Dressage on the Trail

by Catherine de la Cruz, soon to be a Region 1 rider

I ride with a group of older women (ages 50-75), and we call ourselves the Mature Ladies Riding Club at White Dog Ranch. All of us have had some physical or emotional issue dealing with riding, and we provide great support for each other as we work through them. Our trainer is Angie Meroshnekoff. Weekly lessons in the arena are supplemented with monthly trail rides where we are introduced to the procedures and obstacles we would encounter on a NATRC Novice ride.

While our arena work addresses individual riders' problems, we are regularly introduced to introductory dressage movements and, regardless of the experience of the rider, the age or breed of the horse, we are all expected to become proficient at them. Although I felt this made sense for the few riders who were interested in competing in dressage, I thought, "I just want to trail ride. How will this ever benefit me and my Fox Trotter?" Today I found out.

Angie took us out to nearby Lake Mendocino, to ride a trail we had never ridden before. We started at what used to be part of the public campground at the south end of the lake and set out over the top of the dam. It's wide enough for two cars to pass, but it is paved and has a steep slope on one side and the wind-blown lake on the other. We had to share it with walkers with dogs and strollers and with bicyclists. How to get the horse to pay attention and walk out safely? Ah - collect at the walk.

Once off the dam, the trail ascended quickly on a steep hill with sharp switchbacks. Hmm - engage hindquarters for the climb; turn on the forehand with good collection at the 180-degree switchback. There's a steep drop on one side - use leg pressure on that side to keep the haunches toward the bank. As the trail went up, risers had been placed every so often to stabilize the soil and the horse had to step up over them - yes, it's like the cavaletti practice we did yesterday. There's a ditch at the bottom of a hill with a turn and a steep uphill after it - use rein and leg aids to show the horse where I want each foot placed to safely do the crossing then turn 90 degrees on the hindquarters to be firmly on the uphill trail.

Could the trail be done by a horse and rider who don't use dressage? Of course. But the training had given me and my horse a means of communication that made us both more confident. Although I have yet to do my first competitive ride, I am developing the skills to do so and plan to do a NATRC ride this summer. Meanwhile, we'll keep up the dressage lessons.