Elvis is 7. He’s had an accomplished career in the young horse divisions, including being long listed for the World Breeding Dressage Championships for Young Horses. He understands collection beautifully; he takes a half-halt; he is respectful of the leg and is steady in the connection.
And he’s also been in my care for six weeks, a lot of which I’ve spent traveling, so I’m still absolutely at the beginning of our journey together, and it’s not fair for me to make any sweeping statements, but he’s got basically two options in the trot: wide open or wide open-er. When I try to make any changes to his outline, he loses rhythm. When I try to activate the hind legs in isolation, he jacks his knees up higher. I feel like I can do the Prix St. Georges, but I can’t just trot around in a quiet and boring fashion.
Puck is also 7. To say that he’s been complicated to get to this point would be an understatement, but now, with the exception of the occasional burst of youthful exuberance/juvenile delinquency, he’s fairly rideable. I can pick him up in the bridle or let him down, and the trot stays the same. I can make his canter quicker or floatier. I can ride him short or long in the neck, compressed or stretching in the back, strong or light. Of course I can’t really do anything—I’m thinking he’ll show third level if he shows this winter in Florida, but it’ll be a stretch of his abilities to put movements together—because I’ve focused more on the basic rideability (and also, admittedly, not dying) than on the upper-level work.
Is one horse better than the other or better trained? No. Eventually, they’ll be both things: infinitely adjustable and educated to do all of the upper-level work. If they were both adjustable and educated right now, at the tail end of their 7-year-old years, I’d be horribly nervous! But movements are easy, particularly when the gait is supremely adjustable. It’s just steering. I put more early time and energy into installing the ability to make my horses a little “too” everything: too up, too down, too high, too low, too closed, too open.
I do this for a lot of reasons. First, every horse is unique and constantly changing when it comes to teaching and developing the muscular capacity for collection. For all that Midge had no trouble jacking his neck up, and that I spent much of my time trying to get him to reach down and out, as a 4- and 5-year-old, I couldn’t have taught collected canter to him without getting his front end up and out of the hind end’s way, which, for a time, started with getting his neck up. Danny wanted to jack his neck up and drop his back when he learned to piaffe, so he spent a lot of time in almost a stretchy-trot neck cultivating the skill to sit down and be small.
Another reason is that I don’t know, in the end, which version of any horse’s particular gait is going to be “the one” that looks best going down the centerline. Ella’s canter pirouettes were at their best with the neck a little low, but her best piaffe was the one with the neck a little high. If I don’t have the full spectrum of any particular gait, I might be missing out on another point here or there within the upper-level work.
But mostly, I want to own everything my horses learn to do. I want to be able to adjust everything, and independently. I want to be able to turn the hind legs up without the front legs, or the neck, necessarily responding in kind. I want to be able to stretch my horses down without the hind legs leaving the premises. I need to be able to meet whatever my horse brings to any particular ride with the tools to change it, like when I need to take a tense horse and make the neck long and reaching even when they’re spooking at something. And most importantly, I need to know that nothing is off limits. I need to know that my horse won’t have a meltdown if I ask him to be one bit rounder, one bit quicker, one bit more closed.
Currently, both my 7-year-olds have a point that I can’t move past yet. For Elvis, it’s quickening behind without shortening; for Puck, it’s keeping the gait open when I go sideways. But I’m going to keep plugging away at it until I can make them as quick and open, respectively, and then I’m going to push a bit beyond, so that I own the “too” as well. From there, the sky’s the limit!