It had been two weeks since I moved to Maryland for my internship at Dressage Today. I was settling into the work at DT pretty well, however, reading and writing about horses and not actually being able to ride was beginning to take a toll on me. I’ve been in this position before, that of a horseless horse person, and it is not a place I want to be. Luckily, a friend of mine came to the rescue when she recommended that I apply to volunteer at Leighton Farm, a barn that retrains thoroughbred racehorses for new careers.
When I pulled into Leighton Farm, I was excited just to have the chance to see horses, smell that wonderful horsey smell and maybe even work with a few on the ground. Imagine my surprise when I was told that I would get to ride!
“Okay, you’ll be on Gus,” Kim Goodwin Clarke, the trainer and owner at the farm told me after I said I had riding experience. “Everyone rides him at first, because he’s really safe.” I nodded. That all sounded good. The last thing I needed was to get dumped by some crazy horse.
“Oh, and by the way,” she said while I went to go find Gus’s tack, “He’s been trained through Third Level. I think you’ll have fun with him.” I practically had to scrape my jaw off the ground when she said that. A little background info: I’ve been a dressage enthusiast for quite a few years now, but I haven’t ridden anything even close to the upper levels.
Gus was surprisingly lazy when I first got on and I was shocked at the amount of work it took to get him moving off my leg. Weren’t advanced dressage horses supposed to be hot? Not this one apparently.
“A lot of beginners ride him, so you need to let him know you’re serious,” Kim advised me from the ground. Point taken. I gathered up my reins, engaged my core and began really riding instead of just letting him take me for a stroll. Wow. Gus went from patient school pony to working hard over his topline like the champion he must have been in his younger years.
Taking it up into the trot highlighted all of my own inadequacies as a rider, namely my lack of core and leg strength. I usually have no issues keeping my heels down, but Gus’s trot was so huge that I kept finding myself getting lifted right out of the stirrups. I’d heard of people getting jumped out of the tack, but honestly, getting trotted out of the tack? I resolved to stay more attentive to the weight in my heels.
After I got used to his gaits, I decided that it was time to play with some dressage movements. I turned Gus down the long side, slowly let out my breath and fed him the slightest bit more rein. Voila! Instant lengthening. I broke into a huge smile as this phenomenal horse and I charged down the line.
I was a bit apprehensive to canter, thinking it would be almost too much for me to ride, since his trot was so huge. I should not have worried: Gus’s canter was as easy to ride as a rocking chair, and I grinned again as I just rode his big canter the way a sailboat would ride over waves. When I asked him to canter down the diagonal, he happily skipped into the other lead. It was an incredible experience, to essentially ask for movements that I’d been working to train into my own horse, and just enjoy the ride as this amazing athlete taught me what it’s supposed to feel like.
It was humbling to realize just how much I would need to work at riding to be able to really ride at this level someday, and hopefully be able to train a horse to the highest levels of dressage. As my favorite poet, Tomas Tranströmer once wrote: “The one who has arrived has a long way to go.”