Spoiler alert – This has nothing to do with riding a freestyle, and I am unashamedly clever in reeling you, my dedicated and serious dressage friend, into reading this. I know that my blogs probably have a lot less meat-and-potatoes in them lately, but I promise that will all change as we get into show season. But for now, I want to introduce you to my dear daughter, Paige (She always talks about wanting to be famous and has sent several photos to Young Rider magazine to no avail, so this is her spotlight, and “now is her chance”. As she likes to explain to her Breyer model horses when she is playing and doesn’t think I’m listening.
Paige has been riding from the time she was in the womb (like most trainers with children will calmly and proudly announce). She has also spent her most formative years with horses in her backyard. I think, for the first few years of her life, Paige assumed all little girls had a black stallion called “JJ” living in a barn in their back yard. Therefore, all horses were “JJs” until we could prove otherwise. Fast forward through sitting through many of my countless hours spent teaching other people, and riding other horses, and watching me do the things in the barn she wasn’t old enough or big enough to do. I find her at eight years old to now possess more knowledge about horsemanship than most women my age, even though she is still not tall enough to put the bridle on her pony (small horse), Splash.
I am not a super competitive person, so the fact that she has not developed the drive to compete and show doesn’t bother me in the slightest. If I was a super competitive person, I am sure I would be an incredible show Mom. But I vowed to allow Paige the chance to grow up the way I did with my pony as my best friend (I didn’t even have the option to show). Today Paige is a little girl that offers to mix mash for a sick horse, and I find her apple cores left in her lunchbox to take home to give to “somebody” it makes me proud that her love is for the horses themselves. As her mom, I enjoy that she can clean a stall better than she can clean her room and that she seeks the joy horses give us when we accomplish our goals with their help.
She does, however, have one competitive goal: my fault, I am sure, for dragging her into the living room and squeezing her so tightly as I watch Totilas and Blu Hors Matine, Valegro and Youtube videos of my friends ride their Kurs on our big screen tv. Also my fault for squealing in the car when I hear music on the radio that matches the trot for a particular horse, or that sounds like it might be great for Tempis; Completely my fault for encouraging her to stick her iPod in her pocket while she rides.
So after she had ridden her very first test (Intro A), on her very first pony at her very first show off the lead-line, I should not have been surprised when she asked when we could do a musical freestyle. It was, after all, entirely my fault. Here’s mom (NOT trainer mom, just Mom) who loves music, rides horses, has too many horses of her own to ride most of the time. Mom who has stories of jumping and falling off and doing pirouettes but has never done a freestyle (for many reasons/excuses) is shocked that the only goal her daughter has ever expressed was to ride a freestyle. A Freestyle is something I have never done, a fact that my daughter is very well aware of, and after just one test under her belt, she had it all figured out.
I took advantage of the situation and told her that she needed to get a 65% (shhh don’t tell – and she’s not allowed to go on the internet yet so let’s keep this between us for now). I didn’t put any further restrictions on that (a mistake I will not again repeat), and she prepared for her next test. She is six at this point. And at six, she has a pretty good idea of what a 65% is, as she is a bright little girl with blue eyes and blonde hair and rosy cheeks, who also has a pretty good idea how to get a 65%.
I don’t think our poor judge for the day had even finished scoring that test before Paige was picking up her reins and trotting that brave, kind little horse around the ring, waiting for the bell. After it rang, Paige came down the centerline with the most intense look of determination, I almost thought something was wrong. The circles at E and B were still not perfectly round, but they were there, and Splash got a kick and pull, and he went in his corners whether he wanted to or not. Her hands were in the right place, she was sitting up, and suddenly the fiercest competitor you will ever see ride Intro B had finished her test and was exiting the arena. I don’t exactly remember what the score was, and it wasn’t a recognized competition: Frankly, I don’t want to remember because I don’t want to be lying when I tell her she earned her 65% that day.
Partly because Mom has been too busy and partly because 1st and 2nd grade proved to be a little tougher on our schedule than we imagined, Paige hasn’t done a freestyle in competition yet. But last year she did ride at a recognized competition and made some mistakes that made her humbly determined to do better next time (and, I am sincerely hoping, to LISTEN TO MOMMY when she says TURN LEFT AT C). And trust me, there is a new freestyle born in this girl’s heart every day.
The Pony/Horse/Saint Splash moved to our property, and the old quarter horse she learned to ride on is officially retired. Splash the new pony was generously given to Paige, instead of leasing him from the farm where I work. Splash will now live out his years at our house, in our backyard, roaming the woods and freestyling all over the place. In the two short months, he has been here, Paige has learned the value of; never trotting home, of why it’s so fun to ride with a halter, of why you close the gate to the arena behind you, and how to ride with traffic in our modest, smaller sized arena. She has also learned how to catch a naughty pony from the field, and how the smallest amount of praise goes a long way with a smart horse. I’m excited to see all the wonderful lessons this summer is going to bring.
With that iPod in her pocket, I’ve been watching Paige canter around the ring in the snow and the rain and forming her plan for greatness. Maybe some of my hesitation is not laziness; maybe it’s been the fact that she so perfectly represents what we all do inside, whether we are six or eight years old, or thirty-seven, or seventy: we are all riding around with a song in our heart, doing our very own freestyle. We are putting music to the feeling that we love so much, with our very best friend. To ask that to be judged and competitive, just for me takes the perfect joy out of it.
This month, Paige will be riding her very first Intro C (with canter! yikes!!!). If she does well, we will develop a freestyle for Paige to practice, and show where they will kindly let Paige perform her Intro Level Freestyle. I know, it’s going to be like watching paint dry (Splash takes nearly 45 seconds just to complete a diagonal in a free walk) and perhaps I will offer to the show management to anonymously provide a light snack for the judge while she endures it. We are not trying to encourage Intro Level freestyles, of course, because that would just be very silly. (Or would it?) I promise we will practice, and that we will try to make the circles as round and test-worthy as Splash can do. I also promise that we will keep this freestyle short and meaningful. I also promise that we will not use any music from the movie “Frozen.” Furthermore, I promise to try to either not show any other horses that day, or make sure I can schedule all the other riders before Paige performs her masterpiece.
Because when Paige finally gets a chance to do her freestyle, I had better not be wearing any mascara: When you wipe that stuff off it makes a terrible mess on your white gloves.
Eliza Puttkamer-Banks (Trinity Dressage) is a dressage trainer, competitor and instructor with a diverse discipline and breed background. Originally from the Midwest, Eliza married her husband Stephen and moved to England, and then returned to the USA to New Jersey, where they have settled and are parents to a horse crazy 7 year-old daughter, Paige.
With experience as a trainer both in America and the UK, Eliza has started and developed horses from backing to FEI level work. As a USDF Bronze and Silver Medalist, L Program Participant, USEF HOY Regional Champion, National Top 5, and recipient of rider awards from training through fourth level.
Eliza has not only competed horses at FEI, but has been proud to bring many horses past A for their first experience in the dressage ring. For all the horses and riders in her program, regardless of discipline or breed, the correct and classically-based principles of the dressage training pyramid remain the heart and soul of every day’s ride, with a sympathetic application that builds a strong relationship of trust. To learn more about Eliza visit her website