I used to have a bumper sticker that read My Quarter Horse can beat up your First Level Dressage Horse! It's funny how things change, how we change as we get older. You wouldn't have caught me dead in a dressage saddle on a big horse with a European bloodline a few years ago, and now? I'm taking dressage lessons and enjoying every minute of it.
How did I get it into my head to take dressage lessons? Me? The daughter of the polo players, race horse trainers, steeplechase jockeys, and rough and tumble fox hunters, how has it come to this? Well, it wasn't a sudden inspiration from Mrs. Romney, I can tell you that. It goes much deeper than that. The dye was cast when I was a fiercely competitive teenager in a community of wealthy kids with expensive horses. I had two nice ponies who did well at the shows, but I needed and edge, I needed to ride better than anyone, and I didn't go to trainers for that. My grandmother was an elegant horsewoman and she would shout instruction to me in the back yard, but it wasn't enough. I found a book, not sure where, a little paperback book, maybe in the local saddlery? But it caught my eye, it was called Riding Logic, a paperback translated into somewhat broken English from German, by a fellow named Wilhelm Müseler. I still have the book, it's dogeared and stained pages are a testament to my studious adherence to it's every word. I poured over it night after night and then went out and applied it's lessons to my daily schooling with my ponies. And it worked, I was a force to be reckoned with in the show ring - my equitation was flawless, my transitions were perfect and I had an intellectual understanding of how to balance my horses.
The years went by, the book got shuffled from place to place, I no longer read it. I didn't ride for years, I grew up, went to college, got a job, got a husband and longed for a horse again, but didn't know when it would happen again. I finally did get the horse, but I had no intention to show, I just wanted to ride. It's been a good run these past few years, and I'm a strong rider, but I realized a year or so ago that something was lacking - I needed some refinement once again in the art of my riding.
And then I had the great fortune to meet Courtney King-Dye - the Olympic dressage rider befallen by tragedy. A little more than two years ago she was schooling a young horse at home when the horse tripped and rolled over the top of Courtney. She was not wearing a helmet, and she suffered a severe head injury that put her in a coma and changed her life forever. She is one of the gamest people you will ever meet - funny, courageous, and determined to not let a little thing like a traumatic brain injury stop her from doing what she loves most; riding horses. After I met her, I began to read her blog and looked at the photos and videos of her Olympic riding career. I had never seen such fluid happy dressage horses - this was not the dressage I had stuck in my head, the forced intense movement that made one think that the discipline was all too horribly serious, no, instead, there was joy and freedom. Of course, it was bittersweet to see Courtney before the accident, but if you watch her riding these days, that same beautiful joy shines through, she just moves a little slower than she used to.
Months went by, things in my life were not going all as planned, my book couldn't get itself published, stories rejected, my horse began having severe soundness problems and me trying to keep as busy as possible to forget all the doors slamming in my face. And it hit me sometime in the heat of midsummer that I wanted to take dressage lessons - with a real serious dressage teacher on giant horses with unpronounceable European names. The Olympics helped push me over the edge when I heard of the geriatric Japanese dressage rider - he was the oldest Olympian to compete, and what with my new fear of Getting Old, I thought, this is it, I can do this well into my eighties, well, that is if the Nursing Home will let me keep my horse in the court yard.
And so my lessons began, and my teacher is not German, she's midwestern. She's not stearn, she's very funny in fact. She sits in her chair by the gate and speaks to you through a loud speaker, which is great for this half-deaf middle aged rider. My first lesson was on a 26 year old flea bitten quarter horse named Spot - he looked as though he should be pulling a vegetable cart in Sicily when I first laid eyes on him, but he had plenty to teach me, with his big strides and demand for the correct cues. Then there was the slightly ornery paint horse who wiggled every way he could and made me so tired from trying that I just wanted to fall off and cry. And then came the day I finally got to ride a school master - Percy - somewhere in his mid-20s, a Swedish Warmblood, former Grand Prix horse, with legs like telephone poles. This was a big test for me - Percy turned out to be the most powerful horse I had ever ridden. His elevation at the trot and canter were not to be believed and I felt like I didn't know what the hell I was doing, but I sure was having a great time. I touched on my first lessons of the Shoulder In and Haunches In and managed a half-assed Half Passe on Percy. And I was rewarded at the end of my first lesson on Percy with a Piaffe - the highest of collection, a trot in place. My instructor and I laughed about Stephen Colbert's wonderful skit he did over the summer regarding dressage, he finished with a Piaffe, and made TV history for dressage. Two more rides on Percy and I almost mastered a few lateral exercises, and I was awash with thoughts of what the younger Percy must have been - how spectacular a horse he was, because as an old gentleman, he is a workaholic.
And yesterday, I got to ride probably the tallest horse I've ever sat on, a 17.2, 5 year old Hanoverian name Frankie. He steered a bit like a drunken ship - his education in dressage has just begun. It was a thrill to ride this teenager who has grown a bit too fast - his parts are all long and disproportionate. But it felt right up there in the thin atmosphere of the tall horse world. We trotted and I worked with Frankie to be forward and soft, he was a typical baby, needing lots of encouragement and direction. I managed to get a big trot from him and we worked on canter transitions too - getting him to hold a canter was not easy, those big long legs tended to splay on his turns. But it was a great learning experience to be be at the helm of such a big uneducated animal - thank goodness for his kind heart and willing attitude.
The only trouble was getting down again after the lesson - not a pretty sight, I really needed a rope ladder to come back to earth gracefully. But my instructor gave me a gift yesterday, of all the gifts she gives me every week, she told me that she had been planning to put me on young Frankie for a while, she said, "I knew you would do well on him, I just knew it - you are one of those people who just has an innate sense of what to do on a horse because you've been riding since your were practically in the womb. It may not be pretty, we are working on that, but you know what you are doing. And you are so confident! Not many people can get on a young green horse on a cold windy day and do what you did." These were the words I needed, to be reassured that I still had it, that I still could ride, that all those years mean something.