As an eventer, I’ve historically seen dressage as a necessary, but not overly enjoyable exercise. A way of teaching a horse to understand what you want him to do – the ‘go’ aids and the ‘whoa’ aids, the suppling and the strengthening, before you get to the fun stuff. As an eventer, I was often told that I wasn’t ever going to be any good at dressage and to just get through it. Stupidly, I listened to those people.
Then, in early 2015, I was given a troubled dressage horse to ride and compete. Her history was blotted with bouts of unexplained, perplexing and occasionally dangerous behaviour. I began a journey with her that has led me to a much deeper understanding of what dressage is truly about and I am eternally thankful that she allowed me ‘in’ enough to learn from her. Before this horse, I will be the first to admit that my knowledge was limited, not through lack of curiosity, but because I happened to be putting my trust in the wrong person for help. I had developed a nagging feeling that there was more to dressage than what I was being taught and that there were better, more humane methods than what I had witnessed. 2015 was one huge learning curve – I deliberately took myself back to the most basic of basics and attempted to fill in the gaps, with the help of some fabulous trainers.
One year on, and while I have worked extremely hard to retain as much as is physically possible, every time I go for a lesson, or listen to someone knowledgeable, it makes me realise just how much more there is to learn.
And it turns out I didn’t start my journey into the world of dressage a minute too soon, because in April this year, I made the decision to retire my horse, Morris, from eventing and to concentrate on dressage with him instead. I’ve owned Morris since 2007, and in simple terms, he is my best friend. Morris has a heart of gold and is extremely stoic, which can be both a blessing and a curse. Over the years I’ve made a habit of double and triple checking that he’s fit, sound and healthy, but recent x-rays showed that he has developed minor bony changes in his front feet. I know that in time, these will need managing and whilst I’m missing galloping across those lush, green fields and jumping things that terrify me, I also know that he needs to be looked after. I would rather retire him as a sound and happy horse a year ‘too early’ than wait for him to hurt. Even if he was in pain, he would keep jumping for me. I simply couldn’t contemplate that happening.
Six weeks on from making the decision to turn Morris’ hoof to pure dressage, and we’re qualified for the BD Regionals at Advanced-Medium and already gearing up for our Advanced debut. We’ve not only been working hard together but I’ve also taken myself off for lunge and schoolmaster lessons at Talland. There’s a lot to be said for lunge lessons – Abby Hutton took my lesson and spent the time lengthening my leg. “You’re not an eventer any more! Forget about the forward seat!” she shrieked. And before I had time to protest that actually, I was still an eventer and did in fact need to remember what a forward seat was, she’d whipped away my reins and stirrups and pushed the horse into canter. There is something so satisfyingly harmonious about just sitting on a horse in canter, with no contact and no stirrups. Just letting go… Surely that’s what this dressage stuff is all about? Sure, you need to ride and manage a horse around a test to gain maximum marks, but that feeling of complete ‘togetherness’ you experience on the lunge – that’s what you should be aiming for.
A very sleepy Morris after a hard dressage lesson
Later on that same day I had a schoolmaster lesson on a Grand Prix horse with Charlie Hutton. I was constantly told off for doing to much; making too many adjustments with the contact, doing too much with the leg, being too busy with the seat. And all these little things showed up because the poor horse (called Beckham) decided to just allow me to carry him around and do less and less for himself, until I got myself organised and just left him alone to do his stuff. But then the penny dropped. A lightbulb moment. The lightening bolt that struck me towards the end of the lesson actually reduced me to tears (yes, I guess you could say that Charlie Hutton made me cry, but not because he was horrid to me! And yes, I was horribly embarrassed).
The reason I cried is this: I’ve been trying for years to really understand dressage. OK, Morris and I have got some good eventing scores together over the years, but the whole thing has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Why would people want to just do pure dressage when there’s so much fun to be had over jumps? Why would anyone give up eventing voluntarily to ponce around on the flat? Well, at that moment, on that Grand Prix horse, I understood. And I understood where I had been going wrong. If you believe that you’re bad at something, you make excuses. I spent 2015 re-educating myself, but I hadn’t ever addressed my “I’m an eventer. I can’t do dressage” mindset.
It all comes down to confidence and self belief. I know that I lack confidence – not about getting on and schooling a horse – it’s about my ability to perform in competition. But the main difference is I now have enough positive people surrounding me to make sure that I believe in myself and give myself the best opportunity to perform to the best of my ability. I was thrilled to see some confidence workshops listed on Equo Events – I’m sure there’ll be a few more in my area going on there soon. I think some of my clients and I could really benefit.
For the moment though, having just worked on tempi changes and piaffe with one of the best trainers in the country on MY self produced horse, and having achieved some really respectable BD scores on different horses, I know I am on the right path to understanding dressage.
But more importantly, I believe I can do dressage.
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