You know your horse isn’t the “typical” dressage horse. Maybe his breeding is unusual, or just not what we usually see in the ring. Maybe his gaits are not beautiful by nature, or maybe he has less than perfect conformation. Maybe you are proud of this, or maybe you are self-conscious about it. Regardless, he is your chosen dressage partner and together you and he are embarking on a journey. As you go along, you will come across significant challenges, and when you do, there is a danger you need to guard against.
We all love the fairy tale stories of the odd mutt-bred horses that make it up the levels, the inspiring ottb that overcomes the odds despite his rough start at the track, the PMU rescue, the mustang, and even just the plain old Craigslist diamond in the rough. There are SO many stories of these horses “making it”, that many of us keep trying with whatever horse we have, even though we know the odds are against us. But do we really believe we can succeed despite the odds? Or do we, deep down, believe that success is a fairy tale and we are not princesses?
I’ve seen over and over where a rider, and often her trainer as well, expect the horse to fail. They expect that he’ll never be able to collect, do a good lengthening, or do great lateral work. They expect that he will struggle, or resist. I’ve been on the receiving end of comments from trainers who’s help I’ve enlisted, who in a sometimes more and sometimes less blunt way, tell me my horse can’t do dressage and to get a new one. They essentially give up on trying to figure out how to help us because they expect that there is no way, or that it isn’t worth the time. It’s even worse when the rider is an ammy learning and training her horse at the same time. Every mistake the horse makes can be blamed not only on the fact that the horse was doomed to fail to begin with, but additionally because the rider is screwing everything up, or can’t possibly learn on a horse that can’t do it anyways…
Let’s not lose perspective here. First of all, MOST horses don’t make it all the way up the levels. Even most warmbloods will top out at a low level for a variety of reasons. The reason most horses don’t make it up the levels has less to do with their conformation or gaits, and more to do with their circumstances… unfortunate injuries, poor or lack of training, owners needing time off so the horse gets time off, owners goals not focused on moving up the levels, or behavior issues that crop up from a myriad of sources.
And as long as we’re talking about keeping things in perspective, let me mention that of course not every warmblood is well built for dressage or has nice gaits, and not every non-warmblood is poorly built or a not-fancy mover. But there are warmbloods purpose-bred to succeed in dressage, and there are few other breeds mass producing horses this way. So if you want the odds in your favor, you’ll get the best chance at show ring success on a horse bred for that purpose. My point is that “best chance” to some people starts to sound like “only chance”, and this is a problem. Not everyone wants to ride a warmblood, not everyone can afford one, and not everyone is riding with the sole purposes of making the fastest journey possible up the levels with the highest scores possible. There is nothing wrong with those who are on that journey, but this advice is more for everybody else. I’m also not talking about high scores or going to the Olympics or anything like that, I’m talking about average horses and average riders, who should be able to get average scores at average levels.
So what are the differences between the “destined for greatness” horse and the “destined for failure” horse, besides, likely, the income the owner has to spend on the sport? I have found it’s the willingness to accept defeat. When a horse that seems destined to the upper levels stops moving forward in training, right away it’s call the vet, call the farrier, call the chiropractor, saddle fitter, accupuncturist, massage therapist, and herbalist! These horses have staff! And when something isn’t right, riders will throw everything into figuring out why and trying to fix it. On the other hand, when Johnny mutt-horse is struggling, the first (and often last) assumption is that he was bound to struggle, he was not made to excel at this work. This is the easy excuse the not-bred-for-dressage horse has that the rider, owner, and trainer can choose to use at any time, while the “destined for greatness” horse does not give his people the luxury of an excuse like this!
And just like that, riders stop trying for Johnny-mutt. They keep on doing what they’re doing, hoping time will solve the problem, but they don’t look much further into why he is struggling. This rider, though well-intentioned, “figures” his saddle fits without actually having it checked, she “assumes” he can’t be sore because he doesn’t look lame, and “guesses” his diet is adequate because his ribs are not showing. Or she checks his saddle and calls a vet, and when neither turns up an issue, it is assumed that Johnny-mutt must be fine. The rider encountering problems should also question her own position in the saddle and the aids she is using, and even question the methods her trainer is teaching her, but if she already believes her horse can’t do it, she won’t rock the boat with these tough questions, or seek additional help elsewhere, especially if her trainer also agrees it’s not the training that is lacking but just the horse. So poor Johnny-mutt struggles and struggles, until often the rider will eventually give up, and either leave the sport, or find a “better” horse (which, with the same treatment, likely won’t succeed either… but with new horses come new dreams and expectations, and a new reluctance to use the “destined for failure” excuse!).
This basic assumption of expected failure is probably the biggest reason we see as few average ammy’s on average horses moving up the levels as we do. (Well, I guess we could also add in the factor that no one stands to gain financially from ammy’s on mutt-bred’s moving up the levels, whereas warmbloods provide big dollars to their breeders and trainers, so maybe there is even incentive to some to maintain this mentality of expected failure! I would argue that the industry as a whole stands to benefit from greater participation at every level… but that’s a topic for another day….)
