My friend, Steffie, has been riding dressage for several years. Ten years ago, when she put me on her Dutch Warmblood mare in a dressage saddle, I liked it immediately. I’d ridden in other styles of saddle: jumping, English, western, and had never felt as comfortable as the dressage one made me feel. This was how I naturally rode. When I told her I was interested in trying dressage, she said, “Beware: dressage is addictive.”
Yeah, right. Watching dressage is about as interesting as watching a bunch of rich white guys in leisure suits play golf. There’s no high speed race to a finish line, there’s no adrenaline pumping jumps as in cross country, there’s no cow trying to escape the laser focus of a herd dog disguised as a cutting horse. Dressage is boring to watch. It can’t be any more interesting to ride.
I’d been forced to put my beloved little flea bit grey Arab, Jordan, down in 2003. I’d ridden him in a cheap dressage saddle, but no way could I claim that I rode dressage.
In a way, losing Jordan was a good thing. Immediately afterwards, my life fell apart in a dozen ways-job loss, a heavy college load, divorce. I wouldn’t have been able to keep him. I didn’t have the wherewithal to be able to afford anything other than pure survival: keep the mortgage and the utilities paid, eat a lot of peanut butter sandwiches, and make do on a tight budget. The most extravagant thing I could afford was the internet.
I put horses aside. I had to. I had to be brutally pragmatic with myself. When the choice comes down to foreclosure or owning a horse, staying in the home comes first.
I sold Jordan’s saddle, his blankets, most of my tack. That act was the closing of a chapter in my life. I believed that my interactions with equines were over.
Though I’ve been out of work since 2008 (there’s no demand for a 50+ year old field biologist), I’m happy. Things got much better. I graduated from college. I remarried. By now I had a little money put aside, enough to allow me to accompany Steffie and several other horse crazed women to the 2010 World Equestrian Games.
It was Disneyland for horsemen. The Kentucky Horse Park was Horsemen’s Mecca, and I was part of the pilgrimage. I didn’t spend much money, but I had one heck of a good time.
It was at the Freestyle Dressage that I began to see that there was more to dressage than just a stuffy white person riding an overly expensive German horse. I saw centaurs. The dressage riders rode as if they had a horse skeleton attached to their hips. They made it look effortless. That beautiful dance of man and horse, together, was the personification of riding.
After a week of immersion therapy at the WEG, I was fully re-infected. I’d been away from horses for too long. I wanted to return to my horse loving roots. I would be forced to do it cheaply I mean frugally. However, anyone who has had anything to do with horses will tell you that cheap is the one thing horses are most definitely NOT.
I thought, I can do this if I’m smart. If I’m careful, I can afford to ride again. I don’t need the fancy stuff, I don’t need to be a star. I just want to ride again.
Although I have five acres, I decided against keeping a horse on it. Pasture management, manure management, fences, a barn, hay storage, feed: all costs a lot more than the horse. I’d sold my saddles. I’ve never owned a pair of boots in my life, mostly because my feet are so messed up. But I like riding bareback and had a helmet. I looked at my budget. I had a good husband now, one who allowed me to indulge myself. I was good to go.
There is a boarding farm within ½ mile walk from my home. I could walk to the barn, saving gas. Use of their covered arena is free if the horse is boarded there.
By happenstance, at that farm, there was a Western Equitation horse named Hank. He was available for sale or lease. I had no desire to buy him, so I leased him.
After a strangely brief conversation with his rather blasé owner, (and having him sign a legal lease agreement), I partial leased Hank, meaning I could ride him three days a week. In essence, Hank was a privately owned and leased riding stable horse.
Hank was a good horse to re-acquaint myself with things such as balance, self-confidence, seat and reins. I had never lost the touch of handling a horse, but I’d never really been comfortable aboard one. The owner had a ginormous western saddle for him, complete with silver, but I ignored it. I didn’t care for riding western. I rode him bareback.
