Today I wanted to give a shout out to all you backyard equestrians out there. I had a talk with Veronica yesterday. If you aren’t familiar with my dear imaginary friend, I introduce her in my previous blog entries. Veronica is the arch typical pretentious, ignorant character from all those Saddle Club and Heartland episodes. She believes that having a high-caliber, talented horse and Tailored Sportsman breeches will make you the better rider. Veronica wants you to believe that if you can’t afford lessons five days a week in an arena filled with crunched up tires and glittery mirrors, then you are a lowly hick rider that doesn’t deserve to be honored with the lofty title of Equestrian. Please don’t take offense if your name is Veronica! I randomly selected a name that could symbolize the derisive and destructive voice in my head that was sucking the fun out of my riding. I challenge you to do the same! It’s very cathartic. And it’s fun to talk smack about people and what they say about you…even if that person is a made up voice in your head.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my struggles with riding self-esteem. I’ve owned Shiloh for almost two and a half years now and I’ve always thought of him as my “fun” horse that I can just play with and hack around on, while I’ve saved the “real work” of dressage schooling—learning how to achieve steady connection, ride with the horse’s rhythm, and how to cue for a clean canter transition—for my lessons with my coach and my decidedly easy “normal” 3-gaited arabian Lesson Horse Lena. Through the years, I did get plenty of riding in on Shiloh, but I subconsciously avoided doing anything too “dressagey” on him because I didn’t believe that his Tennessee Walking tendencies would render him capable of the movements.
As this innocently ignorant mindset lay dormant in my mind, my own horse Shiloh became less supple and less fun to ride. Who could blame him? I only rode him once or twice a week, while most of my energy was invested in working with Lena or some other Arabian on the farm at least three days a week. I’m sure Shiloh didn’t mind being in such light work, but I was definitely not doing a service to the improvement of my riding when I was only working with the horses that were already easy to collect and trot around on.
The results of this cycle of thought was a horse that is woefully imbalanced, tubby, and in serious need of sweaty saddle pads.
I went on like this until recently when I discovered that gaited horses have as much place in the world of dressage as warmbloods do. Dressage is not an exclusive club! I decked out my gaited darling in all my dressage tack glory.
Shockingly, dressage saddles actually do fit the alien gaited back! Bell boots velcro on the TWH just like they do on an Oldenberg. Shiloh could blend right in at a dressage show with this outfit.
What really kicked my butt into high gear was my talk with Aaron Wilson at the clinic. I didn’t even mention that I owned a gaited horse and was borrowing this dear little Arabian from my coach, but my friend told him all about Shiloh and his gaited status. I wasn’t exactly embarrassed by this fact, I just felt weird talking about him while I was surrounded by so many quintessentially dressage-like warmblood and thoroughbred types. I wanted to play the part of the dressage queen (don’t we all feel this way a little bit–deep inside?) and I didn’t think that working with a gaited horse could be part of that paradigm.
But Aaron was actually really interested in hearing more about my gaited horse. He had just come back from judging a gaited dressage show and he encouraged me to look up the tests. I told him that I was worried Shiloh wouldn’t be able to perform with the same rhythm and connection that a regular 3 gaited horse does. He told me that rhythm varies with every horse and gaited horses DO have rhythm, it’s just a little different than other horses.
So I went back home and spent some time soul searching with Youtube. Gaited dressage is about as new as western dressage, so there wasn’t very much documentation, but what I did find was encouraging.
Sure enough, there is a beautiful Tennessee Walking horse doing the shoulder-in, the freewalk, and simple changes. The horse moves with lovely fluidity and forward impulsion. Sadly, I was bad and I read the comments (never a good idea!) and there were a lot of people flying their negative nelly Veronica flags just for the sake of putting the horse and rider down.
Today I dressed Shiloh and myself for success, wearing the very same outfit and using the same tack as I did at the clinic. I rode him just the way I would any other dressage horse. I even got a new shiny black dressage whip for our endeavors. I evaluated our weaknesses and strengths.
- We are forward, forward, forward! I think we have impulsion in the bag. Shiloh has a fantastic work ethic and he gets annoyed if we aren’t actually “going anywhere” with our pace.
- He’s a fantastic neck reiner. I know It’s not something we do very much in dressage, but it can’t hurt as I transition him into direct reining, lightly pressing with the outside rein as a guide rail.
- He’s a fast learner. We made great progress with the turn on the forehand, even on the first day.
- He’s extremely unbalanced and “wiggly.” Lots of times I feel like he’s popping out his shoulder instead of actually bending. When we canter, he drifts with his hind quarters and just careens around.
- He has never been asked to “round” and get on the bit. His previous owners cheated by starting him in a curb bit and I think he resents pressure on the bit. If I sponge the reins, he instantly goes into defensive giraffe mode. This will take the most time to correct I think.
- His gaits are all over the place, even for a gaited horse. He has a good walk and canter, but everything in between is uncharted territory. Let’s just say that my friends call him daddy long legs because he looks so ungainly when he gets going.
My short-term goals involve getting him up to speed with lateral work (simple turns on the forehand and beginning leg yields) and slowly easing him into working comfortably on the bit. I have to do a bit of finagling to find out where he feels secure in the contact and how tight is too tight.
I plan on doing lots of long-lining and work in hand as I start teaching him the more advanced movements. I think giving him a chance to learn something on the ground and feel where the pressure is on the bit and on his sides is helpful for him. Plus, walking behind him with the lines and a lunge whip I feel so important and professional. It’s the little things, people.
Also, I am going to bring back work with ground poles. I painted four poles about a year ago and used them for about a month. Then I moved to a different pasture and never bothered to pack them up and bring them. I think ground pole exercises will help him think about where he needs to put his feet and maintain a steady rhythm. However, I’m not super familiar with distances and patterns. I’ll need spend more time with Youtube and my dressage bible, The Principles of Riding.
I’ll leave you with this: enjoy the horse you’re with. Don’t waste time worrying about the impression you’re making. Riding is an act of courage, partly because you are sitting on a half ton animal with a mind of its own, and partly because you are exposing yourself to a highly opinionated community of knowledgeable horse people and making yourself vulnerable. Be brave, love your horse, and love your sport!