In short, if you expect your horse to fail, then that belief will lead to actions, and lack of actions, that ultimately allow or create his failure. The same could be said of yourself.
How To Beat The Odds
So when we see these fairy-tale stories of unlikely horses making it way up the levels, what makes them so different? Why did they succeed when so many others will fail? Usually the story does outline some of what it took, and often it was not an easy path. The rider usually did have exceptional help, and both rider and trainer believed in the horse. The rider was unusually dedicated to her own riding, and to both her own and her horse’s fitness and health. Often they found a team that worked, a trainer, vet, farrier, and others who had the education, skills, and willingness to come together and make this success happen. Often these stories outline some of the unusual challenges they faced as well, which can be some of the most interesting and educational parts! Creativity, patience, and perseverance do seem to be key themes, always with a focus on helping the horse and rider overcome whatever the current challenge is, rather than allowing the rider to succumb to the challenge and stop trying.
Either the owner, rider, or trainer (or all 3) needs to love the horse and believe in the horse, and be determined to help the horse succeed. This person becomes the advocate for the horse in the times of doubt, frustration, or challenge. The more people there are keeping everyone in the right frame of mind to see this journey through, the easier it is to stay on track. When progress seems to come to a halt, the advocate starts looking for solutions, instead of giving up, or worse, turning to the “I told you so’s”. The advocate actively pursues the things the horse needs to succeed, from ensuring proper nutrition and daily care, to training programs that help build the horse both mentally and physically. Cross training may become a key element, or a different approach than works with a horse that finds the work easier. The advocate searches for solutions by researching all the possible factors that could be contributing to the resistance, from things the rider may be doing to saddle fit, bitting, or soreness in the horse’s body. With the internet as such a great resource, it’s easier now than ever before to be a good advocate for your horse, and there are almost endless ideas to try to figure out how to help your horse succeed. There is also the often forgotten history of dressage that is becoming increasingly easier to find on websites and in books, training from before the modern warmblood even existed, allowing access to techniques that may be getting forgotten in the training of modern horses. All of this is available at your fingertips, and much of it for free. Even without the money to call in all the experts, the rider can search for solutions and implement new strategies until something is found that works for the individual horse.
More than just giving correct aids, correct training means using the training scale and gymnastically developing the horse up the levels. Movements are not just to achieve an end, they are to strengthen and supple the horse, developing his body slowly so that he can handle more advanced work in the future. Likewise, gaits are developed and trained, and training a good medium trot into a horse that doesn’t have one naturally is starting to become a bit of a lost art. Finding a trainer who’s done this on horses that are not naturally gifted will be a key in learning how to do it with your horse. Most of the few I’ve found seem to be from the last generation before warmbloods took over. They are worth seeking out, and quickly before they retire!! The wisdom they hold is such a valuable resource, especially when it comes to training horses that do not find dressage a natural ability.
It takes longer to develop a horse to do work it doesn’t find naturally easy, and in our fast-food society we like quick results for minimal effort. This will be an exercise in patience, consistency, and finding small victories day by day leading to the longer term goals. This is a Zen activity in many ways. Learn to love the journey, let the destination be the icing on the cake. Remember that changing the horse’s musculature and way of going needs to be a long term project or you risk injuring him, making him sore, or making him sour. Keep the work enjoyable for him, give him days to relax, and find ways to build his confidence and enjoyment as he learns new ways of using his body. Remain his advocate. When the journey is long, there are sure to be trying times, and it’s these times that it is so easy to succumb to the expected failure.
There are lots of stories out there about unlikely horses achieving all sorts of things! Horses with funny conformation have successfully moved all the way up the levels in dressage, rescues from feedlots have found show ring success, and horses have recovered from all sorts of injuries to go on to lead successful lives. If you get to feeling stuck, spend a little time browsing these stories until you find your own equine hero!
Additionally, spend a little time looking at the USDF All Breed Award winners… you’ll find that many breeds are represented and earning respectable scores at all levels of competition! Of course there are not as many off breeds at the top levels, but there are not as many horses or riders at the top levels either, so this is to be expected. And you may even find that a horse you watched perform locally that put in a rock solid test was not actually the warmblood you had assumed when you watched him go. There may be a lot more variety in the show ring than you had expected. So go get on your horse and stop making excuses, give him every benefit you can and enjoy the journey!
And remember, the most critical piece is to give your horse that same benefit that the superstar horses get… find ways to help him succeed, instead of assuming that he is bound to fail. Look at him and see an upper level horse in the making, if only you could figure out what he needs to take that next step. When he gets stuck, ask why. Seek out new techniques and new ideas and new methods, until you find something that clicks for him. Be his advocate and a worthy partner, and he will show you just how far he can go!