Dressage Life: Lessons and Blessings

Lessons in dressage helped bring this horse-and-rider duo back to the top of their game.
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Kathryn Shipley and Shared Dreams | Photo courtesy of Kathryn Shipley

Kathryn Shipley and Shared Dreams | Photo courtesy of Kathryn Shipley

I have been blessed in every way during my lifetime. I am a member of a loving and supportive family, I have great friends and a challenging career. However, I have to say that one of the most blessed moments in my life was when I purchased what I refer to as the "All-American dream horse." From the minute I saw him he won my heart. He's not just any horse--Shared Dreams (or "Whitey," as he is affectionately called) is a famous event horse whose record includes three Rolex Kentucky four-star finishes, being "short-listed" for the Olympics and a double-medal win in the Pan American Games.

My life has always included horses. My mother was a Grand Prix dressage rider who managed a small barn on our property when I was little. From the moment I could walk I was on a horse. Given her career, no matter how hard she tried to convince me that dressage was "the way," my eyes were set on jumping and eventing. I have owned several horses throughout my riding career, but none as special or as complex as Whitey. He was a horse that could take me where I wanted to go and compete at levels I had only hoped for.

I purchased Whitey in January 2006, and by March he had pulled a suspensory ligament in one of his front legs. He would be off for the rest of the year, and the vet didn't know how--or if--he would come back from that injury. I was heartbroken. Our first year together was over before it began. Granted, it would have been a year of Training Level eventing (not very exciting for a Rolex horse), but it was our year to get to know one another before I tried moving up the ranks.

It was one of the saddest experiences of my life, but I have to admit I was still proud just to own such a fine horse with such a loving personality. I knew that however he came back would be good enough for me, but since I couldn't afford another horse to compete on, I hoped for the best. After the first couple of months of stall rest, the vet told me there was hope for a good recovery. Worried I would not be able to care for him by myself, and he would have a relapse of his injury, I made a difficult decision to leave Surefire Eventing--the facility where Whitey grew up in the sport. Although I felt it was the right move for us, I felt very alone in his treatment. Luckily, I wasn't.

A little apprehensive, I chose a professional dressage barn in Lovettsville, Va. After all, I was an eventer and everyone there focused solely on dressage. And while I knew this would be the place for him to recover, I wasn't sure it would be the place for us to continue our event training. I would soon learn I was wrong.

At the time of his move, Whitey was able to do a little work at a walk twice a week and a little trotting once a week. His spirit seemed to lift after a couple of weeks in his new home, and he seemed willing to go along with dressage trainer Holly Wilmoth's new routine. Slowly, his vet cleared him for more work, and since he didn't seem to object (too much) to the dressage he'd been doing, we kept on.

While I always had a certain respect for dressage, I have to admit that I didn't really focus on it as much as I should have. In the weeks-then-months of recovery, and with strict instructions from the vet on what he could and couldn't do, basic dressage was all I could focus on. His future was dependent on how he healed, and in order to heal properly he had to build muscle and strengthen himself--his whole self, not just his leg.

While putting this high-spirited, super talented event horse back to work, I had an "ah-ha" moment. I realized you didn't have to do trot and canter sets to get a horse fit--not when you had lateral movements and bending lines to stretch and strengthen him. Just like we would lift weights at the gym, dressage is the same type of strength training at any gait and not as stressful to the joints. Good Lord, why didn't anyone tell me?

Well, many people did tell me, but I wasn't interested in listening. In the past I had always used dressage as a foundation for jumping--lateral movements for bending jump lines and a half halt from the seat to control the rhythm of the canter. But, beyond that, I didn't really see the need to continue with dressage. (I'll have to admit, Whitey was on board with the "run and jump" logic. A good event horse is a wondrous creature: They have the heart of a lion, the will to win, a quick mind and are sometimes quite opinionated.)

Kathryn Shipley and Shared Dreams compete. | Photo courtesy of Kathryn Shipley

Kathryn Shipley and Shared Dreams compete. | Photo courtesy of Kathryn Shipley

But Holly put him on a regimen that would challenge us both. Whitey had not had such in-depth dressage training in years, and neither had I. But somewhere in our re-training I reconnected with a very basic part of eventing, and riding in general, realizing the foundation of a good jump was a well-balanced, forward-moving horse. Without the dressage training he received, neither of us would be ready for what was to come.

After four preliminary horse trials, a CCI* 5th place finish and a year and a half of solid dressage training, my "All-American dream horse" is not only back, he's better than ever. I think he is very impressed with his own ability to do his fancy dancing in the dressage ring, and I can honestly say that without a doubt it was worth the work. You can actually see it in his face. He has the carriage of a Prix St. Georges horse, the fluidity of a ballerina, and he loves every minute of it. Don't get me wrong, he still has the heart of a lion and an undying will to win, but now he does it with grace and ease.

This past year, while I was preparing for the CCI*, he never took a lame step. I had the vet give him a final exam before the competition and at the end of the jog. Whitey was so fit and sound that he ran me off my feet. It was great fun for everyone watching! The vet and the acupuncturist agreed there was nothing he needed to have done.

I can't explain the pride I felt at that moment, knowing that the dressage work we had done with Holly put us both back together--Whitey physically and me mentally. Knowing that during and after the CCI* I would come home with a sound, fit and most importantly, happy horse made all the difference. I can't thank Holly enough for her help, and the sport of dressage for giving me my event horse back.

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