Amateur Hour

A Court Jester amongst Dressage Queens: Part 1

My first foray into proper dressage was while I was in university.

I was introduced to a coach who had been classically trained in Spain and Germany, and who had ridden at the top level for many years before realizing instruction was her calling. As an advocate for the methods and teachings of the Spanish Riding School, she was adamant that I not only practice the correct technique, but develop a love for the theory as well.

Let me tell you, it was hard.

She knew I could handle the pressure of learning an entirely new discipline but, to be honest, it was frustrating—it felt like I knew nothing, and had to learn to ride all over again. The schoolmaster PRE I was riding was saintly for putting up with my mistimed aids, my inability to truly sit and absorb movement, and my driven-down heel.

But slowly and surely, I got there. I learned. I started to enjoy what I was doing and see it as a personal challenge to set goals, instead of getting frustrated and wanting to quit. I rode on-and-off with this coach for three years, as money and time allowed, and I absorbed as much as I could. When I graduated and moved out of the area, I (perhaps naively) went back to my old habits.

I bought this horse with the intention of doing the low-level AA hunters. Whoops! ©Mallory Haigh

For most of my equestrian life of almost 15 years, I’ve been in some aspect of hunterland: forward seat, field boots, short stirrups, weird hairnet hairdos, pearls and understated show ring fashion.

Over the years, though, my interest started to dwindle. A bad accident in my mid-teens that has caused chronic back issues has made me perpetually nervous of jumping, even on a seasoned horse. For almost ten years, I lied to myself that the hunters was what I wanted to do. I wanted to push myself to do it—to push past the anxiety and nervousness and just get it done.

But there came a time, in the early spring of 2016, when I realized this wasn’t what I wanted to do. The thought of even a crossrail at a canter made me nauseous. The night before a schooling show I was an anxious wreck. Riding wasn’t fun anymore.

Then, I remembered what had been fun, while still remaining a challenge: Dressage.

Immediately, I picked up every book I could. I talked to my old coach about changing over, and the best way to get back into it—slow and steady, she told me. Take my time and enjoy the journey.

I started to take some lessons from a local dressage trainer and all of a sudden it felt like things clicked. My stirrups were still short, my reins still a little long, and my seat still slightly forward. In the realm of the Dressage Queen, I was the Court Jester, but slowly things started coming together. I started to enjoy riding again, and working on perfecting the shape of my circles and my transitions.

My horse, too, started moving differently and carrying herself better. This was what I wanted to continue doing.

I signed up for my first show, deciding to keep it simple and do two walk-trot tests at the schooling level. I dug out an old pair of men’s white breeches I had laying around, fumbled around with a stock tie, and halted at X without too much hassle.

A few bobbles in my first test left me with a disappointing 59% score, but my second test bumped me up to a much more respectable 64%. I had made it through my first show, and I had survived! (Also, its pretty amazing to have ride times, be done relatively on time, and get home in time for afternoon tea and a nap—no more hurry up and wait for me!)

Loot from my first show – two (Canadian) second place ribbons!

That first show confirmed for me that I had made the right choice in changing disciplines. I didn’t forget my tests, I enjoyed the day, and I wasn’t so anxious that I couldn’t eat or felt sick to my stomach. It was a nice change of pace from what I had been used to. From that point on I was addicted!

Our first show, with only a few minor bobbles. ©Mallory Haigh

Sometimes it’s hard to make the choice to change when you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all this, it can’t hurt to at least try something new if you’re not comfortable with your current situation. I was able to find the discipline where I really feel like I’m both challenged to set goals and develop, while still feeling safe and at home.

I’ve started the journey towards Dressage Queendom. But for now, I’m quite content being the Court Jester that’s still learning the ropes, and laughing about it along the way.

In Part 2, I’ll talk about my clinic experience with a Canadian Olympian, as well as my ambitious plans for my first full-time season in the sandbox. Stay tuned!

About the Author

Mallory Haigh is an under-30 adult amateur dressage rider living in the middle-of-nowhere Ontario, Canada on 50 acres with her two horses, a few boarders, chickens, dogs, and wildlife. Her hobbies include freelance writing about life on a small farm, web development, photography, and geekery.