Wednesday, Jul. 24, 2024

A Season For Dressage

This hunter rider cross-trains during the winter—sometimes against her will.

To save our horses’ legs each winter, we do a noble thing around our barn. We eschew the jumping for several weeks, months really, and turn our attention to flatwork.

Surely it is just a coincidence that as the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop, as the leaves fall from the trees and the grass dies, as the landscape grows depressingly gray and barren…Surely it is just a coincidence that this is the season we choose to emphasize dressage.
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This hunter rider cross-trains during the winter—sometimes against her will.

To save our horses’ legs each winter, we do a noble thing around our barn. We eschew the jumping for several weeks, months really, and turn our attention to flatwork.

Surely it is just a coincidence that as the days grow shorter and the temperatures drop, as the leaves fall from the trees and the grass dies, as the landscape grows depressingly gray and barren…Surely it is just a coincidence that this is the season we choose to emphasize dressage.

Or as I have been known to call it, the dreaded dressage.

Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for talented dressage riders and their horses. I was mesmerized by the 2004 Olympic dressage competition and watched every minute I could on TV.

I’ve also seen the benefits of serious  flatwork firsthand in my own horse. The work we put in a year ago paid big dividends last summer. This winter I was agreeable, if not overly enthusiastic, when we shifted gears following the conclusion of our local show season in October.

(OK, I whined a bit, just not as much as before).

But if you’ve ever seen my office or my home, you’ll understand why the fastidiousness that is dressage is an acquired taste I’ve never really, well, acquired. From the ramrod straight posture of its top riders to the intricate tests—my goodness I’ve been known to struggle with an eight-fence hunter course—it just isn’t a discipline that fits my, ahem, rather laid-back personality.

Dressage, why do I dread thee? Let me count the ways:

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1. Perfectly round horses. Perfectly round 20-meter circles. A rectangular arena. Is this geometry or is this riding?

It took four of us armed with two measuring wheels more than an hour to set up a technically correct dressage arena, complete with letters and jump poles as boundaries, before a clinic a few weeks back. And when we were done, we gazed upon the glory of what we had created and saw…crooked long sides. Whereupon, we swallowed hard and started anew.

And prayed to the German gods of dressage that we would finally get it right.

2. Never mind figuring out just why the letters go in certain spots. Or why only certain letters are used. If you’ve ever tried to slog your way through a manual dedicated to classical dressage, you know better than to ask. Just put the darn letters where the diagrams say and go from there.

Still, wouldn’t it just be easier if all those letters actually spelled something? Something useful like R-I-D-E  C-I-R-C-L-E  H-E-R-E or G-R-I-T  T-E-E-T-H  N-O-W?

3. I’ve been told that in a perfect world, you should feel like you’re holding 3 to 5 pounds in each hand as you’re asking your horse to get round and relax into the bit.

Five pounds? Try asking my horse, an old Irish jumper, to flex and get round with just 5 pounds of effort. After the first few weeks of flatwork this winter, I was considering anabolic steroids and weight training as the two of us struggled during session after draining session. If you see me sprouting a mustache anytime soon, you’ll know I’ve given in.

4. Straightness, straightness, straightness. All my life I’ve been a rider with straightness issues. Trainer after trainer has tried in vain to rid my back of its natural, shall we say roachiness? (Is that a word George Morris would use or even recognize?) Put simply, I lean forward.

All the time. And when times get tough, like when my horse is galloping away with me, I’ve been known to assume the fetal position.

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But I’ve worked hard on improving my posture on a horse, and I have gotten straighter, relatively speaking. So imagine my consternation when my dressage clinician informed me in January that while I might be straighter vertically, my posture was still crooked. Apparently, much like my politics, I lean to the left. She asked me to focus on my right buttock (why do I always visualize Forrest Gump when I think of this?) and work hard to equalize my weight in the saddle. I even learned a nifty little trick about lining up the center seam of my jeans with the nameplate on my saddle, a handy tool for correctness but one that is open to all sorts of interpretation.

I tried a dressage saddle this winter for the first time in my riding life. Long stirrups and a deep, deep seat. Grinding my pelvis into the saddle. Which also is open to all sorts of interpretation. Let’s just say that I never really want to be that intimate with a saddle again and leave it at that.

I suppose I really should embrace the discipline. If pressed, I would have to admit that I enjoyed our monthly clinics this winter and feel gratified by the inherent progress both my horse and I have made. As he and I have found a common ground, I no longer feel mentally and physically washed out following a lesson.

(Shhh! Please don’t tell my trainer! A few jumps have re-appeared in our ring, and we’re all pretty thrilled. When those stupid letters return to their nesting places in the corners of the arena, we’ll know it is truly springtime).

And there is that issue of age. After all, I’m on the downside of 40. Apparently, that’s the perfect age for me to stop jumping and to start channeling Debbie McDonald.

“One of my friends asked me what sort of riding you do,” my mother-in-law confided in me recently. “She asked me your age and was surprised when I told her you had started showing hunters again after many years off. She said most women your age either trail ride or do dressage.”

Sigh. Time to double the calcium intake, I guess. My bones may be getting brittle, but I’m not ready to head into fulltime Dressage Land just yet.

Stephanie Miller

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