Has it really been a year? It doesn't seem possible that it's been exactly 12 months since I began this "Cinderella Project" with Dressage Today and my $900 OTTB, Forrest, who arrived at the top of my driveway at 10pm, December 23, after 18 hours on the van.
Racing fit from his last race six weeks earlier, this handsome 3 year old came to me from Rerun Racehorse Rescue in Suffolk, Virginia, kindly made possible by Lisa Molloy and former owner/breeder, Andy Aaron. Not quite a blank slate, there was lots to undo from his brief career (a bit of body soreness, crushed heels and a mouth that was a mixture of rubber and lead). But he had been well cared for and loved, which was evident from his sweet and trusting nature. And each time I watched this first Thoroughbred I've ever owned during his "let down," my jaw never failed to drop at his expressive trot and huge, uphill, canter. And, oh, yes, there were huge, playful, Superman leaps that would appear both on the longeline, and under saddle, in the months ahead!
My initial let-down plan was for three months, but because it took so long for Forrest to grow heel and develop healthy angles that wouldn't stress the back of his leg, those three months lengthened to five months before I introduced him to the longe line for the first time.
And I did not place my foot into the stirrup iron for the very first ride (after introducing him to the mounting block) until the first week of July!
Ignoring the OTTB age demands of January 1st, Forrest celebrated his actual birthday in April and my rule of thumb is to ride 3 year olds three times a week, and 4 year olds, four times a week. So it's quite staggering to me, really, the amount of balance, strength and progress this horse has made in only five months. His entire body has changed and this is why I have a love affair with dressage: the methodology works for each and every horse and improves them. Forrest is confirmed at Training Level (the right canter depart is now finally quite consistent) and is schooling a few First Level movements (leg yields, small bursts of lengthenings) comfortably. I also, just this past week, began to introduce him to a few steps of shoulder fore positioning at the walk.
However, I am always mindful that there are those out there with their own Cinderella Projects that might read this with despair, feeling stuck or frustrated that their own, seeming, lack of progress, so please realize that for every gorgeous, fluid, balanced, moment I've had with Forrest, there have been some moments that damned near launched me out of the saddle.
What's important for us all to remember is what I've quoted before: "You go faster by going slower." None of our horses should have expiration dates when it comes to training. Squash down the desire to go to the dressage shows before our horses are truly confirmed. There is nothing more damaging than trying to rush a horse's training because of some competition. There will always be another show; take your time, strive for an absence of tension in your daily work outs, keep returning to square one as often as necessary, and the rewards you will reap will be a correctly trained, strong, balanced, horse, regardless of level, that trusts you implicitly as a rider/trainer and is a pleasure to ride. That's what we all witness each time we watch Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. That's what we can all achieve with our own horse.