I remember the day 30 years ago when I first saw Cindy Ishoy and Dynasty on TV, dancing together at the 1988 Olympics. I was a young, horse-crazy girl living in Newfoundland and had no idea what dressage even was. But in that moment I knew I wanted to do it.

With no dressage riders or trainers on the island at the time, it’s no surprise my three-year-old Quarter Horse/TB cross seemed rather confused by my attempts to make him do ‘dressage.’ I hadn’t the first clue what the training scale was, how to ride a horse forward from behind, or even that reins were for anything more than turning.

Over the years we were lucky enough to have a few clinicians and coaches come to the province and drill the basics of dressage into us correctly. But their help wasn’t enough for me to master much more than training level before the financial realities of growing up, graduating from university, and starting a career put an end to my equine aspirations.

When I got back in the saddle again and finally bought another horse of my own some 20 years later in Ontario, my desire to learn dressage was as strong as ever, even though my skills were decidedly not. I talked to various coaches, riders, and judges, joined internet groups aimed at the so-called ‘rusty rider’ and everyone offered the same advice: the most effective way to learn dressage is to take lessons from a knowledgeable coach on a well-trained dressage schoolmaster. A good schoolmaster will help you learn what ‘correct’ feels like, develop refined aids, expose holes in your own riding, and give you an understanding of the movements.

But how much could a rider like me actually learn from a schoolmaster? I decided to find out.

Leah Wilkins, a grand prix trainer, former medallist at the North American Young Riders Championship and now owner of Aislinn Dressage based in Mulmur, Ontario, gamely agreed to coach me on two of the schoolmasters in her barn. She was confident they would both keep me safe and tolerate my mistakes while helping me understand different dressage concepts.

The Adventure Begins

On a windy, icy spring day I travelled to meet Leah at her beautiful barn. The first horse Leah selected for me to ride was Quaderna, a 21-year-old Lusitano stallion trained to third level. Although he felt like a Shetland pony compared to the 17.2 hand draft-cross-dinosaur I had been riding, I quickly appreciated that good things come in small packages. It’s a lot easier to access and manoeuvre the neck, shoulders and hindquarters on a smaller, more closely-coupled horse, and the Lusitano trot is comfortable and smooth enough to sit all day.

Unfazed even in the midst of ice avalanches sliding off the metal arena roof, Quad quickly gained my respect and increased my confidence. Leah worked with us on fundamentals such as circle shape, pointing out how much my unbalanced position in the saddle caused the horse to drift. Another struggle was to keep the horse in front of my leg and demand an immediate, energetic response to the aids. Not surprisingly, the issues I experienced were the same ones I had created in my own horse – a lightbulb realization.

With Quad’s help, Leah taught me how it feels to correctly half-halt and increase the collection with my seat and core, and to expect and receive an immediate response from the lightest of aids. We worked on my position until I could produce accurate circles and smooth transitions, as well as some decent basic lateral work.

I would have been delighted to end our ride there, but Leah had a little surprise planned – showing off Quaderna’s favourite party trick of passage and piaffe. At first she walked along beside us using an in-hand whip to lightly cue the movements. I sat helplessly in the saddle, grinning and giggling like an idiot out of sheer joy. I had never before experienced a feeling of such power and control on a horse, yet all the while feeling incredible softness and lightness in my hands and from the horse beneath me. These are the moments that make dressage worth all the blood, sweat, and tears; the reason we keep going back out there and trying again when nothing is going right.

A Lesson in Humility

Then it was time for me to hop on Amusant (aka Austin), Leah’s impressive 22-year-old retired grand prix mount. In my dressage dreams, the horse always looks a lot like Austin, a tall, muscular chestnut with lots of chrome and the huge floaty stride typical of his Hanoverian breeding. This was the schoolmaster I always envisioned myself riding, or perhaps even buying one day.

If Quaderna’s main job was to boost my confidence, Austin’s first duty was to give me a reality check. I thought I knew how to ride, at a basic level at least. I thought I understood what it meant for a dressage rider to use her core for balance and stability. I thought wrong.

Second only to falling off in the ring at a dressage show, my first attempt to trot on Austin was one of the most humbling moments in a lifetime of embarrassing equine endeavours. I could not ride this horse! With each trot step I was launched out of the saddle – to the rafters it seemed – only to flop back down after what seemed like an eternity and launch straight back up again with the next stride. Leah patiently encouraged me to trust my riding, send him forward, and “fake it ‘til I make it.” When I finally completed an entire 20-metre(ish) circle at posting trot, I was as elated as if I’d won an Olympic medal. And exhausted. My abs burned in places I didn’t even know had muscles.

Leah wasn’t finished with me yet. After our rising trot disaster I thought it would be cruel and unusual punishment for poor Austin to tolerate any attempts at canter, but Leah promised it would be better. Better doesn’t even begin to describe it. I can only describe the sensation as riding a rocking horse with jet packs beneath its hind end – so smooth, safe, and comfortable, yet unbelievably powerful. Until that moment I had never truly understood what ‘uphill’ was supposed to feel like, nor the sensation of a horse gathering underneath me like an accordion when compressed with a half-halt. It was like time stood still for a few perfect moments.

Top 10 Takeaways

  1. That I wasn’t nearly as bad a rider as I thought, only to discover moments later that I wasn’t necessarily as good as I thought, either.
  2. Why the fundamentals of position, effective aids, and following the training scale are so important. Any holes in the rider’s education will quickly be reflected by a schoolmaster, while correct aids are immediately rewarded. The rider learns what ‘correct’ feels like, rather than what it just looks like in a photo or video.
  3. What lightness, forward, suppleness, and uphill actually feel like.
  4. That my seat really is an aid, and that I should be much more aware of how I use it.
  5. How to use a double bridle, and feel how the snaffle and curb reins each have a different effect on the horse.
  6. The importance of understanding what you need versus what you want. Like me, I suspect that many riders want the big impressive warmblood with the grand prix resumé, yet may discover that a petite third level schoolmaster may more than meet your needs and turn out to be a more appropriate, enjoyable ride.
  7. The importance of working with an experienced dressage professional who understands how to ride, teach, and train the upper-level movements.
  8. That piaffe and passage really do feel as cool as they look!
  9. That excellence is a struggle worth working for, and that moments of perfection are their own reward.
  10. That one lesson on a schoolmaster won’t magically turn me into a great (or even good) rider, but it made me believe that with hard work and quality coaching, I could be a good rider some day