Celebrating the American Saddlebred!! This month on YourDressage, we are celebrating the graceful American Saddlebred and Saddlebred crosses of all kinds.
Dressage riders who choose Saddlebreds as their mounts are eligible for Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards as the American Saddlebred Horse and Breeders Association is a Participating Organization.
We recently asked our social media followers to share about what makes these horses so special. Here, an equestrian shares about switching from saddleseat to dressage, and the life lessons she learned along the way with her horse Patrick.
By Kaitlin Bacon
It was Sept 30, 2018. “YEEEEEOW!” The crowd screams, we’re under the bright lights, and all 22 of us are going a seeming hundred miles per hour, vying for the judges attention, nostrils flared, and feet pounding the earth. After 10 years and countless shows, this is the culmination of our career as a saddleseat team, my last saddleseat view between the ears, and boy is it bittersweet.
Hooves come pounding to a stop, and steam rolls up into the sky coming off hot horses and riders. We’re lined up and standing. How far we’ve come in ten years, from the horse who couldn’t even just *stand* here… “Good boy, Patrick,” I whisper as I reach down to kiss his neck after backing like a gentleman for the judge.
“You may retire your horses to the rail,” booms from the speakers.
We had done it. Our last lineup. We walked to our trainer and team on the rail and waited with bated breath for one last time. It felt like forever. Finally, “And we welcome to the winners circle number 143, Deep Pockets and Kaitlin Bacon!” My hands shook as much as the speaker announcing our names overhead; our last class- a giant one- and we nailed it.
Kevin came to center ring and adorned us with the blue one more time; it had been quite the journey for all three of us, and I knew there were so many stories lying behind the smirk Kevin was wearing on his face while he gently shook his head back and forth. Our first years with Patrick hadn’t been easy, but once it clicked, I don’t know if there was a team of horse, rider, and trainer that had more fun.
We left it all in the ring that night during our victory pass. Patrick and I went out of saddleseat in a blaze of glory. We had made the decision early that season that this would be our last. Patrick wasn’t enjoying the work like he used to, and his body was starting to shift in ways I didn’t like. His top line was starting to drop, and his discomfort because of it was obvious. At first, we thought we were headed for retirement, but anyone who knew Patrick knew that wouldn’t go well. So instead of retirement, we decided to tackle a new journey: dressage.
In April of that year, I had taken a job at a small family farm in town, which was home to four dressage horses, three quarters of which were a pretty standard bunch: a warmblood and two German riding ponies. The fourth: a 20 hh Clydesdale…training Third Level dressage- and THAT was the one with whom I was determined to learn how to ride dressage. As I learned some of the basics that came with dressage, and gained a deeper understanding of what the discipline did for the horse’s body, I decided that this would be the next adventure for Patrick and I. Saddleseat to dressage was pretty drastic, but hey, I figured if a Clydesdale can do dressage, my saddlebred could learn too…even at age 16.
Two weeks after our last saddleseat show, we began. I had decided that this journey would be ours alone; I wanted minimal help, we could just learn together! After ten years of being a team, we could certainly figure this out, right? While that sounded great, it didn’t exactly play out as easily as it did in my head. The transition actually didn’t even pretend like it was going to be easy for a second, and that started right off the bat with what I thought would be simple: tack. We horse people know the woes that come with saddle fit, never mind fitting a horse that doesn’t know how to use his body enough yet to tell if the saddle truly fits, and we had that coupled with an entirely new bridle setup. He took to the saddle and new bit pretty easily; the realization that he could lift his back without getting blocked, and swing his shoulders without pinching was exciting, but we didn’t know how to use any of those new discoveries productively. Trial and error, and some more error, left both of our heads spinning.
How was I supposed to get his head down? Keep it there?
How do I teach him that a leg on means more than “forward” now?
How do I get him to stop bracing his neck?
How does one BEND? (we were masters at the circl-hexa-gona-grams)
Most importantly, how the heck did anyone make this look easy?
The questions were endless, and the answers seemed far and few between. Taking what I was learning from a trained dressage horse, and training a horse of very different background, while still learning the ropes myself, was a lot harder than I would’ve liked to admit. Taking on a training role rather than just his rider was new, and I had no idea what it was really going to entail when I began. I broke down, and spent a short stint with a local trainer I had come to know, but it became apparent quickly that our training values didn’t align, so we took to finding other avenues, and restarting, yet again.
This time, we enlisted the help of our friend who owns the Clydesdale I had been learning on, and she helped us tackle ground work and provided eyes on the ground a few times a week. We took the “reset” very seriously, and we truly went back to the very basics. We taught Patrick to walk at the end of his lead line, rather than anxiously scampering along and scaling my back. We taught him to allow a lunge whip to brush across his body, so that he would become less reactive. We taught him how big and bad he could truly be, and those were the first sure signs of progress. He began to lunge without racing on the line and cutting across the circle, he began to walk calmly around the whole property, and often met the lunge whip with a “preening Patrick” face as if he was greeting a long lost friend.
In giving Patrick his confidence, we also gave him his right to express his opinion; his abundance of opinions! Though things were improving in handling on the ground, I had a new beast beneath my saddle, and forward progress was feeling minimal, to put it mildly. He was happy to learn a new way to go on his own, but add me on his back to the mix, and we fell apart. We had lost our canter entirely, a leg aid, or any aid, would be met with a buck or leap, and consistency in contact was non-existent. With all the bucking, leaping, and being predictably unpredictable, I had started to fear my own horse- the one I had been so sure I could take on the world with- and it broke me. My emotions got in the way in the saddle almost daily, and we were at a standstill as a team.
