Rising to the Occasion
By Betsy Kelleher
I feel like a traitor. For seven years, I’ve worked to keep Rocky in a four-beat gait, to uphold his breeding as a double registered Tennessee Walking Horse/Spotted Saddle Horse. Now, I’m asking him to trot under saddle! He trots on his own in the pasture and on the lunge line, so I’m not asking for something difficult. His natural trot is free and forward moving, while his gait under saddle is smoother to ride but slow and short-strided.
Because I have an interest in dressage and I know riders who do gaited dressage, I took dressage lessons on Rocky for 18 months. I hoped to extend his natural gait. I did feel that longer stride a few times, but it sure took a lot of effort! After a year of frustration learning how to get proper straightness and bend, I felt we were finally getting it. He was giving me a collected frame, and he was light in the bit. I was so proud!
We had used the same bit for seven years—a 4-3/4 inch Mullen mouth Pelham. I’d bought it on eBay when I first got Rocky, because a five-inch bit seemed too big. Rocky has worked great in it ever since.
When I decided to ride a dressage test, I learned I would have to use a snaffle bit. Rocky had been trained in a Tom Thumb, so I didn’t think it would be a problem. Changing to a snaffle, however, was a major setback. I tried four different snaffle bits in six weeks, and Rocky lost his rounded frame and on-the-bit headset as he resisted each one. I was frustrated that the Pelham was not legal for beginning dressage, but I’d already made plans, so I decided we would do our best.
It was almost a year ago, that I rode Rocky in gait in a beginning dressage test at a schooling show. I didn’t mind being the only gaited rider, but I was hoping for a more rewarding experience. After watching the video that my husband took of the test ride, I was so discouraged that I couldn’t bring myself to ride Rocky for several weeks. I had worked toward the goal of gaited dressage for almost two years. Watching the video made me feel it was all pointless, and for awhile I gave up. I began to wonder what God was doing in my life, if anything. I even prayed that He would help me find a new owner for Rocky, if that was best. I was definitely discouraged!
The dressage schooling show judge made two basic comments on our test results. First, Rocky was “braced” against the bit—the very thing I had struggled with since changing to a snaffle. I was proud of his lovely headset with the Pelham. I assumed he would continue that frame with another bit, but he didn’t. Was there a lesson for ME in this? Was I so intent on my own goal that I ignored Rocky’s comfort, not giving him time to adjust to the different pressures of a different bit? Should I have had more patience and understanding?
The second judging comment was repeated under several portions of the test. Not a rising trot. Should be a rising trot. But I wanted to do gaited dressage! One cannot post to a four beat gait! The judge’s comments just confirmed that this area was not ready for gaited dressage. On the other hand, I knew that Rocky’s gait was not much to look at. Slow. Boring to watch. Smooth for trail riding, but not what one expects in a dressage show. I had shown Rocky in local gaited classes and one judge said she expected “more animation.” Perhaps he was just a good trail horse after all, flashy in color but not in movement.
Someone who actually rides gaited dressage had been my inspiration. Her horse can do the traditional dressage in a trot, or do gaited dressage. But I know how much struggle she had getting her gaited horse accepted into their first dressage show. Her horse also struggled with the change to a snaffle bit! Gaited dressage has become popular in several parts of the country now, and special tests have been adapted for gaited horses. Reaching our goals sometimes takes more time and effort than we first thought. Our perseverance tests our passion.
Several months later, I happened to see a Myler comfort snaffle bit on sale, available in Rocky’s size, and I bought it. Totally an impulse purchase, without any planning whatsoever. So I rode Rocky one day with that bit on a plain bridle headstall without a nose band, and I asked for a trot. Rocky felt like a different horse. He came alive. He seemed to like this trotting under saddle! He wanted to move out and I had to hold him in. And he wasn’t resisting this bit as much as the other snaffles I’d tried. I began to ponder the variables and ask myself a few serious questions. Would Rocky accept this snaffle enough to do dressage with it? Was he actually more resistant to the nose band than the bit? Would he be able to stay in a trot when asked or stay in gait when I wanted without going back and forth between the two?
I remembered a certain distance rider who rode a gaited horse. She said he gaited or trotted on a ride depending on what worked best at the moment. But she wasn’t judged on his gait. I also remembered a certain twelve-year old girl who fell in love with a certain mare who turned out to be gaited—and the girl wanted to show in hunter competition. She said it took about a year before the mare learned to trot. They later reached championship level. I guess one can do anything they are willing to work to achieve.
So I trotted Rocky around the arena a few times each way, and then after a walk I asked for his gait. He tried to give me whatever I asked for. Perhaps with practice, I could develop certain cues to help Rocky know what I wanted. Stronger leg pressure for a trot and a subtle seat motion for gaiting, and perhaps a different pressure in the reins. Perhaps just the words, trot or gait. I noticed when I started to post, he responded in a trot. Could I use the snaffle bit when trotting and the Pelham for gaiting? During this early stage of transition, however, I didn’t want to change bridles each time I wanted to switch between gaiting and trotting. I decided on the snaffle for arena work, and the Pelham for trail.
My goal now is to simply enjoy this experiment instead of working toward riding another dressage test. So far, Rocky is giving to this snaffle bit at the walk, moving in a nice frame and responding to walk and halt transitions without pulling against the bit. He loses that frame sometimes when moving into the trot or gait, but I’ve told myself to be patient. He does better when I ask for short transitions between walk and gait, and he can then keep the frame for short periods. It took a year to get that lovely headset with the Pelham bit, and it’s like we are starting over. I am determined to proceed without pressure. The relationship itself, the enjoyment of the horse and rider partnership, is more rewarding to me than test scores. If any reader cares to share suggestions or comments at this point, however, I would welcome an email!
I still have an interest in dressage even though I ride a gaited horse. And Rocky is able to do it. He can trot for our dressage practice, and he seems to enjoy it. He can gait on a trail ride, or trot to keep up with a faster horse. I no longer worry about it. I’ve already felt his four-beat gait extend some after a trot. Maybe his gait will improve as his mind comprehends more fully what his feet can do.
I believe that God is encouraging me to enjoy this versatile horse and his potential, as well as the lessons in store for this rider. Rocky’s example of submission is my lesson of obedience to my own Master. As I teach Rocky to give to the bit, my Father God is teaching me another step toward following His will. Every partnership has its own discoveries.
(Originally published in the May 2012 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)