No Horsing Around: Enfield Group Prepares for National Dressage Competition

  • Annabel Clark rides Marius during tryouts for a dressage team at First Choice Riding Academy in Enfield, N.H., on Dec. 9, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Prospective riders take an exam concerning horsemanship before tryouts for a dressage team based at First Choice Riding Academy in Enfield, N.H., on Dec. 9, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Personal trainer Joyce Kramer, left, leads a core fitness assessment as Findley Petterson works on an exercise ball during tryouts for a dressage team at First Choice Riding Academy in Enfield, N.H., on Dec. 9, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Alice Hirschman rides Dallas during tryouts for a dressage team at First Choice Riding Academy in Enfield, N.H., on Dec. 9, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph)

  • Sofia Amaro prepares Zucchini for a ride during tryouts for a dressage team at First Choice Riding Academy in Enfield, N.H., on Dec. 9, 2017. (Rob Strong photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, December 14, 2017

Enfield — By connecting more effectively with their horses, equestrian students at First Choice Riding Academy are on track to make stronger connections within the sport.

Heidi Jo Hauri-Gill, First Choice’s owner and instructor, next summer will bring nine of her charges to HITS on the Hudson, a national-level competition in upstate New York staged by renowned dressage specialist Lendon Gray.

To prepare, students on Saturday engaged in a tryout at the First Choice facility near downtown Enfield, taking a written quiz before evaluative group fitness with personal trainer Joyce Kramer.

Two riders, Sofia Amaro and Elanna Reavill-O’Toole, auditioning for a dressage event for the first time, then performed an equitation tryout administered by Hauri-Gill.

It’ll be a return trip to the Saugerties, N.Y., event for riders such as 8-year-old Finley Peterson and 16-year-old Rose Kelley, both of whom are previous gold medal winners in their divisions. Others, such as Reavill-O’Toole, only recently began pursuing dressage, the ancient horsemanship discipline highlighting the horse’s athleticism and ability to perform calmly and attentively.

“Dressage training started in 460 B.C. and has a lot of benefits in terms of developing work ethic for both the horse and the rider,” said Hauri-Gill, 50, also an active competitor. “(HITS on the Hudson is) a good chance for the kids to compete in a bigger tournament, a higher-stress environment and to meet riders and trainers from all over the country.”

The students’ 10-question tryout quiz was probably more challenging than the exam they’ll take at HITS, Hauri-Gill said. Its open-ended questions inquired about saddle fitting, the required movements of their desired competition level and the six layers of the United States Dressage Federation’s training pyramid.

“I wasn’t trying to make (the quiz) particularly challenging, but it’s important for me to know the base knowledge that we’re working with and what each rider knows or doesn’t know,” Hauri-Gill said. “It gives us a baseline to know what we need to go over.”

The layers of the training pyramid feed into one another. For example, the first layer, rhythm, emphasizes energy and tempo between the rider and horse so that the second layer, relaxation, may be achieved. In this sense, relaxation doesn’t mean repose.

“When we think of relaxing, we think of movies and popcorn but, of course, that’s not it here,” Hauri-Gill said. “In Europe, the second layer is referred to as suppleness, because it’s really about the flexibility of the horse’s muscles. This leads to the third layer, connection, which has a lot to do with the attentiveness the horse has in relation to the rider. ”

That attentiveness grows from symbiotic connections between the horse and rider developed over time.

“Most people, when they ride, they want to connect by taking the reins and putting pressure on them,” Hauri-Gill said. “Really, what you want in a horse-rider connection is that the horse puts pressure into the reins, the rider accepts the energy and recycles it to the horse’s hind quarters.”

After the quiz, the students joined Kramer in First Choice’s fitness center for a physical assessment. The most important physical attributes of a successful dressage rider — core strength, balance and stability — were tested through a series of holds and plank exercises.

“Core strength and stability are key, because the rider connects and communicates with the horse so much through the seat,” said Joyce, a personal trainer at First Choice for eight years. “We use our seat bones a lot to send subtle signals and commands to the horse. It doesn’t work nearly as well if you try to do it with your legs.”

Amaro, a Lebanon Middle School eighth-grader, and Reavill-O’Toole, a postgraduate student at Kimball Union Academy, continued Saturday’s tryout with a group equitation session in First Choice’s riding ring. Hauri-Gill led them through 40 minutes of varying commands, as the students and their horses used all quarters to showcase their cohesiveness through movement.

Both were told they’d be on the riding center’s team for HITS on the Hudson, though in what level they’ll be entered and whether they’ll be on First Choice’s A or B team is to be determined.

Dressage is a new endeavor for Reavill-O’Toole, traditionally a hunter-jumper, and her 22-year-old Holsteiner, Lilly.

“It’s a great chance to learn something new,” said Reavill-O’Toole, 17. “Getting her to move certain ways took a lot of effort, a bit of a struggle, but over time I think we’ll get better and it will be helpful for my other competitions.”

Kramer, the fitness trainer, is eager to continue the process.

“We have a lot of work to do between now and July, but it’s actually a pretty exciting place to be,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to see a lot of progress while getting ready for a big event.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.