I discovered reining in 2007. I bought a little Quarter Horse mare named Jolee and never looked back. There is something about sitting on a horse during a sliding stop that always feels like slow motion. Seeing dirt fly behind you, looking down to see thundering hooves crawling to a stop, then checking out your tracks. It’s all in those two to three seconds where you become hooked.
I have always admired those who ride dressage from afar. It’s something that is so foreign, yet similar to reining in many aspects. The foundations of good horsemanship are present in both, but the two disciplines are very different in practice. The precision and body movement required are all so uncanny to me. That’s the part I liked. I wanted to do that, too. I have traveled to many different equine shows and conventions and I’ve watched an array of events. But each time I was mesmerized by dressage. The final Ok, just do it—try out a lesson happened when I was at World Cup in Las Vegas. Mind you, I had been contemplating lessons for years. The stadium was packed to see all the masters of the dressage world, including Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro.It was incredible, unforgettable and a push to get moving. Soon after that I was hitting the Internet searching for lessons.
Trying something new usually never scares me. But this? Terrifying. Everyone has their passion. Horsepeople? Well, our passion is the horse, plain and simple. Trying a new discipline, especially on the opposite end of the spectrum and in a different saddle, can mess with the mind a bit. During my search for lessons, I came across quite a few places and sent a few emails. Finally I found a facility that just seemed right, so I booked a lesson.
I drove to my lesson with nothing but butterflies. I was worried about being looked down upon for riding Western, worried that my jeans and boots would not be allowed. I walked through the barn seeing horses twice the size of my little mare. I turned the corner to the indoor arena only to be greeted by the smiling face of Vanessa Chavez of Dala Dressage. She was sitting atop a large Irish Sport Horse named Sean. This horse’s face was twice the size of Jolee’s. All I could think was how this horse would look so odd doing a sliding stop or a spin.
Vanessa hopped off her beast of a horse and walked me into another barn. There, she introduced me to a Haflinger mare named Lily, who would teach me the rookie ropes. Lily and I became fast friends after I offered her a few peppermints. I picked up a dressage saddle for the first time in my life, which was wonderfully light compared to my reining saddle. Vanessa was patient with me and sat quietly while I tacked Lily up. She fitted me with a helmet, tossed me a whip and we walked out to the arena.
This is where my nerves set in. I thought for sure once I sat in that saddle, the barking orders were next. I was wrong and I regret ever thinking that. Vanessa was well aware that I knew how to ride and she treated me with the same respect as her other clients who have been riding dressage for as long as I have been riding reining. Vanessa coached me through the motions of sitting up straight, imagining a line from shoulder to foot, keeping my elbows at my sides and holding pressure on the bit. I learned the importance of moving with the horse and working on half halts. I had a blast with cavalletti. My hands were noodles by the end of my lesson and I thought, This is really hard. This is so different from what I thought it was going to be. Needless to say, I was humbled and sore.
I felt a little discouraged after my first lesson only because, as a rider, you have to firmly believe in yourself. While Lily was so patient with me, I felt sorry for her as I was trying hard to give every aid correctly, but at times going about it wrong. Horses like that are worth their weight in gold.
As weeks and months have passed, I have improved quite a bit. I still take lessons from Vanessa, borrow a dressage saddle, practice on Jolee and watch an assortment of videos online. There is a noticeable improvement in Jolee’s performance, too. I taught her to half pass at a young age, so I just took that up a notch. Her lead changes are much smoother, her turnarounds are more graceful and her stops drive longer. It’s amazing how the two disciplines can complement each other. Being able to ride two disciplines keeps things interesting. It keeps you open- minded, urges you to always ask more questions and never stop learning. If you think you’ve learned it all, you’ve missed the point. I’ve never believed that more than I do now.
My parting words: Get out there. Go try a new discipline, ride a new horse and keep an open mind. There’s nothing stopping you from trying out a reiner, a jumper or whatever you’ve had on your back burner. After all, we’re all here for the horse, right?