Sometimes called “horse ballet,” the ancient sport of dressage showcases the intimate collaboration that can be achieved between a horse and rider. The term dressage is French for training, and its purpose is to develop the horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to work, making him calm, supple and attentive to his rider. In competitive dressage, the horse and rider perform a series of tests, judged on how well the rider shows the horse’s abilities.
Dressage is a sport that welcomes athletes of all ages, and the national Dressage Foundation honors senior riders and horses with The Century Club. To be eligible for this club, the rider and horse must have ages that, combined, total at least 100 years. Two local dressage riders, William “Bill” Wise, 76, and Elizabeth “Liz” Hotchkiss, 80, have earned this honor. Their dressage stories show there’s no one way to fall in love with this most graceful of equestrian sports.
Bill Wise & Jake
Unlike most Century Club members, William “Bill” Wise did not become a horseman until just a few years ago. He grew up in Baltimore, Md., and his first riding experience, a trail ride which occurred almost 50 years ago, is not something he remembers with pleasure.
“Besides being jostled about on a hard saddle farther above the ground than seemed prudent, the only other thing I recall about that experience was being asked, ‘Why aren’t you posting?’ ” he says, referring to a riding technique that smoothens out the jarring.
With that experience, Wise went several years without ever thinking of horseback riding as something one did for pleasure and recreation. Then, about five years ago, he read a book that rekindled his interest: The Tao of Equus by Linda Kohanov. Already retired from a career in physical chemistry, Wise volunteered at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center, and seeing the benefits for the center’s clients, he wondered if some time in the saddle might also do him good. He began summer riding at Stephens College and then enrolled in a western riding class there. But he discovered even a basic riding class in college was too advanced for him.
“I told the instructor, ‘I thought this was a beginning riding class,’ ” he recalls, “and she said to me: ‘Well, you wouldn’t go into a college chemistry class without having any high school chemistry. You should know something about riding before coming here.’ “
Wise chuckles over this story. A man with three college degrees, who is currently enrolled in a German class at MU just for the pleasure of learning, he was undaunted. He turned to Kim Krieckhaus, a private instructor who teaches dressage at her Willow Ponds Farm in Sturgeon. Wise spent the first few months learning the fundamentals of a balanced seat on a mustang mare named Mary Jane. In 2011, Mary Jane was the horse Wise rode for his first dressage tests.
Later that summer, Krieckhaus suggested Wise ride Jake, then a 22-year-old American Quarter Horse gelding. Soon after that, Wise learned about the Century Club and realized in a couple of years, he and Jake would be eligible. He decided to make membership a goal to show what he had accomplished as a rider and to honor Jake’s years of service to those seeking equestrian skills.
Jake and Wise completed their Century Club ride on July 29, 2013, at Missouri’s Show-Me State Games Dressage event. It was an unusually cool summer day, with a high temperature of just 74. It was also breezy.
“It was somewhat of a scary day because the horses weren’t really settled because of the wind and the canvas flapping, and I think the horses were feeling their oats,” Wise says. “It was like they were saying: ‘Oh, it’s a beautiful day! Why do we have to do this work?’ ”
Even though it wasn’t their best ride, Wise and Jake still showed the judges what they needed to see for induction into the Century Club. And Wise also rode off with another prize, a new level of confidence.
“I’ve learned that I can take on challenges that are somewhat scary and succeed at them,” he says. “And I’ve learned that I have to be patient. You can’t force the horse to do anything that it doesn’t want to do. They are big, powerful animals, and unless you get their cooperation, you’re not going to succeed. You have to be patient.”
Liz Hotchkiss& Oliver
Elizabeth “Liz” Hotchkiss was just 7 years old when her father started taking her on trail rides in Long Island. She followed that up with summer riding camps and various riding schools, and when she was 21, she went through a program to become a certified riding instructor.
After she was married, she and her husband started a boarding and lesson stable in 1966 in Amagansett, Long Island. There, Hotchkiss mostly taught combined training and jumping.
“At one point, I decided I didn’t know enough to be doing what I was doing, so I went to the Dressage Institute in Saratoga and got some instruction there,” Hotchkiss says. “It was fantastic.”
