Virtual Dressage and Girls in White Shirts

The FEI passed good rules this year, and the Olympic judging held to the high side. Dressage had things to celebrate but then the modern pentathlon debacle happened, not even an equestrian event, and we all saw the competitor crying and whipping her horse. The press failed to grasp what we all know: Horses take skill to ride. Riders feel frustration. When things go wrong, breathe and say, “Good boy” because we don’t ever blame our horses.

Meanwhile, I was asked to judge a dressage show in Canada, from my studio on the flat windy treeless prairie of Colorado. I immediately confessed that I wasn’t legal to judge. The organizer, Leigh-Ann, told me it was a schooling show and she was allowing bitless bridles and a full range of only lower-level tests, so with that, I agreed. I’ve spent decades riding, competing, teaching, scribing, and studying dressage, all of which involves some level of perception (judging). I was sure my understanding and respect for the dressage tradition would guide me well.

I soon received a list of YouTube video links and the software to score the rides digitally. Some of the arenas were in pastures with buckets for letters and others seemed to be on manicured lawns with white edging and large lettered cones. Some of the tests were in indoor arenas that doubled as winter hay storage in the far end, but in each location, the camera was placed at “C” and I could see everything I would if I was there.

There were adult riders competing in Western Dressage tests on lovely horses moving happily forward in ground covering gaits. Yay! One dressage entry came all the way from New Zealand; an Andalusian whose trot had lively cadence and balance; ridden with soft hands, he lifted his shoulders in an extended canter, his hooves thundering down the long side. Breathtaking. Most of the riders were 10 to14-year-old girls who took lessons from the organizer, some on lesson horses and some riding their own. Everyone wore helmets.

The introductory dressage test movements were nostalgic, like old friends. They are simple, but not easy. It’s a sequence of work, so they must continually prepare for the next movement, the best skill a rider can have. Transitions are scored so riders show upward transitions without causing the horse’s poll to tense. Downward transitions need enough forward to keep the horse balanced. 

Each test begins by entering on the centerline, walking a straight line to “X” in the center, then a halt (immobile) and salute. Even the youngest riders manage the entry, then a quick dip of their helmet and low salute with one hand. I solemnly nod back at my computer to girls in little white shirts with very serious faces, deep in concentration. Then their legs, flapping quietly as a baby bird, urge their horse forward to the main movements in the test. They ride the pattern letter by letter; there are walk transitions, trots on the diagonal, a free walk on a long rein. By the time the rider’s legs have grown longer, canter has been added to the tests. The riders each sit very tall. They post rhythmically with their shoulders back, mostly on the correct diagonal. Their hands are remarkably good.

Good hands? I later asked Leigh-Ann how she did it. My adult clients aren’t always that consistent. She said, “When I started my lesson program, I decided that beginners would start bitless. In the beginning, it was so I didn’t have to watch my horses’ mouths being pulled on, but I questioned myself a lot at first because these riders generally progressed more slowly than students I’d taught in the past. Then, I started to notice students learned how to ride with their body from the beginning, because if they didn’t, the horse wouldn’t turn, stop, etc.  A neat little side effect seems to be the hands.” It’s a fundamental principle in Dressage that good contact is a byproduct of a correct seat.

Not all the rides went perfectly. Some horses wandered off course and others politely declined to trot on the first ask. Not that anyone would have known if they didn’t have the test in front of them as I did. No horses got corrected, certainly, none punished. The riders didn’t look frustrated or cry. They just found the next letter ahead and negotiated their horse back on track. If the canter depart didn’t work, they trotted on and tried again when it came later in the test. 

Some riders finished their ride and jumped down to show the camera they could put two fingers under the noseband, though clearly, it was looser than that. Others took their bridle off to show me their snaffle, a legal bit, and their horses dropped his heads low to oblige them.

Some school horses came in more than once, with different riders. The horses were not young athletes but moving is good for arthritis. They showed no anxiety and were up for this job that requires more heart than muscle; this job takes both willingness and stoic sobriety. Lesson horses exist in an un-scorable realm, walking with a steady slow stride. They begin a circle inside each rider, paying it forward, training riders for future horses who will need help from their rider in turn. Lesson horses are the elite of all horses, forever above judging.

Everyone ended their test as they started, with a halt and salute. Polite, with shared respect, I nodded back, weeks after they’d ridden. Then the rider released their reins, patted their horse, and the onlookers cheered. I settled in to do my final notations. All of the riders demonstrated an understanding of the fundamentals of riding. Taking lessons, any horse will tell you, is one of the best investments a rider can make. 

