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!
So I am clearly the worst blogger ever. Sorry everyone! Juggling work, kids, dogs, horses, other work and life in general sometimes gets out of control. I'm back now and will be posting more regularly. Promise!
So much has happened over the spring I hardly know where to start. The good: test ride clinic with judge Elaine Potter. She's not only very skilled, but hilarious! While Gus and I were far (far) from our best, she was able to help us through some issues. A few weeks later our barn hosted a clinic with Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu. This one was of particular interest to me since I knew Brittany when she was a little girl and have followed her career closely. She's a hugely talented rider who has been fortunate enough to have access to world-class coaches and horses. I was curious whether she had the skills and ability to pass that knowledge on - she sure does! Brittany has an excellent eye, clear and easy-to-follow instructions and a positive and encouraging delivery, while still being tough and demanding results. She's coming back in the fall and I'm looking forward to it.
Now for the bad: The spring was definitely one of ups and downs where riding and progress were concerned. I was sidelined by bronchitis for a few weeks and Gus developed uveitis which, though we caught it quickly and he responded well, was still scary. Knock on wood he hasn't had any recurrences so far.
Between coming back from my injury and all these other issues interfering with our training, it was easy to blame our lack of progress on me. But when lack of progress morphs into moving backwards, to the point where simple things like a 20m trot circle become impossible, you start to look for other solutions. I was getting increasingly frustrated and Gus didn't feel like my horse at all. It was like a beginner riding a sour and sore school horse.
Lightbulb! What makes a horse sour and sore? Surely not the ridiculously expensive custom made saddle, just 18 months old, which fit Gus so beautifully when I got it? Sadly yes. Everyone warned be that Oldenburgs and crosses mature more slowly, and that buying a foam saddle with a non-adjustable tree for a 6-year-old was a bad idea. Unfortunately I chose to believe the reassurances of the salesperson and was just happy to find something that he and I both loved, after months of searching.
Now I know there is a lot that can be done with shimming etc. but trust me - Gus has developed the shoulders of a linebacker and there is no amount of tweaking that would make this saddle fit him again. Happily the search for a new one was short this time. A few people in our barn have started riding in the D1 Zero by Prestige. The tree is like none I have ever seen and the saddle is designed to give the most shoulder freedom possible. I can't tell you how dramatic and immediate the change was as soon as I started riding it. Not only was Gus soft, round, forward and straight again, I could suddenly keep my legs in place, sit the trot easily and maintain my balance - issues I had been struggling with for months. Bahr's had a used one on consignment and Liz came out to confirm it was a good fit - done deal!
So now tat we are both healthy (fingers crossed) and the saddle issue is resolved, we can start moving forward again and get back to our goal of showing First Level.
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.
Watching Charlotte Dujardin teach a number of Canada's top riders in a clinic at the Caledon Equestrian Park last fall was a real treat. Getting paid to write about it was even better! Horse Sport has made my article available online to those without a digital subscription so I thought it would be nice to share it here as well. (But you should all still subscribe to the magazine - it's a great resource!)
As a clinician Dujardin is engaging and funny, but demanding and tough. There were a number of recurring themes in her instructions that applied to each horse and rider team – and to most of us in the audience as well.
Dujardin has spoken many times about her preference for hotter, more sensitive horses. “I hate to have to kick a horse to make it go. I’m lazy and I just don’t want to work harder than the horse,” she said with a laugh. She emphasized getting the horse truly in front of the leg and responsive to the lightest of aids. She instructed several riders to “go for a yee-haw” and gallop around the ring to really get their horses moving forward. She reminded many of them to let go and not try to hold their horses in place, which only serves to block the energy and restrict the quality of the movement.
2 Bigger is better
“More, more, more! Bigger, bigger, bigger!” Those words were repeated often as Dujardin pushed riders to expect more from their horses and themselves. Extended gaits must continue right to the end of the line and she encouraged riders to rebalance and ask for even longer strides in the second half of the movement. In the half-pass, she would not allow riders to sacrifice energy and gait quality for sideways movement. She preferred a slightly larger but still correct pirouette that maintained energy to a smaller one in which horses lost impulsion and began nodding their heads. Flying changes became bigger and more expressive under Dujardin’s watchful eye as she demanded riders ask for more jump, pace, and energy with each change.
3 Take risks
With the pressure to demand more from their horses than they were used to, many riders made mistakes. Dujardin stressed the importance of errors in the training process – without mistakes and appropriate corrections, the horse can never learn. She urged riders to risk making mistakes in pursuit of a better performance. “So many riders are satisfied, happy even, with a 6.5 or 7,” she said. “Why? I don’t understand it. That should never be enough. Ten is always the goal. If you are aiming for a 6 or 7 you will never achieve 8, 9, or 10. Go for more. Take the risk. Aim for the 10 every time. If you make a mistake fix it, forget about it, and try again. But at least you tried. If you don’t try, you won’t get there.”
