Saddle Seat Dressage
One of the things I like most about saddle seat is the horses. American Saddlebreds love their jobs and love people. To highlight this, I have started what I hope to be an ongoing feature highlighting Saddlebreds in non-traditional fields. Joan Gaidos has kindly agreed to tell her story of earning her USDF Bronze with an ASB. Welcome Joan.
An Unlikely Dressage Journey
Joan Gaidos and Will (aka. Revelation’s First Prophet)
He was the second horse I looked at and his handsome stature, and big floaty trot caught my eye. He walked with a big overstride, his canter was effortless and smooth, and his eyes were intelligent, gleaming with a healthy dose of bravado. William, or Will, was a 10-year-old, registered American Saddlebred gelding. He had been to a few local shows as a hunter pleasure horse, had some trail miles, and based on his sales video, had impressive form over 3 ft jumps. But he had been ridden only sporadically in the past 2 years, and the rust showed. As I watched him back at the barn, he lowered his head with soft eyes to nuzzle one of the barn kids, and I knew he was the ‘one’. I wanted a dressage horse but had a pitifully small budget to find a suitable steed that was both athletic enough to do the work, and saintly enough to be fun and keep me safe. I knew I would have to look off the beaten path of pedigreed blue-bloods to find my diamond in the rough. It didn’t matter to me that he had little experience with dressage, I just needed a willing, trainable partner and sound, athletic mover. William would do.
I was closing in on 50 years old and age had put me in-touch with the deficiencies of my riding abilities and the limits of my ‘bravery’ in the saddle. I had just retired my steady-eddy 20-year-old gelding, Blue. I had shown saddleseat when I was younger, but in middle-age I mostly trail rode, sporadically at best, and in the last year with Blue, dabbled with dressage lessons. Fate and a little luck landed me at that barn only an hour from my home in Northern Virginia, stroking the neck of a pretty Saddlebred gelding with the large-than-life personality. William knew almost nothing about dressage, and neither did I, but I had faith we could have a grand adventure together.
I had no grand goal or plan past learning more dressage and having fun with my new horse. I didn’t know what a half-pass was, much less how to execute one. I had no idea what a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) Bronze, Silver or Gold medal entailed. I didn’t know much about how to achieve rhythm, suppleness, connection or straightness with my horse, or much else on the USDF dressage training scale. Heck, I didn’t even really know the letters in a dressage ring (and kind-of still don’t if we’re being honest). But I wanted to learn more, and now I had a rusty, impish 10-year-old Saddlebred gelding with no dressage training and a distressingly small budget to start this journey.
Will was brash, playful, funny, and exuded personality. He was ‘King’, some would say dictator, of his five-horse field. But I found him funny and smart and willing to learn. For all his bluster and bravado, he loved to be with people, loved kids, was safe and generally a good egg. He wore his heart on his ‘hoof’ and was happy to be my partner in crime…or dressage.
Though our bonding time after I bought him was great, it was obvious our relationship could be summed-up as the blind leading the blind. He didn’t know correct contact, how to use his back, connection, or any dressage basics, and I didn’t know how to ride with the clarity or consistency to teach him. We needed help. I found a good trainer and sent Will off to ‘boot camp’ for two months in the fall and included a weekly lesson for myself. It was somewhere during this time that it became crystal clear how very little I knew about riding dressage. The dressage boot camp was very helpful, but clearly, this was going to take more time, a lot more time. With limited funds, we went back home and had my trainer come for training rides two times per week with Will, and an occasional lesson for me. I watched every ride, asked questions, and tried to learn by osmosis. By winter, Will was starting to look like a proper dressage horse and I, well, I had a long way to go. I also had terrible show nerves and no serious interest in facing my demons in the show ring. But Will looked so good and had made such great progress, I wanted to see him “enter at A”. In early spring, we decided Will was ready for his first licensed dressage show with the trainer riding.
I was nervous, and I wasn’t even riding. I wanted Will to do well, I wanted him to ‘fit-in’ with the blue-blooded warmbloods and Olympic hopeful riders I knew would be at the show. I had nothing to worry about. Over the next 2 years Will would go on with his trainer to garner high scores at licensed shows (71+%), hold his own with the imported warmbloods, qualify for regionals at First Level the first year, and Third Level the second year, and become confirmed at Fourth Level. He would win national All-Breeds awards from USDF. I had a blast those 2 years, his success exceeded all my expectations.
But, the realities of horses and showing are that they are expensive, and I was sadly not made of money. A change in my personal life made the decision to dial back the showing for me. We wrapped-up that second show season and I took Will back home to an undetermined future. I wallowed in self-pity a bit that following year. We floundered around with sporadic lessons, and as the new year began, I lost my old buddy Blue.
