Several years ago, I went barn hunting after another military move. I thought I found a great boarding option, only to come to the mutual agreement with the barn owner that it was not a good fit. She was convinced I would “corrupt” her strictly adult amateur hunter clients because I had foxhunting, eventing and dressage in my background (yes, the word “corrupt” was involved).
Why are some folks so hardwired to a discipline that they are threatened by anything different? Why do we put each other down or view other disciplines as a joke? Have you ever been curious about another discipline but never had the courage to explore it because you weren’t sure how it would look to others or were worried if it would negatively affect or confuse your current riding?
I can understand loving your chosen discipline and feeling loyal to it. It can feel like it is your identity. It defines you sometimes. But it is a good thing to step out of your comfort zone and experience something new. I consider myself the luckiest confused person in the world, because out of that confusion came some of the best experiences in my riding career.
As a junior I focused on hunters and equitation. My wonder mare, Triple, took me from the 2’ classes to the junior hunters and the state medal finals. I was that starry-eyed 15-year-old, obsessed with the Big Eq world, and somewhere in the next two years, I turned into an elitist type who believed I could not succeed unless I was on a 17.1-hand German-bred bay gelding. We occasionally trail rode and galloped in the hay fields in the fall, but my focus—my entire world—was that show ring.
I never had any experience with eventers or actual dressage. To be perfectly honest, as a teenager I believed those stereotypes where eventers were “yahoos,” and dressage was boring. I could not see myself riding in any other discipline. Back then, being a hunter and equitation rider meant everything to me.
I did not know then that I still had everything to learn.
Dabbling In Dressage
As a junior I started riding with Gretchen Anderson of Apple Knoll Farm, and from her I learned the practical application of dressage in the equitation world. Gretchen’s detail-oriented approach laid the foundation for my riding for the rest of my life. We did not have grooms, and we did not make excuses. It was hard work and love for the horse, always. Right from the start it was clear that in her program, you will learn to truly ride, not pose. You will get a horse to move through and learn to do each movement correctly. Once you could execute on the flat, the same level of control and attention to detail was expected over fences. While I understood that the flatwork made me a better rider, I still did not appreciate it as the art form and training tool it is.
That appreciation didn’t come until college when, for two years, I rode with a dressage trainer who helped me learn that developing a horse from the ground up was one of the most exciting (but not instantly gratifying!) experiences you can have as a horseman. The slow, systematic approach and the beauty of the training pyramid started to make more sense to me. I enjoyed learning to feel for the different parts of the horse, isolating trouble spots and learning how to correct them. I loved seeing the gradual improvement in the horse’s balance, strength, rideability and topline.
After I graduated and did a stint as a professional, I carried those lessons into my daily work. One of my training horses had no correct fundamentals on the flat, had been crammed into draw reins and full bridles, and felt totally blocked under saddle. After months of patient and forward work in a loose ring snaffle, he started to come around. At first things only came for a second or two, but those brief moments and flashes became more consistent. He became a completely different horse, a stronger horse, and that would not have happened without dressage.
Dressage is not just shadbellies and musical freestyles—you do not need a dressage saddle or black tack to do it. No matter what you ride, this is the basis of your education. It translates into a more rideable, balanced jumper and a more educated rider.
Trust me, it does not take long to get addicted to that feeling when you do it right. Maybe I am just a weirdo, but it is not any less thrilling than finding that perfect distance to a jump.
Finding Myself In The Field
After college I rode foxhunters for a living in the middle of Virginia hunt country. I thought I knew what hunters were growing up… Ha!
Full disclosure: On my first day out cubbing we took off galloping through the woods and through open fields within the first five minutes of the hounds being cast. I had just been told that it was dry out, and it would be a quiet, “slow” day.
This little hunter princess had never gone that fast on a horse before. It probably did not help that I was mounted on a former stakes horse who knew how to run, so when said horse pulled a shoe, and we had to make that walk of shame back to hang out at the trailers alone, I was thrilled! I had just crawled out of the jaws of certain death and declared that Those Crazy Foxhunters™ could keep this nonsense because if I wanted to go that fast, I would just drive my car like a civilized human being.
Fortunately for me, I was wrong. I fell in love with the sport later that season. I learned to properly gallop, bridge my reins, jump solid obstacles and the great importance of staying in the middle and not jumping ahead. I loved the adrenaline rush.
I found the hunting community to be the hardest working, most welcoming, toughest group of horsemen I have ever had the pleasure of keeping company with. Some ride to hunt; some hunt to ride, but everyone has a passion for the sport and for the land. I also love that hunt horses come in all shapes and sizes. Sure, there might be some extra love for a good turf-bred Thoroughbred or big Irish horse, but the only thing that matters out there is that the horse gets you home safely and finds that fifth leg when necessary.
For three glorious seasons I hunted with Piedmont and other area hunts. It gave me a true appreciation for the roots of show hunters and allowed me to experience open country and what a gallop really feels like.
While in Virginia, I also tried eventing and completed two USEA-recognized horse trials at training level. It was the perfect marriage of my newfound loves: dressage, riding over open country at speed, and the precision of the show hunter/jumper rings in the stadium phase.
Even now, I still love schooling cross-country. While I am not developing my young horse, Sig, as an eventer, I recently took him cross-country schooling because I value the diversity, experience and confidence it gives us.
Eventing absolutely made me a better rider. I learned how to condition a horse, how to read certain jump obstacles on open country (which helped me become a better pilot for the foxhunters) and developed a true love for hacking out. Though my 16-year-old self would be mortified, I cannot stand being stuck in a ring anymore and sneak dressage schools in big, rolling fields.
While at times I questioned who I was as a rider and where I truly belonged, what I gained was worth the temporary confusion. These disciplines taught me to better develop myself and the horses as athletes. I learned about every corner of riding, from being brave and forward to staying more collected. To be more analytical when necessary but also to kick on and go with the flow. Sure, these are all things I could have learned in the show ring as well, but not in the way that I did by stepping outside it. I no longer feel panic when I think about what it “is” that I do. I just ride.
You don’t have to identify yourself with only one discipline. It is great to take pride in your sport, but there is so much more to learn. A narrow focus can sometimes prevent you from seeing the wealth of good that is out there. That equitation rider can learn a lot about body control (and so much more!) in a cross-country clinic. An eventer can develop better feel and rhythm from a hunter trainer. A foxhunter can make their horse more rideable through dressage. A dressage rider can learn a lot about conditioning and hacking from a foxhunter. You can stay true to your sport and still step outside it every once in a while.
It makes you more of a horseman and a better partner to your horse. We are all on a long journey in this horse world. Whatever tack you happen to be sitting in right now, be sure to enjoy the ride!
Lindsey Colburn is an active duty Air Force officer and grew up riding in the hunter and equitation divisions in the Northeast during her junior years. After college, she rode and trained foxhunters professionally in Middleburg, Virginia, prior to joining the military. Lindsey bought the Thoroughbred gelding Soon off the track in 2013 and competed him in the jumper ring. Lindsey recently returned to the United States after being stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and will compete her young horse, Sibelius MB, in the jumper divisions. Read all of Lindsey’s COTH blogs