Hank had never been ridden bareback or in a hackamore, but he accepted both without any issues. The fastest gait I could coax him into was a “jog”, Western Equitationese for ‘fast walk’. He was dead quiet, never giving me a bit of trouble. He was almost TOO quiet, but at the time I wasn’t listening to him.
I had no intentions on doing any competitions, or shows, or doing anything, really, but ride around on the back of a horse. I didn’t need lessons to ride bareback. Besides, I didn’t care for the woman who had, unofficially established herself as the farm’s ‘riding instructor’. I heard her harass her students, not teach them. Not for me, thanks.
Being the new kid in the barn community, I attracted a lot of attention, mostly because I rode bareback. Women who’d been riding for years admired me, which I found bizarre. I became Oh, You’re The One Who Rides Bareback!
You would think I would have been happy with this setup. I had a cheap horse that I was comfortable on, a name, and was living well within my budget.
No. After a few weeks, I realized that I wanted more in riding than just sitting atop a horse. In fairness to myself, I HAD told Hank’s owner I would only be leasing him for a few months. In those months, I’d realized that I wanted to do more than just drift around in aimless circles. I wanted to connect with a horse.
I began to ask Hank for things such as collection and a little faster, please? Hank said no. He would halfheartedly trot (jog) and then fall back to a walk. I didn’t pressure him. I knew this was all he was: an arena horse. Nothing more.
I learned soon after, that my bareback seat was better than I thought. His owner had neglected to tell me that Hank could carry a rider only when he was pain medicated to the eyes. He was calm and quiet only when on drugs. The owner had neglected to have Hank’s pain prescriptions refilled. I learned what it means to slide onto a cold backed horse: Hank turned into a backing, bucking and spinning rodeo bronco. I had no idea he could move in so many directions at once, or so bloody fast.
I stayed on him during the few moments (it seemed like an hour) of Hank’s blowup. When he stopped, I got off safely and never got on him again. I terminated the lease that afternoon.
This is when I should have said to myself, okay, this is as far as I go. I’ve had a good solid dose of horse, this should do it. I’ve had a good scare, I proved to myself that I can ride, and I didn’t get hurt, just lied to. I should have just let it all go.
But no. I stepped a little deeper into the swamp. I went looking for another horse to lease, only for fun, you know. I knew exactly what I was doing. I ‘was in complete control of the entire situation. I didn’t NEED a better horse. I ‘wanted’ a better horse. It wasn’t as if I was hooked. Oh, not me. I could quit right now, go back to just loving them without actually riding horses. I could never ride another horse, and be happy. I was in full control of the situation.
My advertisement brought me to the horse I’m leasing now. Trooper is a fabulous horse who fit me perfectly. Right size (15 hands), right color (bay) right age (19) and right breed (Arabian.) He is a schoolmaster. He lives on his owner’s farm, about 8 miles drive from my home. His owner, while very prickly with people, is a fanatic about the care of her horses. So am I. Trooper needed a job, his owner needed someone to give him one, and I was looking for just that horse.
Within fifteen minutes of riding him bareback, I knew Trooper was the horse for me.
The lease was more money than I’d paid for Hank, and the barn was not within walking distance. But his owner said she’d trailer him to the same arena where Hank was boarded. I would have to pay haul in fees.
I could still handle the expense. Patti, Trooper’s owner, had an English saddle that she said fit him.
Trooper’s Wintec English saddle may have fit him, but I was swimming around in it. It didn’t fit me. I resigned myself to riding bareback for the foreseeable future. That wasn’t bad, all I wanted was a better horse to ride. I didn’t NEED a saddle.
I should have stuck to this reasoning. It was then that Patti revealed herself for the uber-controller she is. Patti insisted it wasn’t safe for me to ride Trooper bareback in the winter. NOT because she knew what she was talking about: a winter coated horse is far easier to ride bareback than a summer coated one. She never rides bareback. I believe she is either afraid to or afraid of being upstaged by me. I think it is the latter, as she demanded I get a saddle only after her friends exclaimed over my bareback riding. She was jealous!
