Climbing the Pyramid

Photo by High Time Photography

The gorgeous Gypsy Horse! We are celebrating them as our September Breed of the Month on YourDressage!

Dressage riders who choose Gypsy Horses as their mounts are eligible for special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards program, as both Gypsy Horse Registry of America (GHRA) & The Gypsy Vanner Horse Society are participating organizations.

Here, a farm owner in Region 3 shares about starting a young Gypsy Vanner into a dressage career with a trainer who has won national titles showcasing this breed, and how the Pyramid of Training is the key to unlocking success with any breed.

Submitted by Sherri Naff

Ozzie’s playful and inquisitive nature made for easy training in desensitization

Meet Mystic Forest Reflection of Oz, or Ozzie to those that know and love him.  Bred by Jackie Rosa, of Mystic Forest Gypsy Vanners in Wisconsin, Ozzie is by the FEI shown Hall Of Fame stallion GG Oz The Wizard and out of Thorn Hill Timones Kahlua.  This well-bred stallion boasts some of the breed’s most notable individuals.  Both Ozzie’s sire, GG Oz The Wizard, and grand sire, GG Gypsy King, are athletic, exceptionally moving stallions, known to pass these qualities to their offspring, and Ozzie does not disappoint with his correct walk, gracefully well-balanced trot, and ground covering uphill canter.   

When Sherri Naff, owner of Country Day Farm in Winston, Georgia, was searching for a young stallion for her breeding program, Ozzie’s athleticism and movement stood out, along with his kind and confident temperament.  Her goal was to find a stallion with proven performance bloodlines and correct athletic movement, to prove in the show arena and to breed to their Gypsy Vanner mares, with the goal of producing future stars.  Ozzie checked all of these boxes and more, and, at five months old, came to Country Day Farm, where he has grown up in large grassy fields with plenty of room to play and develop.  Ozzie received age-appropriate training, including tricks and liberty work to make learning fun and to prepare him for being started under saddle.

Ozzie began his training under saddle with Chris Erbskorn in early 2023, when he turned three years old.  Chris is both an FEI dressage rider and trainer, and also a Gypsy Vanner owner and trainer.  Chris earned his USDF Bronze and Silver Medals on horses he selected, started, and trained himself, and the Second Level qualifying scores for his USDF Bronze Medal were earned on a Gypsy Vanner.  Chris has trained multiple Gypsy Vanners to national championship titles, in multiple disciplines. Ozzie was started slowly under saddle, with the goal to produce a happy, willing horse and to develop his natural athleticism and good movement.

Ozzie bringing home the blues in his first time down center line. Photo by High Time Photography

Gypsy Vanners were originally bred to be used as driving and family horses, by the Romany people of Ireland and England.   Aside from their beautiful manes, tails, and feathered legs, they have very docile and quiet temperaments.   They make outstanding driving horses and are known for their comfortable gaits and rideability.  Since their arrival in the United States, they have steadily grown in popularity.  Today there are Gypsy Vanner breed shows across the country, and these horses are now, often, seen at USDF dressage shows, where they continually prove dressage is for all horses.  Gypsy Vanners continue to be bred for driving, which can present challenges when trained for dressage.  Ideally, dressage horses carry more weight behind and carry themselves uphill, while draft breeds are often heavier in their forequarters and push with their hindlegs, more than they carry weight behind.  These qualities make for an ideal driving horse that can lean into a heavy wagon and pull, but this is counter to what is desirable for dressage horses.  So how does a Gypsy Vanner, who is bred for driving, develop into a dressage horse?  Dressage is challenging for all horses, but, with a proper understanding of the biomechanics of their movement and implementing some very specific tools and training techniques, Gypsy Vanners are able to loosen and use their thoracic sling properly and perform the dressage exercises, with ease and uphill balance.

It is imperative the dressage training scale be continually at the forefront of the rider’s mind.  Consider any horse that appears well trained and that is performing with balance and ease, and you will see the manifestation of rhythm, relaxation, connection, impulsion, straightness, and collection.  Among varying disciplines, the degree to which this is observed can be different, but every well performing horse will demonstrate the required degree of these six qualities, appropriate for its discipline. Therefore, what we know as the dressage training scale is the roadmap to success in training, especially with nontraditional breeds like the Gypsy Vanner.  Typically, these horses have a naturally solid rhythm and are relaxed, both physically and mentally, so it is rather easy for Gypsy Vanners to be willing to maintain rhythm in one gait, until asked for another. Some horses may appear lazy and break gait, but this is not a rhythm problem, rather a problem higher up the training scale with impulsion and collection. Most young horses struggle with straightness, and this is taught and acquired over time.  Where Gypsy Vanners experience unique struggles is with proper connection, impulsion, and collection.  When considering these three aspects of the training scale, it is important to focus training on the proper alignment of the inside hind leg, under the horse’s center of gravity, and to balance the horse’s shoulder in the outside rein.  This unlocks the thoracic sling and brings dramatic improvement to the Gypsy Vanner’s supple connection.  The improvement in connection to the rider’s aides allows the Gypsy Vanner to find correct impulsion, thereby traveling more uphill as they carry more weight onto their hindlegs and show adequate collection.

Photo by JLM Equine Photography

Normally dressage horses find their balance by going forward, but riding a Gypsy Vanner too forward can push them down onto their forehands and lock their thoracic sling, creating a stiff unbalanced horse that is heavy on the forehand and feels like riding a snowball down a hillside.  For Gypsy Vanners, it is about finding the right degree of forward that allows for enough activity of the hindlegs, to propel themselves forward without going past the tipping point and pushing them onto their forehand.  It is often more beneficial to focus on the carrying abilities of the hindlegs, rather than the pushing aspect.  This is accomplished, in all gaits, by finding the natural rhythm and tempo, with enough activity to sustain the gait, while redirecting the inside hind leg slightly forward under the body, as well as more toward the centerline of the horse’s body.  A good visual is to encourage the horse’s inside hind hoof to step towards and between the rider’s seat bones.  Doing so can, and will, cause the horse’s hindquarters to swing away from the rider’s inside leg aides, and will also cause the horse’s shoulders to drift outwards.  The rider prevents this by using appropriate half halts in the outside rein, and through use of the outside leg to support the haunches. Doing so will straighten the horse, bringing better balance and allowing the hindquarters to carry more weight behind releasing tension in the thoracic sling, further allowing the horse to find a more uphill balance and way of moving. This work drastically improves the connection to the bit as well.  Over time, when they have gained strength and the ability to carry their bodies in this way, they are then ridden more forward, to open the gaits while maintaining correct balance.  

Consideration for the training scale in every ride, with focus on balancing Ozzie’s hindlegs under his body and releasing and lifting his thoracic sling, has given him a great start to his dressage career.  It is a daily process, but one that has immense rewards.  Ozzie recently attended his first USDF-recognized show, earning scores as high as 70.6%, with positive and encouraging remarks from all judges.  Ozzie is on his way to becoming a dressage horse in his own right, and long-term plans are to continue his training and showing in USDF–recognized competitions, as well as attending Gypsy Vanner breed shows in 2024.  Ozzie is currently being prepared to attend the stallion evaluations for the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society in January 2024, in Jacksonville, Florida and will continue to be bred to the mares at Country Day Farm.  Ozzie’s first foal, Justice For Oz, is a very correct and athletic foal, who has inherited his temperament and movement.  The future looks very bright for Mystic Forest Reflection Of Oz.  Look for him down centerline in 2024!

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