By Cathy Alwine and Elizabeth Grainger
Five years ago, Michiana Dressage Club President Elizabeth Grainger approached Reins of Life about hosting a dressage show at its South Bend, IN facility. They hosted the fundraising event with twenty-four riders and two Reins riders in attendance, and it was a hit. Reins made the decision to expand to two days the following year, as well as host a two day show at its Michigan City facility. By this time, they had sponsors, a dressage-trained instructor, and several interested riders, and the Reins of Life Para Equestrian Dressage Team was formed.
The benefits of dressage in a therapeutic riding program include challenging riders in a new way, improving riding skills by applying more variety of aids, expanding rider mindsets, providing competitive opportunities, and enhancing the horse/rider bond. Appropriate riders are able to improve not only their riding skills, but life skills as well.
Katelyn, who suffered a traumatic brain injury, after being struck by lightning, found that riding dressage figures helps her understand math. She has ridden in the dressage shows each year, and progressed from walking through a test with a leader and two sidewalkers, to riding independently. Kate has ridden dressage exhibitions in Indianapolis, at the Hoosier Horse Fair, and was the 2014 Indiana Horse Council Therapeutic Rider of the Year.
Justin was becoming bored with his lessons, so the staff decided to try something new. He was not able to read, so colors were substituted for arena letters. Justin later learned to recognize letters through dressage. His experience was a journey to self-discovery, as his remarkable memory and patience became evident. Justin also has a natural “way with horses”, and the bond that formed between him and his horse transcends words.
Braelyn is a 12-year-old girl whose challenges include anxiety, ADHD, ODD, and autism. Dressage is wonderful for increasing her concentration, memory, and riding skills. Riding musical freestyle is her reward for also riding classic dressage tests. Th is helps her appreciate the concept of a compromise, a valuable tool in controlling her ODD. She choreographs her own freestyles, and helps pick the music. The previously shy, quiet girl now takes the initiative to help younger riders prep for shows.
Magic happens when communities come together in celebration of the horse, and love of dressage. Volunteers from local organizations provide much needed assistance for preparing the facility. These individuals may not be Reins volunteers, but many join the program after their positive show experiences. Center volunteers also benefit from being exposed to a
different style of riding.
Over the years, Reins has expanded their show class offerings, hosted a sold-out workshop with PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International ), and added “fun awards” to the regular series awards, such as “Best Smile Down Center Line,” and the “Heart of a Horse” Award. The four 2015 benefit shows hosted 100 riders, competing alongside nineteen Reins riders.
Able-bodied competitors are inspired by riders with disabilities. Suzanne Rosencrantz, an enthusiastic participant, agrees with that sentiment. “Participating in schooling shows, with riders with disabilities, always encourages me to do better because they do so well!”
As a long-time official of Reins’ competitions, Dr. Lydia Gray has witnessed the determination, strength, and improvement of the Reins Para Equestrian Team. “Having had the privilege of judging able-bodied dressage riders, as well as dressage riders with different abilities, the thing that strikes me most about the latter group is their eagerness to demonstrate correctly to me what they’ve been working on, and to receive feedback about the next thing they can work on to improve their dressage. In that respect, dressage and therapeutic riding are a great fit because there are clear goals, measurements, and endpoints, yet it is during the journey that the student truly does the learning. I look forward to returning to this show each year and seeing the progress these riders have made!”
After his first dressage show experience, the mother of Daniel, a Reins rider, sent in an e-mail with a photo saying, “He was SO proud of those ribbons that he took them on vacation (we left the day after the show). He showed them to all of our family and friends. Thanks again for all of your hard work.”
The original vision that Reins of Life had for its dressage program was surpassed long ago. What started as an effort to include dressage in a few lessons, morphed into hosting clinics, workshops, and shows, collaborations with the USDF, focus as an educational hub, a PATH presentation, and an opportunity for staff development. Plans for additional workshops are underway, including a focus on detailed aspects, such as how dressage is applied to accommodate individual riders during lessons.
Dressage is not only the connection between horse and rider, but a connection between communities of all horse lovers. It’s a relationship that works!
Cathy Alwine http://www.reinsoflife.org
Elizabeth Grainger http://www.graingerdressage.com