Beginning Dressage–Classical Horse Training–my Journey

You’d think that after eight years of lessons in dressage I might be an expert, but no, dressage is a lifetime pursuit. I started with horses late (oh I had a naughty, black Welsh pony named King, as a child but I wouldn’t actually count him because he wasn’t my friend, he tried to kill me). I was 41 when I got a Quarter horse for my daughter and then an Arab for myself. She and I did 4H, various locally available clinics, a University of Wisconsin-River Falls week long program three times in three different years which was one of the places I learned the most, trail riding, horse search and rescue group-where I learned how easily a horse can push through and go over almost anything, had several different trainers including a reining competitor, hunt/jump trainer and a western pleasure trainer all in four years. I kind of liked all the variety, but it seemed like none of them had a long term plan, just some short term goals and no real life time building blocks. Which led me to dressage where horses reach their peaks in their teens, not when they are four to six and where there are a multitude of detailed plans.

So dressage with Susan Medenica began, two times monthly we’d gather at Royal Gaits Arena and have lessons that were about one hour long each. Usually there were four to six lessons starting at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings, all women of various ages and whatever the weather outside, we were sitting on bales of hay against the wall while instrumental music played and one of us rode in the arena. Susan and Lois would get up real early and drive down from Manitowish Waters/Presque Ilse, stop briefly at Walmart in Merrill or an early garage sale for extra entertainment. I would usually be the first lesson (have opened up the barn, turned on the arena lights, started the coffee, brought something for lunch) and sometimes also the last lesson on a different horse. Susan was a classically trained pianist, had taught in some college and had worked with horses for a significant time period also classically. During the time span of our lessons she wrote a book, “The Art of Dressage.” Susan had what the other trainers didn’t…depth of knowledge and a structure that spanned years. The core crew, with additions and subtractions over time, did this for eight years and we had a great fun watching each other, video taping, joking about Susan’s pat phrases that we might put on a T-shirt. The horses got better and better, or new ones started training after a certain level was achieved and I rode a lot. There was excitement sometimes, tension, my daughter’s mare nailed a whip handle in Susan’s hand with a very precise hind foot kick without breaking her trot stride by much and probably broke a bone. Susan just asked for ice and stayed back further, she’s tiny, but very tough.

Susan also had/has open training clinics once or twice a month in the summer at her outside arena near Presque Ilse. I’d haul one or two horses north for two and a half hours and stay overnight at Lois’s house. I’d usually ride both on Saturday and Sunday. Mud, snow, rain, heat and biting flies just didn’t matter.

So what do you do differently if you’re trying to ride classically dressage? Initially you work on your horse being forward and rhythmical and you work on yourself being balanced, hands steady, upright…this means lunging circles…you and your horse (or a horse you can trust to maintain gait because you don’t have the reins). The stuff they told you when you took your first ride about pulling back on the reins to stop and sideways to turn and boot ’em if they won’t go – well you need to overcome your prior concepts about how to ride. Because yes you will eventually use the reins, but basically you need to develop your seat and then leg control. You are working up to becoming the leader in a dance with your horse and you both need much better body control to be considered dancers.

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During this time I read, watched VCR’s and then DVD’s on classical training techniques. When I was having trouble sitting the medium trot I watched the trot segments on the kids VCR “The Little Horse that Could,” which chronicled the season in Region 10 when a Connemara stallion won the combined training regionally. It seemed to help me more than all the other videos…maybe the angle and views, maybe the music and rider and horse. For in-hand work I liked “Schooling Horses In-Hand, A Means of Suppling and Collection” by Richard Hinrichs.

Cover of "Schooling Horses in Hand: A Mea...
Cover via Amazon

We did a lot of ground work with Susan, but Richard Hinrichs video, even with somewhat odd German/English translation did a better job of showing the full progressions that you wanted from your in-hand exercises.

If I hadn’t been reading and watching videos and finding out as much as possible on my own I wouldn’t have gotten as much from my trainer.  But the same process of reading and watching made some strategies start to get too repetitive after that amount of time. And I was looking at moving beyond negative reinforcement and using food rewards, which was branded as “trick training” by certain established classicists (hmhmm Susan) despite studies in training techniques from France showing that food rewards sped up training and having horses want to do things with you significantly.

Add the much higher gas prices, the severe dust problem at the local arena, the lack of interest–we couldn’t seem to add new students, my thoughts that I just wasn’t willing to drill, whip and push my horses so hard and finally I no longer had extra cash which meant I had plenty of reasons to change and really embrace new things using the basis of knowledge and technique that I had acquired. So the new phase began- clicker training.


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