Sparkling white breeches, white gloves and saddle pads, heaps of glittering “bling” on tack that has been scrubbed and polished, and don’t forget the impeccably groomed horse with perfectly uniform braids standing quietly at “A” awaiting their turn at stardom.
Is this what comes to mind when you think of dressage? Hmmm, not me.
Tonight I pulled up to the barn after a long day at my “regular” job. Eight hours of stress coupled with an hour-plus commute and here I am. I have some time before I’m scheduled to teach and I’d like to squeeze in a short ride. It’s 91 degrees and humid, the kind of swampy air only a Jersey equestrian can appreciate. I pull all my “riding stuff” and “teaching stuff” out of the car, two separate heavy bags. In the big one are my most comfy breeches (I think I washed them a couple rides ago…?), clean socks and an assortment of shirts that will cover most seasonal temps. A couple of baseball caps, a clean set of splint boots, and somewhere jammed in the bottom are winter gloves, hand warmers and hat leftover from months ago that never got taken out. I guess it never hurts to be prepared for a blizzard in August, right? The other bag has my teaching headsets, video camera, test booklet, copies of exercises, cones, and probably a couple of student’s checks lost in the bottom. Uhg, gotta deposit those checks!
The horses are turned out for the night so I walk into the empty barn, yell greetings to the staff who are packing up to leave and some of the “evening shift” boarders who are arriving to do their thing. There’s not much of a breeze tonight so inside the barn the air is even closer than outdoors. I head in to change, and thank god that the barn that I call my second home has air conditioning in the tack room. As I pull boots and chaps out of my tack locker I realize I forgot something to tie my hair up with, so I grab a wad of braiding bands out of my tack box and ball up my hair. A little ouchy, but it works.
With a handful of treats I head out to retrieve my horse. The fields here are large, and Whistle is always located all the way at the far fence. It’s a quarter mile walk to fetch him. Yup, one of the boarders clocked the distance once. And that’s one way, so half a mile walk for the trip. I take a deep breath, grab his halter off the fence and head out. The evening sun is still high and blazing hot. I already feel damp from sweat. From a distance I can see him trying to graze but constantly moving around aggravated with the flies. They are the most miserable this time of year! As I get near him he turns and walks to me as if to say, “please take me inside away from these bloodsucking insects”. Our return trip across the field is interrupted by lots of stopping and stamping and kicking, and my arm gets painfully yanked back several times as he whips his neck around to defend his flanks from the assault. But we finally make it to the barn.
A quick groom and tack up, lots and lots of fly spray, and we head into the indoor arena. It’s out of the sun, but doesn’t get much air. The sweat is now running freely down my back and face. Whistle is fussing from the heat and we have not even started. I hop on and begin our walk exercises to flex and warm-up. His lack of energetic cooperation is palpable. He attempts a stop at the arena door as if to say it’s time to end the ride. Please, I think, let’s just do 25 minutes and we’ll be done. I’ll still be late for the lesson I’m teaching. It takes three halfhearted tries to get a lackluster trot and off we go. Not much in the way of regularity this day, sometimes rhythm and tempo are the only goal.
There’s another rider in the ring, and as we stumble out of the trot to a lazy walk the embarrassing thought crosses my mind that as an instructor, my horse and I should always look at least skillful. So I sit up taller and send the few drops of energy I have left into stabilizing my core. Insisting on a nice working trot, we practice a bit of lateral work before cantering. Left-lead canter is our best and even in this heat Whistle is happy to do it, although we nearly lose our footing as half way around a 20-meter circle he attempts to scratch his nose on his knee in mid-stride. I was thankful for that extra core energy at that moment. Right-lead canter is more challenging for us, but a quick change of direction, a re-balance and he picked it up smoothly and correctly. Now that wasn’t too bad a ride after all.
We happily stop at the door for real this time and I hop off as Whistle finally gets to take care of his itchy nose. My student is just about ready as I pull off the saddle and clean him up. I take off my helmet and my hair is a wet bird’s nest of tangled rubber bands. Smoothing it down, I leave it as is. I’ll have to deal with the pain of pulling it out later. Under my sweat soaked gloves my hands are stained black from the dye in the leather. Oh well, I’ll worry about that later too. I douse my horse with fly spray for the umpteenth time and put him back out to graze for the night. The sky is turning pink and the flies should subside with the setting sun. Grabbing some water and donning my headset, I head into the arena to teach.
This is the ordinary dressage that I know and love. The singular determination to create art out of dirt and sweat and perseverance. Embrace it. It’s not fancy or glamorous. It’s the good ride on a hot day and the reward of helping others accomplish their goals that makes it worthwhile for me. And if you think you are somehow missing out on something reserved exclusively for the “better riders” – you’re not. You may never own a pair of white breeches, but you are still a dressage rider. The truth is that beneath every pair of white gloves and bling covered helmet there is sweaty hair and stained hands. And under that clean white saddle pad is just a happy horse with an itchy nose. Go for it and enjoy the ride. Cheers ~ Carole