The Late-Blooming Dressage Rider

Patience and working with a good instructor taught this amateur rider that it’s never too late to improve.

Credit: Dionne Wilson Photography Sally Francy and Cherry

I’ve been riding most of my life, though I didn’t get my first horse until I was 19 years old. The first decade of my horse-ownership years I did trail riding. The next decade a little bit of competitive trail riding and a few endurance races. Dressage didn’t come into the picture until nearly six decades later. 

I still have the first book on dressage that I got when I was 12 years old, so I knew about this discipline long before I ever saw anyone demonstrate it. Dressage always seemed to me to be the most elegant of the riding disciplines, but I never thought I would actually be riding, and certainly not competing, in that sport.

I got my horse, Cherry, a now-21-year-old Quarter Horse mare, when she was 7-years-old. From the time I bought her, until she was 17, she traveled almost exclusively on her left lead canter, even when she was at liberty or on the longe line. On the very rare occasions that I was able to get her to pick up a right lead, she would quickly switch back to her left. That was frustrating to me, because I felt it reflected on my ability as a rider. And, in fact, it did.

About three years ago, I went to watch a friend’s dressage lesson. After seeing the progress she had made in her riding since I had last seen her and talking to her instructor about my troubles with the right lead canter, I decided to pursue lessons in dressage.

When I began, I naively thought that I’d have a right lead canter within a couple months’ time. My instructor said it would be “at least a year” before I could expect fairly consistent right-lead canter departs. And even then, because Cherry had spent 17 years left-leaded and unbalanced, chances are that any time a new exercise was introduced that required her to change her balance, she would revert to a left lead. Once I had achieved reasonably consistent right-lead canter departs, I thought her observation couldn’t possibly be correct; after all, I had it now, right? Needless to say, my instructor’s experience showed that her prognostication was correct. Now, three years later, I can reliably count on about a 98-percent chance of getting a right-lead canter depart if I do my part of the equation correctly.

After my first year of lessons, I swore I would never compete. But my instructor suggested that perhaps it would be fun for me to try a schooling show at Training Level. Despite my stage fright, I was proud of myself, and I was hooked. 

I find dressage extremely demanding, and I can only appreciate the years it would take to develop the strength and agility the upper levels require. While it looks effortless, it is anything but. I find the challenges are enormously gratifying, as each level’s exercises build upon those that came before. Personally, I find it both satisfying and addictive, and once I did a schooling show, I realized that with hard work, and a good instructor, anyone could improve their current riding skills.

Most importantly, dressage helps me become a more precise rider and my horse, a much more physically capable horse, whose competitive life may be extended as a result of this gradual and careful training. 

For me, dressage is my “Bucket List” riding endeavor. I haven’t been this excited about anything in years, as all my friends who so patiently listen to my manic rants will attest to. It just goes to show, it’s never too late to try something new. 






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