Ancient meets modern during a former driving horse’s transition to dressage
Reprinted from the September 2016 Issue of USDF Connection
By Karen Abbattista
CS Dante of Earl, owned by my friend Dr. Wendy Ying, has an impressive resume in the sport of combined driving. In 2008, he was the USEF National Combined Driving Single Horse Champion and the USEF Combined Driving Single Reserve Horse of the Year.
In recent years, “Dante,” a 16-year-old Welsh Cob cross gelding, has been “repurposed” as a dressage horse. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? With careful planning, the answer is a resounding yes. In Dante’s case, that planning involved drawing on theories used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).
According to TCM, all sentient beings have physical and emotional characteristics ascribed to each of five elements (fire, wood, earth, water, and metal), with one or more usually dominant. As a trainer, identifying a horse’s personality type can help you better understand his needs and temperament.
Dante is a quintessential Metal horse. He thrives on hard work and mental challenge. He is a no-nonsense kind of guy: He bonds through work, not play. Like metal itself—strong and durable, cold and rigid—Metal horses are calm, orderly, and not overly social. They like routine. They learn best when things are presented one step at a time, and once they understand a lesson, they will not forget it. If he gets confused or doesn’t understand, a Metal horse will brace through his entire body. Metal horses internalize stress; they seem quiet but are actually highly sensitive.
Dante likes to know exactly what to do and when, so I base our training on familiar patterns. A good example is the counter-canter, which was our biggest training hurdle to date. Dante was convinced that I did not know my canter leads and could not understand why I wanted him to do something “wrong.” His confusion led to bracing, which led to deterioration of the gait and eventually a complete failure to communicate.
How to train the counter-canter in a way that Dante could comprehend? I started with the pattern. In the trot, we made a shallow loop to the quarter line and back, with no change in positioning. Is there such a thing as counter-trot? If so, we schooled it, over and over again. Eventually we did the same thing in the canter. When he understood what I wanted, I expanded on the concept, this time going to the center line and back in “counter-trot.” Finally I tried the loop in canter, emphasizing the lead—and all of sudden, he got it. The months of struggling melted away, and he understood.
Routine is important to Dante— something I was reminded of the hard way at a hot, humid summer competition last year. I kept the warm-ups short, and for ten minutes before our rides we cooled off under a tent while a friend fed Dante ice cubes. Using this routine, our first three rides of the weekend netted us three blues. But the ring was running early for our fourth and final test, and so I went straight into the arena from the warm-up, forgoing tent and ice-cube time. I did not finish the test. Should it have made that big a difference? One thinks not, but one would not be thinking like Dante.
By using his Metal horse desire for order and structure to optimal advantage, Dante has embarked on a new career at an age when many horses would be slowing down, and he’s done it quite successfully. In 2015, he was the Welsh Pony & Cob Society of America’s half-Welsh Adequan/USDF All Breeds reserve champion at both Training and First Level. Not bad for an old driving horse!
Karen Abbattista, of Sarasota, FL, is a USDF bronze and silver medalist, a USDF bronze and silver freestyle bar recipient, and a USDF L Program graduate with distinction. She left the corporate world in 2012 to pursue a career in dressage. Her website is KarenAbbattistaDressage.com.