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Saddlebred Sport Horse Series: Dressage

Published Date: Jul 27, 2020

Written for the ASHA by Janet Thompson

For some people, the Olympic Games are the time to binge watch swimming, or skiing, or skating, or gymnastics, even if they have never participated in, let alone competed at that particular sport.  For others, even if they haven’t competed in that sport, or at that level, the Games are an opportunity to see the best and to think, and dream, of glory.  For many of us, watching horses successfully jump impossibly high and absolutely unmovable cross-country fences, or performing a Grand Prix level Dressage test, might engender thoughts like, “hmmmm, scaled down, could I do this?”  And, especially, as we watch the Dressage test, we might be thinking, “wow, what’s it like to ride that extended trot? That piaffe? Those one-stride canter lead changes (also called tempe changes)?” 

Many Saddlebred enthusiasts have at least dabbled in Dressage, perhaps at a schooling show, or even at open shows sanctioned by the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) or, if nothing else, have used techniques founded in Dressage, even as they ride saddle seat.  For others, Dressage plays a large role in their equestrian lives.  Three of that number are featured here.  All three began as saddle seat riders.  All three are fierce advocates of the Saddlebred. 

But, first, what IS Dressage? “Dressage” is derived from the French—meaning “training.” It is described as training the horse to improve his balance, with relaxation, and to be responsive to the rider’s subtle aids—including hand, leg, and weight.  Through Dressage, the horse learns to properly develop his musculature safely, so that he can carry himself.  At the same time, the rider learns to improve her position, balance, seat and use of aids on the horse, since they all affect the horse’s behavior and ability to carry himself.  As the horse progresses through the levels (Introductory, Training, Levels 1-4, Prix St. Georges, Intermediare, and Grand Prix),  he builds on the foundations laid, and learns more about his body, becoming stronger and more supple as he is asked to master more complex tasks. 

So, in this time of COVID-19, we (virtually) sat down with Paula Briney, Jean Mutrux and Jody Swimmer, to ask them about their involvement with Dressage, and their involvement in that particular intersection of Dressage and Saddlebreds.      

Jean grew up in the horse world, (sister, Sherrie Phelps, won the inaugural UPHA Challenge Cup Finals and daughter, Abby Mutrux, enjoyed a stellar career as a juvenile in both performance and equitation and continues her involvement now as Assistant Trainer at High Spirits Farm, training and showing champion Saddlebreds, Hackney Ponies, and Morgans) showing (and winning) mostly Saddlebreds on the state, regional and national levels in equitation, 3-gaited and pleasure classes. 

After stepping back from the horse world, she later dabbled in hunters and then became heavily involved in foxhunting, a sport she still enjoys through her involvement with the Bridlespur Hunt Club. She first became involved in Dressage when, at the suggestion of some friends, she decided to “Event” (Three Day Eventing consists of three phases—Dressage, Cross-Country, and Stadium Jumping) her foxhunter and she had to learn to ride a dressage test. She approached an instructor, took lessons, and two months later, entered a recognized event.  They won and Jean was hooked on the sport.  She realized from that experience that a Dressage score can make or break the Eventing outcome so she began to focus more and more on that discipline.  As she gained confidence with her older gelding, she began to introduce her Saddlebred mare, CH Absolute Empress, to these disciplines. Although Jean and Emmy are still competing in Eventing and Jumpers, and foxhunt whenever possible, they are now laser-focused on Dressage.  This summer, even with a show season hampered by COVID-19, Jean and Emmy are garnering tremendous scores at Second and Third Levels in open competition.  

Jody also grew up in the horse world, part of the Harry and Marilyn Swimmer family, which has strong and long-term roots in North Carolina in both the Saddlebred world and the world of therapeutic riding.  Her first mount, at age two, was Prince, a Saddlebred schoolmaster.  From there, she progressed to part Saddlebred pony that she rode saddle seat, and thereafter, the multi-champion pony, Twin Pines Desdemona, with whom Jody won everything on the North Carolina circuit, capping it off with RWC accolades.   Through the 1990’s to around 2000, Jody competed successfully on the Kentucky circuit with her family’s Saddlebreds.   

Then came Dressage and a horse named George (aka New York City Slicker), a 2005 model by I’m A New Yorker and out of a Callaway Hills-bred mare, his second dam the WC producer Callaway’s Kit & Caboodle.  Jody and George’s career together has been chronicled in an ASHA video produced by the ASHA Equine Welfare Committee but at this stage of their storied career together, they are showing at Grand Prix in hopes of obtaining the final two scores they need for the elusive USDF Gold Medal in Dressage. Jody is also working with a four year old, who is now working at First Level, Test 3, with a smattering of experiences at Second Level.    

