If you’re like me, over the years, you’ve watched friends and strangers advance through their USDF rider medals or worked diligently on your walk-canter-walk transitions while friends played with three- and four-tempi changes and canter pirouettes. Although I continue to struggle to improve my skills as a horsewoman, I always knew that somehow with my talent for achieving a rapport with my horses, I could perform these movements with my equine partner, if only, if only! Instead, my mounts have been older horses whom others couldn’t care for or didn’t have time for anymore, or young horses with bad habits whom I was retraining in the basics.
As an amateur rider who doesn’t hold her amateur card because I’ve taught friends the basics of dressage, I have always loved dressage, loved every aspect of being with horses, from grooming to training to showing on those limited occasions when I had the money to do so. But more often, my precious funds have gone to lessons and clinics and supplements for my horses.
Up until this past year, I’ve had the opportunity for the occasional lesson on an FEI schoolmaster, but like many who have their first lessons on such wonderful horses, I found myself learning how to get enough impulsion to manage a true collected or medium trot! We worked on the occasional changes, and I’d even had the thrill of performing some piaffe and flying changes. However, as always, the important basics consumed much of those treasured lessons.
Then last winter, I had the chance to spend a few days in Wellington, Fla., and was able to manage a few lessons thanks to my friend Joanne Schultz’s generous offer to stay in her trailer while on vacation. She had returned home to Fargo, N. D., where we live, and I was staying on the winter farm where USDF Gold Medalist and USEF r dressage juge, Anne Cizadlo, stabled for the winter. Her USDF Silver Medal horse, a lovely chestnut Trakener gelding named Smukluster (or Smuk, for short), had made the trip from Iowa along with her new young prospect.
This was my first visit to Wellington, and we were just fifteen minutes from the stunning Wellington Equestrian Festival grounds where I had the opportunity to see not only some stunning performances but also to watch U.S. Olympian Robert Dover school the Canadian riders and U.S. riders such as Todd Fleitrich and Michelle Gibson work their own horses each day.
In addition, Anne allowed me to come with her to her own lesson with Robert at Arlene “Tuny” Page’s gorgeous dressage facility. Lisa Wilcox and Oded Shimoni were schooling as Anne took her lesson. Robert was very encouraging about Anne’s own riding and the talent of her new mount, whom he said had international potential. “But,” he said, “at your level, you need eyes on the ground every day. Every rider with international aspirations needs to live in training.”
Anne was thrilled with the good news, but now she had a dilemma: how to afford daily rather than weekly lessons while in Florida and how to arrange for more regular lessons in between her busy judging, clinic, and volunteer scribing schedule once back in Iowa.
“Would you want to lease Smuk? she asked me.
“I can’t afford him,” I said automatically.
“I’d make it affordable,” Anne said.
I’ve taken clinics with Anne over the past several years, and she knows my commitment to improving my riding in addition to my approach to caring for and training horses. In fact, I’d been helping her clean stalls, groom Smuk, and even clean his sheath while in Florida. And we had lessons almost every day during the week I was there, even performing three-tempis in a light rain.
I believe that my dedication to the horse’s welfare and my willingness to “get dirty” and be an all-around horsewoman who loved horses even when not riding was what encouraged Anne to offer Smuk to me.
“We could try a six-month lease,” she said. “I don’t have anyone else in mind. Think about it.”
So I called Mary Wiedemann, owner of the boarding stable where I kept my 25-year-old Holsteiner mare, Coo, whom I’d taken over from a friend two years earlier. Coo was blooming, and I’d had lessons with Anne who had seen my success with Coo. Smuk was 23, still sound, but in need of special supplements and care. “I have the chance of the lifetime,” I said and explained the opportunity. “Could I work off some of my board for Smuk by cleaning stalls on weekends?” Mary boards more than 20 horses, so this was no small decision. She’s also a perfectionist who insists on the very best for each horse in her care.
“We can work something out,” she said. Mary is the type of generous person who really wants the best for everyone, horse and rider, and she knew I couldn’t afford my own FEI horse, could barely afford my sweet “oldster.”
So I told Anne, I’d like to give it a try. Anne knew I would make the commitment to ride not only the upper-level movements but to spend time at the beginning of each ride warming him up and riding him in a nice, stretchy long frame at all three gaits. She had only a few requirements for the lease, which came without an exorbitant monthly payment, which I couldn’t have managed:
1.Take two lessons a month from my favorite trainer, USEF S Judge William “Bill” Solyntjes, in Hamel, Minn., or another approved trainer or Anne herself if she were offering clinics in my area.
