Life hacks: dressage edition
By Natalie DeFee Mendik
Reprinted from the October 2018 USDF Connection magazine
Are zip ties the one thing you couldn’t possibly set up at a show without? What about those boot socks that stay in place and dry all day long? From favorite products to quirky ideas, dressage professionals from all walks of the industry share their go-to equipment hacks that could very well make your horse and riding life just a bit easier, too.
Say goodbye to green slobber in the show ring with Sabine Schut-Kery’s tack-up tip: Rinse the horse’s mouth with water in a large dental syringe just before you put on the bridle. By removing any hay residue in the back of the horse’s mouth, you won’t be forced to wipe away precious foam because it’s green before you head down center line, explains Schut-Kery, of Thousand Oaks, California, who with Sanceo helped Team USA win gold at the 2015 Pan American Games and the 2018 Nations Cup.
For keeping those show whites pristine, US Equestrian “S” dressage judge and Grand Prix-level competitor Kari McClain turns to a gift that’s both practical and pretty.
“I have a beautiful horse-fabric cover-up skirt a student made years ago that easily goes on and off with Velcro and keeps my breeches gleaming white while looking stylish,” says McClain, who operates Miari Stables, a breeding and training facility in Olympia, Washington. “I get compliments on it at every show.”
And at those hot summer competitions, McClain recommends coconut water to rehydrate and keep electrolytes on board, as well as the Cool Medics cooling vest to stay comfortable and avoid overheating.
Every dressage competitor dreads the eleventh-hour broken boot zipper at a show. “We usually show when it’s hot in the summer, and our legs swell. I know so many people whose zippers have broken at a show,” says Grand Prix-level rider and FEI-level USDF-certified instructor Reese Koffler-Stanfield, who owns and operates Maple Crest Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky. Her solution: black electrical tape.
(Another dressage life hack worth stealing: To account for any last-minute mishaps, Koffler-Stanfield adds an extra five to ten minutes to her show tacking-up time.)
“We do a lot of traveling. What’s important for us is that we’re prepared,” says Amy Ebeling, who together with her husband, Olympian Jan Ebeling, oversees The Acres, the family’s dressage business in Moorpark, California. “One thing we always keep with us is Platinum Performance Bio-Sponge. If a horse has loose stool, we give one tube and generally it’s over.”
Also on hand to keep the Ebelings’ horses at their best is Cavalor Ice Clay poultice. “It makes the legs tight, has great consistency, and doesn’t test [positive]; it’s legal [for administration before and during competitions],” Ebeling says.
Lotions, Potions, and Wipes
It’s not just cows that need a little TLC. “I use Bag Balm every day on every horse,” says Ana Gilmour, an FEI-level rider and USDF-certified instructor through Fourth Level from Auburn, California. “I use it around the lips; I like to give the horses a little extra protection—sometimes they get a little dryness on the cheeks. I think if I were a horse, I’d like something around my bit. Of course I use it for my lips, too,” she says with a laugh.
Simple baby-care products work great for grown-ups and horses, too. Says Koffler-Stanfield: “I love baby wipes. You can use them for everything, from wiping the horse to cleaning up a spill to wiping your face. Whatever you need, they do the job. They are good to always have in your kit.”
Various ointments in the Ebelings’ tack trunk include:
Aquaphor for scratches (pastern dermatitis), as well as abrasions and nicks. “It keeps the skin from cracking and bleeding,” says Ebeling.
Calmoseptine ointment—which the Ebelings learned about from a client who was a nurse—for girth sores as well as for “saddle sores” on the rider’s part. “It will heal you overnight,” Ebeling says.
Effol Mouth Butter before every ride.
Knit mitts handmade by a friend have a multi-purpose function in Melissa Creswick’s grooming kit. “A bit bigger than hand-sized, they are small enough to fit in a pocket, but big enough to wipe down a horse,” explains Creswick, a US Equestrian “S” dressage judge and USDF gold medalist from Clovis, California. “The texture picks up dirt while still being soft enough for wiping the horse’s face. Dry mitts can also wipe your boots just before going into the ring.”
“[Equestrian equipment] is so expensive,” says US Equestrian “r” dressage judge and USDF silver medalist Robin Birk, who operates Timber Ridge Equestrian Center in Ruffs Dale, Pennsylvania. “When I judge, I hear people say, ‘Well, I don’t have a ring at home.’ At the same time, I see riders, particularly at the lower levels, having trouble riding correct corners. I just made a new dressage ring out of five-gallon buckets from Walmart. It looks great. That’s a ring anybody could afford. Even if you don’t have enough space for a whole ring, set up one end so you can learn how to ride through the corner.”
Birk constructed her arena perimeter and letters with white PVC plumbing pipes from Lowe’s, which she fit across the tops of the buckets, having traced the outline of the pipes onto the buckets and cut slots with a jig saw.
