By Lisanne Dorian
As we move through these uncertain times, a renaissance of last millennium movies has streamed into our lives. For this article, I highly suggest the companion movie ‘Cutting Edge’. This 90’s film has a Hollywood take on converting an NHL ice hockey player into a world-class figure skater – and to make the leap even more unbelievable- not just any figure skater, an Olympic pairs figure skater. In fact, when Kristi Yamaguchi – a real world Olympic medalist in figure skating – was asked about the movie she said, “I wouldn’t say it absolutely couldn’t be done, but to have any hope of actually pulling the movie off, you’d need to start with a hockey player who was already a strong skater. But there would still be a steep learning curve because of weight distribution on the skates… and the importance of gelling with your partner”. The main part of this quote that I heard was “I would not say it couldn’t be done”… that means it could be done, right?
Now, imagine what would happen if we substituted an FEI Endurance rider for the NHL player and entered the world of dressage? A rider comfortable dodging wildlife in the dark and competing across terrain no vehicle could ever traverse – being converted to going down a centerline carving 15-meter circles with inside leg and outside rein and executing a flying change for a reason other than a tree is in the way. To say I received a few ‘concerned’ comments would be accurate. What those people did not know is that not only is dressage doable and compatible with endurance, but the world of dressage has incredible instructors, judges, trainers, cool horses, funny people, and more.
The importance of dressage to any activity performed on a horse should not be lost on anyone. And, if one scratches the surface of endurance, they will see the subtle interplay dressage has had with many top US endurance riders. In some circles, it is rightfully considered a competitive advantage to cross-train in the arena with a dressage trainer – albeit a very talented and understanding trainer. However, it was not until a degenerative aortic valve issue in my star horse did I find myself entering the world of dressage in earnest. As I listened to the cardiac diagnosis my heart sank, immediately searching for a silver-lining I asked the veterinarian if there was some activity I could do with my Arabian ex-racehorse, now ex-FEI endurance horse, and she happily replied, “He could do dressage”.
So, there you have it. I would dutifully load up two of my FEI endurance horses and toddle off to dressage lessons a couple times a week. I even competed in shows at Training Level. However, after a couple of shows where my greatest success was scattering people in the warm-up arena and leaving the ring only to hear comments such as, ‘Wow, we have never seen anyone stay on like that’. I had to ask myself two basic questions about this whole dressage matter – “What did I want from dressage?” and “How do I make it happen?”. I needed a good plan and an extraordinary team.
What did I want with dressage? Even with my little toe dipped in the waters of dressage, I was hooked. The incredible challenge to create balance and connection, to realize the foundation of your seat, understand the physics of the horse’s movement, and maybe, just maybe, remember one thing your instructor repeated to you 38 times in 38 minutes. Simply put, my goal was to see how much dressage did I need to become a better all-around equestrian.
And just ‘how’ was I going to do this? I scratched out on paper a timeline for learning skills, shows in the area, and peppered my Dressage Queen friends with lots of questions (to which they were incredibly good natured in their answers, albeit with furrowed brow). Critical to all of this planning though was pulling together a great team. So, on the top of my ‘How To’ list, I wrote ‘recruit understanding professionals’ and ‘locate very understanding horse’. The importance of these two criteria is heightened given my age (54) and the incredible learning curve in dressage (in my world a half-pass is when you try to pass someone on the road, but the minute you pull out the line turns double yellow and you have to go back behind the car you wanted to pass).
In deciding on an instructor, I knew I needed someone who would not only be game for the challenge, but also someone with a depth of knowledge and comfort level with my learning style – kinesthetic, visual, and a thousand physics-based questions. To say it would take a special person is an understatement. And just like that, I happened upon a wonderful person who had not just a deep knowledge of equine science, sizeable breadth of teaching skills, but also a healthy appreciation for the peculiarities of the endurance world (although she usually shook her head when describing endurance). Bottom line, the dressage world has many instructors and trainers – find individuals that can meet you where your skills are, fits your learning style, and is aligned with your goals. You and your instructor will grow through the dressage journey and you want to celebrate along the way. Go Team!
I spent a month or so of training in the Florida heat on my Arab mare – JG Fast Tulip. Tulip looked the part of a dressage horse – stunning with braids and piercing coal eyes to draw you in – but we would certainly spend a lifetime happily exploring the bottom of the dressage pyramid. As a team, we decided that having a rider green to dressage and a horse green to dressage might not be the smartest choice for moving through the learning curve of dressage and reaching our goal. And then ‘poof’ just like that, the ‘locate an understanding horse’ part of our plan fell into place.
In the early afternoon of a late November day in 2018, I was told to appear at a dressage barn to see a possible lease prospect that could show me the ropes beyond Training Level Test 1. ***For some fun activity, I encourage the reader to get a blank piece of paper. On the top left corner write “Arab Mare” then draw a line all the way down to the lower right corner (the furthest point on the paper) and write the name of a breed/gender that is the furthest thing from an Arab mare you could imagine. For those of you that wrote “Friesian Stallion” you win! And I also was a winner with Thiadrik (aka Ti), the stunning Friesian stallion who resided at BREC in Ocala, Florida. And now Team Ti was complete. Go Team Ti!
My skepticism of conformation and gaits quickly gave way to being completely taken by this expert gentleman of a horse. If he was a human, he would be the poster child for the HR department. Day in and day out, he allowed me to flounder, flop, and fiddle my way through lessons, tests, and clinics. Our first ever show greeted us with hail-laden gusts and hot-tub sized puddles. No problem – enter working trot, halt, salute and off we went (given my endurance background, I felt quite at home in the storm, although I realized that the sartorial requirements of dressage make it best suited for clear, cool days.) Team Ti began to judiciously progress through the levels of competition.
It is here that I would like to add perspective and encouragement to anyone making their way in the world of dressage. The educational material and learning opportunities in every conceivable media is simply outstanding. Merely revisit how totally awesome the levels are as they build, reinforce, and introduce skills in a very systematic way. For goodness sake, in the test booklets they even tell you just what the judge will grade you on. As the Level system was completely new to me, I delighted in the organized structure and the abundance of reference materials; USDF articles, Apps, YouTube, even drawings in German on the physics of the half pass. And to top it all off, the judges give endless clinics. That is like having Einstein explain time travel to you. I was in heaven with all the tools dressage puts at your disposal – a Virtual Team to complement my real Team Ti. I will never know if Ti appreciated my zeal for trying new things, but he certainly never let on. Week after week, Ti would teach and un-teach my growing set of dressage movements. As the summer rolled into fall, Team Ti reached what, on paper, looked like a sound accomplishment – a USDF Bronze Medal. In theory, our plan worked and teamwork won the day. Yet, as I pondered the original goal – find out how much dressage I needed to become a better all-around equestrian- I realized that just as there is no perfect 15-meter circle, there is no ‘stopping point’ for how much dressage can improve your equestrian pursuits. Perhaps the question I should have asked was can an endurance rider have a blast exploring the dressage world? That has a clear answer – YES. Thank you to everyone who has shepherded Team Ti on this journey! I look forward to welcoming you to the Endurance World.