By Jenna Santos
Dressage is easy. Unless you’re the one doing it… in which case it is very difficult. As with most sports, and in fact most activities, if someone makes something look easy… it is because they are good at it. So don’t be fooled into thinking it is just a matter of prancing around in circles. Ironically, the better you get the harder it becomes, and not just because you start working your way through the grades (theoretically) but rather because you realise all the things you never knew you never knew. I shudder to think of the countless things I am yet to learn, which would be a far longer list than the list of things I already know.
I am not a professional rider. I am an average amateur rider. An amateur rider, for those who don’t know, is basically defined as a person who does not make a living out of riding or training horses or coaching other riders. Just because a person is an amateur rider does not make them a bad rider. In fact, many amateur riders are highly skilled and competitive at top levels. There are also many “professional” riders who have questionable riding or horsemanship skills. You know the old saying… those who cannot do… teach. It is sometimes true.
I call myself an “average” amateur rider as I am, by the very definition, average. At best. If I was to enter a competition with 20 riders, I would likely come in 10th or 11th. My score sheet would likely be an average of the highest and lowest score. Of course, it depends entirely on the competition, the rider’s and horses on the day, the judge, and my own riding. I’m also talented at coming dead last. But I’m ok with that… someone must be last.
So why should you listen to me? Honestly, you really shouldn’t. But here’s the thing… I happen to also have regular access to one of the best dressage riders in Australia, and arguably the world. And you should most definitely listen to her. Let me explain.
I met Dr. Victoria Hamilton some 10 years ago, shortly after I started riding. Vicky is a vet (thus the “Dr”), a dressage coach, elite rider, and international competitor. She has won some seriously impressive competitions including numerous state and national championships, two Australian World Challenge Finals, two Australian Dressage Leaderboard Titles and was the runner-up in the World Final of the PSI/FEI World Dressage Challenge in Germany in 2001. It’s an impressive resume.
About 10 years ago I rocked up on Vicky’s property, with my ancient palomino pony, utterly terrified having just broken my arm for the second (but not last) time and asked her to help me with my dressage. At the time I was adamant I was going to pursue eventing, despite being utterly terrified of jumping, and dressage, at the time, was our weakest link. Like many event riders (if you could call me that) I had a strong dislike for dressage, and just wanted to get it over and done with. But if I was fortunate enough to get through show jumping and cross country alive and occasionally clear, I would always place badly after my terrible performance in the dressage arena. This was something I needed to fix. What I was not expecting was for Vicky’s contagious love of dressage to wear off on me, but before I knew it, I too became obsessed with prancing about. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward to several month ago, my husband and I decided to sell our house in the country and move to the bright city lights. Unfortunately, my horse does not fit in my yard, and I didn’t know how I would hide him during a rent inspection. So, I effectively dumped him on Vicky’s property, and we (my horse and I) made ourselves at home. This is supposedly a “temporary” situation but we’re optimistically treating it as semi-permanent… hoping she’ll take pity and allow us to stay.
Even though I have no real purpose in being there, I like to hang about and extract as much information as I can. I have no doubt Vicky shakes her head in disbelief every time I leave her property, wondering how I made it through these past 12 years of owning horses with so little knowledge. I do wonder if she coddles my horse at night, showing him great empathy for having been stuck with me for the last four years. She really can’t let him leave now… back into my incapable hands. She cares too much for the welfare of horses… So, we have her trapped.
I have always enjoyed asking Vicky stupid questions like “what is a long side,” “what is a diagonal” and “what did you say a long side was again?” But there are only so many things you can ask a person within a 45-minute lesson… especially when you’re meant to be riding a horse. I used to squeeze a fair bit out of her because I was far too unfit to ride continuously for the entire session, so I’d use these Q&A sessions as an excuse to take a breather. But as mentioned earlier, there are just endless things to learn. Luckily, instead of 45 minutes once or twice a month, I now get to follow her around like a puppy dog 3-4 times a week for several hours at a time. It is magic.
So, while you should most definitely not listen to anything I have to say about “how to dressage” … I am here to ask Vicky all the stupid questions and share with you what I learn. I hope you enjoy “An Amateur’s Guide to Dressage” and learn a little of the epic amount there is to learn about dressage and horses.
Dr Victoria Hamilton is an icon in the Western Australian Equestrian Community, with a wealth of experience as a veterinarian, coach, breeder and international dressage competitor. As one of Australia’s top dressage riders, her love of horses is contagious and apparent in everything she does.
Jenna Santos is a business marketer, events manager, writer, mother and an amateur dressage rider.