2.Keep Smuk on supplements for his arthritis and keep him on a regular schedule with the farrier for trims, letting him remain barefoot if possible.
3.Never ride without wrapping his legs and always stretch him out at the beginning and end of the ride.
4.Provide Anne with regular updates on our progress and check with her on any special veterinary or other procedures I felt Smuk needed.
5.Ride Smuk not only in the full bridle, but spend time working him in the snaffle bridle as well.
These were conditions I was only too willing to meet, since they were what I would have done anyway.
And so at the beginning of April, I met Anne in South Dakota and trailered Smuk home. He is the consummate gentleman and immediately became a barn favorite. He’d lost some weight trailering from Florida, and the heat and humidity there had resulted in some scratches, so I set about working with Mary on a conditioning feeding program, adding rice bran to his feed and supplements. I also followed Anne’s program for washing his scratches and medicating them, as he has sensitive skin.
In addition, I asked Anne for permission to have Smuk checked out by my first-rate equine dentist, Dr. Richard Bowman. Anne told me Smuk had had a bad experience with a horse dentist in the past. Dr. Bowman explained Smuk had received a too aggressive bit seat called a “Texas bit seat” for which there is no reason and which had resulted in sensitivity in Smuk’s teeth. He also had some hooks, which Dr. Bowman took care of. And my farrier, Dave Gilbertson, worked on keeping Smuk’s hooves in top-notch condition.
I showed up at eight a.m. every Saturday and Sunday to muck stalls, clean water buckets, and clean the office and bathroom, and evenings, I did the night watering and horse checks twice a week.
It was wonderful! I was now riding tempi changes, full pirouettes, learning the nuances of collection and medium gaits, riding twenty meter circles in half medium canter, half pirouette canter. Once Smuk had put on weight and condition, I trailered to Bill’s for my first lessons. Then another wonderful trainer, USDF Gold Medalist Amy Larson, came to our barn for several clinics, and I had the chance to work on not only learning more about the basics (always basics, basics, and scales of training!) but got to learn how to maintain the basics through such movements as riding more forward and expressive changes. Smuk had a tendency to curl a bit in the neck and bounce up and down rather than covering more ground, so Bill recommended riding a good medium canter on the diagonal, focusing on just one good change, ridden entirely from the seat and legs. This seemed to suit Smuk and after we learned to do one uphill, forward, expressive change, we added more, returning to straight, forward, uphill canter if the movement began to get too up and down.
Amy helped me keep Smuk’s head centered so that I created the bend in his body rather than in his neck, and Bill helped me get a kink out of his neck when righting on the right track. It was wonderful to watch Smuk build muscle as we rode, and although the temperatures and humidity were high last summer, I never minded cleaning stalls for the privilege of leasing Smuky, as he’s affectionally called.
We never managed a clinic with Anne, as two nearby clinics had to be cancelled at the last minute. However, in our last lesson with Amy, we put together parts of Prix St. Georges and I-1 tests. Anne had shown Smuk through I-1, and although he was “semi-retired,” he still did the canter zig-zags, so I learned how to counter-flex and make straight changes in the I-1 pattern, first at walk, then trot, then finally canter.
At the end of the six months, my fall teaching schedule—I’m a college professor—was too heavy to continue cleaning stalls, and more importantly, I felt as if Smuk deserved to be with a rider whose goals were less advanced than mine. He had given me everything, was sound, but as a former Girl Scout, I wanted to return him “in better condition than I found him.”
I trailered him back to Anne’s where he is now teaching a First Level rider the basics and being loved as I loved him.
I am so grateful to everyone who helped make this wonderful journey possible for me. My sweet mare had to be put to sleep this summer, so I’m presently catch riding for a few friends and back to school lower level movements. However, I’ve been able to teach one of my friend’s horses some truly correct lateral work and nice transitions. It’s amazing how much easier those movements are now that I’ve learned how to maintain and improve the basics through those movements through my time with Smuk.
So if you don’t think you can afford a schoolmaster, think again! If you’re willing to get your hands dirty, can demonstrate that you truly love horses and put their welfare first, and are willing to focus first always on the basics and the Training Pyramid, you, too, may find you have an opportunity to ride and train with a schoolmaster one day.
I can think of nothing more joyful and rewarding, and I am looking forward to the day when my finances allow me to have a horse again, and I can take what I learned and apply it to training my own horse.