For years, I drooled with longing while watching a dressage performance. The beauty of the horse and rider’s dance made me want to do it myself. I didn’t have a dressage horse, however. I had two Tennessee Walkers.
I read articles on dressage training for gaited horses, and I read in Rose Miller’s book, The Horse That Wouldn’t Trot, how she used dressage to improve her horse’s gait in the show ring. Then I met a woman who actually showed her gaited horses in dressage shows. Talking to Cecelia Stearns was my turning point. Her story was recently published on this site, how she learned to dance with her gaited horse.
Two years ago, I decided to do what I could with what I had. Being in my 70’s, I knew I’d never reach upper levels, but it was time to stop wishing. I started dressage lessons on my gaited gelding, Rocky.
Rocky is double registered Tennessee Walking Horse and Spotted Saddle Horse, a sorrel and white paint with luxurious black and white mane and tail. On the trail, his slow gait is a smooth ride—too slow, however, to keep up with most other gaited horses or win blue ribbons in gaited shows. When pushed for more speed, he trots. I hoped that dressage lessons would help him move out more in his gait.
For seven years I have worked to keep him in his four-beat gait under saddle, even though he trots on his own. On the lunge line as well as in the pasture, Rocky has a lovely extended trot and easy canter, and I’ve always admired his joyous free movement. But could I ask him to gait on the trail and trot for dressage—without causing confusion or ruining his gait? I decided to keep the dressage lessons in gait.
The first year of lessons was frustrating. I was used to riding an Alpha mare, and I needed to be strong at times to match her strong minded ways. But with Rocky, I had to learn to use less pressure for cues so he wouldn’t over-respond. I had to sit quietly and straight, to relax and not try so hard. Because the harder I tried to make him do what I wanted, the more my body lost the correct position. I had to become aware of what my body was actually telling my horse to do.
Rocky was the right horse to teach me the basics of dressage. I had to do it right, or he wouldn’t. When my body turned one way and my hands another, he was totally obedient—he bent his body both ways. So much for straightness! My frustration finally dissolved into understanding, and Rocky and I reached a beginning level of communication that worked. During our second year of lessons, I felt a sense of accomplishment as I was able to put Rocky on the bit, to keep him straight along the sides of the arena and to ride a round circle. We learned to do diagonal movements and to halt and move on straight, without falling to either side. And a few times I felt his natural gait lengthen and move out like I wanted. When my instructor told me we were ready to ride a test, I was eagerly ready!
Then she told me I’d have to change to a snaffle bit. Rocky was trained in a Tom Thumb before we bought him, so I assumed a snaffle wouldn’t be a problem. He has worked well for seven years in a 4-3/4 inch Mullen mouth Pelham I found on ebay—because a regular 5” bit seemed too big. I simply had to find a “legal” snaffle bit in his size. I ended up buying four different snaffle bits and Rocky didn’t like any of them. I was now struggling to get him “on” the bit, and he had lost his lovely frame and headset. Six weeks before the dressage schooling show, my instructor helped me settle on one of the bits, and I ordered a cob size English bridle because a regular size was too big. I didn’t feel ready after all, but I had to go through with the plan.
I was thankful Rocky was calm that June day as I rode him around the stable grounds viewing new things. I was numb during the test. I told myself Rocky did not need to be on the bit for entry level so I didn’t struggle for more “tuck.” The judge told me afterward not to be discouraged with my low score, since my horse didn’t trot. I wasn’t discouraged—until I went home and watched the video my husband did for me. It was like a wrinkled old woman looking in the mirror—reality was shocking! What I saw on the video was definitely not a lovely dressage performance as I’d hoped, but a high-headed, slow-gaited trail horse trying to avoid a bit he didn’t like. I expected too much.
The judge’s collective remarks were simple and few: “should be rising trot” and “braced, needs to be rounder.” Well, I thought, how could I post on a gaited horse? Can’t you accept a horse’s natural gait within the dressage pattern? And yes, Rocky was braced. I probably shouldn’t have tightened the nose band to keep him from chomping on the bit. After the show, I didn’t ride Rocky for several weeks.
Once the initial disappointment wore off, I reminded myself that I had chosen Rocky for dressage based on the way he moves on the lungeline. At a trot. Yet I had decided to take lessons and ride the test in his gait, in a bit he didn’t fully accept. Why was I disappointed that the test ride video didn’t look wonderful?
I cleaned my dressage saddle and put it away. I haven’t forgotten what I learned in those 18 months of dressage lessons and I firmly believe that dressage benefits both horse and rider. On an impulse one evening while shopping online, I bought an expensive Myler comfort snaffle bit. Don’t ask me why—I just did it. Then, I rode Rocky in that bit and a regular headstall with no nose band. He worked with his head tucked, no bracing against my hand. I asked for a trot, and he came alive. Is this the bit he can accept? Or could it be that he simply doesn’t like a tight nose band?
Rocky and I may be starting over this year. I’ll let you know what happens.