My Imperfect Dressage Schoolmaster

How one adult amateur made it to Grand Prix
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Credit: Photos courtesy, Ame Hellman Ame Hellman and Ronaldo

Credit: Photos courtesy, Ame Hellman Ame Hellman and Ronaldo

Adult amateur women are the backbone of the sport of dressage. Like many, I work full-time, manage family life and my small farm in Virginia with little or no time to spare. I am an attorney and work for a nonprofit—the World Wildlife Fund, based in Washington D.C. I travel from our farm to the WWF office every week as well as to our project office based in Bozeman, Montana. I love my work as much as I love my horses and family; I am very lucky. Almost all the money I make goes into my horses and my love of dressage. It is an addiction, and as I approach my 50th birthday, I now know unequivocally that “my name is Ame Hellman and I am a dressagaholic.” My husband, Doug, and I have two wonderful daughters who are now grown, and, for the first time in almost 20 years, I have been able to truly focus on my sport. But never in my wildest dreams did I think I would make it down the Grand Prix centerline.

My FEI horse, Ronaldo, is a Danish Warmblood out of Ragazzo, and I loved him at first sight. I saved for three years to purchase him. Then, after we moved to Virginia, we slowly but surely moved up the levels, building on the basics. I had high hopes for our chances of making it to the FEI levels, but when you have not gotten there yet it seems elusive. I watched and learned as much as I could, but riding an internationallevel test seemed like a very ambitious goal. Eventually, we did, indeed, make it to FEI, but the Grand Prix? Really? 

Ronaldo is long in the back and straight in his hock—he’s built a little bit like a picnic table. His hind legs are pigeon-toed, his right front a bit clubby, and his gaits are long and thrusting, not exactly what you look for in a large-tour horse that needs, first and foremost, to sit and collect. I’d been told over and over again that he was not able to do the Grand Prix. I was determined though. Ronaldo does have lovely gaits and the heart of a saint. Every day when we started our ride, I’d say to him, “You are such a good boy, such a fancy Grand Prix horse.” In my mind, I believed that he heard me.

We had sailed through the small tour over a two-year period with scores in the high 60s and even 70s, but the next level felt a bit like a jump over the Grand Canyon. Jim Kofford and Patrick Tigchelaar, two local trainers, helped me prepare for the 2011 show season at Intermediaire II, the “training” test for the Grand Prix. 

At this point, my entire life had become focused on my goal to ride the Grand Prix. My local vet, Dr. Tim Ober, became an integral part of my team. I took Ronaldo to him on a monthly basis, and he laid out a program for us to support Ronaldo during this intense training period. This included weekly injections of Legend® and Adequan® and a series of strategic joint injections to help Ronaldo feel as comfortable as possible. The season went fine. It was difficult psychologically for me to see our average score drop, but by the end of the season, we had qualified for the regional championships and were actually ranked nationally.

Now it was time to really assess our chances of riding the Grand Prix. There was still a huge hole in our game— it came in the form of connection, throughness and suppleness over the horse’s back. I knew this intellectually but could not seem to make it happen in the saddle. Ronaldo would get tense and try so hard to do the tricks, but his physical limitations coupled with my inadequate seat were holding us back. I knew the only way that I was going to achieve my personal goal with my horse was to commit to a block of intensive coaching. I knew what my current obstacles were in my training: My horse was not through and on the aids enough for the level; my seat needed improvement; I still was having difficulty collecting the gaits. 

Then I came upon trainer Tom Noone, whose winter base is in north-central Florida. He had qualified two horses for the Pan Am Selection Trials and he has represented the United States at the World Cup in Denmark in 2001. He has trained many hoses to Grand Prix and taken a dozen or so Adult Amateurs to that level. He knew the challenges. Once I was fully committed to this adventure, I approached my supervisor at work, who let me set up an office in Florida. I had saved for this experience for about six months and had a nest egg in the bank to cover my expenses. I could do this! So off we went to Florida, where the footing was perfect and the trainer gave me his utmost attention for four to six hours a week. This was just what we needed. 

Among my small arsenal of inspirational tools, I took an article written by Scott Hassler for Dressage Today in the July 2011 issue called “ImPerfect Schoolmasters.” In it, several lucky owners prove that upper-level horses with a catch should not be overlooked. One of Scott’s examples was a gelding that was best described as a horse with a “conformation of the heart, not of his body, that has made him the perfect schoolmaster”— the quintessential description of Ronaldo.

As all great dressage trainers do, Tom began by rebuilding our basic training blocks. What follows is the stream of consciousness that, over a period of six weeks, was drilled into my mind: 

The half halt: First, seat. Second, legs (upper thigh preferably). And only then do you go to your hands. For us, the half halt was code for “Slow it down and collect that horse, please.” I tend to be impatient—not good when you are trying to compress a long-bodied horse. These things take time. Tom would calmly remind me to shorten the body and lengthen the stride in the warm-up; the strides could be shortened later. Start with the walk and get that right before you even think about starting the trot. I realized that slowing the horse’s gaits was actually helping us to create more activity and compression in the collection (less running through the reins).

The warm-up: We began each session with an on-the-buckle walk in a large pasture for 15 minutes before coming into the arena. Tom would wait until we had achieved the perfect semicollected walk before asking us to begin our warmup. He reminded me that a good walk is a trot waiting to happen. As I moved into the next gear, I looked for Ronaldo’s inside eyelash as I pushed him to the outside rein with my inside leg and seat. 

Tom explained again and again that throughness is the push from the hind legs, over the back and into the poll felt by the rider from inside rein to outside rein. The swing in the horse's back is created in this way—from back to front with rhythmic and relaxed forward energy. Oh, yes, and then he reminded me to sit on my back pockets to drive the horse into the throughness. I lifted my shoulders, head and torso to reposition my pelvis, thereby lifting the horse’s shoulders into a more collected frame. By the end of the second week, these concepts had finally begun to sink into my thick skull. By the end of our third week, we were ready to ride our first Grand Prix test in a recognized show. Tom felt that we had “no holes.”

It was now or never. The buildup to actually riding the Grand Prix test is ridiculous. I was a train wreck of nerves. For years, the Grand Prix has eluded riders like me, forcing us to stress out, lose sleep, fight with our spouses and experience profound doubt in our abilities as riders and human beings. To my surprise, however, our Grand Prix debut left me with a feeling of complete satiation. It could not have gone better. On our second day down centerline, we got 61.4 percent under a tough judge and with two mistakes in our line of one tempis and a canter pirouette to the right. I was thrilled! 

The most important lesson I learned is that even if it takes a person two years to save for the opportunity, it is by far the best investment in a riding career you can make. It will change your game if you do it with the right trainer. The second most important lesson I learned is that we should never give up on our horses. We cannot judge what lies inside their beings or what they can achieve with us. 

I met a wonderful woman in Florida with a Grand Prix schoolmaster. Peeps was 24 years old and out of shape when Shelly took him on. Over a period of a year, Shelley and Tom took that lovely diamond in the rough and slowly but surely began to reconstruct his confidence and body. By the time I left the ranch, Peeps was doing 15 one-tempis at a time and the GP canter zigzag and sailing through his lovely piaffe and passage. He had the happiest, proudest and most contented look on his face—he was a star! Peeps is a hero to me—as is Ronaldo. If we give them a chance and invest in the most classical, pure dressage training our money can buy and our minds can find in this big world of choices, we can all reach our goals.

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