My Life: A Dressage Queen Breaks Out

A horseback riding vacation in Ireland gives a dressage rider a renewed zest in her own training at home.
Alicia and Ebony riding the grounds at Castle Leslie | © Patrick Hester

I decided that my horse, Shade, did not like cross-country jumping 10 years ago. He jumped well, but alone in the woods and fields he’d spook and bolt. I wasn’t a good enough rider to break his habits or give him confidence. I switched to dressage, thinking we’d event again once I improved my skills. We worked on impulsion, bending, engagement and my seat. I got hooked and moved to a dressage barn. Shade stopped bolting and started taking new things in stride. But self-doubt lingered. Was it really Shade who didn’t like cross country? Or had my own fear led me to choose the safety of a flat and empty arena?

Meanwhile middle age crept up on me. Suddenly Shade was almost 20 and I was almost 50. I showed signs of a classic midlife crisis. I missed the thrill of taking a risk. I craved excitement and spontaneity. In dressage every movement is controlled, every pattern is planned. The unexpected is, by definition, a failure. I began to dream about going cross country again.

A work conference in Ireland and the long-ago recommendation of an eventing buddy combined into an idea. I extended my trip and booked trail rides, a jumping lesson and a two-hour cross-country jump ride at Castle Leslie Estate in the northern part of Ireland. Time to find out whether I enjoyed the adventure of cross-country jumping or just liked the view of it in life’s rearview mirror. 

The weekend I visited there was a Friday derby at Castle Leslie and a Saturday one-day event nearby. I watched the derby from the stands as horses and riders made their way around an indoor course of portable solid obstacles and stadium fences at heights from 2-foot-4 to 2-foot-6 and 3-foot-3. When a horse hit an awkward distance or a rider got left behind, I felt my abs tighten and my palms sweat. 

I joined adult amateur Michelle and a junior rider in Steven’s indoor cross-country lesson Saturday afternoon. I rode Betty, a cute pony with feathers like a Gypsy Vanner. Warming up on the flat, I had trouble getting her to canter. Betty didn’t bend, didn’t go on the bit, didn’t have the skills and responses I now take for granted from Shade. Then, in our jumping warmup, the junior fell off. She wasn’t hurt but didn’t want to continue. Uncertainty gripped me. Was I next? 

Steven pointed me toward a solid obstacle. “Take a firm hold of her mouth and get her well in front of your leg,” he said. I used the crop he’d given me, threw my heart over the fence and galloped my pony after it. Betty jumped like a bird once we hit a rhythm. I never felt out of balance, landed on her thin neck or thumped back into the saddle. Long distances and chips didn’t shake me mentally or physically. I laughed with delight at each new line. Michelle followed suit, moving from “oh, no, I just can’t” to jumping an intimidating solid bench. 

After the lesson, Michelle and I went to the one-day event to watch some competitors on the cross-country course. As they galloped across the field and over the big table in the fence line, my palms were dry and my face was plastered with a grin. 

A no-show group on Sunday meant I got a one-on-one guided cross-country ride. Patrick, my instructor for the day, rode a scopey gray; I rode a black cob named Ebony. Ebony didn’t have Betty’s flying grace but knew his job. We crisscrossed the woods and trails, trotting on the flat, walking as Patrick described a line, then cantering off over several jumps. We saw a heron, ducklings, a herd of deer. We splashed under a bridge in a brook to cross the road. We jumped the steeplechase-style alley of solid fences called “the gallop” both ways. The cross-country course proper was under renovation, but we jumped some logs and part of the bank complex. I had my only stop of the day at the coffin, I looked down, but got over it on the third try. To finish, we galloped through the field where they cut hay and winter the horses. By then, jumping felt almost as predictable as circles in an indoor. 

Back home, Shade and I are learning flying changes. It’s challenging, and I approach the work with renewed zest. After my Irish adventure, I know that fascination, not fear, brings me to the arena day after day.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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