It was almost two years since I started riding again after the surgeries.
My left leg had not fully recovered but I had my life back. There would be no more jumping or galloping through the meadows, but I had my share of all of that in my younger days. My true passion was for flatwork, or dressage as most people call it. I was showing second level when I stopped riding to raise my family. My goal was to reach that level again.
For the time being, we were still competing in training level with hopes of moving up to first level that coming spring. However, Joey was not comfortable in his work. He twitched his tail at the canter and often balked.
As with many horses, Joey is stiffer to the left. Since my left leg wasn’t working properly, I depended on my spurs to compensate. However, this posed another problem. I was riding from my spurs instead of my leg and seat. I looked and felt like anything but a dressage rider. Joey often became irritated with the spurs and bucked in protest.
“This isn’t right I said to myself,” on more than few occasions.
I had been impressed with the Parelli movement and how they could do these things on a horse with so little effort. I looked into it a little further and learned that what they were doing was actually French Classical Dressage.
“What was this method?”
My dressage background was in German Dressage with Major Dezso Szilagyi. He was a kind and wonderful man who told me to love my horse and train the horse with love. The lessons were all about using seat and legs and after each lesson, I’d have blisters on my butt and legs. This way of riding would not work with my disability—it was time to learn something new. I needed to find a French Dressage trainer.
Most people labeled me as a “hunter/jumper rider and trainer” because I rode with George Morris.
George often called his system “The Fort Riley System” and said that it was evolved from the French System.
In the early 1900s, the U.S. Cavalry at Fort Riley, Kansas adopted the French System to bring dressage to the military and then to civilians. As the Fort Riley System evolved, Hunter Seat developed, make riding easier and more comfortable for the horse. Hunter Seat Equitation takes special concern in the horse’s comfort and well-being as I will explain further.
To learn French Dressage now would make full circle with the Fort Riley system that George often spoke about.
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During the winter months, I rode in the indoor ring at Boxwood Farm in Hopewell Township, NJ, a few miles from my barn. One afternoon during my ride, I heard a car pull up. Two women stepped into the ring, both wearing riding cloths. One woman was my age, with long wavy white hair. The other was in her mid-thirties, with long wavy blonde hair. She was thin and dainty like a ballerina. Her face, like that of an angel.
The older woman spoke first and introduced the younger woman as Dr. Maria Katsamani. “She is the trainer for the Marwari horses that will be arriving soon.”
Maria spoke with a Greek accent. Her voice was sweet and meek. She talked about the Marwari’s who had been shipped to America from India. Three Marwari’s were coming to Boxwood Farm from Martha’s Vineyard and staying through the winter months.
I introduced my Joey and announced that he would be competing first level in the spring.
Maria looked at me as if to say, “I don’t think so.” Her expression was sympathetic and introduced herself as a French Classical Dressage trainer.
Maria began each session with groundwork. She began lounging with the longe line looped through the bit to the girth. After a brief warm up, Maria attached only the inside side rein.
“Joey had the most incredible extended trot I had ever seen, without the weight of the rider he was able to open up. Within minutes he was in his own self-carriage, balanced and supple,” Maria commented.
“It is not pulling his head in, but helping him find his own head carriage. Using only one side rein, is less constricting for the horse.”
Maria didn’t chase my horse with the longe whip, but used her own energy, to keep Joey’s rhythm active.
Joey lowered his head as his hocks moved under him and over stepped his front hoof prints.
The next part of her routine was “in hand work.” By turning Joey’s head toward her and walking at his shoulders, she tickled behind the girth with her whip and asked Joey to execute a shoulder-in. In doing so, Joey reached out with his outside shoulder and crossed his inside hind leg over his outside hind leg.
“He needs to stretch out before he is ridden,” Maria instructed.
“I’ll get on him first,” she smiled as she led my horse to the mounting block.
Joey had more energy than I have ever seen in him before. He was not pulling or trying to run off, but his gaits were light and free. Maria sat deep in the saddle with her legs hanging loosely at Joey’s side. A couple of times she asked him to passage and he willing did so.
I couldn’t believe this was my horse that I was watching.
A whole new world opened up under Maria’s instruction. Everything about my seat and legs, that I worked so hard to obtain, was the total opposite of what I was now doing.
Instead of riding with a tight leg and deep heel, Maria told me to sit up straight and open my legs, instead of gripping with my legs.
“Let Joey move through your legs instead of restricting him with a tight leg,” she explained. “Keep your feet flat and let your legs hang loose.”
I was amazed at the difference in my horse. His gaits were freer and lighter. I’d ask him to go forward with a gentle squeeze. If he didn’t respond, a gentle tap with the stick followed. Spurs were a thing of the past. The tension was gone from his back and his tail rocked side to side to the rhythm of each gait. It was as though he was smiling again. His eyes were bright and his nostrils were relaxed instead of crinkled.
