Here Be Dragons

When cartographers of old created a map and didn’t know what lay beyond the land they were mapping, they often drew dragons, assuming of course that the unknown was a scary place. I know what they mean.

Fortunately, some – like Christopher Columbus and the Vikings – found the promise of dragons and other unknowns to be an adventure worth undertaking. I know a little bit about that too.

I’m basically your very average dressage rider – almost 40, married with a full-time job at a non-profit and a small farm in Virginia where I keep my three horses. Like many dressage riders these days, I didn’t start out riding dressage from the get-go. I grew up riding and showing in equitation and jumper classes. When a talented former event horse fell into my lap during graduate school, and an old back injury made jumping a little more painful than I could tolerate on a regular basis, I figured it couldn’t hurt to see what dressage buttons that 18 year old Throroughbred still had.

It didn’t take long before I was hooked on the nuanced riding and constant challenge that dressage can bring. At the time, almost ten years ago, I thought it would be amazing if I could one day show at Second Level. It seemed quite a long way to go from where I was – sitting in my not-equitationally-correct-for-any-discipline jumper hunch, unsure of how to really create a connection from back to front.

When I asked my trainer, Lauren Sprieser, to help me find a new horse, on a (very) small budget, I tired to keep my goals and expectations reasonable. I’d messed around at Training Level for years and started several youngsters who went on to other careers, but I was ready to take it to the next level. I was really looking for that horse who could live at home with me (i.e. not a hothouse flower or one that would try to kill less skilled horsepeople) and who had the potential to show Second Level. With my tiny budget, even that was going to be a challenge, and we spent months looking for The One.

Lauren called me one day when I was out of town, and told me that when I came home, there was a horse I must try. He was a little bit of a risk, having been trained as a combined driving horse, but she just had a good feeling about him. His owner was willing to bring him to Lauren’s farm so, of course, I tried him and Hastening Cardoon, a 16hh, dark bay Welsh Cob/TB, was in my barn within the month.

Cardoon is a charming, delightful horse who took to his new role quickly. It took time to build his strength for the work (remember, he’d been largely pulling a cart for several years!), but he soon began to give us glimpses of something pretty special. To my surprise, but maybe not Lauren’s, he excelled at the medium gaits (medium trot being his favorite parlor trick – hit the diagonal and he turns it on!) and once he figured out what I was asking, developed very nice lateral work. The best part is he does all of this, most of the time, with a big smile on his face. In 2014, just two years after bringing him home, I achieved that long-time goal of showing successfully at Second Level.

I had some time around the holidays to reflect on 2014 and where we’ve been, and think about my plans for 2015 and beyond. While it was fun to realize I had achieved those long-made goals, I also realized that I’m in that uncharted territory now, where dragons may or may not live, and I have no map of my own to guide me. I’m hardly an inexperienced rider, but I’ve never trained a horse to do changes, half-pass, or any of the other things expected of horses and riders at Third and above.

As I look to showing Third Level (and beyond, because hey, who doesn’t want to wear a shadbelly?) and hopefully getting my Bronze Medal this year, I’m incredibly grateful to have the support of people – like my husband, Kevin – who, while they don’t have a map either, are willing to follow me blindly on what I’m sure will be a circuitous route through the labyrinth of dressage training that lies ahead. I’m also grateful to have guidance from people – like Lauren – who do have a map and are there to help me navigate when I need it.

Like the Vikings and Columbus, I’m setting out into the land of dragons, but I’m not doing it alone.

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