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The Dressage Rider's Guide To Being Horseless

At the age of 28 I decided to rejoin the equestrian world after a ten year hiatus. The only thing I didn't anticipate was that re-entry as a single person (sans horse) was going to be a challenge. Since taking a break from horses to pursue college and a career, I had fiercely guarded my bank account fearing that finances would be my biggest barrier to riding. What I didn't realize though, was that I hadn't 'gone at it alone' without my own horse since I was a young teenager. The Thoroughbred I'd gotten as a fourteenth birthday present had long since passed and I was in no position to acquire a new horse. After ten years I was just hoping to take a few lessons and crossing my fingers that riding horses after a long break would be just like "riding a bike". As a result, I found myself calling up dressage trainers asking to knock off ten years of rust on one of their horses only to have my requests met with resounding silence.

All of the dressage horses I've ridden in the past 18 months.

(A collage of my lease horses over the last 18 months and the pony.)

Eventually, I met someone who wasn't afraid to let me on their horse, someone who I observed was rarely afraid of anything - an eventing trainer. However, after two months of dressage lessons on a horse that eagerly eyed jump standards as we leg yielded around them, I decided to give the dressage world another go. By committing to a part lease on a third level Irish Sport Horse mare I was able to wedge my way into a wonderful dressage barn that took pity on my horseless self.

Since I started at my current barn I've hopped around to several part leases as the horses have come and gone, picking up as many extra rides along the way as possible. Through this process I've learned a thing or two about being a horseless dressage rider. Here are my biggest takeaways:

1. Beggers can't be choosers, so ride anything. I mean this within reason of course. You don't get a reputation for being a good back up rider in the barn by trying to pick and choose your mounts. It sounds cheesy but I do agree that every horse has something to teach you. For a number of months earlier this year I rode a little Icelandic pony nearly every chance I got. We made a visually interesting pair, and for that reason I unfortunately never took a picture. I feared that if a photo of my five-foot-nine-inch frame on that little thirteen hand pony ever made it out into the public I'd feel the wrath of PETA, or at least the wrath of my mom.

In addition to being short (albeit stocky), the pony was quite green in the beginning and often times his canter felt like a toy car careening out of control. I had to convince my body to relax and not to hang on the reins as we went speeding towards the arena wall, only turning in the nick of time. This adrenaline rousing experience taught me how to handle a horse with little balance and a lot of "go". Needless to say this type of ride was quite different from the older, more trained warmbloods in the barn that need a good deal of "motivation" to make it around the arena. I didn't expect it but when the little pony left the barn I was sad to see him go. He had been a professor of all things chaos, providing me with another puzzle piece to my riding education.

2. Be helpful. Nine times out of ten when my trainer or people at the barn ask me for help I say yes. If someone needs their horse checked on, grained, or we need someone to fill in on a blanketing shift if at all possible I step in. I'm not above doing almost anything. The other evening I was helping my trainer by cleaning up manure in the arena from all of her lessons that day. A jumper trainer the next day saw me on my lease horse and asked me if I was new to the barn. When I said no, and that I had been in the arena when she too was there the evening before she responded with "Oh, you are the girl that picks up poop!". I'm nearly 30 years old, with a college degree, working a professional job, and I'm also known as the Poop Girl. And I'm OK with it. Because I'm not too good for shit. Literally.

Manure stories aside, helping isn't the easiest or most direct way to go about finding rides, but it's certainly beneficial. It puts you in people's good graces and at the forefront of their mind when they aren't feeling well, or a work meeting is keeping them from making it out to the barn. When you're horseless, being helpful is definitely advantageous in the long run.

3. Get connected. Most of us are confined to the social circle within our own barns, but if you are relying on riding other people's horses, you should know a lot of other people! In particular, I think someone like myself who leases is benefited by knowing other people in the area, even if their horses are at other barns. Most people won't consider a lease outside their barn to strangers, but it's a much easier concept to consider when you already have a relationship with that person.

In an effort to get to know your greater dressage community you can volunteer at a nearby show, or get involved in your local dressage chapter. Not only do you help support your dressage community through these efforts but you'll form a network of contacts as well. It's a win-win scenario.

4. Improve your riding as much as possible. I realize that this is easier said than done because having a horse to ride is the best way to accomplish this, but if at all possible jump at opportunities for instruction. If I can catch a ride on someone's horse that's great, but if I can take a lesson that's even better. Same goes for clinics. Not surprisingly, people are more willing to let you on their horse if they think that their horse will benefit from it. So the better you can ride, the more rides you will get.

Being horseless does have its benefits though. While I do hope my horse singleness is a temporary status, I think there's something to be said about riding a lot of different horses. I gain experience by mastering various forms of evasions, sitting trots that are all over the spectrum from floating on a cloud to trotting over a trampoline, and learning to adjust my own body to communicate effectively with each and every horse I get on.

When I'm eventually ready to settle down with my own horse I feel like I'll have a better understanding of the type of horse I want. I'll have gained valuable insight to prepare me for success with that future horse because I will know that success comes with lots of ups and downs, spooks, evasions, bucks, at times crushing humiliation, and most importantly patience.

But I'm prepared to wait. Until then I'll just stay handy with a manure fork.

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