The free walk was always our highest scoring movement in Dressage…I should have known!

There are numerous articles and books around about how dressage can be very helpful as a base for all disciplines in the horse world (my favorite is by Jane Savoie – More Cross Training: Build a Better Performance Horse with Dressage). There are many great books out there about cross-discipline training and I agree that the more things you can get you and your horse exposed to, the more well-rounded and flexible you’ll both be, mentally and physically!

Most often, I hear of riders starting out as Hunters when they were kids, and then sometimes eventually switching over to Dressage, Eventing, or Jumpers, using their Hunter background to guide them.  Well, Sandie and I started the other way around…in addition to not riding when I was a kid (starting at the age of 26 with a green horse), Sandie and I were both “started” in Dressage, and competed in our first shows in the demanding discipline of Eventing!

Now, if you’ve been following our story and have read Chapters 1 and 2 already , you know that after a successful first 3 years of Eventing, this winter we started to have a change of heart. Our plan was to take on Beginner Novice (fences 2’0”-2’7”) this summer, but somewhere between last year’s 2’0” Starter level and this spring, I started to notice a change in my 11-year old mare Sandie.  She was getting stressed out about things, which is turn was stressing me out.  We’ve always had fun jumping, but our flat work (Dressage) was beginning to be not so fun for us anymore.  Sandie would nervously chomp on the bit when asked to move in a frame, and try desperately to pull the reins from my hands, resulting in many tug-of-wars.  I no longer looked forward to flatwork at all; it always seemed like an uphill (ok, in her case DOWNHILL and on the forehand!) battle.  I started to re-think the idea of Eventing her this summer.

Spring rolled around and financial circumstances caused us to have to move barns.  We found ourselves at a Hunter/Jumper barn, a big change of pace for us.  But I liked what I saw…horses happily traveling around in a longer frame, everyone looking flawless and perfect on the flat and over fences.  The impeccable grooming of the horses, and the excellent turnout of the riders, all carbon copies of one another.  It was intriguing to me, having never really been exposed to it much.  I decided to give Sandie a much-needed break from the pressures of Dressage and give Hunters a go.  What I didn’t realize at the time was how it would come back around for us.

After a couple months of re-training our bodies for a different sport (more me than Sandie…she moves naturally more like a Hunter than a Dressage horse, her build makes it much easier to conform to Hunters), we gave our first Hunter show a try. It was an exhilarating and much different experience from the Eventing we were used to.

Now, I must say, I still love Eventing – the beauty of a good Dressage round and the all-encompassing feeling of galloping cross-country, soaring over anything in our path! –  And who knows, we may end up back in it someday soon!  But to be totally fair to Sandie, she needed a break, and she gives 110% to me, so I felt I owed this to her.

We will never grow tired of a good gallop on the cross country course!

And I’m very glad I did.  This week, I was discussing  our journey to a friend at the barn, and to show her Sandie’s reaction to Dressage, I asked her to go into her frame and work at the trot, fully expecting her usual reaction of chomping the bit nervously and pulling at my hands…and to my surprise, that’s not at all what I got.

Instead, a beautiful Dressage horse emerged, all round and working off her hind end, collecting up nicely and calm as a cucumber!  WHERE is my mare and WHAT have you done with her?!  It was quite simply amazing, that’s really the only word I can come up with!  To my shock, she was happily trotting along, content as can be, more supple and soft than ever before!

And I realized, a mental break is a POWERFUL thing!  Not to mention all the work with Hunters we’d been doing in getting her to stretch forward and round on a loose rein, which meant she had to carry herself.  All the “long and low” I had been doing with her had helped build up her topline and she was stronger than ever!

I gave it a go the next time we rode, just to see if it would stick and lo and behold it did.  Effectively, Hunters had helped out with our Dressage!  I see so many books about the other way around, but I can’t recall seeing any with Hunters suggested as a solution to Dressage issues.  But here we were, a living example of how it helped.  So I came to a conclusion this week… no matter what your “main” discipline is, no matter how much you know about it, or how comfortable you are in it, trying out other disciplines is great for you and your horse, your fitness, and your mental health!  Cross-discipline training is the best…and really it makes sense.  Just think about this…would you rather your workout schedule look like this:

Monday – run 10 miles

Tuesday – run another 10 miles

Wednesday – run another 10 miles (uuuggghh)

Thursday – run yet another 10 miles if your legs aren’t about to fall off yet

Sandie relaxing and grazing in the sun in the pasture at her new barn

Friday – run 10 miles…seriously?!  Are you TRYING to kill me??

Or like this…

Monday – run 10 miles

Tuesday – weight training

Wednesday – swimming

Thursday – circuit training

Friday – go for a long hike

If you’re like me, you have a LOT of energy and always need somewhere to let it out, but doing the same thing over and over again is BORING and eventually it becomes too easy and your fitness level plateaus while you mentally burn out.  I’d choose the second schedule ANY DAY, both for my physical fitness and for my mental sanity!  So why would it be any different for our horses?

So the next time you see a flawless Hunter round, or watch a breathtaking Dressage test being performed, go ahead and give it a try!  The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, so why not keep hopping the fence?? The view will always be beautiful.

Stefanie