August is Youth Month on YourDressage! From stories about remarkable young dressage enthusiasts across the country, to articles about some of the opportunities USDF offers to youth riders, join us all month long as we celebrate equestrians aged 25 and under. They are the future of our sport!
Here, a junior rider in Region 1 shares about her cow-cutting bred Quarter Horse partner, and what it’s like riding a “non-traditional” breed into the dressage ring.
By Riley Schreiber
Dressage is a sport often thought of as reserved for Warmbloods and other similarly purpose-bred horses. While it is true that horses like those tend to excel in the discipline, non- traditional breeds,from all different backgrounds can do quite well in dressage.
After years of leasing and taking lessons on many different kinds of horses, at the age of 14, I was blessed to own my first horse. Spotlight Chic (Spotty) was a sweet six-year-old Quarter Horse. He was exactly what I needed at that time in my riding career, to build my confidence and start progressing into something bigger. He was originally bred for cow cutting, and came from a legendary bloodline in western reining. His grandfather, Smart Chic Olena, won the AQHA Senior Cutting World Championship. “Chic became the world champion for senior reining, and he remains the only horse to win world championships in both cutting and reining. Smart Chic Olena was inducted into the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame in 2018.” (AQHA.com, 2018)
Spotlight is a safe, capable, and hard-working horse. He’s always ready to go to clinics and shows, and can be a solid First Level horse to any experienced enough rider. Spotlight is an excellent example of an overlooked, nontraditional dressage horse. He is wonderful, but he is definitely not a 17-hand warmblood with beautiful “9” movements, whose shoulders are so active their knees could touch their nose. He’s a diligent horse, but no amount of work will change what breed he is.
Going into the dressage ring can be intimidating to many, especially when you are riding a horse that comes across as “non-traditional”. You might wonder to yourself if you have a hope of being next to the big moving warmbloods in the placings, when in fact, we see many non- traditional horses winning classes because of their solid training and smart riders.
In front of the judges, my little Quarter Horse physically cannot show the same uphill position as a fancy warmblood. However, each horse is to be assessed against the dressage Scales of Training. Your judges are required to judge every horse on the same scale, no matter the horse’s breed, movement, rider experience, or level of competition. If you can go into the ring and show a correct picture, as presented on the Pyramid of Training scale, you might surprise the judge, which means all you can do is go up! In my head, the test is starting out as a 0%. As I turn down that centerline facing the judge, I am gaining points every stride I make. Going into the ring with an unusual breed for dressage, I am always aware of each step we take. I have no room to give up points. Non-traditional horses will teach you how to squeak every second of every movement out of your horse. If you can learn this, it can be a huge benefit as a rider.
As a young junior, learning as I go, I definitely have been through my ups and downs. Spotlight has shown me how to be the horsewoman and rider I am today. Through tough times of having to rehab for almost a full year, I have been able to experience things that I will never be able to thank him enough for.
It is of the utmost importance to be aware of your horses’ limitations. As riders, we must recognize when our horses have reached their limit. This goes for any traditional or non-traditional horse. When our horse feels off, we should respect that and see if there is an issue we could resolve. Your horse doesn’t feel like dancing in the sandbox today? Go out on a hack or go over some poles. Find ways to help them succeed, even if that is an extra day off or an extra-long grooming session. Make sure you take care of your partner because, at the end of the day, they are your teammate.
Be able to show the judges that you care by having a spotless turn out. This shows the judge that you were taking the process seriously.
Concentrate on the basics. It sounds extremely boring and not necessary, but think about it. A halt for example is a halt. The walk is a walk. A turn on the haunches is a turn on the haunches. These are just examples of scores on their own that are not influenced by the gaits. Other places to earn good marks, regardless of what kind of horse you have, is straightness, accurate circles, and well-balanced transitions.
It is also important to remember that training doesn’t happen overnight. It can take years to make your horse even show its first real change in lengthening, or a perfect turn on the haunches. The journey can be long and exhausting, but it is very rewarding. With the correct training to help strengthen and supple the horse, their body will slowly develop.
As a dressage rider, I often fall into being a perfectionist. I always want things to progress better and better, which of course is not how this sport works all the time. It is hard for me to stop myself, and remember where I have come from. I have achieved so many goals that I never even knew I could have. I have had amazing opportunities of working with multiple Olympians and professionals, as well as participating in the Dressage 4 Kids Summer Intensive Training Program with Olympian Lendon Gray. I have been able to compete at shows that I could have never imagined showing in – including placing in the top 5 at the 2021 Great American/USDF Regional Dressage Championships. I did all of this with the help of an amazing trainer, and an amazing support system. But most of all, I did that with my little Quarter Horse.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that ordinary horses don’t know that they are ordinary! Let’s face it, so few of us will ever be able to shine on the cover of a beautiful magazine or represent our country participating on the Olympic team, so find a horse you love and enjoy the journey it may hold!