4 Demand perfection
On the other hand, Dujardin emphasized the importance of perfection, showing little tolerance for sloppy riding and reminding participants that they are training their horses – for better or for worse – with every transition. In her view, there is no excuse ever for a sloppy transition. Several riders were criticized for “collapsing in a heap” in transitions to walk, particularly after a strenuous exercise. While walk breaks are important, Dujardin reminded the audience they are still part of the schooling session. Transitions down to walk should be forward, light, and energetic, and the horse must still march forward during the break, stretching willingly into the contact. No poking or dawdling allowed!
5 Kick the rider, pat the horse
“Kick the rider, pat the horse!” one of Dujardin’s most popular catch phrases, was often her response to a flubbed movement or moment of miscommunication. She repeatedly emphasized the need for clear and lavish praise. Horses need to be rewarded for giving the right answer, and are never to blame for mistakes. Her advice is to pat often, praise loudly, and give frequent breaks.
First published in Horse Sport in April 2017
Something very exciting is happening tomorrow and I'm freaking out - more than a little bit. For as long as I've known what dressage is, I've dreamed of riding an upper-level dressage horse. Aside from a few weeks of lessons on a retired GP mare in Switzerland, where the language barrier and a complete lack of riding skill on my part made the experience less than stellar, most of my riding has been on horses at Second Level and below. I've never felt true collection or experienced a piaffe; I've never even ridden in a double bridle.
All that is about to change tomorrow! I'm working on a magazine article about the value of learning dressage on an advanced level schoolmaster. Leah Wilkins of Aislinn Dressage has generously offered to teach me on a couple of the lovely schoolmasters in her barn. I'm unbelievably excited and completely terrified about it.
If I haven't been completely clear in the past, let me be now; I am NOT a good rider. I am unbalanced and lopsided with busy, fidgety hands that tend to get grabby and hard. If I struggle on my sweet, sainted First Level horse how can I hope to communicate clearly with an FEI horse accustomed to precise aids and good riding?
Leah assures me all her horses are used to being used in lessons by amateurs and will be able to cope with me just fine. I'm putting my trust in her skills as a teacher and am just hoping to enjoy the experience and learn as much as I can. Even if I do end up completely humiliating myself, at least I'll have a funny story to write about, right?
When Canadian dressage superstar Ashely Holzer announced last year that after living in the United States for more than two decades she had been granted US citizenship, the internet started buzzing with questions. What did that mean for Canadian dressage? Would Ashley still compete under the maple leaf or would she now ride for the Stars & Stripes?
Those questions have now been answered with Ashley's recent announcement that she would indeed be competing as an American from now on. In an interview with Horse Canada she expressed excitement at this new chapter in her life, but also noted the decision wasn't easy.
“It was a difficult decision, as I grew up in Canada and have been extremely proud to represent Canada for many years,” she said, “but I have lived in the States for almost 25 years and it is now truly my home. My husband and children are American and I became a citizen last year. The owners of the horses I presently ride really want them to represent the US, which I totally understand.”
While the loss of such a talented competitor is a blow to our national team it is not a loss to Canadian dressage as a whole. Hopefully the many Canadian athletes who ride and train with Ashley will continue to do so, and will continue to benefit from her expertise.
UPDATE APRIL 4
In brighter news for Canadian dressage fans disappointed by Ashley's decision, rising star Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu - originally from Nova Scotia but living in the US for the past several years - announced this week she will be moving back to Canada permanently and will be based in the Ottawa / Montreal area. The barn where I ride is hosting a clinic with Brittany in May and I'm really looking forward to it!
Did you ever have one of those days (or weeks, or months) where you just can't get something right? Your coach gives you the correction and yet the more you do what she tells you, the worse things get?
Here's a tip from me: if doing what your coach tells you makes the problem worse, consider checking whether what she means is actually what you think she means.
Long story short, I could have saved myself and Gus (and Debbie too!) a lot of aggravation if I realized that while circling to the right her instructions to lead with my right shoulder actually meant "keep your right shoulder ahead (i.e. leading) of your left shoulder," and not "put your right shoulder back." Doh! Hopefully realizing this will now prevent the sideways movement I get lately with every 15 metre circle attempt. I hope so anyway, since canter half pass is not required at First Level!
