Owning Success in the Dressage Ring

This amateur dressage rider learned how to build on basics to reach her goals.
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Credit: Courtesy, Jayne Nessif Jayne Nessif and Morgenstern (aka Cooper)

Credit: Courtesy, Jayne Nessif Jayne Nessif and Morgenstern (aka Cooper)

There isn’t an amateur dressage rider among us who, having watched a mesmerizing Grand Prix performance, can resist the allure of all that it represents, from the magical dance of the piaffe and passage to the graceful canter pirouettes to the rhythmical tempis to the gigantic floating gaits of those larger-than-life horses. But like the eager young jumper rider who cares only about going faster and jumping higher at the expense of mastering correct riding, we as amateur dressage riders tend to want to breeze through those pesky basics and get right to the real treat of it all; those elusive “tricks.”

Having spent only a few years in dressage after 20 years in the hunter/jumper arena, I thought more of a schoolmaster type would be appropriate. I could then learn to ride those exciting tricks right now. 

When I started the search for my new horse, I spent a lot of time on the Internet. I viewed ads with detailed descriptions highlighting those tricks, studying the videos and forwarding them to my trainer, Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel, for her opinion. 

Felicitas observed horses that were tight in the neck or back, resistant to the aids, heavy on the forehand or how the rider was kicking and pulling. Meanwhile, I would think, yeah but the tricks are there! But Felicitas wasn’t going to let me buy some circus pony just so I could experience the thrill of upper-level riding—a privilege I had far from earned. Instead, she found my lovely 6-year-old gelding, Morgenstern aka “Cooper,” who had no formal dressage training. His size and age were appropriate; he was adorable, very smart with beautiful natural gaits. While I was flattered by her confidence in my ability to work with something so green when I was too, I asked, “What about the tricks?” Her response was, “The basics are there so those will come.” 

We shared him for many months so Felicitas could get him confirmed in some basics while I confirmed my basics in longe lessons on a school horse. When I did start lessons on Cooper, they consisted of things like walking a straight line and closing my eyes and feeling his rhythm. At this rate, I would be 80 by the time I got to First Level. I’ve been riding forever, so what’s so important about walking in a straight line or feeling rhythm, and why hasn’t someone mentioned this before? 

But I came to learn that I couldn’t have connection or energy flow through a crooked horse. It’s like trying to ride a bike with a flat tire. The air leaks out and eventually you can’t move or steer. 

Rhythm is the basis for all the gaits, and it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I couldn't move up without those things. I also realized how many trainers gloss over this important information. Let’s face it, the rewards are far from immediate, and it takes patience and discipline on the part of both trainer and student.

After seven months of emphasis on the most basic of things, i.e., straightness, forwardness and suppleness sometimes just at the walk, our first show at Training Level yielded a high score of 73.929 percent! But there was no resting on our laurels as we worked on more basics over the winter. I finally started to make the connection both in my horse and my brain that these basics are the foundation on which all tricks are built.

The leg yield is no longer something I have to ride because it’s in my test, but because it’s another tool that improves my horse’s rideability. Having now graduated to First Level, I received a first and second place at our first show this season. Those classical dressage trainers are right, there’s something to those basics. Maybe that’s why they have stood the test of time. I suspect the tricks will come but my guess is I won’t recognize them as such, but as a further extension of the basics. And that’s the real treat.

We often joked that when Felicitas rode Cooper she made the “deposits” and when I rode him I made the “withdrawals.” Eventually, we made fewer of each. After her rides, the “report card” Cooper would give her of my time on him continued to get better. She shared in my achievements and always would say, “Congratulations, you now own that!” 

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