Monday, 26 June 2017


It's a re-occurring theme over here at Autonomous Dressage, that autonomous part. The fact that I don't have regular access to a trainer (this has gotten a lot better since I started the blog, but a clinic every 3 months still isn't exactly frequent) or other professionals affects my dressage journey in multiple ways.

I absolutely believe that I would be a better rider if I could take weekly or bi-weekly lessons. My position would be stronger with more frequent feedback on my equitation. I wouldn't lose so much time struggling to decide what I should be working on. A bit of pressure would be good motivation to work harder and progress more. If I could take regular lessons I absolutely would.

There's always a flip side though. Being autonomous isn't all bad. Not being able to rely on a trainer to help me make decisions has made me do research and become able to make informed choices on my own. Specifically today I am talking about choosing a horse, and choosing a tack setup.

Both when I was horse shopping in summer 2014, and when saddle shopping in summer 2016, I wished I had someone to consult on the process and options. A trainer or saddle fitter would have been ideal, but even a knowledgeable friend or family member would have been great. I didn't have any of those people though so I pressed on and figured it out myself (with the help of numerous test rides and extensive reading). While I've been reasonably happy with my decisions overall, there have definitely been times that I have second guessed myself.

In the past couple weeks I have received some validation on my choices.


At the Chinook Country show I had arranged to get a saddle fit assessment done by a qualified saddle fitter. I've chronicled my saddle search, half pad questions and girth saga on this blog extensively. The saddle fitter D looked at all my tack options and concluded that the saddle was a great fit, the Prolite girth worked perfectly with it (she firmly believes that the girth area sensitivity is probably left over from the TSF stretch girth), and the fleece half pad I already have is the perfect thing to use with the saddle right now in her current stage of development (when she fills out a bit more, the saddle will still be a good fit, just without the half pad). The other people who got saddle fit assessments done at the show were all recommended to get flocking changes and/or tree adjustments so I think the fact that D didn't have any suggested modifications for me really indicates how well I chose my tack.

This saddle, this half pad, this girth


I knew when I bought Kachina that on paper she wasn't the best looking dressage prospect: a 12 year old green broke horse of unknown parentage with no dressage training or even training in basics like accepting contact with the bit. However, I saw potential in her mind, her sensitivity, her conformation, and her movement. While I used the best of my knowledge in assessing her traits, I've never considered myself an expert in assessing the potential of any horse. I've had a lot of fun working with Kachina so I knew that she was a good choice for me in some ways, but I've had some doubts about whether she can do as well at dressage as I initially imagined.
The sensitivity part of Kachina is definitely a double edged sword which simultaneously makes training both easier and tougher. It's the part that results in frequent tension, and also the part that I've been most focused on lately.
I've grown so used to Kachina now that I haven't objectively thought about her other aspects much lately. I frequently get told by people how "pretty" or "fancy" my horse is, but I think that has a lot more to do with her striking markings than her actual movement or conformation, especially when it comes from non-horsey people. At the last couple shows, I had a number of people more objectively eyeing up Kachina and offering feedback which made me look at Kachina with fresh eyes again.

Can we all look back on this photo for a minute and agree that Kachina
wasn't exactly a polished dressage horse when I first saw her

Her mind: Kachina can be a tense, reactive and hot horse, which frequently goes hand in hand with a spooky/flighty mind. Kachina actually has quite a sensible mind though. She is physically sensitive and has a huge amount of "go", but she isn't usually one to get mentally bothered by her environment (unless she's inside the terrifying barn at home). It's kind of a weird combination that I still have to work to get my head around sometimes. The braider and some other riders stabled nearby commented on her good mind when they saw how quickly she settled into her stall, how she stood nicely, ate well, and didn't get upset by any activity.

Her conformation: I had a few people eye up Kachina in her stall and ask me about her breeding. I explained to them all that she was an unknown grade horse, but possibly had a combination of thoroughbred, arab, and paint (thoroughbred and/or quarter horse) bloodlines. Despite that, they all seemed to appreciate how she was put together. The people included both long time dressage riders and old western cowboys. Kachina's build isn't specialist for any one discipline, she just has good basic, balanced conformation. While injuries can happen to any horse, good conformation helps; Kachina's build doesn't make her more predisposed to injuries or unsoundness and that's definitely something to appreciate.