As besotted as I was watching the girls ride their tests, I did not give them perfect scores. From the grooming, to cleaning their tack, to the last halt in their test, they take their riding very seriously, and I would not insult them by doing less. No points were given away. I scored in a conservative range but tried to give thoughtful comments at the level of the rider. I remarked about what was good, even if it was a recovery. I affirmed the best from the horse and the rider, and probably got wordy sometimes. You can trust the rider to know by the score where the sticky parts were, sometimes a comment was given about what to do for a higher score. I meant to encourage them, adults and kids alike.

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The last class on my list was the Starter Drill Team with two entries. Think freestyle with friends. Quadrille. Horse Party! With special permission, here are the videos. Click to see The Queens here and The Trolls here. Stop reading right now and go treat yourself. 

A group ride isn’t scored individually but as a whole, lifting the work together, friends and horses.  Choreography: Interesting and quick, a well-deserved 9. Musicality and Presentation: For the helmet decorations alone, 9. Performance as a Group: They’re fabulous. I hope they’re riding drill team together in 60 years, score 9 again. I couldn’t help it. Straight 9s.

Judge’s Note: A 90% score is incredible but I didn’t give them 10s. They haven’t peaked yet.

Whether you hate the sport or love it, this is Dressage. One of these girls may win the Olympic gold with a bold freestyle one day. Or maybe they will ride with schooled balance and kind patience their whole lives, sharing a special bond with like-minded riders. Either way, their horses are winners.

With gratitude to all the competitors and a howling cheer for the drill teams… Ride on, ye Queens and Trolls! Forward!

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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43 thoughts on “Virtual Dressage and Girls in White Shirts”

  1. Omg those hands! Amazing tutelage for so many young riders to have this much early grasp (puns always intended) of rein hands. Congratulations to the instructor. I’d love to know more about her techniques should you have occasion to explore in a future article. Meanwhile thanks for a welcome joy bomb of article and your “judgmental” comments that remind us of the grace in our fundamentals well displayed.

  2. LOVE,LOVE,LOVE!! Everything about this! I smiled the whole way through both those videos-it made my heart smile to see young riders so relaxed and smiling and happy, riding such perfect little school horses! Girls, (and coach!) your hard work, dedication and obvious love for the life shines through. Bravo! Oh, Thank you for sharing!!

  3. Thank-you Anna! What a lovely inspiring read. Leigh Ann is my instructor with my mare Sunni Daze ( we co-parent this girl). I’m a mature 😉 rider and Leigh Ann has taught me the grace to listen to the horse. To ask and not demand. To enter the barn with gratitude. I hope we can have the privilege of you judge again at another schooling show.

  4. Loved the videos – both “teams” amazing. Got such a charge out of the little gaited? pony who did such a great job for both those children. Brought tears to my eyes remembering my granddaughters “shows” on a little POA pony named Chubby. This was so impressive and heart-warming to see kids learning to ride well but also respecting the horses as its obvious they do.

  5. Thanks for sharing the videos of the drill teams. That was great! More kids need to do this and it needs to be done out in the show arenas for fun and “look and see what even we can do with our horses and we are not big money people.” Doing this to music is great. This is also very difficult. I put together one in England in the 70’s at our barn for the Queen’s silver jubilee with 16 riders. It was all to western theme music. The student staff and I had a great time.

  6. Wonderful-thanks for sharing! So good to see young girls who seem so in tune with their ponies, soft hands, no discourse. Really enjoyed seeing the small, pacing pony-any idea what its breeding may be?

  7. WOW. . I mean WOW!!! You were right about the hands and basic seats, Anna. What FUN!! I remember asking the kids at our pony club camp to build a quadrille for their graduation project to be ridden in front of the parents. The kids came up with MAGIC. This time will never be forgotten in these ‘Littles’. Thank you for posting this it made my day.

  8. Oh Anna, thank you so much for sharing that. It looks like so much fun. Those riders were amazing, horses too. I cried watching it because it brought me some much needed joy to see and it also made me want to lean how to dance with Tango when I beat this cancer. Thank you for giving me something to look forward to. Much ❤️ Pam

  9. Anna,
    Excellent students and videos — most enjoyable and heartwarming: No bits, no stressful riding, great choreography, kind riders,
    happy horses! This is the best level and that smaller pony is really enjoying himself (herself).

    Thank you for including these videos. Horses seem to be happy in drill work.

    One thing, though (and this is for higher competition, too): Could we please have a little more consideration for the fact
    that horses’ hearing is probably 20 times better than ours? Music levels should be down a little — it can stress horses
    and damage their ears. Just some adjustments needed.

    The overall 9s you gave them: Absolutely perfect. They are stars!

    • My guess is that the speaker is by the camera so we can hear it. When I’ve competed freestyles, I’ve never seen horses challenged, indeed so many horses play to the audience, but more often there were times I struggled to hear the music and stay on cue. I’m more concerned with stress from music left on in barns. But yes, their hearing is better than ours. But point taken. Thanks Nuala.

