Thursday, May 15, 2008

Switching Disciplines

Switching Disciplines

A lot of us can remember being die-hards in our particular discipline, and could think of a time when we wouldn’t consider trading it in for anything. For me, it was hunters/jumpers – particularly equitation. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, and I’ll grudgingly admit I used to look at dressage riders as if they were from another planet.

Nothing gives me more enjoyment than having a great round over a jump course on a well-trained horse. That said, I no longer have the ability to do this on a regular basis because I have developed arthritis in my knees. Jumping in particular can put a lot of stress on a rider’s knees. (I would say the knees are the first to go on a rider… but then again the bats in my brain have been in a permanent holding pattern for the last couple of years too. Which went first: the knees or the brain? I would say it’s a tossup.)

In addition, I had to consider my horse’s age and physical situation. Despite our best efforts and preventative measures, horses usually develop arthritis as they age too, and this has to be a consideration as well. How much concussion they can take after a certain age and a career of jumping? Jumping can put a lot of wear and tear on a horse’s joints, tendons and ligaments, and at a certain stage, jumping may need to be scaled back or stopped altogether.

My horse Erik developed ringbone in both front pasterns, due in part to regular jumping. With both of us needing a change of pace, but not wanting to retire him (or myself) completely, we decided to find ourselves a new line of work. For us, dressage was the right choice. It helped Erik further develop his hind end and concentrate less concussion on his front end. In addition, for me, it required expanding and fine-tuning all of the skills I learned doing equitation, giving me a chance to take my riding to a new level. After all, “dressage” just means “training,” and who couldn’t use more of that?

It is so ingrained in the minds of h/j riders that jumping is the end-all of riding, and I thought I would miss jumping and get bored. I wondered if my horse would be bored. However, I soon found out that dressage is not nearly as easy as it looks, and can be pretty exciting in its own right. And, on the bright side, it turns out old dogs can learn new tricks…

Most riders think they need a fancy warmblood to compete in dressage. Believe me, dressage is for every size and shape of horse, from ponies, Arabs, Friesians, and Quarter Horses to Thoroughbreds. This is part of what makes it great. Sure, when you get to the higher levels, a stunningly athletic horse is an asset if you are going to compete. Dressage, at its most basic, is about getting the most from your horse, whatever his or her potential may be. There is in some ways a more even playing field; you don’t need a fancy horse to be successful, just one that will perform the tasks at hand. I’ve seen good trainers take grade horses through Grand Prix movements; they may not be as glamorous or extravagant as a fancy warmblood, but it is proof that type should never be a factor. It is truly the discipline for everyone. I repeat: you do not need a warmblood to compete successfully.

This year I plan on training on Dusty (a 15.1hh quarter-horse palomino) and Blue (a 15.3hh-registered paint). We believe in keeping our horses well rounded, so they are all schooled in basic dressage as a matter of course (and our higher-level jumpers are even schooled to fourth level.) Likewise, all of our dressage horses learn to hack out and jump (we’re probably one of the few stables whose dressage horses also foxhunt on occasion – as I type this, somewhere in the distance a dressage queen’s head just imploded…) . Blue and Dusty both have some background in dressage already, but I am looking forward to really focusing on this aspect with them. We may not ever show, but all horses (and riders) can certainly benefit from basic dressage, regardless of their chosen sport. I will go out on a limb and say even horses ridden in Western tack could benefit from some basic dressage.

Competitive dressage simply means an exercise in which the horse and rider show proper training and synchronicity during their performance in the show ring. If this sounds a bit daunting, fear not: competing in the lower levels, no one expects perfection. It is designed to allow horses and riders to progress at their own pace through the levels – and each element of each ride is scored, so you are really only in competition with yourself from show to show, and you’ll be able to see exactly what areas have improved and where you still need some work.

Dressage is not always stuffy, stuck-up top hats and shadbellys. One of the major hang-ups keeping me from giving dressage a try was the thought of having to buy all new clothes and tack, but this is completely unnecessary, particularly at the lower levels. There is no reason to be concerned about wearing what you already own, as long as it is USEF approved. In the lower levels, you can wear your hunter/jumper attire and use your English saddle and tack. Adding a white dressage pad will help your hunt seat saddle look more in keeping with the dressage theme. As always, neatness counts and it is considered a form of courtesy to be turned out well. Apart from that, there isn’t anything special you need to get started.

While you are considering whether to change disciplines completely or just need variety and a change of scenery, check back for the rules and protocol associated with a Dressage show. I will address this in my next post.

Until next time

Quote for Today

In training horses, one trains himself
- Antoine De Pluvinet

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