Borrowed from Here and There
For horses that need a warm-up on the lunge before heading to the show ring, Creswick recommends a D-ring attachment borrowed from the jumping world. Using side reins with snaps on each end and “breastplate dees” attached to the billets, you can lunge and then mount without complicated tack changes.
“While lungeing, snap each end of the side reins to the bit and to the billet; the equipment is correct—on the billets, the side reins are in the right place,” Creswick says. “You can then take the lunge line and side reins off in quick order, put them in a bag in the warm-up arena, and be off without ever having to compromise your saddle by loosening the girth; the D-rings don’t show.”
A new item in Gilmour’s arsenal is her own hoof tester. “If a horse is looking a little ouchy, it helps if you can narrow it down to figure out if it’s the feet or not. You can then start soaking; this can save you time and money,” she says. “Everyone is happy when it turns out to be just an abscess.”
Sugar cubes have a place in Kathy Simard’s training routine. She explains that while she doesn’t give sugar cubes to young horses in order to avoid developing bad habits, she does find them quite useful for horses farther along in their training, such as when introducing rein back, flying changes, half-steps, or a new sequence.
“I don’t just give out treats; the horses have to earn it,” says Simard, a USDF Instructor/Trainer Program faculty member, Fourth Level USDF-certified instructor, and USDF silver medalist from Littleton, Colorado.
Stretches are part of daily life for horses at The Acres, notes Amy Ebeling, whose treat of choice for encouraging the horse to reach into the stretch is the Platinum Performance Platinum Bar EQ.
“I always use DSB boots [Dressage Sport Boots]: They last, the Velcro is secure so they don’t come off, they come in fun colors, and they wash well,” says Dawn White-O’Connor, an international trainer and competitor who got her start as groom and assistant to Steffen and Shannon Peters, including grooming for Steffen Peters at the 2012 London Olympics. “I especially like the shiny patent boots; they wipe off and look great.”
People who work with horses spend a lot of time on their feet. USDF gold medalist Patience Prine-Carr, of Glynnsong Farm in Castroville, California, counts on her Blundstone boots, which she calls “the most comfortable and durable boots I have ever worn. I walk a lot and am on my feet lungeing, tacking up, grooming, et cetera, so I need something comfortable that lasts.”
Prine-Carr’s go-to bit for starting young horses and refreshing older horses is the Herm. Sprenger KK line. She says her horses find the ergonomic mouthpiece comfortable, while the metal alloy encourages salivation.
Dressage judge Robin Birk constructed her dressage arena from PVC plumbing pipes and five-gallon buckets
Some pros’ most valuable possessions are of the keepsake variety.
“I have an angel pin my mom gave me; I always wear it on the lapel of my show jacket,” says Koffler-Stanfield. She laughs: “I don’t like to ride faster than my angel can fly, so I bring my angel with me.”
“For the life of me, I can’t think of anything out of the ordinary that I have or use. Everything is very normal. My horse is the only thing I can’t live without!” says international competitor and former US Equestrian national dressage youth coach Jeremy Steinberg, of Del Mar, California.
Regardless of which gizmos and brands are your particular favorites, you’ll surely agree: Our horses are the one thing none of us can live without!
You’ve already met USDF Connection editorial advisor Melissa Creswick in this article and learned about some of her favorite “tack hacks.” What’s in other editors’ tack boxes?
Editorial advisor and US Equestrian “S” dressage judge Margaret Freeman, of Tryon, North Carolina, can’t live without her Ultimate Hoof Pick.
“It is ridiculously expensive compared to other hoof picks,” Freeman says, “and worth every penny because it is so easy to hold and because it can pry out really packed-in dirt and ice.”
USDF Connection editor Jennifer Bryant and USDF vice president Lisa Gorretta both are self-described tack junkies who had a hard time narrowing their lists of must-haves. Two items that have made Bryant’s horse life easier this year are Effax Leather Cream Soap and the Roma Stretch Bug Eye Saver with Ears fly mask.
Not really a soap, the Effax product is a creamy conditioner that soaks into clean leather and leaves a deep luster and just the right amount of “feel” to give a bit of grip under your seat or in your hand, Bryant says.
“My horse is a fly-mask Houdini who destroys or gets out of every other fly mask I’ve tried,” Bryant adds. “My instructor recommended the Roma Stretch Bug Eye Saver with Ears, and I used it successfully all summer. Junior only managed to get it off a handful of times, and even then the mask remained undamaged. It washes well and is economically priced, to boot.”
Natalie DeFee Mendik is an award-winning journalist specializing in equine media. Her current favorite equipment hack is keeping a few large blue IKEA shopping bags in her trailer; they’re perfect for corralling and ferrying all the odds and ends that get spread about when on the road. At competitions, she loves Goode Rider show shirts with frilly collars; the technical fabric keeps you cool and the pretty neckline negates the need for a tie and pin. Visit Natalie online at MendikMedia.com.