I would be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about quitting; and more than once. Every forward motion seemed to be followed by ten steps in the opposite direction, and I really wasn’t convinced I was doing Patrick and I any good. His body was obviously improving with the shift in work, his top line had started to rebuild, and he was using his haunches so differently that his booty had exploded, but mentally, I wasn’t convinced I’d done anything but turn him into a dragon.
Despite the defeat I was feeling, the only thing I knew to do was keep trying. I learned to better regulate my emotions, and how to help refocus Patrick in the moments that got tough. Slowly, that confidence, opinion, and fire-breathing attitude he had taken on, shifted to a willingness to learn under saddle. Throughout the summer of 2019, Patrick and I took a few clinics with Sue Buchanan and audited quite a few with Bill McMullin. I took in every technique I could for Patrick and to experiment with at home, and things started to come together for us both, finally. The idea that a leg aid could mean “over” started to become less mind blowing, and we managed to regain a right lead canter without theatrics and explosives. A year in, and I was starting to believe I had made a good decision transitioning us as a team. Patrick was letting me know day in and day out: he was with me again, good, bad, and especially ugly. We mastered ugly in our training, but we also mastered finding the beauty in it.
Rounding out 2019 and beginning 2020, I felt like we were on a good track for what was to come: clinics, and maybe some schooling shows; both of which I was excited for. As we all know too well, 2020 told those plans to hit the road, and Patrick and I were left to spend enjoying the training for what it was, and all on our own. For us, that may have been the biggest blessing. With the pressure of “plans” off, we were able to enjoy working through the intricacies of teaching shoulder in, leg yields, and fun exercises to help Patrick move his body differently than ever before. Patrick gained muscle in places I never knew he had it, and a mental strength to match. The boy who had once been the barns most timid was now the barns most beasty. He was fun to be around, and even more fun to play with. Best of all was that it didn’t go unnoticed; all of our barn mates noted that the Patrick they had always known was no longer.
In late August of 2020 though, life thought it would be fun to hit the reset button on us just once more. One afternoon after arriving to the barn, my fun-loving, newly developed tank of horse, turned into a terrifying giant I didn’t recognize. Since even that morning, his mood had shifted so drastically, I was positive something had gone neurologically haywire. My goofy cuddle bug charged me, almost bit my neck, and wouldn’t let me put a hand on him without threats of violence. We thought we were done, all our hard work was down the tubes.
Upon examination, our vet found that the issue wasn’t career ending, but it led to big shifts in our training yet again. Patrick had fractured the roots of two of his lower incisors, and the teeth were still attached to his gums; his uncharacteristic reactions were all from extraordinary pain. His mouth had always been an anatomical anomaly, and at 18 years old, the angles had become so extreme that it allowed the teeth to get knocked out of place. An extraction was in order, and while it was a relief that would fix the issue, the anatomy of his mouth didn’t make it an easy process. Since the affected teeth were right in front, the speculum had to sit further back than usual, and managed to bruise his lower jaw. Until that healed, it meant no bit, and it didn’t look like it was planning to heal quickly.
Eager to get back to the saddle, I asked at Patrick’s next follow-up how my vet thought his mouth was looking, though I was pretty sure I knew. We had now been off for two weeks, and Patrick’s mood was souring without work. She said exactly what I was hoping not to hear, “Well, he’s not ready for a bit yet, but if he’ll be good just ride him in a halter. His body is fine to do the work!” I openly scoffed in her face. My ex-saddleseat Saddlebred in a halter while I rode? Ludicrous, she must’ve wanted me dead.
The next day we tried it.
To my surprise, Patrick was calmer and more responsive to my aids than he had ever once been before. There was an ease about him that I had never felt, and a safety atop him without a bit that I never for a second expected to feel. On the back of that boy, on that day, it was decided, we were taking on another first: riding bitless. As there was with everything we took on learning together, there was a learning curve to using the bitless bridle, but Patrick was patient, and appreciated having his mouth empty. It become obvious that his teeth had clearly caused more discomfort with a bit than I ever realized, and in switching disciplines keeping him comfortable was my main goal.
Since that day in August a little over a year ago, Patrick has never had a bit back in his mouth, and never will. We have found our groove as a team again, and each time we finish a ride, we begin counting the moments until the next. He has learned to push into contact, stretch over his topline, and consistently engage his abdomen. He has learned to truly track up, and step under himself during lateral work. He has learned that bend feels good, legs are helpful, mastering hard things is fun, and dressage makes you feel strong. Patrick lives to leg yield, is working on half pass, and has been exploring steps of passage; coming off saddleseat and learning dressage techniques, it’s a move that makes sense to him. He toys with extensions, and loves the challenge of changing speed within gears. He has not only found his canter both directions, but has done so beautifully. He leaps into the canter with his back raised and a snort to boot just as he’ll walk out on a long rein around the property. He hunkers down in a saddleseat lesson to strut his new moves and show off for his friends, and show them his stuff with his new found gallop. He preens when he hears for the hundredth time, “He doesn’t even LOOK like a Saddlebred…until you get to his head,” when our peers look at our progress, and accepts the challenges of the non-believers. He trots to the gate every day, simply to see what we can take on next. If you ask me, we really can take on the world.
Dressage has taught us a lot.
Dressage has taught me a lot.
Patrick has taught me more.
While dressage is for every horse may be true, dressage is for my horse I can say with utmost certainty. Dressage has allowed us to fall in love with work all over again, and helped to redefine our relationship as so much more than just horse and rider. It has allowed me to find my passion for training, and the values I hold closest. It has allowed Patrick to be one of the most self-assured prey animals I know. Dressage taught us what we could both really be, if we put our all in.
Here’s to the hurdles, the triumphs, the centerlines, and salutes, and to being lucky enough to spend life learning on the back of a horse.
To follow along on our journey, and to watch Patrick continue to “grow younger” find us on Instagram @asb_dressage_patrick