A Novice Rider’s Dressage Adventure

Danika Rawlins with New Girl |

As I looked through an Arabian horse show premium booklet, I noticed they offered “freestyle dressage.” Never having done it, I announced to my husband that I was going to ride in a freestyle, and could he promptly make up some four-odd minutes of music for me. Anything you want I told him. It doesn’t really matter to me as long as you have four minutes. I had never even as much as watched dressage before, and I knew nothing about a 15-meter circle or the salute.

At the show, in the warm-up, a fellow cantered past me in a shadbelly coat, and I thought to myself, “I have one of those at home. I will wear it next time, it looks so much more professional.” Mind you, I learned later that shadbellys are not even allowed at First Level.

I know now that you halt and salute before beginning, but that day, without a pattern in mind, I dashed in when I heard the music start. I had been told at the last minute by a friendly competitor, who twirled her fingers in a circular motion, that 15 meters was “almost all the way around.” So that is exactly what I did-I made small circles all the way around the entire arena. When I was finished, I started to leave the ring and a few very helpful people were shouting, “Go back. Go back. You need to salute the judge.” So, not knowing exactly what they meant, I thought of my uncle in the Coast Guard and quickly lifted up two fingers across my forehead (like in the movies) and gave him a salute! Everybody started laughing, including the judge!

Having that experience under my belt, the second time around, I decided to enter Second Level as I thought I had done so well the first time. I based this on the fact that my mare already had a “headset”-totally artificial I was to learn later. She never even came close to touching the bit and, furthermore, hadn’t I already trained her to double national championships at Arabian shows? Why, with all her training, she had to be at least Second Level and probably much higher I concluded. It probably wouldn’t even be fair to go in anything lower considering her experience!

The closest thing I owned to a dressage book was an old birthday gift from my sister-The Lipizzaners of the Spanish Riding School with a few pictures tossed in. Minus the benefit of any lessons or practice (after all, I had been showing horses my entire life) and not having a clue as to what “shoulder in” and “travers” meant, I finally decided to look up the real meaning in the old Webster’s. Found it right next to “traveling salesman.” OK, no problem. I kind of knew what it was supposed to look like from the Lipizzan picture anyway. You turn the horse’s head “just so” while trotting. I decided I would just watch someone do it the day of the show.

With a quick flip of the coin, it was mutually decided to have my girlfriend ride as I could not sit the trot. As it turned out, she couldn’t either. With our combined efforts, we managed to get a 58 percent. Unbelievable! The judge’s last comment read, “Three horse lengths off center line for halt.” Really? Wow, now how did that happen?

So, off I was to the new world of dressage. I began my study by watching my friend. I was to simply copy her. Ever heard of the blind leading the blind? Well, that was us! I entered a First Level class, and as I came trotting around the corner, my friend and test reader said, “change rein.” I briefly looked down at my reins and decided to keep on going along the rail, as I saw nothing wrong with my reins. Not to mention, I had never heard the term before.

I rode right on by her and whispered loudly, “What do you mean; what do you mean?” So now, she kind of hopped up and down and the bell rang. What was the bell for, I wondered, totally clueless that it meant for me to stop and correct my test error. My friend was making these hurried gestures with her hands flying all around in the air saying, “No, no, change rein, change rein” but she kept on reading the test, so I kept on going and going and going along the rail.

Next lap around, I saw the judge standing up and leaning (yes, leaning) out over the booth, like he wanted to talk to me. Me? So, I stopped my mare in front of the judge. He said, “You were supposed to change rein at H.” Totally confused, I looked down at my reins and asked, “Which one?”

So, you see, there is room for everyone in the world of dressage. Yes, even the very beginners. I currently train with Grand Prix rider Karen O’Neal at Catalyst Farms in Sisters, Oregon. I feel very fortunate to have someone of her caliber located so close to me.

Read more life-changing stories in “Transitions” in the July 2003 issue of Dressage Today, the premier source of information for competitive and noncompetitive riders dedicated to improving their riding through the universal training technique of dressage. In every issue, top experts share step-by-step training techniques. DT also provides theoretical approaches to training, rider self-awareness and equine health articles, consumer advice, dressage community news and events and profiles of top dressage riders.

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