By Ferrin Petersen
My first horse was a beautiful Arabian named Saheeh with a wonderful disposition, and I adored him. Unfortunately, he had some conformational issues including a club foot, which resulted in choppy gaits and consistently picking up the incorrect lead. I enjoyed riding English and jumping small jumps at local shows, but was told that my beloved horse would never be competitive in larger shows. Our farrier predicted he would be lame within a few years.
One day, a dressage trainer was watching me attempt to force my horse into a collected frame and offered to give me a few lessons. I agreed, and over the course of several weeks she had dismantled my rigid and tight style of riding. She instructed me to feel the horse beneath me and to use soft hands and aids that develop supportive muscle to invite him into the correct frame. Riding became enjoyable again, as I learned to patiently work with my horse in a fluid motion instead of straining to hold him a certain way. When my former English trainer observed me riding a month later, she was so excited about our improvements and anxious to resume lessons, but I knew it was the dressage instruction that made the difference in both the horse and my riding, so I declined.
After a year of dressage training, he was a different horse. He was balanced, well muscled, and even moved gracefully in his pasture. Although his club foot remained a factor that would limit the dressage levels he could attain, it no longer stuck out like a sore thumb. I also came to understand that the dressage movements were increasing his overall health and longevity, by correcting his stiffness and imbalance. Each subsequent year, I saw not only improvements in my horse, but in my own abilities as a horsewoman. Since I did not have the luxury of sitting on a well-trained dressage mount, who responded easily to my cues, I had to learn how to feel tiny imbalances by noting a dropped shoulder or a stiff jaw. We were usually beat by the athletic warmbloods at shows and I was encouraged to buy a better horse so that I could advance faster in dressage. However, I was attached to my horse and saw dressage as a way to improve his quality of life, so I continued to set new goals and work with my Arabian.
Dressage taught me how to listen to my horse and be in tune with subtle changes. I became increasingly intrigued by improving a horse’s health through symmetry, suppleness, and many of the other building blocks in dressage. This ultimately led to a passion for veterinary medicine. These same core concepts are essential to treating horses and improving their longevity. I began shadowing sports medicine veterinarians who analyzed the horses’ gait, muscle tone, and body suppleness. These subtleties came more naturally to me after numerous years of dressage training and drew me toward Eastern medicine, as I saw the value of integrating differing methods to solve a problem.
I also learned to be patient and use various approaches to master a movement. When I focused on just one aspect of a problem, I would get frustrated and try to force success, sometimes resulting in further setbacks. Similarly, integrative medicine uses the whole body to bring about healing, rather than focusing on the specific problem at hand.
I am currently in veterinary school at UC Davis, pursuing my same interest by focusing on equine integrative sports medicine. My Arabian is now 24 years old and still my favorite mount. I thank dressage for teaching me patience, to look beyond the obvious and go beneath the surface of things. Dressage has also enabled me to better support my horse’s aging process. I believe we all have a lot to learn from dressage, whether we are in the saddle or merely journeying through life.