Hotchkiss continued giving lessons when her husband became ill, and even after he died, she kept the farm going. Several years later, in 1989, she and her second husband turned the farm over to one of her two daughters, moved to Columbia with five horses and opened a boarding barn here, Stony Hill Farm.
Despite this lifelong experience, Hotchkiss didn’t begin her most serious study of dressage until she was in her mid-60s, about 15 years ago. Widowed a second time, she’d gone down to Wellington, Fla., to visit her daughter. Hotchkiss had such a good time that she decided to take a horse there for the winter, and she found an instructor to continue her training.
“I’ve probably learned more since I was 50 than before I was 50, and that’s one of the things that’s amazing about riding,” she says. “You don’t stop learning in this business at all. It goes on forever.”
Hotchkiss bought her current dressage horse, Oliver, in Florida in 2001, when he was 8 and she was 67. For the next six years, she took him to Wellington for winter training.
“What a good investment that turned out to be!” she says.
Hotchkiss and Oliver made it all the way to showing at the Prix St. Georges level— which comes after the Fourth Level and is the beginning of the international levels of dressage — and they even won that class. But then they did no shows for six years.
“I don’t like doing shows very much,” Hotchkiss explains. “I never have. It’s too stressful.”
Even so, Hotchkiss felt the pull of the Century Club, and last spring, on April 20, 2013, she and Oliver rode at the William Woods Spring Dressage Show.
“I was nervous!” she recalls with a laugh. “It was exciting afterward. Everybody was happy, and I got a bunch of flowers from the William Woods people.”
Although the most basic ride will do, Hotchkiss and Oliver rode a Fourth Level test.
Today, Hotchkiss still teaches dressage at Stony Hill Farm. All of her current students are adults, with most in their 50s. She’s glad she has dressage, she says, because without it, she thinks she’d be bored.
“I hope that I can keep doing it for a while,” she says. “We’ll do it until we can’t do it anymore.”
Columbia’s Local Dressage Club
Both Liz Hotchkiss and Bill Wise are members of the Columbia Dressage and Combined Training Association, the local chapter of the United States Dressage Federation. The group’s mission is to provide educational and competition opportunities for the small but growing group of mid-Missouri equestrians interested in dressage and eventing (formerly known as combined training). Find out more about the club at www.cdcta.org.
Competitive dressage involves nine progressive levels, from the most basic walk/trot to the Grand Prix test that is the same test that is used in the Olympics. The tests are divided into separate movements, and the judge gives a score for each movement. The score sheets are then totaled to determine class results. It’s easier to understand what is going on if supplied with a copy of the test being performed. Here are seven more points to keep in mind:
1. Less is More. In dressage, the less you see the rider do, the better because that means he is communicating with his horse quietly and his horse is attentive; they are working as a team.
2. Good Figures. Circles are round and lines are straight, a precept true in geometry and dressage.
3. Tempo and Rhythm. Rhythm is the repetition of footfalls. A sound dressage horse has only three correct rhythms: a four-beat walk, a two-beat trot and a three-beat canter. Tempo is the speed of repetition of strides. Riders should control their horses at a consistent tempo throughout the test — a tempo so obvious you could sing a song to it.
4. Naughtiness. Horses, like people, have good days and bad days and days when they are just feeling a little too good. Naughtiness in horses can be exhibited in bucking, rearing, tossing of the head or even jumping out of the dressage ring.
5. Tension. During a test, the horse needs to remain calm, attentive and supple. If the horse gets tense, he gets rigid through his neck and back, which can exhibit itself in stiff movement, ears that are pinned back and a tail that swishes constantly and doesn’t hang arched and quietly swinging.
6. Rider Seat and Position. The rider should sit upright quietly and not depend on his whip, spurs or voice to have a nice test. Riders who use their voice have points deducted off their test score for that movement.
7. Whipped Cream Lips. When a horse is relaxed in his jaw and poll (the area just behind his ears), he releases saliva; you might see white foam around his lips and mouth. That is a good sign as it means he is attentively chewing on his bit and comfortable in his work. The amount of white foam varies from horse to horse.
Source: United States Dressage Federation, www.usdf.org