Dressage Life: Life Lessons Through Dressage

Three special horses helped teach this dressage rider life lessons about change.
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Three special horses helped teach this dressage rider life lessons about change.
Nancy Jones and Orion at a show | Photo courtesy of Nancy Jones

Nancy Jones and Orion at a show | Photo courtesy of Nancy Jones

"Most riders," says Robert Dover in Dressage Today's May 2005 Instructor Spotlight, "ride from movement to movement. Effective riders ride from half halt to half halt." That, of course, is because half halts rebalance the horse and prepare him for transitions.

I am reminded of Dover's observation when I reflect on the role of horses and dressage in my life. This year, I will turn 50. How I've prepared for the transitions from one phase of my life to another has determined, in great measure, how I've entered each new phase.

I had a pony as a girl. But it was not until I married in my early 20s that Schreek, a 2 1/2-year-old, chestnut Half-Arabian stallion, came into my life. At the time, I was as unprepared for training my green and immediately gelded horse as I was for marriage. Dressage helped me understand our struggles.

The rider's need to make minute and constant adjustments in anticipation of or in response to her horse's movements provided me with a metaphor for my marriage. As Schreek and I developed trust and self-carriage, I realized that a responsibility of every partnership is to restore and enhance the natural balance each partner possessed alone.

My partnership with Schreek blossomed, and we enjoyed not only competitive success, including a High-Score Dressage Award at the Devon, Pa., Eastern All-Arabian Horse Show but also quiet trail rides. But my husband and I had lacked sufficient preparation for marriage. In addition, my responsibilities as writer/editor for a small, daily newspaper and my husband's role as vice president of the family feed business meant that our schedules and needs often conflicted. Instead of a constant willingness and easy harmony, we experienced "resistance" and divorced. Sadly, I could not afford to keep Schreek.

In my early 30s, I moved from rural Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., where I became a speechwriter and media spokesperson. I met regularly with a compassionate counselor and, at her urging, also had bimonthly massage therapy. I also embarked on a program of distance running, paying attention to my breath, my footfalls and the pacing. It seemed a world away from my immersion in dressage. Yet my investment in body awareness enabled me to connect these new "lessons" to my riding sessions with Schreek, when I listened to his body for indications of tension or relaxation. I was developing mindfulness, an ability to live in and respond to the present in an open yet focused manner, which mirrored the ability I'd cultivated to "ride every stride." Here was the key to the half halt.

In the meantime, I began taking fiction-writing workshops at George Mason University and decided after two weeks at the Breadloaf Writers Workshop in Vermont, to enroll in graduate school full time. So, at the age of 40, I left the nation's capital to become a teaching assistant and pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

After nine years away from horses, I read about local dressage instructor Barbara Long and called about lessons. I began on the longe, and then she gave me the reins.

One day, she approached me about her handsome, but aging bay Thoroughbred, Commander. He had stiffness in his right hind leg from an old stifle operation and arthritis in his left front knee, which meant that he could no longer comfortably teach beginners. He needed a more experienced rider to keep him sound, strong and supple. Would I be interested in working with him? I was.

Commander was such a gift. The bodywork I'd done enabled me to listen even more closely to what he was telling me as I groomed and exercised him. I was able to help him rebalance himself on his hindquarters, taking the weight off his forehand. His walk grew regular and relaxed, he executed stretchy circles without falling on his forehand, and he developed sufficient carrying power in his hindquarters to enjoy collected trot and canter. In return, he taught me the subtleties of lateral work. He loved the flying changes, too, and reminded me to quiet my seat in counter canter by enthusiastically offering a change if I shifted even slightly out of position.

Commander also showed me how partners support each other simply by their presence, in and of itself a form of "half halt"--a needed space to accommodate change. After my mother died, he and I went for a long walk through the pine forest. He helped me finish the novel I began in graduate school, and saw me through the death of my sweet, 16-year-old Welsh Cardigan Corgi, Hoppy, as well.

When Barbara Long moved to western North Carolina, where the mountains and cold winters would not have suited Commander, she offered him to me in return for a loving and caring home. I was still struggling financially, teaching as an adjunct professor after earning my MFA, but I had to take him.

He taught me about aging with dignity. I knew that even with the best feeding, supplements, shoeing and exercise, Commander could not remain sound forever. Then it happened: he colicked. After being tubed and receiving Banamine, he was no better. I stroked him as the vet gave him the injection that put him to sleep. I was devastated but also grateful he had never had to endure debilitating lameness. After his death, I rode friends' horses.

Finally, I found full-time work halfway across the country in Moorhead, Minn. I moved with my Corgis, Caley and Zak, to an old Victorian home in Fargo, N.D. Again, I had to build a new life. I made new friends and was invited to ride their horses.

In November, I bought my own horse, an almost 6-year-old chestnut Half-Arabian gelding, Starfires Orion. Orion goes back twice to Man O' War on his dam's side, so he seems connected to both Schreek and Commander. Orion and I are best friends. We spent our first months together on the foundations of the Training Scale: rhythm, relaxation/suppleness and contact. At our first schooling show recently, Orion was Champion Open Dressage Horse with scores from 65 to 68.461 percent in Training Level, Tests 1-3. Best of all, the judge commented on our "good basics" and said we were a "great combo!"

This spring, my term appointment as an assistant professor of English at Concordia College has been converted to a tenure-track position, and I'm finishing up my second novel. Although I've never remarried, I have a rich life, filled with good friends, colleagues, students, neighbors and family back East. My Corgis and my horse are my immediate family now.

My first few years on the Northern Plains--a dramatic change from Southern coastal living--have not been without challenges. But Orion has helped me find my balance in the long, cold winters and amidst the politics of the academy. He reminds me of the many transitions that have brought me to this exciting new phase in my life. He reminds me to ride from half halt to half halt.