I do not ride dressage except for the half-dozen walk–trot tests that I did years ago. This makes riding for me seldom, at best. What I do, instead, is driven dressage. My riding friends have often questioned how driven dressage works. When I explain it, I say that it is almost just like riding dressage but there are a few differences. Of course, the logistical difference is that the arena size is much larger to allow for four-in-hand competitors. And the movements are performed when the horse’s nose, instead of the rider’s knee, hits the letter. And, yes, some of the tests even include canter movements. Our tests also require lengthening, collecting and bending, just like traditional dressage tests.
I especially love to compete, and in 2000, I bought a miniature horse, named Spencer, when he was 9 months old. There are plenty of avenues to compete with minis, but my goal was to drive him.
I always start my horses’ training with ground driving, even in preparation for riding. I do this as soon as they are weaned. They learn to accept the bit, turn and respond to voice commands for walk, trot and whoa. As Spencer grew older and more experienced, I added the weight of a tire for him to drag. Then, he eventually pulled a cart and was competing. The first show we entered was 4-H level. There were seven participants in the class and they were all sizes. Spencer, who is 34 inches at the withers, was standing next to what seemed like a giant, a Haflinger, during the lineup. The first class was just a pleasure class where, as a group, the horses walk and trot in both directions. Our second class was a cones course. This is a set number of pairs of cones with balls on top. Like a jumper course, they are numbered and the goal is to get through the course with the fastest time. If you hit the cone, the ball falls off and penalty points are incurred. I think I was hooked that day.
I joined the Garden State Horse and Carriage Society in New Jersey shortly after that and started going to its shows, which included dressage. In dressage, I have always liked the fact that you get your test back and you can see remarks from the judge. After my first driven dressage test, I read the remarks and saw that I did this wrong and that wrong. I made many mistakes and I did that for many tests. But somewhere along the line, I learned the nuances of the different movements. So now as I am driving my test, I am saying to myself I just did this wrong. I just did that wrong. Perhaps ridden dresssage riders can relate.
Driven dressage also has levels: Training, Preliminary, Intermediate and Advanced. The last is world-class competition level. Each level asks for more from your horse. Training Level is the only level where cantering is not required or permitted.
I love dressage. I love learning the finesse and more refined movements for my horse. I love getting the tests back and seeing that what I have worked on has improved and also where I still need help. I am a member of Brandywine Valley Driving Club, where I have had the opportunity to take a few clinics with international-level carriage driver Lisa Singer and international combined driving competitor and Grand Prix dressage rider Sara Schmitt. Other than that, I was self-taught. In 2010, I went to the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky and watched the driven dressage for two days. I take every opportunity to learn. Just seeing these world-class drivers was an experience I will never forget. What an eye-opener that was—to have a visual of what it is I am supposed to aim for in my driving. Now I have started to train with Lynn Stokking from Lighted Way Equestrian Program in Bridgton, New Jersey. Lynn has been a dressage trainer for riders for years. However, the same things she teaches riders are the same things that drivers need. With her help, the remarks on my tests no longer say “counter bent.” I am learning how to use my core and half halts to shift my horse’s weight onto his hindquarters. And the best part is that, since I am being trained and not just sending my horse for training, everything I learn I can use on multiple horses.
I wish all dressage riders well. Just remember, in the future, if you are unable to ride for any reason, there is always driving to give you that same fix for your competition or dressage needs.