By Erin Bell
Dressage is a specific niche of horsemanship. When we think of dressage, the picture that comes to mind is the finished product of a horse and rider combination executing a harmonious test. However, there is so much more that goes into creating this equine dancing partner behind the scenes, before it has even done its first test. I will even go as far as to say a horse’s breeding and development has everything to do with making or breaking a good dressage horse’s future. If you are interested in knowing more about what goes into producing a dressage horse- whether it be because you are interested in purchasing a prospect, breeding your own, understanding the biomechanics that go into dressage, knowing what conformation traits will cause soundness issues… honestly, anything about a sport horse- the USDF Sport Horse Youth/Young Adult Seminar program will benefit you. I am going to walk you through the seminar I attended and what I personally took away from it. I myself am a dressage student, trainer, teacher, and breeder.
This seminar began Friday evening at the beautiful Oak Hill Ranch in Folsom, LA, with a pizza party and introduction from the owner, Richard Freeman. He walked us through what a year in of life on a breeding farm is like. Personally, it was very interesting to hear how he planned his mare’s pregnancies because of the heat that our southern region has so early on, which I compared to my previous experience at a seminar at Hill Top Farm, where the breeding season started much later in the year because they actually have a winter. The pro to our seasons down here is the management of the horses is more au naturel. We can keep our horses turned out 24/7, 365 days a year. Richard shared with us his passion for his beloved stallion Rambo, and how he has chosen his mare lines. Because of how he selected his foundation mares, all of his offspring have a very clear type and stamp from Rambo. Over 40 years of thought and purpose is evident is his product. From a business standpoint, I could clearly see his “Unique Selling Point”, which is very important for youth and young adults going into this business to understand. He markets his prospects as having the genes that can hold up in the sport, in addition to the formative handling that makes them a good citizen for anyone to train, whether pro or amateur.
We all know dressage means training, which is why any horse can benefit from it. But what if you can look at a horse before it is trained and see if it will be easier and sounder to train because of its conformation and movement? That is what an educated eye in biomechanics can do for you. After Richard’s talk, Susan Mandas gave us an introductory presentation on conformation and movement. Being a dressage rider, I like things that help me quantify what is good. So, the three things to grade good gaits on are purity, correctness, and quality- in that order.
Purity is the very clear rhythm for the particular gait you are in. Because the goal of dressage is to enhance the horse’s gaits, not change them, you can either enhance what is already bad or already good.
Correctness is how they track. This doesn’t affect your dressage score per se, but it will cause soundness issues down the road. Worst of all is a fault that can hurt you or your horse. Keep in mind, we should (and have) bred horses for specific desired tasks. A cart horse has to track in a relatively single track, so as not to interfere with the cart. However, that would not be ideal for a riding horse.
Quality is the wow factor that the horse gives, and impulsion, the elasticity in the horse’s muscles and connective tissue, provides the look of effortlessness of which we dream. You can have a horse with beautiful conformation and balanced angles, but that doesn’t have the movement over his back or posture that is desired. Personally, I think people grade horses in reverse. They look at the wow of the horse but forget how hard it is to train a horse with incorrect rhythm, and how difficult it will be to keep them sound because of how they deviate in their trajectory of movement.
On Saturday, we witnessed an Oldenburg Horse Breeders’ Society GOV inspection given by Holly Simensen. It was a very unique experience for Holly to open up to us on how she sees the potential in a foal. Her expertise was evident from her knowledge of what certain traits and characteristics can be overcome, and what is required for greatness. She shared stories with us on how she has seen prospect stallions end up being powerful producers for our sport. The two things I took away from her talk was that sometimes the “cheeky” babies end up being very confident show horses and that the front end of a horse is only as good as the back end that carries it.
The way an inspector looks at a horse is based on the history of the bloodlines and individual traits that are being presented, and how these may influence its future success. The way a sport horse judge looks at a horse is based on who and what that horse is that particular day, in that arena, which changes day to day with a young horse. This is why it is important to have a good handler to present the horse. Christine Smith and Regina Milliken shared their tips on how they show the best the horse has to offer. The biggest point to understand is that how that baby is handled day in and day out makes him well behaved for a breed show or a grand prix horse later on. If the foal learns certain boundaries with humans from the start, they are more relaxed and confident when it comes time to teach them something new. The training doesn’t start under saddle, but way before.
Seeing through the outside, and down to the foundation, of a horse takes a fine-tuned eye. Conformation and how to evaluate horse’s tendencies based on identifying relationships between major joints is what we learned on Sunday, and we got to do it with a lot of live horses. Sue went over how to find the plumb lines on a horse, and how they relate to balance and soundness. We saw multigenerational horses and which traits were passed on, emphasizing just how essential having an exceptional brood mare is. We saw horses aging from three months old to seventeen years old, and how certain structures never change. For example, a horse with a low set and long under neck will have a harder time going round, or a horse that has a hard-to-fit back will have saddle discomfort and give the rider resistance.
Then, Oak Hill Ranch’s young horse starter gave us a detailed demonstration on how he backs a horse for the first time. They showed us their methods of teaching the basics and how to positively and efficiently introduce new things.
The finale was with Dr. Gary Greene, who was very passionate about talking with us. He also gave us the opportunity to observe the process for performing an ultrasound on a mare and the collection of a stallion. He went into detail on the evaluation of semen quality and fresh chilled preservation. My favorite part was how he taught us to evaluate the semen under the microscope for morphology. I had heard about motility and count before, but learning that the shape of the cells was of high importance for fertility was something I had never known before. It got me thinking, as a breeder, I should be more educated regarding the semen quality that I am purchasing for my mares.
All in all, this program was diverse and precise in the management, selection, and production of a sport horse. So, if you want to know what it takes to make an exceptional performance horse, from the very start of its life, this seminar is for you. I feel like I came away with the ability to better evaluate prospects for myself and clients, and to better foresee soundness or training issues for the horses in my program. It has also refined my eye to help better determine how I would teach a horse, based on its breeding and movement. I have become more educated for the selection for my own breeding program. Thank you USDF and Oak Hill Ranch.