Dressage Life: Setting Goals

This adult amateur learns that the dressage rider sets the level for the pair. By Shirley Botma-Moraal for Dressage Today magazine.

I vividly remember my ninth birthday. Much like Ralphy and the Red Ryder BB gun in the movie “A Christmas Story,” all I ever wanted was a pony. On my ninth birthday, my parents went to look at a farm that was for sale in Wyoming, Ontario. My uncle promised that, if my parents bought the property, he would give me the pony my cousins had outgrown. The farm was purchased, and the pony became mine. My father must have had a yearning for his homeland, for when I was 15, he was the first Canadian to import Friesian horses. Along with several Americans, he was one of the founding members of FHANA, the Friesian Horse Association of North America.

Shirley Botma-Moraal and Chester | Photo courtesy of Shirley Botma-Moraal

Between college, getting married and starting a family, I was away from the horse scene temporarily. When my oldest was about 5, I started riding lessons at a friend’s barn.

They had a dressage clinic with an instructor who moved to our area from the States, and that was the beginning. I had been under the impression that I could ride, but one session showed me how little I actually knew. Thus began my dressage journey. I became one of the adult amateurs that drives the dressage world and her coaches crazy at times.

I had imported an Oldenburg gelding at my coach’s urging but, after five years, I ended up with a horse that I could not ride. A combination of bloodlines and being pushed too far too fast had soured him. I traded him to a friend who had a Canadian-bred Prix St. Georges horse. She had tried out for the Canadian Young Riders Team but couldn’t compete against the expensive imports. She did well with my Oldenburg at first, but both of us ended up selling the horses we had traded to each other for various reasons.

My riding was not where I wanted it to be so, out of sheer desperation, I started taking lessons. All my years of riding Friesians had given me a pretty good sit trot, or so I thought. But, for some reason, I could never canter properly. In my lessons, I rode a 15-year-old Melbourne Warmblood-Melbourne being a small hamlet where the barn is. I was amazed at how this straight-behind, upside-down-necked Trakhener cross responded to my aids for laterals. Leg yields and shoulder-in came with the simple shift of a seat bone. A testament to slow, steady, careful training. Although at that time I couldn’t connect him, he moved off leg and seat aids effortlessly. During one session, I said to Marianna, “You have to sell me this horse.” It was the best money I ever spent.

Chester was, and still is, the toughest horse to ride. He is very sensitive and not truly built to be a dressage horse. He has frustrated me to tears more than once. I almost gave up too many times to count. My goal was Third Level, and I ignorantly thought I should be able to do it a year after I bought him.

I was still taking lessons from Marianna, although working primarily on my own, and hitting a wall one day I went out and bought a double bridle. Everything changed from that day onward. I could connect him on the bit in the snaffle, but a combination of my poor seat and his physical drawbacks made it impossible for me to keep the connection. Putting him in the double stopped him from pulling on me and helped me to improve my seat. I finally did Third Level the year Chester turned 20. I never made it to sanctioned shows, only schooling. It was never brilliant, and one change was “sticky,” but I still did it.

Two years ago, I went to Germany with the idea to purchase another warmblood. Through cancelled flights, lost luggage and the language barrier, I realized that what I was looking for I already had at home in Chester. I found another place for that money and, with what was left over, I bought one of the horses of my youth–much to my American friends’ chagrin–a Friesian. Friesians are wonderful horses. They can be difficult to keep in front of your leg and tend to be more of “leg movers” than “back movers,” but most of them have wonderful temperaments and are easy to work with.

We run a small, insignificant barn on the very farm my father bought when I was 9–the circle of life, I suppose. We have several boarders, who I am quick to say are among the best. We all ride together and do a bit of showing. Although nothing is ever perfect, just like a 20-meter circle, we all get along mostly. Chester is now retired. I still ride with Marianna when I can, and also get help from my friend Meredith and an ex-Young Rider who lives near me.

The biggest lessons I have learned through my riding have been the most painful and the most difficult. I now know that you can’t rush a horse. Although buying a trained horse can move you up the levels quicker, you always bring the horse down to your level of riding no matter how advanced the horse is. The best way to further your riding is to start with yourself. I will never have the seat that my friend Meredith has. But, I can pick away at it and it does improve. In and out of the saddle, self-awareness is the key to balanced riding and–in my humble opinion–living.