At first, I dismissed it. Patti will tell you how to inhale and exhale if you allow her. Then I realized, this was my chance to justify buying a saddle. I was being Enabled. Sorry, husband, but I need a new saddle. Can you front me a little money and I’ll pay you back in monthlies (or in trade? ;-)). My beloved husband knows nothing about horses, except what I’ve told him. I’m very careful in what I teach him. Trooper can be pretty hot, and he’s Arabian, a breed that needs a spook a day. A saddle is a Necessity for Safety.
In reality, after two months of riding him bareback, I realized that bareback riding, while good for developing ones’ seat and balance, can only take you so far in improving your riding skills. I’d reached that point. I could go no further in my quest to be a Good Rider by riding bareback.
So I had to buy a saddle, and a good one, because a cheap saddle is even cheaper when you go to sell it. A GOOD dressage saddle holds it worth, when you take care of it. I’m the kind of person who likes some of the old-fashioned ways: plain leather tack on horses, wood stocked hunting rifles, cast iron or steel instead of aluminum cookware, glass instead of plastic. I’m no Luddite: a hot water heater, indoor plumbing, and a washing machine are my most precious household items.
I was going to have to spend some serious money on a good saddle, one that needed to be fitted to the horse, that fit me, and would need care. Finding one to fit Trooper wouldn’t be easy. He is your typical modern Arabian: small in height, short backed, and wide as a Warmblood.
After several months of trying out saddles, I finally found one that fit Trooper. It blew the living daylights out of my budget but it is a good saddle. Another bit of money was spent on dressage leathers, the kind that have no buckle under my thigh. That meant no more bruises in odd places. And of course, I needed a good girth. All of them set me back. Way back.
Step no further, right?
Well, no. No matter how well written the book or produced the CD, you can’t learn to ride a horse without a human on the ground telling you what to do.
Although the books were good ones, transmitting what one reads on the couch to the back of a very alive, and sometimes opinionated horse just doesn’t translate well. I’d never had a formal riding lesson in my life, as I couldn’t afford them.
About that time, I attended a dressage clinic given by Heather Blitz. What a lovely, wonderful person Heather is. She isn’t a stick her nose in the air and sneer down it at you type of person. She’s like your big sister. I was accepted at the clinic (I was auditing), no one suspecting that I was a beginner. I was surrounded by people who had bred their own horses and taken them to Prix St. George’s level (which, if I recall, is about as high as you can get in dressage). There were people there who, despite their credentials, still were having issues with their dressage horses. I learned a lot just by watching and listening, and asking questions when I could. I came away with a new appreciation of learning from someone who knows how to ride, and how to teach someone to ride dressage.
Patti was taking lessons from Ms. Trainer. Somehow I was maneuvered into taking them with her. The lessons are expensive, but the Trainer gives us a discount because there’s two of us.
I needed the training. Patti is always full of advice, some of it good, much of it wrong. How do I separate her wheat from her chaff? By hiring her trainer, who is a good one. She can look at you and tell you where you are making mistakes, points them out politely, helps you elucidate what you are doing, and can clearly fix the problem. I’ve had two lessons so far and I’ve learned a LOT. But the lessons are NOT cheap.
I can afford them if I sell some of my guns.
I’ve gotten some very good teaching with Ms. Trainer. She’s good. I think I’m becoming a better rider. How do I know?
Well, I don’t. The smart trainer is going to say you did well, but when a trainer says that you really, really suck at riding, she isn’t going to be training you for long.
The best way to judge your ability to ride is by competing against other people of your level in a horse show.
I’ve never been a ‘show’ person. I prefer anonymity to fame, and while I can take criticism if it’s instructive, I don’t like being sharp shot by railbirds. It explains why I try to stay off of internet forums: inevitably they turn into name calling and mudslinging, all behind the mask of pseudonyms.
I don’t need this. I don’t. In the grand scheme of things, it makes no difference if I can ride well or not. It doesn’t. I don’t need a show to tell me how I’m doing. A mirror and my horse’s response should be enough.
