Greetings from Park City, Utah! I live in the perfect place to be a professional skier. Unfortunately, my sport is dressage, so here I am, looking out my window at what, in summertime, are beautiful pastures rolling into mountain foothills, seeing clear evidence of the roughly 450 inches of snow we have received so far this winter.
I know I’m not alone, practicing the solitary art of dressage from what is, for the equestrian world, the absolute ends of the earth. It just feels like it sometimes. As I contemplate the snowbank that is merging with the roof snow on the north side of my arena, I figured I’d let the sun come up—it’s forecasted to warm us to a balmy 15 degrees—before heading out to ride, and use this righteous procrastination to examine some ways we can keep progressing, even from the geographic fringes of the sport.
The top professionals in U.S. dressage are concentrated in Florida and California—a whole new meaning for coastal elites. Living smack-dab between those two locales, a hefty 30-hour drive from “Welly-world” and a less intimidating 13 hours from the SoCal scene, demands big commitments, financial and temporal, to keep some semblance of progress from our mountain home. What’s a Utah Dressage Queen to do, if she wants to keep her tiara shiny and continue building on many years of foundational learning, arduously garnered both in the U.S. and abroad? Well, we make the commitments and bring the coasts to us in the form of clinics—and sometimes haul our furry beasts out of the mountain wilds to the closest coast, just to keep us honest.
Ever since starting our training facility, we have committed to bringing in our favorite coaches, top trainers, and riders with unimpeachable credentials. As a barn owner, this means committing to a clinician’s fee months before knowing if that clinic can be filled. It means building out calendars, dodging local shows and other events, working around the local resistance to holding clinics on Sundays. There is no money in it; we do it exclusively to have access to these coaches that we need to keep making progress, or at the very least, not backslide after months of riding solo!
This year, I was fortunate enough to be awarded the Major Anders Lindgren Instructor Grant from The Dressage Foundation. The funds helped pay for a three-week January trip to California, giving me and my assistant Katie O’Neil an excuse to take three horses for a longer work-study with my longtime friend and coach, Sabine Schut-Kery. While I rode, Katie soaked up knowledge and provided general support to the horses and myself, with videos and gentle pats on the back.
I kicked off the trip by competing in Desert Dressage IV, held at the Desert International Horse Park in conjunction with a World Cup CDI3* qualifier, then moseyed the two hours to Sabine’s base at Monica Garner’s beautiful Palms Equestrian Center in San Marcos, California.
Spoiler alert, this is not the point where Sabine is wowed by my amazing riding skill and training prowess. I mean, at points she’s very complimentary: “You have the seat of a 20-year-old European sales rider; the horses want to misbehave, but they just can’t because you’re holding them with your seat,” and, “I love your hands. I love the soft following contact.” I make myself write that down in my notes because it counterbalances the, “Why do you keep doing the same crappy change to the left?” and other similar observations.
Working with great trainers is always a little humbling, but the best give you a speck of hope amongst the corrections.
While I brought horses ranging from my FEI Young Horse mare, who is preparing for the 6-year-old tests (comparable to third level), my fourth-level wundermare and a client’s Prix St. Georges gelding, guess what we worked on? THE BASICS.
It never changes. You don’t go to the best to get taught how to do a pirouette. You go to the best because they see the basic work at the heart of the advanced movements. You don’t fix a tense flying change in the change; you fix it in the canter. So that means endless 20-, 15-, 12- and 10-meter canter circles, working on thrust and self-carriage. Lots of transitions, lots of bend in the ribcage. Lots of focus on using my inner leg to really yield the horses’ bodies, lightening their forehand, engaging their hindlegs and suppling their back.
It is so obvious, until you work by yourself for months at a time. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that even for good riders, we all get distracted from the basic work. The spectre of “good enough” is always lurking nearby.
The good news is that our three weeks with Sabine was long enough to start cementing her changes into our habits. That’s the biggest advantage.
The second is that, upon returning to Utah, Katie and I will carry these lessons to all our students and clients, further searing them into our and their minds. We’ll diligently watch our riding (one of my renewed commitments: more Pivo videos) to compare what we think we’re doing with how it really looks. We’ll ride in clinics, compete in local shows, and save our pennies for our next California trip, where we’ll hopefully hurtle past our former selves and emerge from our Utah chrysalis, tiaras gleaming and basics intact.
Lori Barrett is an FEI rider and trainer specializing in the development of young dressage prospects. Before retiring to focus on her own horses at Revel Ranch Hanoverians near Park City, Utah, she followed Olympian Heather Blitz as head trainer for Oak Hill Ranch, head of the Danish Studbook in the U.S., as well as having been the head trainer at the Chesapeake Dressage Institute. Previously riding for Olympian Tina Konyot, Lori got her professional start in dressage working as assistant in Germany under Grand Prix trainer Carla Symader before returning to the U.S. to finish her master’s degree in education.