Plenty of Time to Learn Piaffe

A dressage rider remembers her first riding lessons.

Katie Shoultz and Elodea | Photo by Bentley Studio, Ltd

After watching the movie “The Black Stallion” countless times and injuring myself from pretending to be a horse, my parents finally decided I could begin riding lessons. At 8, I had glorified visions of how my riding career would progress. Needless to say, it didn’t involve a longe line or an orange helmet.

The local trainer told my mother that I needed the obligatory helmet and boots with a heel, so we headed to the local tack shop. My trip there was the epitome of special occasions up to that point in my life. Once there, I inhaled deeply–my nose fully appreciating the delightful aroma of sweet feed and leather. My senses were halfway intoxicated by the time my mother led me to the helmet section. Upon her discovery of the prices, I was promptly towed back to car.

Wal-Mart was our next destination–more specifically, the bicycle aisle. I quickly replaced my trance with a scornful look and crossed arms and sat in this obnoxious manner for a good portion of the ride there. At Wal-Mart, my mother found a $15 orange helmet that would work perfectly, as far as she was concerned. I grudgingly accepted the helmet, fueled by the belief that in just a matter of hours I would be galloping and navigating my way over obstacles. Besides, I still held out hope for boots. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed that night at dinner.

“Honey, where are those nice cowboy boots with the pink designs that Grandpa bought you?” my mother asked as she passed around the peas. I feigned ignorance. How was I to know that my mother knew of my many hiding places?

The next day, I awoke before the birds and popped in “The Black Stallion” for its millionth-and-one showing. I figured I could pick up any pointers I might have missed in my other viewings. After all, if one is going to be galloping and jumping at his or her first lesson, careful observation is necessary. I nearly wore out the play and rewind buttons on the remote that morning. The hours passed by, but then as we drove to my lesson, I glimpsed rows of white fence and an actual horse barn.

As we pulled up, I began to feel a tad out of place. Amidst the olive greens and shades of white and black, I stood there in a red T-shirt and rolled up jeans. My accessories were equally out of place: My toes curled in my size-too-small pink boots, and my small hand gripped the orange bicycle helmet. My preconceived notion of what my lesson would entail was soon given a reality check, as well.

My instructor introduced himself in a no-frills kind of way, and I was promptly taught how to mount. Soon after, my horse was clipped onto a longe line. My mother stood on the sidelines, her hand clenched at her throat, as I sat atop a sturdy Appaloosa with a bigger-than-Julia-Roberts smile on my face. It turned out there was a lot more to this whole riding thing than even my imagination envisioned, and I loved every minute of it. Heck, there was always next week to learn galloping. My mother was pleased with herself, too, because my jeans hid the remains of the barn quite well.

Thirteen years later, wearing my own pair of olive-green breeches and my velvet hunt cap, I somehow felt out of place in the horse world again. My lovely, worn-in-all-the-right-places brown saddle didn’t quite seem to fit the part either, and I sympathized with it. The only one who did seem to be in her element was my part-Hanoverian mare, Elodea, who looked every bit the part. I had been in the hunter ring all these years and was about to begin my first dressage lesson. It was definitely a transition in the best sense of the word.

Prior to this moment, I was one of the admirers of dressage from afar. But after my mare sustained an injury that made jumping a distant memory, it seemed I was destined to become more than just an onlooker. I mounted up and was promptly told that I needed to drop my stirrups down. I watched the intricate movements of the other riders, but made sure my imagination knew what to expect this time. As I walked around the arena in a position that was foreign, yet familiar, I had flashbacks of that first lesson as an 8-year-old. When I performed my first shoulder-in, I felt that same wide grin spread across my face.

I’ve done away with the air between my trusty saddle and my seat and hunkered down in my newfound home of dressage. With just a few tweaks here and there, my horse has become more balanced and supple. I, on the other hand, need more than a few tweaks, but I enjoy the challenge. After all, there is plenty of time to learn piaffe, and I have learned to enjoy the journey just as much as the destination.

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