Paula also comes from a storied family in the horse business, with mother, Sally Jo, a multiple world champion rider in her own right and dad, Paul, a long-time force to reckon with as a leader on the Illinois Horse Council and the Board of Directors for the Midwest Charity Horse Show.  Paula, like Jean and Jody, was practically born in the saddle, and began her career with Saddlebreds early on.  She began, however, in Pony Club, which cemented an appreciation of and dedication to the horse—not just riding or driving—but caring for him and appreciating him, whether he was a potential World’s Champion or a lesson pony, and regardless of discipline.    While Mom, Sally Jo, was known by most Saddlebred enthusiasts for her championship rides with the likes of Sensational Princess and Bubbling Brown Sugar, it was she who insisted on her children, and particularly Paula, having an “ecumenical” approach to horses.  So, Paula began as she has continued, equally at home aboard a saddle seat Saddlebred and a hunter, a jumper, a dressage horse, an eventer, of any breed.  Under the tutelage first of her mother, and then of Pres Oder, Shirley and Rex Parkinson, Fran and Kim Crumpler, Deborah Booker and more, Paula progressed from pleasure pony classes to saddle seat equitation and performance to Eventing. When she came to Columbia, Missouri to attend Stephens College, she brought with her Linus, a warmblood with whom she competed successfully through the Eventing levels.  

It was after college, however, even as she built a career and reputation as a professional horseperson for producing talented saddle seat horses and riders, that Paula became a truly passionate advocate for Dressage and specifically for the Saddlebred as a Dressage horse. And, oddly enough, that journey began with a Holsteiner stallion named Rejent.  With Rejent, Paula moved up the levels, increasing her confidence and abilities to teach new skills to horses and riders, along the way earning her USDF Gold Medal in Dressage and, most recently, her certification as an “r” level Dressage judge.  Not content with just riding, teaching and training, she melded two passions—Dressage and Saddlebreds—by breeding some of the family-owned mares to Rejent and then steering their offspring, from the beginning, toward careers in Dressage. Combining this with finding purebred Saddlebreds with the mind and build for Dressage meant that Paula became a force with both purebred and half Saddlebreds in the Dressage world. 

And that leads us to the core question we asked of all three of these women who have made their mark on the dressage world—what do “we” (the Saddlebred world generally, including breeders, owners, exhibitors, organizations) need to do to increase the viability of Saddlebreds in the Dressage world?  

Jody offers some very concrete advice on this point.  Especially for those colts who don’t appear to be bound for a saddle seat career, don’t make alterations to their tails.  A set tail, even one that is straight, limits future job choices for that horse.  As colts are started in lines, set the lines lower so that the colts can be encouraged to round up in their backs and start to develop those muscles.  Help them/teach them to find their walk and their canter.  The trot will come.  Teach them ground manners—this will pay off no matter where a horse goes, but it is especially critical if a horse is headed toward an amateur owner/trainer situation.  Not only is it important for this horse and this rider to have a good, safe relationship but that relationship will be on view to the many other potential buyers of Saddlebreds.  Finally, make the investment of registering that colt.  It says volumes about whether he and his potential path in life are valued by the Saddlebred world.  

Jean specifically suggests that exposure to Dressage for both amateurs and trainers is key.  Amateurs should be encouraged to take some dressage lessons or a clinic, and perhaps attend a schooling show, just to see what it’s all about.  Schooling shows are usually low-key and thus stress levels for horse and rider are minimal.  Jean notes how helpful it would be were some of the “bigger name” trainers to take a few dressage lessons and pick the brains of their dressage colleagues to learn what type of Saddlebred is particularly suited to the discipline.  With that knowledge, Saddlebred trainers could help to market Saddlebreds that might not be suited for saddle seat more appropriately and more successfully.  Jean recalls a time that a trainer asked that she try and perhaps purchase an “awesome” dressage prospect.  The experience left Jean, a lifelong Saddlebred devotee’, understanding why many potential owners believe Saddlebreds are too crazy for dressage.  The horse, while pretty and willing to leg yield all the way to Kingdom Come, was a nervous wreck with no flat walk and wringing wet with tension at the end of 15 minutes under saddle.    

For Paula, while there are a number of smaller scale initiatives that have been encouraged by the ASHA, ASR, and VERSA, among others, that Paula has either suggested or supported, the starting point, from her perspective, is for us, as breed advocates, to become more mindful about career choices for our horses.  And, stepping back even further, it’s to become more mindful about our intentions when we make breeding decisions.  If we critically evaluate our mares and stallions, and value what their offspring could bring to particular disciplines, we then have a BETTER chance of producing a colt that might be able to hold down that kind of job.  In other words, if your mare is super athletic, good off her back end, can lengthen her stride, but is forward-headed, look for a stallion that will enhance her potential to produce a Dressage or Eventing prospect.  Don’t just breed her in HOPES that her baby will be incredibly high-headed and will win the Junior Gaited Stake at Louisville.  Play the odds.  Recognize and acknowledge what you have and build on it.  

 

In these times of change, maybe it’s time to try something new.  Sign up for a Dressage lesson (or two).  Incorporate part of a Dressage test (available at usdf.org) into your next ride.  Watch a horse moving freely, without action training equipment, and evaluate how he moves.  If you own a broodmare, consider how she is built and how she moves and what kinds of babies she has produced.  And, if you have questions about Dressage, contact any of the women featured here contact j.cushing@asha.net or USDF.    

Read more about Saddlebred Sport Horse 101, listen to more of Jody Swimmer’s Saddlebred Story on Trot Talk Ep. 6, and learn more about our Saddlebred Sport Horse Awards Program.

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