Recently, I had the opportunity to take a lesson with one of the hottest 20something trainers in the dressage biz, Lauren Sprieser. This is the story of how it changed my life.
First, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to confess something: I’m not the biggest fan of dressage.
As an incurable adrenaline junkie, dressage just doesn’t rank high enough on the “wild-and-crazy-o-meter” to hold my attention much longer than two minutes–one theory to explain why I consistently fall apart halfway through my tests.
Another theory to explain this phenomenon is the fact that I invest in approximately one dressage lesson a year.
To be honest, dressage lessons kind of bum me out. You write someone a fat check to stamp their feet and yell at you for an hour–what’s the fun in that?
Anyway, while in Virginia this summer, I got my annual “Imma take a dressage lesson!” wild hair. But from whom? I asked around and everyone kept referring me to Lauren Sprieser.
Since I’m out of the dressage loop, I really only knew Lauren from her fabulous Chronicle of the Horse blog. Unlike most dressage blogs, which read like “collection-blah-blah-blah-Europe-blah-blah-blah,” Lauren’s blog makes her life as a dressage rider seem exciting and adventurous.
Here’s her August 15 entry:
Camp Barisone, Day 1
Hello Mother, Hello Father
Here I am at Camp Piaffer
Midge is splendid, just as always
When I sit down in piaffe, there his hind legs stay!
Had my first quick lesson early.
Midgey feels super, not too burly.
Super half-pass, but those pirouettes
Michael says still aren’t quite right, which I do not get.
Burnt out by a lifetime of getting screamed at by stuffy DQs, Lauren seemed like a breath of fresh air. So I loaded up Esprit and headed to Lauren’s home base, Clearwater Farm in Marshall, Virgina.
Walking into the barn, I could tell that Lauren knew a thing or two about dressage.
As I walked Esprit into the lovely indoor arena, with its state-of-the-art footing that I believe consisted of shredded bouncy balls and recycled angel wings, Lauren introduced herself. She was smiling and cheerful and upbeat, which is the exact opposite of the way I would feel had I been teaching dressage lessons all day.
As I started warming up, she explained, “Every dressage test is a story, and you have five minutes to tell it.”
I thought about what our dressage story was. Probably something with Harrison Ford in it, an action-adventure flick with dangerous stunts and a big finish.
Our usual MO is to fly around the ring in a dramatic fashion, with Esprit flinging the toes he inherited from his Grand Prix daddy and me hanging on for dear life. The strategy works on some judges, who are so dazzled by Esprit’s fancy feet that they fail to realize we are totally out of control–until we bomb the counter canter completely and I go off course.
Lauren saw right through our antics. She instructed us to tone it down, make the trot less impressive, so that Esprit learned how to properly carry himself. The big trot would still be there later when we were ready for it, but for now we needed to build a foundation.
I agreed, but Esprit didn’t like the fact that I was cramping his style and actually making him work. He contorted his body into the shape of a question mark in protest. Once again, Lauren was onto his tricks and helped me straighten him out.
At some point, Lauren whipped out a slinky–you know, one of those metal coils kids played with before video games and the Internet were invented. She used it to illustrate why you want the horse’s hind legs up underneath him (back up!) as opposed to being all weak and strung out. I tried to keep the image in mind as we worked on the canter, thinking of it as a dial that goes from extremely collected (1) to extremely extended (10). “Show me a 3,” Lauren would say. “Now show me a 7!”
Throughout the lesson, Lauren used specific images like the slinky and ideas like the dial to communicate sophisticated dressage concepts that some of us spend our whole lives trying to wrap our heads around. My favorite: Instead of yelling at me not to look down (a chronic position flaw of mine), she told me to imagine that George Clooney was up in the rafters of the indoor, naked. From then on out, a quick reminder–”Think of George Clooney!”–was all it took to get my eyes back up where they belonged.
By the end of the lesson, my supposedly fit prelim event horse was exhausted and I was elated. I’d had a dressage lesson… and IT WAS FUN.
Leaving Clearwater Farm, I made a deal with myself. One, I would try to carry the spirit of fun I’d felt riding with Lauren into my daily training. Two, instead of being content with my usual place at the bottom of the scoreboard after dressage, I’d try to improve one small thing each time I went into the ring, even if it meant (cough-cough) taking a dressage lesson every now and again.
At my most recent competition, I decided that my goal would be to keep my eyes on Naked George Clooney. Mission accomplished!