The Many Faces of Dressage: A Clydesdale’s Perspective

Photo by Clotilde Peters, submitted by Alexandra Peters

Join us on an exclusive first hand account of dressage riders, owners, and breeders and their unique mounts! This series will explore the dressage experience across a full spectrum of unconventional breeds, both large and small, with some familiar faces and some potentially unknown. These are the real life stories, from the humans that know and love them best.

The Clydesdale Horse is the pride of Scotland and is a native breed which was founded in Lanarkshire, with Clydesdale being the old name for the district. The history of the breed dates back from the middle of the 18th century. Originally bred as a working horse, they’ve gained popularity as a pleasure and riding horse.

Two Clydesdale owners, Alexandra Peters and Christa Stevens, give us a glimpse of what life is like with this gentle giant.

By Alexandra Peters

Photo by Clotilde Peters, submitted by Alexandra Peters
*USDF strongly recommends all riders wear protective headgear when mounted.

I never meant to end up with a Clydesdale.

I was fourteen years old, and my sister and I were waiting for our warmblood baby to be old enough to start. We were looking for a horse for some friends of ours who wanted something that could be used as a vaulting horse for the barn team, as well as for themselves, and heard about this guy. We drove out to Lancaster County; the horse was four and had been given/sold to this Mennonite farmer, who had originally wanted to get another Clyde and have a team, but Bud was complicated, traumatized, and huge, so he decided to sell him.

He was out with a bunch of cows and significantly underweight. One of the slightly older girls from the barn agreed to sit on him first. We brought our own bridle (his was too small and had a rusty bit) and it was the first time Bud had been mounted without blinders and was able to see someone getting up. He took off galloping across the field, with the farmer still hanging onto the side of the bridle and stopping at the 2ft piece of wire where the paddock ended. All I could think about was how well he moved for such a heavy horse!

The friends that were supposed to buy him decided not to, and Bud would have probably ended up at the kill pen, so we decided to buy him. My mother, my sister, my grandmother, and I decided to split him, each paying a quarter of the board, so that we could have a project for a year or two until the warmblood was old enough to start.

Photo by Clotilde Peters, submitted by Alexandra Peters

As he was very large and quite scared of a lot of things, we sent him to a join up/round pen trainer to start. In the first week, he had jumped out of a 6ft round pen (taking the top plank with him) and up a 4ft bank in a western saddle; apparently his preferred reaction to fear was bolting. I took a few lessons with that trainer, where she taught me that traumas in horses are like marbles in a jar. Every bad experience a horse has puts a black marble in the jar, and every good experience; a white one. Whenever you ask something of your horse, you close your eyes and pick a random marble from the jar. You can never get rid of the trauma, but you can give a horse so many good experiences that his reactions will be normal most of the time.

When I started riding him a few weeks later, it was rough. We couldn’t walk a straight line, nor trot a circle. He could only canter outside straight ahead and was very hard to turn. Forget ever being on the bit or any natural notion of self-carriage. But he was lovely, sweet, and beautiful, and I began to develop a very special bond with Bud.

Today, I have been riding well over 30 years, and never again had a relationship that even approached the one I had with him. I learned more about dressage from him than any other horse. I only ever rode him in a loose ring KK snaffle, and was still a kid when I got him, so I had to learn to not do anything with force as he was so, so, so much stronger than I was. My instructor was trained in French classical dressage, and was insistent that everything came from mutual respect, balance, and impulsion.

Over the years, the riding got better. When the warmblood was old enough to ride, he became my sister’s horse and I kept Bud. I would spend my afternoons laying on his back in a field and galloping haphazardly around the pasture with no saddle, bridle, or anything. We kept progressing in dressage, and I started him over some jumps (not so graceful at the beginning)!

What was amazing about this horse, and maybe about the breed, was how hard he tried and how emotionally sensitive he was. Maybe Bud wasn’t the smartest horse I ever saw, but he was the kindest. He was completely different if I was on him or if one of my students were. I used to teach this little toddler, who must have been around two and a half years old at the beginning, and she would sit behind a vaulting surcingle (the kind with the handles) and hold on while I lunged him. If he felt that she was losing her balance, Bud would slow down on his own and help her find it again.

I have a lot of stories, but one that really shows who he was is the story of the first time I ever fell off him. I was galloping bareback in a halter in a snowy field in winter and decided I wanted to try to kneel on his back at a gallop (I did a bit of vaulting but mostly it was just bad judgment on my end). I had sneakers on so he kind of hopped a bit when my toes dug into his back, and I went flying. Bud stopped before he even pulled the lead rope out of my hand. He then waited like a saint while I tried to jump up from the ground and failed, and then while I had him stand next to a tree while I pulled myself up while walking my feet up the trunk of the tree. The second I was up, he took off galloping again, as though he couldn’t wait to get out of this weird and uncomfortable situation!

