This is a republish of our Latest Blog with StreamhorseTV.
I came to dressage as many people do I think, incidentally.
After kinda doing “dressage” for a year or so with an occasional lesson from a hobby trainer on a horse trained his whole life for western riding/trail…I lucked into an older (like most horses are retired by now older) OTTB dressage schoolmaster. His name was Spice. He hadn’t been to a show in over 5 years, but was still in excellent shape being beloved by his owner (the trainer I would spend the next many years with…still with her today). Spice taught me SO much in our few years together. He taught me what dressage is. What it’s supposed to be and what it isn’t. He taught me how to be tactful. He taught me not to be embarrassed by a ring out or a rear in front of the judges booth. He taught me to be calm under fire and have patience. I’m a completely different rider today because of him and his mom.
“Wait a minute” you say. “You say you learned dressage on a Thoroughbred? That’s…interesting…”
Yup. And I got my Bronze medal on him (and almost my Silver…but that’s another story for another day). This Thoroughbred was happy to teach me the tricks AND school me through the basics…and quickly taught me the basics were THE important part. Sure…flying changes are hella fun…and nothing feels better than finally getting a pirouette on the spot and really sitting. But the only way to get there is the basics. Riding Spice was a daily lesson in the Training Scale. Without the bottom bits of the pyramid…we were going to be able to do some of the tricks…but it wasn’t pretty. Our scores often showed that.
Some people cheat with nice horses. I mean…seriously…you know what I’m talking about. Some of you are doing it now. I’m doing it now. Some horses just ARE dressage horses. They’re relaxed naturally with beautiful floating gaits or lots of action. Some horses naturally look like they go on the bit because of their conformation and personality (even if they’re not actually Through). We all know some horses are just made for Dressage. Thoroughbreds are not…and yet…they are. Dressage is for all horses…and it will improve all horses they say, and it’s true. But one thing that most Thoroughbreds have that many warmbloods do not is of course…sensitivity and quick response. The boon and bane of those riding OTTBs.
For a novice those things are hard to deal with. And I will tell you it was an experience. The first time I tried him…his mom thought I was never coming back. We did uncontrollable one tempis around the arena and I couldn’t get him to canter without doing tempis at all…Embarrassing! He was nervous and a bit wild. I was tense and completely at a loss how to handle it. The first time my husband saw me ride him he threw two huge rodeo bucks in succession during an extended trot and managed to get me in front of the saddle (which is very hard to do…I’m sticky). My hubby never came back to watch me ride. He still won’t watch me ride.
I can suck it up and be humble and knew this horse could teach me…and I could provide him with his best for his later years. I learned quickly to keep my lower leg and seat quiet in the canter. I also quickly learned that some days were going to be bad days no matter what I did. He had a buck. He had a rear. He had a crow hop, a spook, a bolt. He ran backwards. He had a drop like a cow horse with legs fully splayed thing occasionally. He kicked out at other horses going by. He was anxious and claustrophobic. When he was really feeling out of control…he’d do tempis.
He was also incredibly sweet. Incredibly kind. Incredibly generous.
It was a process and there were lots of bad rides. Lots of tears. Lots of “my God will you ever be able to do this?” moments. While I banged through my Bronze medal in a year (getting just the scores needed…sometimes…), 4th level is where I really started to LEARN…and not because of the tricks…but because you can’t get through 4th level with dicey contact. You can’t get through 4th level with no impulsion. You can’t get through 4th level with uneven rhythm and no relaxation. You can’t get through 4th level without having a solid handle on the Training Pyramid.
I learned really quickly that walking was the most important thing for him. Just asking him for things in the walk instead of adding the impulsion of the higher gaits made a lot of difference for his anxiety. Walk turn on the forehand. Walk turn on the haunches. Backing. Voltes. Walk/halt/walk. Walk/Canter/Walks. Walk half passes. In the walk is where we could communicate softly. In the walk is where his anxiety was the least and he was least liable to do something crazy. In the walk was where I could break up his tension and we could get somewhere…most days.
It was toward the end I learned the most. I rode the whole time I was pregnant you see…and Spice…well he knew something was different. That rear disappeared. So did the buck. The crow hopping. The spooking. The anxiety was still there, but he internalized it for my safety. I tell you…horses are amazing. He knew. At the beginning not much changed in our work…but towards the end we just walked. Walked and cantered. Worked on the rhythm. Worked on the Relaxation. Worked on the connection. And it was during this period that we came along the most because of the forced patience on my part. We were more ready to show PSG three months post partum than we had been before I was pregnant simply because the basics had improved that much.
While we may not have scored the highest (if that is due to his age, my being a complete novice, him being a Thoroughbred or some combination of the above), what I learned while riding Spice in a couple of short years was more than I could have asked for or dreamed of. He equipped me to
ride the horse I do now…and I can now ride many types of horses because of the understanding I developed with him. Really understanding, loving and respect the sensitivity that was there and how to deal with that.
So while some people have the luck or money to “cheat” and get specialty bred warmbloods for this sport, you can absolutely get to the FEI on an OTTB…if you keep at it and keep working on those basics every single day and work your way up that training pyramid every single ride. And if you EVER run across an OTTB schoolmaster with a tricky personality…seize that opportunity. You will learn more than you can imagine (and you’ll be able to ride anything else later)!