I’ve come to realize that a dressage ‘show’ is more than just people showing off their fifty thousand dollar Warmbloods and five thousand dollar Hulsebose saddles. It’s a quantitative evaluation and grading of the rider. I’ve been working for almost a year to get to a point where I am relatively comfortable riding a trot in a dressage saddle and I want a benchmark from which to continue. This needs to come from someone who knows nothing about me, is working from a list of requirements applied to EVERYONE, and can judge me solely for my work, not who I am.
So I’m going to be doing my first ever ‘horse show’, an introductory level test, the simplest of all in the dressage world. Me, the person who swore she’d never do a horse show. But it’s only a simple walk trot test, that’s it. I won’t show often, because horse shows aren’t free. One pays an entry fee to participate, and they’re not cheap. Once I get a score, that will be it. I swear.
Just this once.
Being who I am, I want to practice the test. I don’t like to make a fool of myself in public. I want to go in there and do it right. So I sat on the couch and memorized the test.
But studying it and supposedly committing it to memory from my couch does NOT mean I know it when horseback. When I tried doing the test on Trooper, the pattern and the tasks completely flew out of my brain. I had a brain fart of the first magnitude. I knew the end part: salute. But getting there? Duh. It was difficult to practice the test on horseback. Practicing the test was like telling someone how to land an airplane when you’re in the control tower. I had to 1. Do the test in the order set down, 2. Keep myself in a frame where I was riding correctly 3. Tell my horse what to do and keep him doing it, 4. Do the movements properly and accurately and 5. Do it with other beings (one of them a horse who broke loose and did a rodeo bronc act all over the arena) in the arena.
I should quit while I’m ahead, right?
In this world where we no longer have wars to fight from horseback, range cattle are herded with a quad, and the best transportation is powered by the internal combustion engine, riding with a purpose is virtually extinct-except when you’re doing it to a standard set by someone else, to a level that everyone is striving for.
I was so totally focused on doing my level A (the equivalent of kindergarten) test that you could have loosed a pack of naked 20 something jocks across the arena and I wouldn’t have noticed.
(Well, I would have, but only if they had chest hair)
It was hard mental work as well as physical. I am usually tired after riding for an hour, and we’d ridden for two. And I’d given my brain a workout, as well.
It was at that moment that I finally succumbed to the demon dressage. I finally understood what Steffie had meant, years before, when she warned that Dressage is Addictive. Maybe I had lulled myself into a false sense of security. I’m an adult. I managed to live through lean times by exerting self-discipline. Steffie wouldn’t lead me astray, she was my friend. She was laughing when she said it. She didn’t force me. I could handle this.
Except that I couldn’t. I was suddenly obsessed, absolutely driven to do it RIGHT.
I had to do it again. Even though I’d run through the test three times and was tired, I had to do it again. I suddenly had to do it again. And again. I had to get it right. I thought I knew how to do a 20 meter circle but mine look like trapezoidal. I have to try it again. I have to do it RIGHT. I quit only because Trooper was tired, and it was getting late.
Do you see where this is leading?
When they put the letters up on a dressage arena, they forgot the most telling ones: OCD.
Dressage is for the obsessive-compulsive. Dressage is perfect for the rider who obsesses, who is compelled to do something over and over, something totally useless in terms of productivity, but that NEEDS to be done right.
Oh, shit. I was hooked. That night, IN BED, with a snoring husband beside me, I was mentally rehearsing rein changes and working trot and circle right at M.
The first ride on Hank wasn’t falling off the wagon. It was a giant leap over the precipice, free-falling head down at terminal velocity. I went from someone who was happy to just sit in a grandstand and watch pretty horses dance, to seriously working towards a dressage test on a leased horse (Trooper) in a very expensive saddle. All in little over a year.
Steffie warned me years ago: beware. Dressage is addictive.
Denying you are addicted is the first step to admitting that you are, and that you want to change.
Wallowing in the ecstatic bliss of full-blown addiction, laughing one’s head off while imbibing, with no desire to change, and no cares about how much it costs, means you are a lost cause.