By Beth Ann Adams
After twenty memorable years together with my dressage partner Pendragon, we sadly had to say goodbye. What would the future hold for me? Giving up riding was unthinkable. After months of indecision, I reached out to Olivia Steidle. Olivia was familiar with my riding abilities and had been responsible for much of Pendragon’s early training. Eager for new experiences, I dusted off my saddle and moved into Travelda Farm where Olivia is a dressage instructor. The first few months involved taking lessons on different horses. Soon Olivia opened the discussion of looking for a suitable dressage horse. A retired jumper had just moved to Travelda, the owner was looking for a lease situation with stipulation of no more jumping. Olivia encouraged me to give the big black mare a try.
My journey with the mare Fiona began in the cold snowy winter of 2013. Our introduction was a bit rocky. Upon going to the field to bring her in for a trail lesson, she pulled the lead out of my hand and refused to move. Helping hands came to the rescue and she was finally brought in and tacked up. Pretending to be brave, I slowly stepped into the saddle. It came falling down with me landing on the ground underneath the mare. Yes, I’d forgotten to tighten the girth! I’m sure you will not blame me for being nervous when I tell you Fiona is a 17.2 hand Percheron/Warmblood. Fiona’s reaction to all the fuss was to stand quietly while I readjusted the equipment and finally got into the saddle. Over the winter months we got to know each other better. It soon became obvious that grooming a 17.2 hand horse needed an alternative approach! By standing on my tiptoes I was able to brush her neck and long back. Putting on the saddle and bridle were and equally formidable task requiring “bench pressing” the saddle into correct position. Bridling was accomplished by saying “head down” while pressing lightly between her ears. Ground rules were being established as well as mutual respect.
It was a breathtaking experience riding Fiona’s powerful trot and huge canter, requiring physical fitness, concentration to stay in sync with her stride as well as mental fortitude. Olivia would patiently repeat “legs long, go with her, soften your inside hand”. Sometimes I would feel like I’d never ridden a horse before! Despite my not-so-perfect endeavors, Fiona proved to be a cooperative and forgiving horse. Olivia and I took Fiona to her first dressage show entering the walk-trot test. To everyone’s delight, we took home a beautiful blue ribbon with a score of 73%! Fiona’s willingness in the show ring reestablished my confidence as a competitor.
Olivia invited Felicitas von Newmann-Cosel to hold a series of clinics at Travelda. Felicitas acquired Germany’s Master Level Instructor Degree which led into her present position as head instructor at First Choice Farm in Maryland. Olivia’s students knew Olivia had been a working student with Felicitas; consequently, it was easy to recognize their teaching similarities.
As Felicitas watched each rider/horse pair warm up, she quickly detected the major areas which needed to be addressed. Felicitas proved to be an effective and articulate instructor. It was important to Felicitas that each participant understood what was needed for her horse to perform its task correctly. I found Felicitas’ calm, soft spoken demeanor a satisfying change from other clinicians who rush you through the lesson. She gently reminded us that our ultimate goal is to display the two most important elements in riding; the horse’s need to be balanced with its entire body while at the same time remaining maintaining correct stretch to the bit. Felicitas explained the horse should stretch into the bridle, lifting its back and carrying its own neck, creating a feeling as if “peering over the edge of a cliff.”
With Fiona it was apparent to Felicitas that I hesitated letting the mare reach the full potential of her gaits. She explained that the tendency to hold back and flatten a big-moving horse is a common occurrence. She emphasized Fiona needs to reach evenly into both sides of the bit on the long side as well as on circles. She pointed out that if I’m feeling little contact on one side of the reins, Fiona is leaning onto that shoulder to hold herself up. Felicitas echoes Olivia’s words by saying, because Fiona has large hind quarters, it is important to ride her back to front, making sure the hind legs track up under her belly. She turned to the auditors explained that when the horse is correctly carrying itself, balanced and equally stretching into both reins, it might feel like too much energy! However, it is this feeling of power we are seeking to establish.
It was our next session with Felicitas that she introduced a unique concept of training. With Olivia mounted on her own horse, she demonstrated the technique of putting a cloth strap around the horses hind quarters while Olivia held the ends. The purpose of using the strap is to feel the horse’s motion coming through to your hands. When we each used the strap, it was amazing how we could feel when out horse was coming evenly up to the bridle. My lessons with Felicitas have been inspiring and insightful. I was especially thrilled when she said that Fiona and I look well matched and harmonious together.
I’m very grateful for the LVDA Training Grant which allowed me to take lessons with Felicitas von Newmann-Cosel. Fiona made her training level debut this past season. I am proud to report we are expecting to receive several awards. More important than ribbons, Fiona and I are having fun, gaining experience, and have become partners.