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Taking it in Stride: The Regal Sport of Dressage

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When done properly, this equestrian sport looks like a simple dance routine, but it takes years of training for both horse and rider. Explore the team effort required to produce a champion.

Trainer Andi Patzwald moves Sandy Herrick’s horse, Silencio, around a lettered course, in a dressage event at Silverwood Farm in Camp Lake, Wis.  (Samantha Ryan Photo)

Trainer Andi Patzwald moves Sandy Herrick’s horse, Silencio, around a lettered course, in a dressage event at Silverwood Farm in Camp Lake, Wis. (Samantha Ryan Photo)

Dressage is a silent sport.

With subtle, undetectable commands, riders must guide their horses through a series of precise, dance-like movements. When done well, it’s a regal, equestrian work of art that transforms two willful creatures into a single, graceful unit. At first glance, it appears riders are along for a relaxing ride. In truth, riders work hard to appear motionless.

“It looks like you’re not doing anything, when you’re actually doing a lot,” says 15-year-old rider Lauren Jerie, of Rockford, who trains at Marquis Stables in Belvidere. “It’s more than it appears to be.”

Actually, it takes years of work, and a strong bond between horse and rider, to make dressage look effortless, says Jerie’s trainer, Amy Walker-Basak, the owner of Marquis Stables.

“Once the partnership is formed, communication between horse and rider becomes mostly invisible to spectators,” says Walker-Basak. “It’s extremely rewarding when you can think what you would like your horse to do, and it happens.”

The point at which the hard work and rider-horse bond are put to the test is the dressage competition. Tests are divided by graduated levels of difficulty, ranging from the basic walk/trot/canter of the Training level to Grand Prix – the same test used at the Olympics. Tests typically last four to six minutes, during which time the horse and rider work their way around the lettered arena performing a series of prescribed movements; each is scored separately. Judges are especially keen on tight transitions between gaits and precise movements. Upcoming events in our region include the Dressage at Lamplight I and II, at Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, on Aug. 21.

When a horse-and-rider team graduates to the next level, success is easy to see. Less visible are the years of preparation and practice behind that success. An effective dressage team not only needs time and energy invested by rider and horse, but also by owners, trainers and groomers.

“Riders try different horses to see which fits and works best with them,” says Jerie, who rides a thoroughbred named Demure. “But the horse chooses the rider, too.”

An Owner’s Contribution

A successful dressage team begins with the right horses in the stable, says horse owner Sandy Herrick, of Lake Forest. Herrick owns two horses that are stabled at First Class Horse Complex in Bristol, Wis. Poly Graf is at the Intermediare I level, the beginning stage of the advanced dressage standards, and is working toward Intermediare II. Herrick’s other horse, Silencio, is a six-year-old just starting out in dressage. Before investing in a horse she thinks might be capable of dressage, Herrick first gets acquainted with the animal.

“I buy sweet, nice horses with good dispositions that like to be around people and have good personalities,” Herrick says.

A friendly demeanor is only half the equation.

“I also have to find what they like to do,” Herrick says. “I had a horse who was purchased for dressage, but he wanted to jump. He didn’t like dressage at all. I had a horse for jumping and all he really wanted to do was dressage. It’s easier to start off with a horse that has the ability and the desire to do dressage. I want them to have an attitude to be willing to work hard and like what they’re doing.”

Once the horse is selected, Herrick relies upon the trainer.

“Over the years, I’ve developed a perspective on finding the best trainers for a dressage horse,” Herrick says. “I look for people with a great deal of knowledge on how to develop a horse’s ability, musculature and response. Is there a harmony between horse and rider? What horses have they developed? But the most important thing is the horse. Do they put the horse’s needs as a priority?”

Like all good human relationships, the bond among a horse, rider and trainer takes time to develop and flourish.

“It’s approximately a five-year process to train a horse all the way to the top level of dressage,” says Andi Patzwald of Antioch, a trainer at First Class Horse Complex. “It’s only for people who really want to put in the time and effort to perfect something. It’s not quick, and it’s not easy.”

Herrick expects a long-term commitment from the trainers who work with her horses. “A trainer has to have enough time with the horse and you have to allow the relationship to develop over time,” she says.

When it comes to show preparation, Herrick is hands-on.

“I participate very heavily at the shows,” she says. “I make sure all of the feed is packaged and we have all the supplies that are needed at the horse show – tack, pads, shipping boots to get horses there. Not all owners are that involved, but I like to do that. It’s hard for a trainer to coordinate everything. I’d rather they stay focused on the event and attending to the horse.”

Herrick doesn’t do anything physical with the horses, herself; a groomer braids the manes and prepares the horses for a show. She does, however, work closely with her trainer to decide what competitions to visit. Selecting shows often depends upon the personality and strengths of the horse.

“Maybe your horse does better in cool weather, so you go to shows earlier in the season,” says Herrick. “Or, if they do better in warm weather, go later in the season, say in June or July. It also depends on how far you want to travel. There are a lot of shows in the Chicagoland area, so you don’t really have to travel that far, unless you desire to.”

With a proactive owner, personable horse and talented trainer, a dressage team can make great strides. Add a rider who effectively communicates with the horse, and the team is complete. There are common questions that owners and trainers can ask to decide if the horse and rider make a good team.

“Is the horse moving in a relaxed manner?” says Herrick. “Does he understand what the rider is asking? Is the rider asking in the correct way so the horse is understanding?”

A Rider’s Preparation

It’s impressive to watch a rider who’s perched high in the saddle, decked out in white breeches, white gloves, white shirt, black jacket with metal buttons, black boots and black helmet. But this sport is about more than just looking good.

