Amateur Hour

Five Things I Learned at Adult Dressage Camp

©Andrew Moore/Flickr CC

Have you ever discovered a unique coffee shop, or perhaps a delicious hole-in-the-wall ramen place, and you want that place to be really successful and thrive, but a little piece of you just wants to keep this amazing find to yourself because you don’t want it to get overrun by hipsters?

Yes?

Well, that’s very much how I felt about my recent dressage camp experience at Sprieser Sporthorse in Warrenton, VA. Over two days, I took three lessons, had a lovely talk with an equine nutritionist, and got to experience the latest in muscle therapies, PEMF (which stands for Pulsed Electromagnetic Field).

I had such a lovely time that at the end of the weekend, I seriously considered how long I could hide out in the barn, drinking out of automatic waterers and living off of the Luna bar I had in my pocket. But the prospective shame of being discovered by a working student and forcibly removed (and/or banned for life), forced me to get in my trailer and drive on home.

I didn’t leave empty-handed though, no sir. I returned so much wiser. Stronger. Certainly sorer than I had showed up (the true sign of any good lesson). In one tidy list, here are my major takeaways.

1. Dressage comes in all shapes and sizes

When you own a hony-sized Arabian/Appaloosa cross, it can be a little intimidating to go to camp at a big, fancy dressage barn. I had nightmares the week before of showing up and having a whole army of dressage queens sneering down at me from under their top hats, seated on top of hulking Warmbloods.

But what I found when I showed up was that dressage really does attract all walks of life. There were older women, younger women, women who had been riding forever and those who had started late. There were Thoroughbreds, Paints, Warmbloods, and even one lovely little Mustang. The one thing we all had in common was our desire to improve and learn. And absolutely no one sneered all weekend.

2. A lunge-lesson can be life changing

I know, I know. It’s no mystery that people can benefit from lunge lessons. But there’s a big difference between going around on the lunge line, and going around on the lunge line and having your entire position picked apart by a professional.

I know for a fact that I arch my back terribly, but it wasn’t until my instructor helped me reposition my body, starting from the hips, that I could feel why it was so terrible to arch like that. Suddenly, I understood and instead of constantly reminding myself to flatten my back, I could simply sense when I needed to. And the changes cascaded from there—my hands were steadier, my knees didn’t pinch so badly, and I even was able to tackle the much-dreaded pony sitting trot.

3. A good instructor will make you want to charge into battle

I have been blessed throughout my life with a number of really awesome riding instructors, some of which I still get the opportunity to ride with today. So this lesson wasn’t exactly learned, but it was certainly reaffirmed during my weekend. A good instructor can make you feel like you can tackle any challenge, whether that’s finally cantering without stirrups, or even just riding a spooky horse calmly around a giant arena.

The instructors at camp were experts at pushing me and my horse the right amount, so that I was one tall boot out of my comfort zone but not so much I became scared. I think this realm is where progress lives, in that little space between. The lessons reminded me of the importance of finding an instructor that will inspire you, teach you, and seriously kick your butt when the time is right.

4. Riding doesn’t have to take all day

Ok, so if people ask, I ride four days a week, maybe five. But if I’m being totally truthful, one of those days is a hack, and at least one more is a day where I’m too lazy to put on a saddle and my hony and I just wander around the arena chatting with (and distracting) other boarders. But still, I make the effort, right?

So when I saw the schedule for lessons and noticed they were in half-hour blocks, I wondered if that was going to be enough time to really work on anything. And I learned that a half-hour can be plenty. Not a second was wasted from the lesson time. Most riders warmed up a little early, and then saw 30 straight minutes of exercises, suggestions and, most importantly, improvements. It made me realize how much time I spend just walking around on a loose rein, not really working on anything at all, when I could be using my time so much more effectively. I also took away from the camp a new idea of what it is to be in dressage shape. (Spoiler alert: I am not in it).

5. Change can come from the simplest of exercises

If I had to pick a theme from all three lessons, it would be “Start simple.” After a brief warm-up and conversation with the instructor about where I was at with my horse (Training Level) and where I was hoping to go this year (Training Level but with a little less “flair” than we had last year), each instructor let me ride for about a minute and a half before they recommended circling.

So we circled. And we circled. And we circled some more. And then I did a few more circles because I wasn’t quite happy with the circles I had done before that. Little circles, big circles. Fast circles, slow circles. Circles that spiraled, and circles that didn’t. It was like I was riding a page out of the Dr. Seuss book of circles. And while that may sound really boring, it was so amazingly not.

Slowly, by balancing my horse, by changing my seat and hands, pushing a little with a left seatbone or a right, tucking my pelvis to help with my arched back, I saw my ride transformed. We went from skidding around, leaning like we were taking a curve on a motorcycle, to a lovely, balanced, collected pair. And what we took back home was a simple exercise that we could return to whenever we needed to.

Whenever we weren’t in sync, we go back to the circles, to listening to each other and adjusting. And each time I ride, I can recapture that feeling I had in that big, beautiful arena in Virginia. The feeling of working together. Now, if only I could have also brought that beautiful arena home with me.

So, in short, while I highly recommend dressage camp to any and all, I also recommend getting out there and getting some instruction. Schedule those lunge lessons! Ride with that new trainer! Push yourself out of your comfort zone. You just never know what you’ll learn along the way.


About the Author

When Aubrey Moore isn’t riding her horse Flynn, new pony or doing near-constant maintenance on her truck, she can be found with a glass of wine in hand, chatting happily with her cat Frankie.