Old photo, the horse has decent conformation but she doesn't
usually stand square for me to photograph it

Her movement/gaits: I've been riding Kachina for more than two years now so her movement just feels normal to me. I know she is capable of huge movement, I see it sometimes at liberty, but I also know that I can't ride that right now, and at our current stage of training her movement is much more restrained. Additionally, a lot of horses can look flashy when they are excitedly dashing around by themselves, it doesn't mean you'll necessarily ever be able to reproduce that under saddle. I've come to think of Kachina as having just average gaits, that have the capacity for clear rhythm, but that can have lateral tendencies when tense. That last part is true, but recent evidence suggests that when I ride properly, her gaits can be more than just average.

Not what we look like under saddle

Evidence 1: Not everyone who tells me my horse is "fancy" is talking about her colour. I need to give people more credit.
Evidence 2: When other riders think the test looked better than I thought it felt.
Evidence 3: The embarrassing case when I was cantering in warm-up at the local show and it felt weird to me, so I asked a nearby trainer what Kachina was doing with her legs (wondering if she was cross-firing etc), the reply: "She's good, just super elevated!" Well okay then
Evidence 4: Blog comments, I do cherry pick good images some of the time for the blog, but not all of you are just being polite when you compliment her movement.
Evidence 5: Video. I really need to figure out how to post video, but there is one short clip that KateRose captured of Kachina cantering at the show. I have re-watched that clip dozens of times because in it I see a big, rhythmic, ground-eating canter that still looks effortless. It's the kind of canter I've admired on other nice horses and I still can't quite believe that it's me and my mare producing it. That's our "normal" canter right now so I get excited for what it will be once I start working on it more.
Evidence 6: 7.5 Collective Score for Gaits! I've done a fair bit of scribing at this point so I know judges don't hand those out to just any horse. Yes, it is just what one judge saw on one day, but it means something. So does the fact that two of my recent tests had general comments start with "Nice horse".

7.5 for gaits! And we can certainly do more to bring those other collectives up

I don't want to be a reverse snob here, and I know I might be flirting that line. I can be happy for riders who bought a "made horse" (those can still be seriously tough to ride), can afford a custom saddle, or have access to the best trainers (you do you, and if you've got access to those things then I applaud you for using them). Different things work for different people, both in theory and related to budget. However, I am proud of the fact that I was able to find a "diamond in the rough" that turned out to be a really nice horse. There's many many things I still need to improve on, but I worked hard to be able to identify a good horse and a good saddle fit. It's really nice to get some validation of both.

How about you? I think a lot of us bloggers can be our own worst critics, but is there a time when you've gotten some external validation of decisions that you've made, or your strengths as a rider or horseperson that made you feel proud?


  1. This is such a great post! There is so much value in learning and planning on your own. You've got an amazing work ethic! This weekend I had what I felt like was an awful ride, and yet the feedback and video didn't look overly terrible. So yes, own worst critic here too, even though the outside world is generally pretty encouraging of us :)

    1. I'm stunned that you think I have good work ethic! I always read your posts, especially your Fitness Week ones and am in awe of your work ethic and all you do with your pony! I think I'm a lot more lazy than you are! (though Kachina maybe has a little more go-juice than B lol!)

  2. I have struggled for many years to find a regular training and i understand your pain. However, I can attest that it does help with being able to be a problem solver rather than wait for someone to tell me.

    1. Yep, I think it is making me a better rider, but it's a slow process!

  3. ha i would absolutely *not* worry about reverse snobbery here! it's freakin hard to forge your own path, to diagnose and to prioritize what needs work when. so i'm a HUGE believer in savoring work done well, and savoring that validation - bc if we won't celebrate it, or if we can't enjoy it, who will??? for me, validation often comes from some of the same types of instances and examples - small moments or comments that mean more than we might even realize.

    1. You're right: horses certainly have a way of humbling us and changing our best laid plans, we need to enjoy the success when we can!

  4. It's nice to get some outside validation. I have more access than you do, but I still don't lesson as often as I like and do the vast majority of my riding on my own so I understand that feeling.

  5. This post makes me so happy! Glad your saddle set-up is working well, that's always a huge relief :D