By Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA
Cross-training: the action or practice of engaging in two or more sports or types of exercise in order to improve fitness or performance in one’s main sport
When the USDF Senior Competition Coordinator approached me to write an article about my journey as an Adult Amateur in Dressage Seat Equitation, I asked if I could expand the topic and talk about all the disciplines my dressage horse, Newman, and I have explored, including driving, hunters, and sidesaddle.
I originally purchased this Trakehner gelding as a four-year-old with the express purpose of going up the levels in dressage and earning my Bronze (and potentially Silver and Gold) Medal with him. And while the Bronze Medal and several other awards are displayed in my home, the universe has clearly indicated that our path is more breadth than depth. That is, between his medical issues and his tendency to quickly lose interest in things, cross-training has been our savior.
Cross-training #1: Carriage driving
Since day one with Newman, I had been working with Wolfgang May who was teaching me not only to ride, but also lunge, long line/ground drive, and work in-hand. During a session, he mentioned that by going one step further and actually learning to carriage drive, we might improve our ridden dressage.
Through the HUB Club, which was based near me, I located a driving trainer with a strong background in classical dressage. Together, we introduced Newman to carriage driving, going through all the steps in order and taking no shortcuts, even though he took to the sport like a duck to water.
Of the three driving disciplines – combined driving, pleasure driving, and recreational driving – we chose combined driving, since it’s the closest to our primary sport of dressage. Combined driving is modeled after three-day eventing, being made up of three phases: dressage, marathon or cross-country, and cones (the stadium portion). Singles, pairs, and four-in-hands at Training, Preliminary, Intermediate, and Advanced can choose from full CDEs or combined driving events, HDTs or horse driving trials, ADTs or arena driving trials, and even CTs or combined tests. There’s even Driving Derbies for those who only want the fun and excitement of cones and obstacles, without any of that dressage.
We try to make it to at least one clinic, one recognized show, and a couple of schooling shows each year, along with some recreational drives at forest preserves. In 2018, Newman helped me earn the Carriage Association of America Level 1 Driver Proficiency Certificate, and in 2019, we hope to complete the requirements for a Bronze Medal in driven dressage from the American Driving Society, which requires a total of four scores 70% or above at Prelim Level.
Cross-training #2: Hunters
After a couple of years of including driving in our program, it was time to look to a new sport. This time, I went with the discipline he had actually been bred to excel at: hunters.
Jumping was something we’d played with since the beginning, to add some variety to his weekly schedule and to develop some carrying and pushing power in his hind legs which we’d need for extended gaits, half pass, pirouettes, and so on. Since he was struggling a bit with flying changes, I thought approaching them from a different perspective might help things click.
Hunters, though, felt really out of my league, so I tagged along with some friends and began taking jumping lessons at their barns. After identifying someone that I got along well with and who I thought would get along well with Newman, I started bringing my horse along with me to lessons. Sometimes I would ride and sometimes the trainer would ride, but when competition season rolled around, we decided – at least the first time – that he would take the reins. Having shown dressage all my life, with advance ride times, the whole “stand around and wait at the in-gate” scene was completely foreign to me.
The trainer was headed to the Showplace Spring “B” show at Lamplight, and he recommended we sign Newman up for two Baby Green Hunter O/F classes and one U/S to complete that division. He also had us enter Schooling Hunters, since this division was also 2’6”. Although Newman and I have a lot to learn about the hunter/jumper world (apparently there is an actual class called “Warm Up”), he still earned 2nd place out of 11 horses in one class!
Cross-training #3: Sidesaddle
At the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington, KY, I fell in love with sidesaddle when a park-type chestnut half-Arabian entered the demo ring ridden aside by her owner wearing a gorgeous Wedgewood Blue riding habit. They were so elegant, sophisticated, and stylish that it was at that moment I decided I had to try it!
With Newman’s proven ability to adapt to multiple disciplines, as well as his continual need for new and interesting challenges to keep from getting bored, I was pretty sure he would take to sidesaddle, but I was not prepared for him to enjoy it as much as he did.
Once again, luck was on my side as an American Sidesaddle Association certified instructor lived not ten minutes from me! Since she and I (and our horses) are roughly the same size, I was able to borrow her sidesaddle and get started right away, until I found one of my own.
Once I’d gotten my sea legs, so to speak, the next challenge was developing a “dictionary of cues.” Belgian Paralympian Barbara Minneci describes this perfectly in the article “Riding Aside: Shortcuts Forbidden,” in the October 2018 issue of Dressage Today magazine.
“Each horse’s reaction to the whip and rider’s weight aids varies and each rider has to figure this out during the course of the horse’s training. ‘Where to touch a horse, and with what intensity to cause a reaction, is a bit of trial and error at the beginning,’ said Minneci. ‘This continues until a horse and rider have found a common language and can enlarge their dictionary step by step.’”
In three months of weekly lessons, Newman and I had figured out all the aids necessary to get through a Training Level test, so I started entering recognized dressage shows. With scores of 67.6%, 71.9%, and 68.9% (with 8s for several movements including Rider Position and Seat), I feel confident making the move to First Level in the sidesaddle next year. Leg yielding, here we come!