A Student of Dressage

Nancy with Handsel and Ransom

We are celebrating Plus Size Riders as our July Featured Riders of the Month on YourDressage!

Here, a Region 2 rider shares the story of her adventures in the sandbox with her homebred and US-bred Trakehner geldings, and her dedication to education as a student of dressage, and how that has led to her holding various governing positions within her local GMO!

By Nancy Bryant

I am an amateur rider, who has been blessed with two horses that I would consider “dressage” horses. My prior horses were Thoroughbreds that I showed in the hunter and low-level jumper divisions. 

My first dressage horse, though, was a homebred Anglo-Trakehner, by the Iron Spring Farm Trakehner stallion Lanson, and was out of my Thoroughbred mare, Rough Cut. Even though Lanson was a jumper, I was able to see him in-person under saddle, and felt dressage was not out of the question. The resulting foal I named Ransom. 

I believe raising Ransom built a bond between us, and gave us confidence when we began our dressage career. I spent a lot of time with Ransom, showing him in-hand at many local breed shows. When Ransom went into official training, I moved closer to him so I could be more involved in the process. I began training dressage with my primary trainer Judy Kelly in 1989. 

Ransom and I competed through Third Level, doing alright against the professionals, as back at that time, there wasn’t an Adult Amateur or Junior division. Ransom and I received many local Group Member Organization (GMO) Awards, American Trakehner Association (ATA) Awards, and many scores towards my USDF Bronze Medal. Due to a stifle injury, suffered in the pasture, Ransom was not able to compete any higher and was leased by a mother/daughter team that showed him at the lower levels, before his retirement. 

My search for a new horse began. I was determined to find an American-bred horse, as opposed to traveling to Europe. I found 3-year-old Handsel at a Trakehner breeder in Indiana. Handsel was by the Trakehner stallion Advocate, also a jumper, but who was also schooled in dressage. 

I started Handsel, with the assistance of Judy, and began showing him in 2003. We continued our dressage path through 2017. Handsel and I were able to earn many local GMO Awards, our USDF Bronze and Silver Medals, and were ATA Breed Champion or Reserve at several different levels. Together, we were able to obtain the American Trakehner Association’s Performance Bronze Certification, however we fell just short of our ATA Performance Silver.

My accomplishments with Ransom and Handsel weren’t all earned in the show ring, though. I am a student of dressage, and so many of our accomplishments were the small steps taken toward the big reward. I never felt that showing was proof of accomplishment, and I enjoyed my lessons, growing and learning toward being the best we could be. I always approached my horses as partners, always being their best advocate and looking out for their best interests, even when some difficult end of life decisions needed to be made. 

Handsel had been diagnosed in 2013 with an Osteofibroma in his jaw, resulting in the removal of teeth, making his jaw unstable, and limiting his ability to wear a bit. So, in 2016, we packed up and attended our first Great American/USDF Regional Championships, competing at Prix St. Georges. It just so happened, I would be turning 60 while at the show and had a feeling it was now or never.  While we didn’t qualify for the US Dressage Finals Presented by Adequan®, we did earn third place in our warm up class.

My love of dressage led to volunteering and opportunities to attend and participate in some wonderful events and programs. In addition to volunteering at the early USDF Instructor Certification Programs in Michigan, at Violet Hopkins’ farm, I have also volunteered with my local GMO and held the offices of Secretary, Vice President, and President, in addition to chairing my GMO’s educational committee and hosting the 2020-2021 USDF Certified Instructor Program. Outside of my GMO, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the FEI World Cup, World Equestrian Games, and Global Dressage Festival. Furthering my love of dressage and my dressage education, I also attended Instructor Certification Programs, became a USDF L Graduate in 2021, and was able to attend the 2020 (2021) Tokyo Olympics.  

During my time riding, which started in my late teens in the hunter/jumper world with a $300 Off-The-Track Thoroughbred (OTTB) and led to me showing my Trakehners through Prix St. Georges, 40-plus years have passed. As with many women, weight can be a struggle. As I aged, I found myself struggling. I can honestly say I never felt discriminated against due to my weight, by my trainer of over 30 years or by my fellow barn mates. Only once did another rider tell me “you are the size you are because you want to be”. I told her she was lucky to be blessed with a 110lb body, but ignorant of others’ situations. 

At one point, when I lost 40lbs, I was a different rider. I was struggling to ride in a different body, with a whole different balance and a heck of a lot less cushion. As a nurse, I know the importance of being healthy, and that additional weight can lead to health issues. I am only 5’5”, and weighed 185lbs at my heaviest. My struggle has always been having an athletic body, even at 120lbs with runners legs. 

Finding “off the shelf” riding boots is a challenge and I have always had to have custom boots made, from the time I was 16. Finding a show coat that fit well, and didn’t make me look like a man, was also difficult. I really lucked out finding a used tailcoat that, when I tried it on, appeared to be made for my short torso and short arms. My wish is that the manufacturers of riding apparel get with the program and design clothing that will fit any size – from a size 2 to a size 20. I do not believe there are no plus sized women in Europe. Everyone wants to wear a cute, patterned shirt that fits well and hides whatever we want hidden. I’ve never been the type of person to wear something that makes me look “like a stuffed sausage” to be fashionable. I have found the IBKUL riding shirts (designed by a Michigan businesswoman) to be the only cute shirts that come in my size, and I feel comfortable in. Additionally, SmartPak makes many different styles of breeches that I have found worked for me, as well as the FITS brand. 

In the end, I feel you need to be comfortable. If you’re not of an athletic build, but able to be healthy and able to take care of your horse(s), that’s what is important. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

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