As you probably know many eventing 'events' are won in the dressage ring. Well almost. How do people like Bruce and Buck Davidson, Pippa Funnell and David and Karen O'Connor manage to win so many events? Could it be that horses and riders that excel at dressage are actually better jumpers and cross country athletes? And why is dressage before the cross country portion of the event?
The latter question is easy to answer. It makes perfect sense when you think about the order of go - make sure your horse is safely on the aids and listening before you head out on your run. Show that your horse is obedient no matter what and ensure the horse that will blast around demanding courses like Badminton are truly supple and flexible both longitudinally and laterally.
As an eventer do you ever think to yourself, " Should I take straight dressage lessons?" And as a dressage rider, do you ever think to yourself, " Should I take jumping/eventing lessons?" ( No hang on, don't be silly. When does that ever happen).
Without question the answer is yes to both. Why wouldn't you. But for now we'll concentrate on switching the passionate event rider on to the treats of dressage. Scores can be drastically improved with top quality dressage coaching. While you may be part of the group that finds dressage as interesting as sitting at a dinner table with Brad Pitt, Gordon Ramsay, Peter Jones and Johnny Dep
( that would be me), or part of the group that finds dressage as engaging as flying coach on an eight hour flight across the pond in the new 'little' seats ( oh wait, that would also be me because I love to travel and can't afford business class ), you do need to master serious dressage to do seriously well.
Not only will the right dressage portion improve you and your horse's connection, it will also enhance fitness and bio-mechanical soundness. Many event riders I've trained have actually found the sport of dressage fun. In a roundabout kind of way. Sorry, had to go there. Or maybe it's because we have a good laugh over the mistakes ( I believe all riding should be fun and serious at the same time), or maybe it's that the horses and riders enjoy it because I train out in the fields as much as in the indoor arena. I must confess I love the lack of 'control' issues in my eventing students. They don't feel a need to 'contain' the horse in collection or feel nervous to tap their horse with a stick when necessary
( there's that 1,2,3 rule again). And they are never hesitant in the extended canter. Ah the lure of the open fields.
You actually do need to be fit as a rider to do dressage well. Your center is your core and that requires muscle strength but not in the way you might think. Staying still actually requires a lot of body control. Though of course, dressage riders are not really ever still. They are extremely composed and can appear to blend with the horse. You know when you are watching a great dressage partnership because you find you are only watching the horse. But then that's true of all riding. Event riders are almost always athletic in their own right so eventers start with an immediate advantage. Many dressage riders ( myself included here), are nowhere near as fit as they expect their horses to be.
Let's look at your horse. If you want longevity in your horse's soundness you probably haven't made a poor selection in the conformation department. Not that dressage riders do either now we have more good horses to choose from here in the USA. But everyone knows eventing is an unforgiving sport. No special footing, no allowances for mistakes and a barrage of excitement. Long pasterns and straight shoulders simply just won't do. There might be more blood in his bloodline, but then, aren't the Europeans constantly striving to enhance their warmbloods with thoroughbred blood. There's plenty of fire in the belly of a made Grand Prix horse. It's almost a mandate for success. An eventing horse may be completely daffy and still run well. There are always exceptional exceptions. Event horses I've ridden may be bursting with energy but as you've spent so many miles on all types of terrain with your mount you know each other pretty well at this point. If you are also like me you've probably viewed each other from all sorts of unimaginable angles during the rough and tumbles of the sport and come to trust each other to a high degree. He didn't step on you and he could have, right? He didn't drag you all the way home with your boot caught in the reins, right? Well, there was that time when.......but we must do our NLP ( Neuro Linguistic Programming, more on that another day), and focus on the good moments.
So saddle up but don't drop those stirrups to a ridiculously low level. The bottom of the stirrup should just touch your ankle bone when you are draped over the horse. And think:-
When you learn to sit to the trot you'll also immediately be able to sit better to a fence. When you ride straight to the fence, your horse will truly be straight. He will bounce better.
When you learn to half pass, you'll be able to truly position your horse back in line for the fence in those sharp turns and avoid run outs.
When you learn to do extensions and collections in the gait, you'll be much more adept at making distances and cutting out dangerous mistakes.
When you learn counter canter, your horse will have superior balance. And the list goes on...
I'm not saying your event horse will be quite as balanced as this one, well not right away. Jan Ebeling worked very hard to achieve this level for sure. But as a rider you can just feel how wonderful the moment captured below truly feels. And I'm not talking about winning that particular qualifying Grand Prix at HITS Saugerties. Though I'll bet that felt pretty good too.
George Morris would say to work on your flatwork. Perfect practice and all that. What does Pippa Funnel say? Work on your flatwork. Yes, I'm sorry. You simply have to get busy with the real dressage world. I'm not saying you have to go as far as white polo wraps (though they do accentuate the horse's movement nicely and you know how we dressage folk are all about movement), but you will have to lose that body protector because the spinal protection at the base will push you out the saddle in your sitting work.
But please don't lose your great sense of camaraderie, ( I've never found any group of equestrians so open and sharing), your incredible will to valiantly push on, or your work ethic. Readying a horse for principally three events at once takes a lot of work. Not much time for sitting down and chatting in the peanut gallery. But please do add a new dimension to your dressage by taking lessons with your local dressage Mr. or Mrs. dressage master. It will help you and your horse. I guarantee it.
After reading this back I must confess I feel the urge to go out hacking and jump a few logs or strap a timer to my wrist and see how long it takes my chunky Dutch horse to the top of the hill at a full gallop. Actually, it's something we ( hubbie and I ), do regularly with our 'dressage' mounts here. Though I must confess I am hesitant to suggest it to my straight dressage students. After all, the horse might get too forward or spook at a deer or something. Kick on!
Note: Photos are all my own. Visit my studio at http://www.nikkialvinsmithstudio.com/photography.html. Please respect copyright. Thanks.
The yellow horse is a collectible piece from Vabene and available for sale.