I’ve spent most of my friendship with my saddle fitter buddy, Colleen Meyer, hearing about how great event rider Corinne Ashton is. And that’s true. Corinne trained Dobbin, her Thoroughbred, to tremendous success at the upper levels of eventing, including USEA Horse of the Year at advanced in 2008 and two tours around Rolex Kentucky.
As Dobbin’s gotten older, Corinne decided to aim even higher by trying to take Dobbin to Grand Prix dressage; if successful, they’ll be the first to compete at the top international levels in both disciplines in this country. Cool, no? Colleen had asked me for advice to pass along to Corinne—I know some dressage folks both in Massachusetts, Corinne’s summer base, and in Aiken where she winters—but at some point Colleen said, “You know, she really ought to come work with you.”
“Yeah, right,” I thought. International caliber event riders are always seeking me out. Dream on.
But up they came, between Aiken and New England. And I was nervous. What if I made some egregious mistake with this hugely popular horse? What if Corinne thought I was an idiot? What if I wasn’t helpful? And so on, and so on.
Turns out that Corinne is both incredibly easy to teach AND wicked fun and funny, and Dobbin is a quick study. She said she wanted to pay particular attention to pirouettes and tempi changes, both things she was new to, as they’re not required in the four-star test. In the pirouettes, Dobbin has a perfect understanding of the turn, but needed to sit more, particularly in preparation for the turn. I got all over Corinne about collecting on a straight line, then riding one turning step at a time on an octagon-ish shape: collect, turn one step, straight three or four steps, collect, turn one step, etc. Dobbin has super talent for the collection, event horse or otherwise; he just needed the guidance to do it, and I think Corinne needed the confidence to ask him for it.
The tempis were easy. Corinne’s threes and fours were spot on, but she was reliably off in her count in the twos. Classic learning-to-be-an-FEI-dressage-rider; Corinne wasn’t moving her legs fast enough! An easy fix, but also good news, because instead of change-step-change-step-change, Dobbin was offering change-step-step-change-change, which means we have a good indication that the ones aren’t going to be especially difficult. Good news!
We finished with a little piaffe, which Corinne hadn’t started. Dobbin has a good idea for passage, which is great, but I told her that until he gets a very good handle on the piaffe too, no more passage. It’s SO hard to teach the piaffe to the ones who learn passage first. I helped her from the ground, something I usually start with, just to see what kind of work the horse will volunteer from the start. Here Dobbin showed his sensitivity; he was a genius at when-the-whip-touches-my-leg-I’ll-pick-it-up, but once we started playing with it in motion, he got a little upset—not dire by any means, but certainly nervous.
This is normal, ESPECIALLY on Day 1. The poor horse is going, “What do you want? You’re following me around with a whip touching me. What’s up with that?” And the horses go through all sorts of goofy answers—kicking out, jumping around, cantering, snorting, backing up—until by chance they happen to take a little jiggly step, and we stop and praise the heck out of them and give them cookies. But lord knows it takes days of effort to get them to associate “jiggly” with “good boy.” Dobbin did take two exceptional steps early in the process, and then had some really good efforts when I sent Corinne out around the ring to play with them on her own.
And of course it’s no fun at all to have all these new ideas introduced to you, as a rider, only to then have to leave and have no follow up. I gave her some trainers in New England who I love and will be able to help her more regularly. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Dobbin will be a Grand Prix horse someday.
We played with a cool baby horse she’s got too, who is in a similar place to Fender; life’s starting to get a little hard, and he’s finding the boundaries, although unlike Fender he hasn’t developed such an extensive vocabulary of words inappropriate outside of truck stops. Lucky girl.
She hit the road, and I hope she landed safely up North. All of you dressage-types up there better look out, because Dobbin’s been converted to the Dark Side, and he’s not to be taken lightly.