“You’ll find that most dressage riders are perfectionists,” says trainer Patzwald, who owns Dressage in Motion and also trains at Olson Stables in Wadsworth. “They’re very detail-oriented, and that’s what draws them to the sport.”

Riders focus on building two things above all else: a bond with the horse and a good seat. It’s essential for riders to develop a strong connection with the horse, so they can effectively communicate non-verbal instructions. It’s not an easy task.

“It takes a lot of hard work,” says Jerie, who’s been riding for five years. “You have to build up to where you need to be. It takes a long time to make a connection and get him to make the movements. If you don’t have a connection, you won’t be able to do anything.”

Amy Grahn of Lake Bluff, who trains at First Class Horse Complex and has been competing for 20 years, says nothing is more important than the horse-rider bond.

“It is the key to success in dressage,” says Grahn, who currently rides Piko, an 11-year-old Westphalian gelding. “Understanding each other and precise communication is what makes a pair. Respecting each other is key to that. Horses talk – you just have to listen to them.”
Fellow rider Robin Mattson of Lake Bluff, who also trains at First Class Horse Complex, agrees.

“Riding 1,200 pounds of natural flight instinct requires a lot of trust for the horses to partner and move in ways that can be challenging and that require strength and effort on their part.” Mattson has been riding for 18 years.

“I’ve learned a tremendous amount from my current horse, Eye Candy,” says Mattson. “He’s taught me that I must be focused, relaxed and mentally prepared, or else it can be a disaster. I believe horses mirror their riders, and I know my horse counts on me to provide the best situation for the best possible outcome.”

While time in the saddle is important, Patzwald also encourages riders to spend time with their partners out of the saddle.

“There’s nothing like riding to develop the bond, but it takes time on the ground, too,” she says. “Horses have personalities. When you groom them and see their mannerisms, you get to know them better.”

Once the bond is developed, riders focus on developing their seat, or their position in the saddle.

“The seat is the primary communication aid with the horse,” says Grahn. “It must be active at all times, to prepare the horse for the next movement and tell the horse length of stride and activity of the hind leg. Dressage is a continuum of developing your seat to move up the levels.”

Most communication is performed with the seat and legs, requiring little upper body movement. However, this position requires riders to develop their core muscles, as Mattson discovered early in her career, while training with Grand Prix dressage rider and trainer Catherine Haddad.

“When training in Germany, with Catherine, she didn’t let me use my hands for almost two years,” Mattson says. “My hands were in a forward position with knuckles together. They were not to be used unless in a runaway situation. When training like that, you learn to use your seat.”

No matter their methods, a trainer’s hard work and advice are invaluable to the rider’s development.

A Trainer’s Lesson

Patzwald, both a dressage rider and a trainer, is captivated by the sport. “It’s beauty, grace, and precision to ride a 1,200-pound animal and make it look effortless,” she says. “The rider needs to look like she’s doing nothing and the horse is dancing. A lot of dressage is about feeling. You can only put the rider in an exercise so they can feel how the horse is going to move. You can’t teach feel – you have to experience it.”

The biggest difference between novice and advanced riders is simply experience and time, says Walker-Basak, who trains Jerie. Dressage is a progressive sport, where the only way to improve is to invest plenty of time. Jerie, who’s just a teenager, is off to a good start.

“She always has the best attitude, is very committed to the sport and is the perfect example of what is desired by every trainer,” says Walker-Basak, who trains at all levels. “She has a natural gift for feel on the horse. This past schooling show, she took an off-the-track thoroughbred and went in smiling, even though the horse was quite naughty. That’s a good rider, who can finish a ride without being upset or worried about what her score would be. She knew it was all for experience for the horse.”

When riders perform well on their own, without depending upon trainers, the team is working effectively, says Patzwald. She was thrilled at a recent dressage event when Mattson did just that.

“I was competing in a show at the same time Robin was, so I couldn’t school her horse or be there with her,” Patzwald says. “I gave pointers on what she needed to work on for the performance, and then she was on her own. She did really well. As a trainer, I was very happy just knowing I had prepped her well. The ultimate proof was that she was prepared for the test on her own.”

Putting It Together

No matter the skill, the goal of all riders at a dressage competition is to perform well and advance to the next level. For the perfectionist personalities that often take up the sport, this can lead to tense and stressful hours before an event. To make matters worse, a horse can sense anxiety in a rider.

“You have to take a deep breath, focus on what you’re doing, and not worry about the score – just concentrate on the horse,” says Jerie. “Just stay calm, so you don’t worry the horse. I have to get my horse to stretch down, ignore everything around it and focus on me. If the rider is relaxed, then the horse will be relaxed, because they feed off you.”

Nervous riders often overcompensate by overtraining, says Grahn. Too much training for a particular event can cause a horse to look ahead.
“We don’t ride through the whole test very often, as the horse then knows the test and will anticipate the next movement, rather than waiting for my aids to tell him what to do next and when to do it,” she says.

Instead of getting worried, Grahn says, riders should remember why they got involved with this regal, elegant sport to begin with.

“Have fun and enjoy the time with your horse,” she says. “Don’t take yourself too seriously. Ignore the competition. You should be competing against yourself, improving your last score. The score is sometimes more important than your placement in the class.”

Confidence is an important element for both horse and rider. “Tell your horse he’s the best and give him confidence in himself and you,” says Grahn. “Spend time grooming him, rubbing his ‘spots’ and bonding with him out of the saddle. They know who you are and how you interact with them. Give yourself enough time to get ready, get the horse groomed, braided and tacked for your ride so you’re not rushed.”

A relaxed rider leads to a relaxed horse, which translates to a smooth, fluid and clean dressage test. After all, the best riders look as if they’re doing nothing at all.

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