      • Thanks Anna — the levels are probably all over the indicator. Interesting music, I must say!
        Great, great kids!
        So enchanting…thanks for sending.

  10. Anna,
    Regarding the pentathlon.
    I am aware that PETA exposes the worst (but as our wildlife groups note, “It is the only way to get the public’s attention”)
    but this is not a good scenario and the horse is being abused, it’s terrified, and probably exhausted.
    No human has the right to do this to a horse. There is nothing more to be said.

    I have seen young girls whipping their horses at horse shows, and the judge did not comment.
    Such riders should be removed and re-educated — they are abusing sentient beings.

    Most riders care about their horses, but again, it is in cases such as this that things get out of hand.
    Evidently this rider was devastated at refusals and faults, and burst under the pressure of the high competition.
    This does not justify ill treatment at any time. I feel sad for them both — horse and rider.
    The horse was also responding to the rider’s fear/emotions, and the rider was likely under a lot of stress.

    She needed to dismount, gracefully, before it got out of hand, and accept the ‘lesson’, and do so before she injured herself and her horse.
    There is success and there is learning; there is no failure.

    Always, always, always, put the horse FIRST. The horse honors the human by even accepting him or her on his back.

    This is what you teach, Anna. Bless you for this.

    • The idea that these riders are expected to do their best on “strange” horses, frankly lowered this gal even more in my opinion. And watching the “trainer”?? telling her to whip the horse for the riders lack of experience – talent – empathy?? What you said in your comment above, Nuala.

  11. Must admit, when I first watched the “Modern Pentathlon” video, I was braced for another train wreck with the Queens and Trolls. I was so relieved at the site of these young professionals out there with their able mounts just doin’ their thing. Thank you so much for sharing. It was pure joy! And 9’s were a perfect score. Always need to leave a little room for improvement!

    • Despite the number of replays of wrecks, in all my competitive years I have seen very very few. The tiny percentage of riders that are cruel are rare, especially in lower-level competition. Thanks, Lynell.

  12. Lovely essay as I have come to expect from you, and so enjoyed the girls on their horses in the dressage videos ! What fun ! Thank you for sharing with us !!! I couldn’t watch the Pentathlon video.. Had seen it on Fb. Sad all the way around.

    What a contrast though between the youngsters on their horses and the Pentathlon incident. The girls are such a shining example of what is possible when one learns to not rely on the bit and reins for “control.” I have a long way to go to catch up to those youngsters !!!

    • I guess good stories about horses don’t make for exciting video but it’s too bad. I think these girls are a truer representation. I rode with the Liniment Sisters in my 30s and we howled. Thanks, Sarah

  13. Great job Drill Teams!!! Team work is a great way to learn how to succeed in life. Weather you are slowing down for someone to catch up or you are stepping it up to catch up….it takes a good team to pull it all together. I am now 71 years old. My Walking Horse Club had a drill team for several years. I was part of it for about 3 years…..I was probably 66 to 69 years old at the time. We had the best times. Some of the horses had a mind of their own (imagine that) and when we messed up we just went with it. It was a lot of work…..but we really enjoyed it.

  14. This brought back memories Anna, back in Pony Club days, when each year clubs from around the state would do a “square dance” on horseback. The lead rider for each club also carried a banner, so rode one handed. Imagine the huge arena filled with colourful riders at the annual Royal Adelaide Show. I rode in the last one held, back in the late 60’s.

  15. I loved this, Anna Blake! I liked your thinking, the application of your vast knowledge, your descriptions of the girls and the horses and the dressage tests – all of it! Just perfect! A 10!

  16. This made my heart so very happy! I’m all about creating and empowering new horse lovers while keeping riding positive and fun for all. Thank you for sharing your lovely words and the great rides! I’ve never coached my students to do this in the past but would really love to learn more. I’ll be exploring YouTube further.

  17. I love this post Anna! I took lessons from a wonderful teacher and friend for over 20 years. Not only did she start hundreds of young girls on their riding adventures, but she allowed us “more mature girls” to live our horsey dreams. I formed wonderful friendships there that I value and love to this day. I even continued the lessons at the riding school when I got my own horse – I didn’t want to miss any of the fun we had from pairs jumping, obstacle courses, to musical freestyle individual rides and, the most fun drill team routines that we did every January when it was often so chilly that our “costumes” included parkas. Several of the rides are forever saved on video, thank goodness! I developed a true appreciation of the patient and kind school horses that often put up with a lot (love your friend’s teaching technique of starting the kids in bitless bridles!). I now have my own horse at a lovely small barn, and am encouraging my riding buddies there to do some pairs routines with me. My friends and I definitely part of the group you commented about that you “hope they’re riding drill team together in 60 years”. Thanks again for this post and all your thoughtful and heartfelt posts!


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