By Kathryn E. Crockett
Dressage first knocked softly in my first lessons as a seven-year-old, riding around bareback on large, ever-patient horses, waiting with the rest of my group to “earn” our saddles when we found natural balance at the walk, trot, and canter and learned basic horsemanship in the barn. Our riding was yet to be anything resembling what we think of as dressage, or any other discipline, and all I wanted was just to be with the horses—grooming them, riding them, feeding them, smelling them…anything. I didn’t know how important that elusive seat bone connection was for forming a foundation to communicate with the horse, and still find myself striving for it 35 years later, in all manner of disciplines, of which I’ve tried many through the years.
When my family moved over an hour away from the stables, my parents sought out a new place for me to continue riding. I landed with Ann Guptill at Fox Ledge in Haddam, CT, and after that, a few other talented instructors, who would soon have a young, enthusiastic, but frustrated rider on their hands if they asked for another accurate 20 meter circle at the trot instead of something a little more “fun.” My parents shuffled me on to a barn specializing in saddleseat and driving. While speed-racking around the indoor track on a large chestnut Saddlebred named Alex had its moments of exhilaration, I wanted more adventure for my riding. Dressage and saddleseat didn’t offer that to a 10-year-old, who now solidly had visions of jumping five-foot oxers and leaping around the green turf in red hunt coats, after seeing the United States clinch team jumping gold in LA, and then, four years later, silver in Seoul. Looking back, I sure wish I had seen Ann Guptill’s silver-winning performance in the PanAm games to at least know what I was giving up for teetering over cross rails and, later, for riding Quarter Horses with hindquarters strong enough to slide to a halt before the exit jump of an in-and-out.
While I wouldn’t give up my pony riding and children’s hunter days, I would have loved to nudge the stubborn, hard working teenager in me and tell her to go back and take some dressage lessons to avoid a few falls and help set up the ponies better for the flat and fence classes that she worked her butt off to be able to earn enough cash to pay for. But, no, dressage still had to knock a little harder to get me to pay attention.
Fast forward through selling my horse to go to college, and summers home spent training ponies, to a freak riding accident that made me an expert in naming the bones of the human ankle. Who knew that you could literally shatter an ankle, just by trying to land on both feet, albeit unsuccessfully on one of them? Well, now I do. And yet, that alone, plus taking a year to get back on my feet and walking, still didn’t get me to hang up my jumping stirrups—or quit horses altogether. I was lucky enough to be in my twenties and heal up enough to walk and ride again, and took up friends’ offers to ride their horses, one of them being an amazing mare who showed me how a horse is meant to go around the course—balanced, steady, and with graceful power and confidence. I had never experienced that foundation underneath me before.
It is now the foundation I strive for with my first horse I’ve owned since I was a teenager—a beautiful, 16.2 hand seal bay Holsteiner/Thoroughbred mare who came to me out-of-shape, unbalanced, unsteady, klutzy, and slightly unhinged. (I say that lovingly.) I bought Belle after deciding that I needed to build a relationship with a horse I could call my own after riding many a school horse and stalling in advancing in any discipline. Never a rash decision-maker, I suppose I had either lost my mind, or gave in and recognized the longing to get back seriously into riding. I desired to learn more: a new discipline that would help forge that relationship and establish better form and biomechanics for both horse and rider. I had learned from years of rehabilitation on my ankle that the human body adjusts to all kinds of injuries, but not always in the most graceful, pain-free, or symmetrical ways. Little did I know that my new-to-me horse was custom-tailored to be the equine version of me, minus the injuries, and just some disparities in size—I’m five foot three on my tallest of days.
Our early days together consisted of Belle screaming her head off in the arena, shying at jackets hanging perfectly still on chairs, and going for a western reining world championship in the paddocks with a sliding stop that proved even this long-backed gal could pelvic tilt enough to get her hind end underneath her, and maybe one day sport a passage. I’ve wrapped my head (mostly) around inflammatory dermatitis severe enough to cause lameness, treated crippling Lyme Disease, helped her overcome a fear of lunge whips, and nursed muscle soreness from those sliding stops and other athletic endeavors. Beyond all the scab scrubbing, hand-walking, stumbling transitions, hard hands, and stiff steering power, dressage has become our language for communication.
Through dressage, I have learned about using the infamous, and at times, elusive, outside rein to gain straightness and balance kamikaze canters; I have become coordinated enough to push Belle forward with my legs and resist pulling back on the reins to slow or stop; and I have a sense of how to feel for and achieve all three dimensions of balance. It has brought Belle and I together in a way that I have never had with another horse. We have learned to converse together—through body and breath—and, well, treats, too. The girl loves to eat. (I do too, so we have a lot in common.) We look out for one another, and have gone from negative steps on the training scale to schooling First and Second Level movements. That scared and unbalanced mare has been replaced with a calm, confident and happy horse with a big and loving personality.
Dressage didn’t end up knocking on any door. It came in the form of a formerly anxiety-filled, stall spinning, paddock-racing, lameness-prone mare who needed a person and a discipline to love on her, mold her, and make her feel safe. In turn, it has become my passion and the discipline that has brought me so much joy, education, and confidence. The sport has all the power and exhilaration that my 10 year-old self was looking for; I just didn’t know power and fun came in such a graceful form then. Now, it nourishes us and empowers us daily.
Kathryn Crockett is a lifelong rider, as well as a writer, graphic designer, and communications consultant living (and riding) on the Connecticut Shoreline.