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So where does this leave me with all of the years I’ve spent riding and teaching Hunter Seat?
Hunter Seat gave me a good foundation and I may not have picked up on French Classical so easily if it hadn’t. I would never ride cross country with anything but a deep heel as Hunter Seat taught me. When I am in situation where I am unsure of my surroundings, such as something rustling in the bushes when I am on a trail ride, I press my heel and tighten my leg. The reason Hunter Seat evolved was to make things better for both horse and rider.
The Hunter Seat Equitation system lays a good basic foundation that will enable the rider to branch into any type of riding by first developing the rider’s legs with special attention in developing a deep heel. A deep heel anchors the rider’s body and gives a longer leg to the rider.
Hunter Seat riders are first taught to post with the motion. In posting with the motion, the rider’s hip angle closes 30 degrees ahead of the vertical when in the saddle and opens when rising out of the saddle. In the early stages of development, posting with the motion helps the rider to develop a stronger leg. While each time the hip angle opens, the rider is able to press down in the heel and make the leg stronger.
“Athletic position” for any athlete is with a closed hip angle, knee angle, and ankle angle. (Figure 1)
When two wrestlers take the mat and prepare to wrestle, they are in athletic position. When a batter is at the plate, he is in athletic position. It is the same as football players, tennis players, track runners, and so on. The balanced position is with the three angles closed.
In the athletic position, the rider can make adjustments if the horse speeds up, slows down, or drifts to the side. The rider has learned to use legs for support.
Figure #2 illustrates the three angles more open as in a dressage seat. It is best to introduce the dressage seat when the rider has achieved a strong independent leg and seat. “Independent leg and seat” insures that the rider will not hang on the horse’s mouth for support.
I have witnessed beginner riders hanging on the horse’s mouth more times than I would like to. Some trainers who are geared more toward dressage and combined training will often skip posting with the motion and developing a strong leg. To those trainers, developing a strong seat and tall upper body in the saddle takes priority over developing a good leg.
Without a good leg for support, the rider has not learned to balance properly and more apt to rely on the horse’s mouth for support. This is cruel and abusive to the horse. The horse’s mouth is scared!
A couple of years ago, I was helping in the secretary stand at a dressage show. A local trainer came in to pick up her student’s number and mentioned how her white lesson pony had been misbehaving. “We almost didn’t come,” she said. Then she rambled on about how this particular lesson pony needed to be disciplined.
I was watching through the window as the instructor stood at “B” reading the test to her young rider on the “mischievous” white pony. I was horrified at what I saw.
The child sat tall with her little feet bouncing against the pony’s sides. With each stride, the child pulled herself out of the saddle with her reins, abusing on the pony’s mouth to keep her balance. Meanwhile, the poor pony’s mouth was wide open and the pony’s eyes were filled with anguish! I wanted to grab the trainer and smack some sense in her!
The word dressage means training. It is the word used for flatwork. Isn’t good jumping the result of good flatwork? Thus, wouldn’t a horse with a dressage background produce a better round of jumps?
Truth, be told, I showed second level dressage because I rode with George Morris, the Father of Hunter Seat Equitation.
George’s lessons included all of the movements in a second level test, such as counter-canter, various leg yields, and riding different speeds within the same gait.
My specialty is teaching beginner and novice riders. The basics of elementary dressage are taught as soon as the rider is able to ride independently. While posting with the motion, my riders are taught to keep the tempo and ride accurate lines and turns. As their skills advance, the exercises also become more detailed.
Gradually, the rider learns to ask more of the horse. The rider sits up taller and deeper in the saddle as a means of keeping an active rhythm from the horse’s hind end. At this point, I take the rider’s stirrups down a hole or two to give a longer base of support, as referred to the rider’s seat and thigh.
The rider’s angles are now open as in stick figure #2. My rider is secure in her seat and leg because she first began by learning to post with the motion and develop a strong independent leg.
Instructors, if you teach your students to ride with the motion and develop a strong leg before focusing on seat and upper body, your lesson horses will thank you!
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Pictured is my one year old granddaughter Reagan Rae in Newberry FL. She rides her rocking horse, Mt. Vesuvius and, in a few years, she will graduate to a real pony.
I hope someday she will ride Classical Dressage.
Her Grandpa’s hopes to see her barrel race.
Her mother is looking forward to her riding pony hunters.
My son, her father, wants her to trail ride.
No matter what avenue she takes, she will start off with a deep heel, a tight leg and always have respect her pony’s mouth.
About the Author
Peggy DeForte Vurgason began teaching horseback riding at the age of 15 and later went on to ride professionally. Today, she competes in Western Dressage and trail riding on her horse, Homerun Joe, and along with her husband George and his mule, Billy John. Peggy is the author of The American Riding System, the fiction series Long Ears and Short Tales, and the soon-to-be published novel Hootenanny Spirit.