He was incredible to ride in just a bareback pad. I didn’t like my saddle, so I rode bareback a lot. He was just really wide, but not that complicated to fit; my saddle fit him fine, but I hated riding in it. His gaits were quite comfortable and felt very secure. He wasn’t spooky at all, and when he galloped, it was an incredible feeling of power. Bud was super sensitive. If I exhaled and relaxed, he would come right down to a walk, even without any bridle or halter.

Photo by Clotilde Peters, submitted by Alexandra Peters
*USDF strongly recommends all riders wear protective headgear when mounted.

Concerning dressage, he was good at laterals and quite good at collection. We didn’t show often, but the few times we went people were quite impressed by him! The canter was always his most difficult gait, and although we could get some piaffe/ passage, our flying changes were never very solid. On trainability, he was generally very willing and tried his best, but it took him much longer to learn than most other horses. Clydes usually have a proportionally small hind end and are bred to pull; learning to carry their weight more behind isn’t easy for them and took years. But it was more rewarding than any other horse I have trained, and once he knew something, he remembered it.

His feet were also somewhat of an issue. They were dinner plate-sized and not the strongest, so we kept him on hoof supplements which helped a lot. His feathers were also prone to scratches, and I ended up shaving them at times (also because it made him look more like a sport horse). Clydes also aren’t made for high impact sports. They can jump, but with the heaviness of their joints and size of their feet, I don’t think it would have been good for him to go out and jump big courses every week. Their lung capacity also seems small compared to other breeds and athletic effort takes comparably more energy than lighter breeds, meaning that I had to adapt my riding to give him more breaks while also building up his endurance.

Bud was a barn favorite. I used him to teach sometimes and have been approached over the years by people who have told me what an impression he made on them. He was one of my best friends, and the only horse that I trusted with my life and could do absolutely anything with. He was inherently kind and generous, and for me, Bud was the horse of a lifetime.

By Christa Stevens

Photo submitted by Christa Stevens

The hallway was dark, except for one overhead light.  Before I headed to my truck, which was doubling as my hotel for the night, I thought I would check to see if the scores were posted.  We had waited all day for our scores.  Everyone was gone, it was late.  Just one last check.  THEY WERE UP!  I found the white score sheet taped to the wall outside the office.  I stood alone in the quiet as I started at last place and ran my finger up the placements to find my name.  Once I neared fourth place, I went back to the bottom to search my name again…how could it not be here?  Did they miss placing me?  This time I ran it all the way to first place – and there was my name! 

First Place, Grand Champion, World Champion in Dressage at the World Clydesdale Show.  Well, holy smokes!  I couldn’t believe that we did it.  I walked away in an excited dance, stopped, and turned back to the scores and took a picture.  I mean, I needed to validate this many more times in the night so I knew that it hadn’t been a dream, right?! 

Photo submitted by Christa Stevens

The 2018 World Clydesdale Show decided to show the versatility of the Clydesdale by adding riding classes.  Dressage, jumping, trail, barrels, English equitation, and western equitation…just to name a few.  Clydesdales are very well known as the draft horses who pull carts.  The Budweiser Clydesdales are the most famous.  Had you watched the Tournament of Roses Parades in 2019 and 2018, you would have also seen the Express Clydesdales. 

My horse, Bear, is a beautiful black Clydesdale who came from Express Clydesdales over 15 years ago.  We bought him as a husband horse for, you guessed it, my husband Clay.  It was just a perk that Bear had dressage training on him too since that was my specialty.  Bear has been a talented horse in dressage.  I’ve always ridden him this way until we decided to branch out to other disciplines. 

Photo submitted by Christa Stevens

Bear also drives, however it’s only in the snow with children behind him on a sled. I also teach riding lessons and Bear is a challenging ride for many riders.  Riders do come away learning so much from my big guy.  His patience is endless which is on par for his breed, but he doesn’t give the rider an inch if they make the wrong request.  Bear has shown in multiple 4H shows over the years with lots of young riders learning to compete on his back.  

How lucky I am to know this draft horse and to have fun with his versatility, partnership, trust, and kindness.  I let my husband ride him too…sometimes.  Who is the real alpha in our family?  My little daughter.  Big Bear doesn’t mind when she bosses him around. 

Do you compete on a Clydesdale? One of USDF’s Particitpating All Breeds Organizations is the Clydesdale Breeders of the U.S.A. For more great resources for Clydesdale owners and future owners, visit the Clydesdale Breeders of the U.S.A. website.

Join us February for the next installment of The Many Faces of Dressage: A Standardbred’s Perspective!


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