By Stacy Curwood
I’m Stacy Curwood, and I’m the rider and owner of Special Dark, aka Sparky. Sparky is a six-year old Thoroughbred off the track and I am a 41-year-old history professor at UK. We’ve been together for almost two years, ever since I saw Sparky on a video and had him shipped to me sight unseen. He’s called Sparky because he is a bit opinionated in the barn, but he’s turned out to be a very willing and athletic partner, and I’m excited about our future together.
We completed a couple of Beginner Novice horse trials in 2015, and both times he was a superstar jumping. I was frustrated with the dressage phase, however. Sparky has good gaits and is more than capable in the sandbox, but I did not have him solidly on the aids and it showed. I vowed to go home and do some homework. I moved Sparky to a facility with an indoor arena and good footing, and was delighted to discover that talented trainer Megan Lynn was available to teach there. With Megan’s help we spent the fall building basics on the flat and over jumps, making significant progress in both areas. My equitation and Sparky’s responses to my aids improved greatly.
When I applied for the MSEDA scholarship, I decided to focus on dressage and to return to a trainer who has made a huge impact on my riding: Sandy Osborn. Sandy is a USEF “S” judge and USDF Gold Medalist who teaches and trains near Atlanta, Georgia. Sandy had helped me previously with my older horse Cat Burglar (“Taco”), and transformed my riding by teaching me to engage my core muscles and feel straightness in the horse. Every lesson with her was an immersion experience, both incredibly demanding and rewarding. Now I wanted to utilize her skills in pushing horses and riders to new levels of excellence with Sparky. When I was lucky enough to win the MSEDA Education Scholarship, I signed us up for a week of dressage “boot camp” with Sandy.
I pull into Ashland Farm, a fabulous facility in Walnut Grove, Georgia. Ashland has belonged to multiple generations of the Calhoun family and, after farming cotton, cattle, and fresh produce it developed into an equestrian paradise a few decades ago. It has a boarding barn but what makes it special is that non-boarders can purchase a membership and use two dressage arenas, a showjumping arena, a cross-country schooling field up to Preliminary, and 300 acres of wooded trails and fields to hack in. The boarding barn is adjacent to a covered arena with textile footing.
Lucy Calhoun, the owner, greets me. Sparky is to stay in one of the six stalls that are attached to the covered arena and reserved especially for guests. We get him settled in and she patiently writes down the detailed feeding instructions I give her. I give Sparky a kiss goodnight and head off to my friend Lynda’s house to bed myself down.
I tack Sparky up and ride into Ashland’s covered arena. Right away, Sandy notices me clamping my leg at the walk. She has me relax my leg and bump him lightly with both calves to tell him to walk forward. This will be a theme for the whole lesson—bump with one leg or both, then relax and let my legs lie on his sides. The aids should be short-lived and definite. Not only that, I have to be certain to allow him to step forward with the rest of my body. Sit back so more of the horse is in front of me. Weight my elbows but keep my hands weightless so that he can lift his wither and drop his neck over onto the bit. If I want to slow the tempo, I must do so with my core and not the reins, because the reins stop his hind legs and encourage him to drop behind the bit, one of his go-to evasions.
We also address straightness. Since he is carrying his haunches to the left, Sandy has me push him from my left leg into a leg yield on a left-handed 20-meter circle. My tendency is to lean over my left hand and pull on that rein, but that solves nothing. The real problem is that he is not stepping from his left hind into the right rein, so the leg yield is a tool to push him into the proper alignment and help him start learning to step through with the left hind. She has me either leg-yielding or being prepared to leg yield every moment when we are tracking left so that we preserve the correct alignment. Going right, I am to curve his body around a right leg that is weighted and directly underneath me, keeping his haunches correctly positioned to the right. We think we have improved the straightness so Sandy has me trot a serpentine to test it. I ask him to turn left with his haunches on the correct track—and he has a tantrum! Back to the circle, pushing the haunches left until he settles. We try again. Much better this time!
