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
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.
So apparently there are people out there who not only want me to write a recap of the Charlotte Dujardin masterclass at Caledon Equestrian Park this weekend, but are actually waiting for me to do so! That's very flattering and I hate to disappoint, so will get right to it with no futher ado.
Was it awesome? Yes.
Was it the same as last time? No. While the clinic followed the same format as Charlotte's 2016 masterclass and the Carl Hester one last year, there was a completely different group of horses, and therefore was a completely different learning experience.
Instead of recapping each day, this time I'd like to break it down by level. It was interesting to compare the differences and similarities between the horses each day. Let's begin with the babies who were featured in the first session of each day.
Charlotte prefers to buy young horses around the age of two and start their training herself. She looks for correct and easy - but not necessarily spectacular - gaits. Although big gaits are becoming increasingly prevalent in the young horse classes, that extravagant expression is something she prefers to develop over time with training, saying that working in a huge trot at a young age will increase the wear and tear on a horse over the long term. She avoids the young horses who already walk for a 9 or 10, knowing that enormous walk will be difficult to collect later on. A 7.5 is her ideal walk at this stage.
By the time they reach age 4, like the horses featured in the clinic, Charlotte expects them to go forward from the leg, maintain straightness, steady contact and a steady rhythm. She keeps their training periods short - 20 minutes at most. Maintaining balance of the young horse is the rider's job and they have to be brave, allowing them to go forward without restricting them. Horses have their whole lives to be collected. Allow young horses the freedom to make mistakes, then correct the mistakes. That's where the learning happens.
With three out of the four youngsters featured this weekend, Charlotte wanted to see the riders work towards a more uphill outline with consistency in the contact, without sacrificing the energy, activity and rhythm. The fourth horse - a lovely mare ridden by Neil McIntosh - was a bit the opposite. She wanted this hotter and more sensitive mare to show more relaxation, slow down the tempo and reach forward more to the contact.
Inga Hamilton & Brigitte (4)
This elegant young mare is a half-sister on the dam's side to Cyrus, whom many of us have seen competing under Tom Dvorak. I've always enjoyed seeing Inga ride her spectacular stallion Fabregas, and equally enjoyed seeing her give this much younger, greener horse a lovely ride. Charlotte complimented the horse on her nice rhythm, easy movement and relaxed nature. Key points from her lesson included:
- Don't expect to see a 4yo in a Grand Prix outline but would like to see her a little more balanced uphill and less over the front end.
- Keep lifting the next sightly without disturbing the nice, easy rhythm.
- Think more forward and active but not faster.
- Make her work hard to carry herself more uphill, then reward that work with a stretch break.
- In the canter when the weight is rocked back a little more on the hind end, the whole quality of the gait changes. Mare has a lovely, super canter when balanced correctly.
- Transitions from canter to trot are still difficult for her at this stage. Until she can shorten the canter stride in balance the transition to trot won't be balanced.
Neil McIntosh & Juweel of Lichty (4)
He may have been a last-minute replacement when Harma Fraser opted not to make the long journey with her horse from PEI, but Montreal-based Neil McIntosh rose to the challenge admirably on this very nice young mare. Charlotte's comments to the pair included:
- Keep the leg on. Tendency is to keep the leg away from a hot horse but we need to do the opposite.
- Horse tends to slow slightly when Neil asks her to bend - indicates he is using the hand without enough leg aid to back it up, a common mistake on a sensitive horse.
- Maintain one single steady rhythm - no speeding up or slowing down.
- Lots of walk/trot transitions (good ones, on the aids and straight!) are really beneficial for this horse.
- Horse will have a really impressive trot in a few years.
- Keep testing the contact in the canter. Can you give without the balance and rhythm changing?
- Use shoulder fore to create straightness
- Maintain contact in the stretch trot - don't just throw the rein away
Magda Moyseowicz & Sam I Am (4)
The only amateur in the master class, Toronto-based Magda did an impressive job with her big young gelding. Charlotte encouraged her to persevere through occasional moments of resistance and not let the horse dictate what amount of contact he was comfortable with. Her words of wisdom included:
- Don't be a passenger you have to be the pilot.
- Canter is easier for this horse right now so go with it. Train the canter work first, then work on the trot once the horse is looser and happier.
- Horse likes to be a bit long and flat in his outline - working on long straight lines only encourages this more. Use lots of circles, serpentines and changes of direction while really asking the horse to bend and carry himself more uphill.
- It's easy for him to stretch long and low so he's happier there. Use that as a reward after harder work in a more uphill balance.
- Work uphill for a bit, then stretch for a bit. Rinse, repeat.
Alexandra Reid & Jewel's Idokarde (5)
At this stage, an extra year of maturity and training makes a big difference. By age 5, Charlotte expects to see the basic paces well established and horses moving forward from the leg with straightness. Now it's time to increase the suppleness with lateral work. Though "Dreamy" had a few cheeky young horse moments, Alex calmly and patiently continued to push the horse forward through the resistance, resulting in a much more relaxed and swinging trot by the end of the session. A great performance from this young professional and a super-talented young horse. Charlotte's tips for Alex included:
- Horse has a lovely looking, big trot with nice swing to the movement but isn't actually swinging through the body.
- Increase suppleness and encourage the legs and body to work together with walk/trot transitions. Lots of them.
-Horse keeps hind end underneath himself very well - sign he will have a great piaffe later.
- Leg yield is the first lateral movement for the young horse. Set horse up for success by starting as if on a diagonal line, then add the sideways.
- Will really highlight which side is the horses' stiff side - tend to over bend in one direction and not at all in the other direction.
- Horse has to go sideways from the leg, not from the inside rein. Pulling the inside rein results in horse falling out through the outside shoulder.
- Working with young horses takes patience and perseverance. You can't try to fix everything in one day. Bit by bit work on making them more uphill, more together, softer, more supple.
- After working through the resistance, by the end Alex was able to demonstrate a lovely stretch trot and canter with the horse swinging nicely through his back and body.
There's so much more to cover but I have a 9am lesson tomorrow and a full day of work and chauffeuring kids around, so it's off to bed for me! Stay tuned for the next installment, featuring the 6 and 7-year old horses.
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.