This is Marie Bagdanova and her off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding, Imagine Me (aka George). He is 7 years old and has raced for most of his life. Maria is taking on the task of retraining this gelding, who has a history of unseating riders who have tried him. She says it’s going well, and they have competed at Introductory Level. They are working toward Training Level, but she has not moved him up yet since he has a bolting problem when he is asked to canter.
At first glance, this is an attractive photo. George has a nice expression to his trot. He bends his knees and hocks well, and it shows a willingness to use his body in an athletic way. He’s well engaged although possibly not quite tracking up, but he brings his hind legs nicely underneath himself and that helps him lift his withers. He reaches out to the contact and has his poll at the highest point. I thought at first that his mouth was open and he was resisting the bit, but on further inspection, I see it’s an illusion from the photo’s background and he accepts the bit quite well and is quiet in his mouth.
George was a racehorse and in his transition to dressage has been bolting and getting rid of his riders. Knowing this might explain why there appears to be a bit of defensive riding in Maria’s body positioning. She sits too far back in the saddle and looks tense and braced in her upper body. Her horse would benefit from feeling a more confident, plugged-in rider. To achieve this, Maria should lower her rib cage and keep her breathing down low using mainly her diaphragm (the muscle in the torso, lying just below the lungs that causes inhalation when contracted) to inhale and exhale. When she does this, it will add to her center of gravity coming more securely down.
Maria’s body is in a good balance: She is not leaning too forward or too back. Her lower back is a good shape (not too hollow and not too round) and her thigh is at an appropriate angle of about 45 degrees. However, Maria’s lower leg is adding to the tension in her body. There’s a push forward and down into the stirrup that creates too much of the stirrup essentially pushing upward on her body. If Maria bends her knees a few more degrees and lightens her feet in the stirrups—to the point that if she were standing on my fingers, she wouldn’t be crushing them—then the upward push from the stirrups wouldn’t be there, and she could sit more deeply on her horse’s back.
I have a feeling that if Maria were to ask her horse for a canter transition, the main problem would be that the weight in her feet would increase. This would make the bracing effect even stronger, and George could easily take that as a signal from Maria to bolt off or at least go too enthusiastically into canter. It wouldn’t be the easiest thing to keep her feet light in the stirrups at that moment, but it would help her sit more deeply and confidently plugged into his back in a canter depart.
Working on these improved transitions could be a good place to start on a project that will take a lot of time and patience. Retraining any horse is a big task to take on, especially going from one career to a completely opposite one as with racing and dressage, but I wish them the best of luck.
Heather Blitzis a Grand Prix competitor and trainer. She was the United States alternate for the 2012 Olympic Games with her gelding, Paragon. In 2011, the pair won team gold and individual silver medals at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
No stranger to the international arena, Blitz joined the U.S. Equestrian Federation Long List while working as head trainer at Oak Hill Ranch in Louisiana, where she rode its Danish Warmblood stallion Rambo DVE 373. In 2006, she piloted the stallion’s daughter, Arabella, to the reserve spot on the World Equestrian Games team.
During her seven years at Oak Hill Ranch, Blitz rode a broodmare she loved so much that she decided to breed her, producing a horse by Blue Hors Don Schufro out of Pari Lord by Loran. The result was her Pan American partner, Paragon. After their success in 2011, the pair moved up to the Grand Prix during the winter season in Florida. They qualified for the World Dressage Masters 5* during Paragon’s CDI debut at that level, earning impressive scores.
Blitz holds a B.S. degree in equine science from Colorado State University. She credits her biomechanics coach, Mary Wanless, as the biggest influence on her development as a rider and instructor. They have been working together since 1993. Blitz is based in Wellington, Florida (heatherblitz.info).