To finish, we do a little bit of canter. Sandy wants me to kick forward, much more than I think I need to, almost thinking medium. The canter seems too fast to me and I am tempted to lean forward and slow him down with my reins. But she tells me to sit back and follow with my elbows, and to my surprise Sparky’s wither lifts under me and he balances himself for several steps.
We finish there. Sparky and I are going to sleep well tonight!
I meet saddle fitter Nancy Bardy at the barn in the morning. Nancy sold me my dressage saddle two years ago, but at the time she had flocked it for Taco. Now that Sparky is my main competition partner, it’s time to flock it for him. Nancy finds that she can make some substantial changes that will greatly improve the fit. We’re both pleased with the result. Sparky has his own saddle now!
In my lesson, Sparky is already better. Between the saddle reflock and his memory of what we worked on the day before, he is straighter and more willing to go forward. I’m still weighting and elongating my right side, sitting back to allow the hind legs to come forward, and pairing heavy elbows with weightless hands. Today Sandy pushes us to move more forward in all three gaits, keeping the energy constant. On the circle left, I concentrate on leading him with my right rein, always encouraging him to step over to it but without changing his bend so his shoulder follows the path of the circle. We spend less time leg-yielding on the circle (though always making sure the haunches don’t fall left) and practice leg yields on the center line. He’s stepping to my right rein better when we leg yield over toward the right. When I weight my right stirrup and gently push with my left leg, he moves fluidly over to the wall. Leg yielding toward the left, where he wanted to lead with his haunches and fly over to the left, he is staying underneath me. Sometimes we just trot the center line and don’t leg yield, just to ensure that we can maintain straightness without the arena wall.
At the canter, I practice allowing with my elbows again and establishing a forward hand-gallop. This time, when I sit back and lighten my seat, thinking about lifting his front end with my lower abdomen, he lifts his wither for several circles and stays wonderfully light in the reins. He feels like a real dressage horse now!
As I’m finishing my ride, Dr. Kim Keeton, a sport horse veterinarian who happens to be a dear friend and the person who helped me find Sparky, watches him at all three gaits and then walking in hand. He shows some asymmetries, so we decide to acupuncture and do a chiropractic adjustment. I’m excited to see how he feels tomorrow.
I’m excited to see the sun when I wake up in the morning because the past two days have been rainy—and then I hear the wind howling. Trees are swaying and when I get on Sparky and ride into the arena leaves are dancing around his feet. He has a little spook at one end but, when we start to work, he becomes steady and attentive. He’s easier to straighten today and Sandy notices greater swing behind the saddle, very likely a result of his bodywork yesterday.
My hands are still bouncing around, however, and Sandy decides to have me put a bridge in my reins for better stability. Then she tells me to think about “sitting him through” instead of pushing him through to the contact. This image helps me sit taller and counteract my frustrating tendency to tip forward in the saddle. It also helps me push his hind legs so that he opens the angle of his throat latch into a more correct outline rather than ducking behind the contact as he tends to do. I engage my core to moderate his tempo—and I am the one who dictates the tempo, not him. I am also more able to drape my legs on his sides, especially at the canter, and give more definite leg aids.
At first I feel that I am not riding him round enough and that he is above the bit. But the video another of Sandy’s students shoots of me shows a different reality: he is carrying himself correctly, with a longer neck and lighter on the forehand. My leg yields are far more consistent and I am riding both sides of him more classically, with true bend each way. His canter is far more coordinated. We wrap up with a short hack around one of Ashland’s wooded trail loops. Even though it has started to spit cold rain, I’m warmed by a sense that we are getting somewhere and I don’t mind the weather anymore.
Sparky’s last day of work before two days off is very similar to the previous three rides: the theme is bringing his hind legs under his body and ensuring straightness. But that second item is becoming easier each ride. I’m still using the leg yield on the circle left in order to straighten him here and there, but I can ride with classical bending aids most of the time in both directions.
This time, Sandy increases the demands somewhat. We leg yield from quarter line to quarter line, with no wall to catch us at the end. This requires me to keep him between my right and left aids, neither allowing him to trail his haunches nor escape my outside rein and fly outward. We start with bridged reins again but I drop the bridge halfway through the ride, working hard to keep the feeling of having the same bearing and independence of the reins.
