with enough get-up-and-go to get the job done, but safe and reliable for an amateur driver.
The beauty of dressage is that - at the lower levels at least - any horse can do it, and any horse can be improved by it. Breed, size, colour...none of that should be a barrier to success. But getting up the levels - all the way up the levels - is no easy feat even on the priciest warmblood. Huge respect to every rider and trainer who successfully trains a horse to this level while keeping it horse sound, healthy and happy in the work. If those riders happen to be amateurs and the horses happen to be draft crosses, well that ratchets up my respect to a whole new level.
Meet Jacob, the Clyde / Hackney cross I was telling you about. With the help of the supremely talented Meredith Risk of Nobleton Dressage, owner Alison Baxter has brought her former Mennonite carriage horse carefully and correctly up through the levels. At the recent Palgrave show she had what must have been an incredible experience, watching Meredith pilot Jacob through his first Gold show Grand Prix.
Watch and enjoy Jacob's test here:
This is not the post I wanted to write. When I left before dawn yesterday morning I envisioned writing all about my triumphant return to the show ring. The day's rundown would include me facing my fears, Gus behaving beautifully, us killing our tests and bringing home pretty ribbons and respectable scores. He's been going really well; I've been feeling safe and confident and I figured we were ready to do this.
The horse gods laugh at our plans, don't they!
It started when Gus came off the trailer 20 hands high, yelling at all the other horses and nearly running me over in his excitement. Our working student kindly helped me manhandle him to the barn where he settled down quickly, but my confidence was already shaken. Gusty winds, flapping banners and sudden storms were the order of the day, which didn't help my nerves any.
Debbie got on to warm him up and he looked fine...sort of...while he was going well I could tell how hard she was working to keep him focused, which is not normal for him at home. He threw a small tempter tantrum when others horses left and he realized he was alone in the warm up ring. On a normal day, no big deal but this didn't feel like a normal day. I felt less confident the more I watched and really wanted to say "forget it," but didn't want to seem like a wimp.
Debbie called me over and I felt my stomach drop, knowing it was time for me to put my big girl panties on and get down centre line. Instead she said "I don't think this is the right day for you to do this. I think it's not going to go well and I don't want you to have a bad experience or get hurt." She felt Gus never really settled under her and was concerned that he would get in the show ring, realize he was alone, take one look at the flapping banners behind C and decide to get the hell out of Dodge.
I was relieved, but strangely disappointed at the same time. I decided to get on and see for myself. He felt fine one minute - fantastic actually - and the next would be a ball of sticky, balkiness that I knew signalled an imminent explosion if I tried to push him. And then he'd feel fine again, until he caught a glimpse of the wheelbarrows he had already spooked at 10 times.
If he hadn't misbhaved at the last two shows, or if I hadn't fallen off at one of them, Debbie and I both would have voted for suck it up and deal with whatever comes. But in this case she was right to put my confidence first. I couldn't cope with another fall right now. And I didn't want him to think that kind of behaviour was ok off property. She put my needs first and I'm glad I listened to her advice. We had a good school in the warm up ring and he went back to bed happy.Not the result I wanted but a good schooling experience nonetheless.
Debbie has already booked some off property schooling time before the next show and, since I cant ride him in it due to work obligations that week, she or her daughter will be the one going in the ring with him at the July show. So, I'll put my dreams of red ribbons aside, check my ego and focus on learning and improving. That's what this dressage thing is supposed to be all about, right?
I'm afraid. Very afraid. And I don't quite know what to do about it. I sent in my entries for our first show of the season today, and I've been pretty much in a cold sweat ever since.
It's a small Cadora Bronze show at a quiet local venue just a 10 minute drive from our barn. The perfect place to get back in the ring after having the fall last time right? No biggie. While Gus often gets a bit full of himself and pushy on the ground in new settings, he's always been fine when I get on and has never offered anything worse than a little squeal, kick out or headshaking.
His reaction (spin and run) to the bicycle whizzing by which prompted my fall (and concussion and knee fracture) at a show last year was a very honest reaction to something he'd never seen before and which truly looked and sounded scary. If he hadn't spun the other way to avoid a pond in the ring, I likely would have stayed on, continued my ride and not lost more than a minute's sleep over it.
Instead I have a sick feeling in my stomach and I can't help focusing on the one time things went wrong, rather than the hundreds of times they have gone right. We have a plan in place involving the liberal use of Chill (for Gus, not me) and having my coach warm him up at the show first. My head tells me it will be fine but my nerves aren't listening. Any advice, suggestions, for overcoming this block are greatly appreciated! He's going so well and I know realistically we can do a good job on First 1 and 2, if I can make it into the ring. Help me get there!
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.