The Switch from Saddleseat to Dressage

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By Simat Whipp

The American Saddlebred is a very special horse. They’re proud, regal, and elegant, yet sweet and full of personality. I’ve ridden all types of horses since I was a girl, but once I met the Saddlebred, I’ve never been able to look at anything else in quite the same way.

I was first introduced to the breed while working under some very well-respected trainers in college, which led me to purchase my first Saddlebred in 1994. He was seven at the time (and he just celebrated his 31st birthday this past May), and had no training. It was then that my adventure really began.

My first Saddlebred has been retired for a number of years, but my infatuation with the breed didn’t stop there. I currently have two in training: Right On Forty-Third Street (Sable) and A Touch of Design (Sophie). I purchased Sable as a yearling, and have done all of his training over the past eight years. I started him in Show Pleasure, before moving him to Country Pleasure. Eventually, we found a home in Hunter and Western Pleasure. He was most comfortable in a relaxed frame. Sophie was three, and had some training, when she moved to Whipp Stables. In fact, her previous owner had hoped to gait her, but she was unable to maintain the slow gait and rack, so I snatched her up as an English Pleasure horse. She’s a spicy girl with tons of endurance, and the division suited her well.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve shown in Park Pleasure, English Show Pleasure, English Country Pleasure, Hunter Pleasure, and Western Pleasure. But, in the fall of 2016, I decided to take a course in equine massage. That course broadened my knowledge of equine anatomy, and the form and function of the horse’s neurological, skeletal, and muscular systems. I learned a great deal about the stress placed on the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar vertebrae, when a horse is asked to elevate incorrectly. The entire topline can be adversely affected, causing permanent damage. It was during this time that I made the decision to move my Saddlebreds away from saddleseat and into the world of dressage.

Simat and Sable

Despite some prior successes with both horses, we decided to make the transition into dressage. After just months, the change I’ve noticed has been amazing. Both horses are learning and relaxing more every day. Currently, we’re navigating the dressage world without professional help (if there’s a downside to rural Iowa, this might be it). In the future, I fully expect to enlist professional help, but so far my goals include working in a relaxed frame, improving rhythm, and strengthening the topline.

Sable, Sophie and I have competed in a few schooling shows. We’ve had a few challenges along the way, of course. Switching from a full bridle to a dressage legal snaffle, strengthening the topline, contact, bending, lateral work, and relaxation top the list.

When I showed saddleseat, I depended on leverage to create flexion. That leverage resulted in flexion between the poll and C1 vertebrae, which can restrict breathing and stress the entire spine. Both horses are now working in a baucher bit, with a focus on strengthening the topline and bringing the back up. We’re also working on developing a good bend, which has proven especially challenging during the canter transition. Previously, I would occasionally bend them the wrong direction to ensure they picked up the correct lead. The easy way isn’t always the best way…

Lateral work is important for every discipline, but including it in every ride hasn’t been easy, especially with Sophie. At first, she would get really worked up every time I applied leg pressure, and asking her to yield laterally made her a little nervous. By reintroducing pressure from the ground, she has learned to quietly accept leg and seat aids. The biggest challenge is mental. Although we no longer crack whips and use other tools to “create” energy, the memory still affects Sophie. It’s going to take time for her to believe that nothing is going to come after her. And Sable still reverts to his previous body frame from time to time, especially in a show setting.

Simat and Sophie

Due to some of these challenges, our scores have some room to improve. Sable consistently scores between 58-64, while Sophie stays in the mid-to-high 50s. With time, patience, and consistency, I think we can improve our scores and prepare for a “real” show. I even entered both horses in a training level freestyle test at a schooling show. That’s right – I am brand new to dressage and thought riding to music sounded exciting! It may have been a bold move, and my scores were nothing to brag about, but I would not be afraid to attempt it again.

Sable and Sophie are currently wearing their dressage legal bridles with comfort, beginning to round nicely through the topline and moving in a more relaxed, natural frame. Above all, they love their new work. My two partners spend several hours each day outdoors, exploring their large paddocks, munching hay, and just being horses. They even seem to compete to be ridden (pick me coach!). I love the change in them and look forward to our rides every day. I’m loving dressage!

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