We also pay more attention to trot-canter transitions. In preparation, I ask for a bit more step with the hind legs, again keeping the tempo steady. Sparky doesn’t like that! He kicks and bucks, behavior that Sandy tells me to ignore. I keep up the pressure and his trot grows more expressive and I can even sit in preparation for canter departures. I’m to keep the hind legs under and the correct bend, thinking about keeping him pushing toward the outside rein and maintaining bend in the ribcage with inside leg. Some transitions are mediocre, but some of them are the best I’ve ever felt on him.
We finish the week practicing carefully letting his neck out into a stretch at the trot, then picking him up again, and then allowing stretch again. Sandy suggests that I add this exercise into his repertoire, as well as near-transitions to walk followed by trotting off again, in order to keep his hind legs responsible and stepping underneath him, even when we are wrapping up a ride.
Sparky gets some well-deserved time off while Sandy and I travel to Pine Top Farm for the Advanced Horse Trials and CIC. Sandy is judging all day Saturday, and I am her loyal scribe (aka fly on the wall). Since I first met Sandy scribing at this same event, I know that I will learn much from the day and it doesn’t disappoint. The theme of the day is balance: depending on the level, the horse should be in level or uphill balance. The majority of Sandy’s comments relate to the horse being on the forehand (I write “4hd” at least 50 times throughout the day) and the balance makes a big difference in the scores each movement gets. She also makes many comments that horses need more bend in circles and in the shoulder-ins and haunches-ins. She notes that eventers tend to do better halts and rein-backs than dressage horses do, in her experience. The day reminds me that the judges can only evaluate what they see in front of them during the four to six minutes of a test, and that the test directives dictate how the judge evaluates each movement.
After a morning of cross-country jump judging at Pine Top, I’m back at Ashland for another lesson. Sparky seems refreshed after two days off, and I’m happy to be back in the saddle too. As in the previous two rides, I start out with my bridge and work on pushing him out in front of me, creating the feeling of pushing the energy from his hind legs up and forward. As we keep going, I drop the bridge and Sandy asks for more and more of that uphill tendency. She has me visualize his shoulder and front legs reaching up and out, and lift my own core to facilitate that. He feels more swingy today, and he’s not dropping behind the contact. I still have to work hard to keep my right leg positioned correctly at the girth, but he is moving in better alignment.
Sandy introduces an exercise that combines the bending figures and lateral movements we’ve been doing during the week. We do a ten- or twelve- meter half circle on to the center line (or just off it), then head back to the track. As we do so, I change the bend and ask for a leg yield to the track. Once on the track, I do a ten-or 12-meter circle, and then continue on down the track in shoulder-in. After several rounds of this, Sparky feels much more supple, and asking him for more uphill work yields a satisfying feeling.
We squeeze in another lesson on Monday morning before I have to head back to Kentucky. We do leg yields right out of the box (they are a warm-up exercise, Sandy likes to remind me) and some canter work that includes baby counter canter on a shallow serpentine along the long side. Today it is really helping when I visualize a small circle from the side that includes my elbows and my hip bones, and I want both parts of my body to stay in the circle. Expand that circle, and it includes my seatbones, the tops of my legs, and his withers—in other words, our shared center of gravity. We finish with walk-trot-walk transitions around the outside of the arena, working on preserving the energy through the down transitions (I should feel like I could trot off again at any moment during the process) and the suppleness during up transitions.
The horse I bring home is much improved from the one I started out with a week previously. He’s easier to keep straight and more responsive to my leg and weight aids. He’s helped by a rider who is sitting taller and more evenly (though I think I will need to be aware of keeping my right side long and my right leg underneath me for the foreseeable future!). He’s swinging and rounder behind the saddle and he’s gotten a better idea of how to use his abdominal muscles to lift his wither and take more weight on his hind legs. All in all, it’s been a tremendously educational week and we are leaving with plenty of homework. I can’t wait to try out our new skills this season—catch us trotting down center line at a competition near you soon!