The judge jingles her 45-second warning bell and I urge my horse, Sly Fox, a 19-year-old Morgan gelding, forward as we trot down the centerline of the Forest Arena in Bridle Trails State Park in Washington state.
There’s no reason to stress, I remind myself, nodding to the judge. It’s a superb
Seattle summer day—warm and bright. The footing’s dry but not too hard. I’ve ridden in this ring a hundred times. With test memorized, tack cleaned and boots polished, I’m ready for the trial ahead of me. Still, I’m tense. I want this ride to go well.
On this late August morning, I am 13 years into a riding renaissance. My return to horses began with a vision of trail riding in the state park near my home in Bellevue, Washington. As the mom of an 18-month-old, my life revolved around childrearing, housekeeping and my work. But I yearned for freedom and adventure. In my grass-is-greener musings, I recalled the avid, pre-teen rider I once was—the kid who galloped her palomino, Butterscotch, bareback, belting out early seventies Top 40 hits along the bridle paths of Ancil Hoffman Park near Sacramento, California. I wanted to find that girl again, but first I’d need a mount.
Unable to secure an equine to borrow or lease near the park, I opted for riding lessons instead. “I’d like to ride English but I don’t want to jump,” I informed the salesperson at Olsen’s Tack Shop, in my search for an instructor.
“Oh, you want to ride dressage?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered with conviction, not knowing quite why, as I had never heard the word before. Little did I know where my utterance of this simple affirmative would lead.
Three horses, four broken bones and five trainers later, I am still trying to master Training Level. While I’d anticipated a steady climb up the levels, a different reality awaited. By now I should be schooling half passes and flying changes—or so I imagined. Not so. Time, age, skill, talent and various injuries have kept my fantasy in check. Despite recent U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) rule changes that permit the rising trot in First Level, I’ve yet to execute a lengthening or a leg yield before a judge. My horse and I have had many great times together, but showing has never been our strong suit.
I’ve owned Fox for eight years. We both suffer from arthritis—he in his hocks, me in my right hip. Senior equine, mature rider, work, motherhood and life in general are my excuses—or reasons—for not having become that Third Level rider after all these years. Perhaps, in becoming too focused on an arbitrary goal, my love of horses and riding had become overshadowed by a desire to perform?
Despite many schooling show ribbons, my dressage test scores remain mediocre. But when I let go of the outcome and focus on creating harmony between my horse and me, my riding improves. When we do execute the occasional “8” canter depart—even if it’s in a lesson and not in the show ring—the sensation’s sublime: clean, simple, effortless, magic. That’s the feeling, often so elusive in the dressage arena, that I took for granted as a kid, and reliving it—even occasionally—keeps me coming back.
The shadbelly coat may remain out of reach, but the byproducts of dressage—an ever-deepening bond with my horse, a community of like-minded friends, a connection to nature and improved riding skills—are not.
Coming full circle, I recall the words of my first riding teacher when I entered the sport. “Dressage is just French for training,” she explained. “It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.”