I turned 50 that year. Fifty. I didn’t feel any different, it was just a number, but I suddenly felt the years were passing me by. What was I doing?! I was sitting on a confirmed 4th level dressage horse, a schoolmaster, but couldn’t seem to get my act together to learn to ride him decently, not to mention find the guts to show him. This needed to change. If not now, when? What exactly did I have to lose?
I scraped together some funds and started back with regular lessons. By the end of the year, Will and I entered a schooling show and came away with a 64% at Third Level. I was shocked. Maybe I could do this after all? ‘This’ being the grand goal of getting myself around the dressage ring at a licensed show without getting queasy or forgetting the test. Over the winter, I mapped out a plan for the 2017 show season. I would start early, and at Third Level because, what did I have to lose? (Que Rocky music)
Apparently, my rose-colored glasses were what I had to lose (turns down music). I was so, so, SO nervous at that first show, that first test. I could NOT feel my legs, I could NOT sit the trot, I could NOT take a deep breath, I didn’t remember riding whole parts of the tests (but apparently did), I felt I merely held on badly and pointed Will towards letters. Ugh! But in the second test, I was ever so slightly better, and placed 2nd in a decent sized class. It was a glimmer of hope.
I took more lessons, and at the second show a month later, I willed myself to RIDE. “Ride forward, ride consciously, BREATHE, ride in-the-moment, every stride…Concentrate!”. We placed 3rd and 4th in big, competitive classes. I was ecstatic! My friends quickly pointed-out that I had a qualifying score at Third Level for a Bronze Medal! The thought that a national benchmark for dressage riders was within reach, perhaps in my first year of showing licensed dressage shows on a Saddlebred, buoyed me to forge ahead. I just needed one more score at Third Level, then 2 scores at Second Level, and 2 scores at First Level, all above 60%. I could DO this!
Did I mention the rose-colored glasses? I rode decently in lessons and at home, but spun my wheels at the next couple shows, struggling to control my nerves. I placed mid-pack in all my classes, but my scores were falling agonizingly just short of the qualifying score I needed. Will tried his best to figure me out, but also let me know when my riding was falling short. In one class, I nervously stabbed him HARD with my spurs for the flying change…he kicked-out, offended, turned his head and gave me the stink-eye, before doing the flying change. In another class, after the first trot diagonal, I had what felt like a mild panic attack and just stopped riding, trying to take a deep breath. Will stopped dead. He turned to look at me with a concerned ‘Are you o.k.?’ expression on his face. We kicked-on and finished the test, but I hugged him long and hard afterwards. I went home mentally and physically exhausted.
What had I been thinking? I had never ridden in a licensed dressage show a few months ago, much less at this level. The negative feelings crept in. I had watched the long-legged, lithe athletes that surrounded me at every show, expertly piloting the 17h blue-bloods in graceful dances around the ring. The show photos did not lie, I was more a sack-of-potatoes, teetering on top of my long-suffering mount. Que pity-party. The mind goes to the dark places when plans are not working as hoped. This was that moment, wilt in a puddle of pity or keep a stiff upper lip and persist. I was 50. If not now, when? What did I have to lose?
We needed to make a change. I called in professional help and asked my trainer to come try and talk me off the ledge at the next show. Our first class was a mixed bag, more forward, but not terribly accurate. I stabbed Will again in the flying change, and he again objected flamboyantly before changing. Too many pilot errors. My trainers first words after our shaky start were to congratulate me for staying on. Levity. I laughed. We placed third in the class, but the score was not enough. The second class was better, smoother, more accurate, and I was more focused. I headed back to the trailer happy that I had improved, but did not know if it was enough. It was, a qualifying score and 2nd place. We did it! Now, the only thing left were a few First and Second Level scores…how hard could that be?
Turns out, those First and Second Level scores were not exactly a piece of cake either. We got lost going to one show, arrived late, it was 48 degrees and pouring rain and I had exactly 10 minutes to get Will off the trailer, saddled, and enter the ring to make our ride time. Did I mention it was pouring rain and 48 degrees? I questioned my sanity. We muddled through, literally. By mid-September, on an unusually hot and humid day, we sweated our way to the last score to earn our Bronze medal.
Success! It was indeed a test, a test of will and perseverance, a slog of mental and physical endurance. Will and my little dressage journey seems trivial in the big scheme of things, but I look at my riding differently, humbly, thankfully. I am lucky to have the opportunity and the physical ability to still swing a leg over my horse every day, and what a grand horse. My cheeky, lovable Saddlebred gelding is the hero of this story, a credit to the adaptability and willingness of his breed, and a true partner and athlete. Who knows what the future will bring, but I know we will journey down this path together.
To find out more about Saddlebreds and dressage, check out this new video from the American Saddlebred Horse Association. Will has a few cameos. 😊
…and for more on the versatile American Saddlebred.