Body awareness and position is a big struggle for me, as it is for a lot of rusty stirrup riders. We've been working a lot on the lunge line for the past couple of weeks, riding without using my hands in order to help improve my balance, build core strength, and develop a more independent seat. And it's working (or at least it was until today's brain fart). I'm definitely feeling more secure in my position and more confident in the saddle, which translates to a happier horse who is much steadier in the contact.
Perhaps not surprisingly, mounted exercises to improve balance and strength is the topic of my next training article in Horse Sport magazine. Debbie provided the expert advice and my friend Holly kindly served as both guinea pig and model, performing the exercises on Gus and her own horse so I could photograph them. Keep an eye out in the upcoming issue and let me know what you think.
It seems the old adage is true; the more things change, the more they stay the same - at least as far as Equestrian Canada is concerned, anyway.
Every day my news feed is filled with complaints from members, athletes and insiders. Board members are resigning like rats fleeing a sinking ship; an online group has been established and has hired legal counsel to try and oust the current CEO, and EC sends out regular reminders telling us that everything is hunky dory and threatening to pull the licences of anyone who publicly paints the organization in bad light. The National Post even covered what it described as the sport's "dirty laundry." When's the last time you saw equestrian sport mentioned in one of our national newspapers?
Honestly, I have no idea what's going on and whether the current administration is doing a good job or not. Certainly a lot of people with far more knowledge than I don't think so. My only involvement with the association of late is the annual purchase of a Bronze sport licence so I can compete in local one-day Cadora shows.
Once upon a time, however, I was a board member at what was then the Canadian Equestrian Federation. Back then (in the dark ages of the early 1990s) each provincial association president had a seat on the board, giving each province direct input in the decision-making process.
A lot of what has happened in the past few years seems eerily similar. In those days, we saw the ouster of then Executive Director Basil Collett. There were enough complaints about internal staff - not athletes - making decisions on behalf of entire disciplines that groups such as Jump Canada and Dressage Canada were formed. The organization's name was changed from the Canadian Equestrian Federation to Equine Canada; at the time we felt it was more inclusive and recognized that we represent all aspects of equine involvement from recreational riders to horse welfare and not just equestrian sport.
The wheel has come full circle and now Equine is gone and Equestrian is back in their name. Expert groups like Jump Canada are apparently losing much of their powers as discipline related decisions get handed back to EC staffers. Did any of the changes, both then and now, make the organization any stronger or benefit the equestrian community? I wish I knew.
Sometimes a small change is exactly what you need. A fresh set of eyes, a different perspective, That's why it's so important to learn from as many people as you can. In addition to bringing in "big name" clinicians several times a year, my coach Debbie also offers students the opportunity to lesson regularly with her coach. It's a great way for Debbie to confirm that her training programs are on track, and the chance for us to learn something new or - more often than not - learn something old in a new or different way.
I had a lesson with Debbie's coach Jill Stedman last weekend, and it provided exactly the butt kick I needed to shake off the winter blahs. In just 45 minutes Jill helped me unlock a problem I have been struggling to fix, no matter how many times Debbie shows me how. I feel like I'm back on track and excited to get ready for show season.
Debbie and Jill are among those riders, coaches and trainers whom I like to call the "unsung heroes of dressage." There are hundreds of them across Canada from coast to coast. They play a valuable role in our sport, yet unless you live in their local area, you've likely never even heard their names. They are talented teachers and riders, and many show successfully in the FEI levels. Others may not show at all, choosing to focus instead on the coaching and training side of their business.
They suffer through Canadian winters with the rest of us, spending hours in freezing arenas trying to teach the magic of the half halt and the power of the outside rein. They share their knowledge with students of all ages, experience and ability, on horses of every breed and type. And they get the job done.
Don't get me wrong - I am always impressed by the accomplishments of our national team and top international riders. I am in awe of their talent, the work that goes into their success and above all, the jaw-dropping abilities of their horses. But what impresses me even more? A coach who can help a busy adult amateur rider reach his or her goals on an average horse.
The phrase "average horse" is not intended in any way to be a put down. In fact I think 98% of riders should be riding and purchasing average horses. You know the ones I'm talking about - the horses of any breed or any size who have three quality gaits and a superb brain, solid citizens that amateurs can ride and enjoy themselves, without the need for daily pro rides or extensive prep before a show.
The unsung hero coaches have proven their ability to work with amateur clients who juggle work, family and life obligations and don't always have time to ride 4-5 times a week. They take them and their "average" horses - Warmbloods, Thoroughbreds, draft crosses and even a Connemara in one case I know of - up through the levels as far as they want to go, even up to Grand Prix.
While our Olympians and CDI competitors will always be my idols, the dedicated Canadian coaches who keep riders like me motivated and progressing are my heroes.
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.
Follow me on Instagram @dressageaddict.ca
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