The Para Dressage Chronicles, vol. 1

March/April 2021

Sprieser Sporthorse and Clearwater Farms has been a thing of my dreams since I started my para dressage journey. In the very beginning, in May 2018, I met Lisa Hellmer through Sprout Therapeutic Riding Center. Lisa was then the assistant trainer at Sprieser Sporthorse. Since then I have occasionally visited the pristine barn and beautiful ring. Watching the spectacular horses and riders in their strategized, competition-oriented programs helped me formulate what it might take for me to ride at the highest level of para dressage of which I’m capable. 

And, here we are! Thanks to Lauren Sprieser, grand poobah of Sprieser Sporthorse; Amanda Fitze, Mason’s owner; and my incredible village who has made it financially possible, Mason arrived at Sprieser Sporthorse on March 4th, 2021. Ours is a new partnership. He is the principal in our dance company; the chaperone to my developing dressage education.  His CV includes upper-level training under respected names with pretty ribbons at a multitude of prestigious shows. He’s stoic, sensible, kid-friendly, food motivated, and oh-so-dreamy. Lauren; Karrigan, assistant trainer; Rachel, barn manager; Calah, working student; and Emma, working student have keen and exacting eyes on Mason and me was we “go to college” together.

Our first month was time for all of us, horse and humans, to get to know one another. At first, he was like an ascetic house guest, continually in a state of ready apology for any misgiving – we’re talking ultra-polite. Now that we’ve spent some time together, the shell is beginning to crack. A first order of business was to halter and bridle him from my scooter – each time two ears pop out from the crownpiece, I stuff a cookie into his maw. He now parks his nose in my crotch whenever he is remotely peckish – it’s quite unsightly. Many of the horses in the barn have taken a liking to the “cookie cart.” We have had zero miscommunications grooming or tacking up, it’s like someone has been picking out his feet from a scooter his entire life. 

Determining the best way and place to mount has been more puzzling for the people than it has been for Mason. The ladies who help me are beyond knowledgeable and capable and rival politeness with Mason. It is a bit presumptuous of me to ask them to shove my broken body aboard the horse they don’t know in a way that brings near strangers into close bodily contact during a time we’ve become accustomed to six feet of social distancing. All this intensified by my cries of, “Do it faster!” “Push harder!” and “You won’t hurt me.” Oy vey. They have been brilliant, and fortunately, I haven’t stuff treats into their mouths. Although, now that I think about it, some baked goods, at the very least, are probably in order. Again, zero mishaps mounting and dismounting thus far.

Mason has been doing more babysitting and, well, sitting, than working over the winter. I shouldn’t judge, I did a lot of nothing over our wet winter too. We have been getting in shape together. We started with walking in brief, 20-minute stints as to not exacerbate Mason’s old suspensory injury and for Karrigan, Mason, and I to get to know one another. Plus, when there are only two gaits in your tests, there is plenty to keep busy in the walk. The trot work came in short, uneventful bursts for a few weeks and now we are up and running.

Whilst all this getting-to-know-each-other was going on, we began the equipment assessment. Each horse (and rider for that matter) is a unique little snowflake, so the solutions that were magical for Robin haven’t been so for Mason. Tack has to be safe, effective for communication, and acceptable for competition. Problemo numero uno: reins. I have reduced grip strength and dexterity in my right hand. With Robin, looped reins worked like a charm. Thus far, we’ve eliminated those and Correct Connect reins (Velcro reins and gloves) from the list of possibilities. Finding what doesn’t work is almost as useful as finding what does work; also, walking the line between giving something a fair trial, but not chasing it down the rabbit hole. The current winner is thick reins with hand stops. I’m on the hunt for some rubber reins with hand stops like these ones. (PS If you’re reading this from a manufacturer or tack shop and you’d let us trial your reins, that’d be awesome!) Something we have decided on, at least for now, is that the elastic inserts in the reins work for us.

Saddle modifications to increase the stability in my contact and security for my seat have been in the works since October 2020 (remember that snowflake comment? Smh). I sent it off just two weeks after Mason arrived. We’re using my old saddle which isn’t optimal for either of us, but not hurting either of us either. Some truly ingenious work is being done and I eagerly await its return. Expect a full description of the whole story when its back!

I can’t believe how much stronger I feel now that I’m riding five, six, sometimes seven days a week when I get to sit on Robin too. Everything seems to be a little bit easier – rolling over in bed, getting in and out of the car, getting my saddle up to the back or saddle rack. Sometimes I forget that this is indeed therapy for my body, not just my spirit. I’m getting used to the new routine – the little bit farther drive that takes a little bit longer, through fields of cows instead of highways. My heart pitter-patters when I drive down the driveway to see Mason greeting me through his half-door. Mason is still a little perplexed as to why this lady won’t just put her legs on his sides, the poor guy. He hasn’t faltered. He hasn’t taken one misstep. And now that I’ve jinxed myself on all counts, I’ll probably drop my saddle, fall off the mounting block, bust my reins, and Mason will spook at something, but if I manage to get both feet in the stirrups, it’ll have been a great day.

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