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Gifted Memorial Fund for Adult Amateurs Recipient: Lin Nelson-Mayson (Region 4)

Kjirsten Lee, Lin Nelson-Mayson riding Zeta, Heather Salden Kurtz

“If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got. If you are not happy with what you are getting, you have to change what you are doing.” - Kyra Kyrklund

I am grateful to The Dressage Foundation and its donors for this award from the Gifted Memorial Fund for Adult Amateurs. The opportunity for focused, immersive study has been a priceless experience that has expanded the connection to my horse and to my knowledge of this beautiful and historic sport.

Tie Creek Zeta Jo is a cheerful 15-year-old Morgan mare who came to dressage after years as a casual trail horse. She needed exercise and I became her catch rider while I was between horses. Zeta showed such willingness to learn that we soon entered her first show at Intro - earning scores in the 70s. We progressed through Training to First Level and debuted a First Level Musical Freestyle in 2022. The Gifted grant plan was designed to help us address the challenges of Second Level and the increased engagement and thoroughness required for collection.

Photo by Huppert Photography

My final training program met the defined goals: concentrated horse and human training, increased access and use of learning resources, and enhanced community. I was able to double my regular contact with my regular trainers, Heather Salden Kurtz (a 2018 recipient of TDF’s George Williams Young Professional Grant) and Kjirsten Lee, while both trainers maintained their heavy commitment of training and lessons. Our schedule included two lessons with Heather and one with Kjirsten, plus a training ride by Kjirsten on Zeta. During this time, I observed their lessons with other students and their rides on a diverse range of horses - from newly backed youngsters to experienced Prix St Georges competitors. I also met with Camille LeFevre, my Pilates instructor, to develop an equestrian-focused strength and flexibility program. I maintained research time for dressage videos and readings. Finally, I organized and hosted an education session at Heather’s Orchard View Stable (OVS), where I board Zeta.

My primary goal for this project was to prepare to compete at Second Level. I was not expecting, however, the extra benefit of being thoroughly fascinated by dressage theory and its application. The extended period of research and observation plus the practical application of horse and rider biomechanics was a powerful combination that expanded my understanding of the nature of dressage.

I used the Training Pyramid as my guide and focused primarily on Contact and Straightness. These two elements were the basis for increased precision with lateral movements and transitions. “You and Zeta know all the things,” I was told. “Now you need to do them better.” During lessons with Heather, she quizzed me on what I was learning off the horse and how I was applying it. This was the first time I had observed Kjirsten riding my horse, so it was humbling and instructive to see Zeta accomplish movements that were challenging for me. During lessons with Kjirsten, she used her experience in these training rides to focus my riding more effectively. These experiences also sharpened my observation skills as an auditor.

I supplemented direct horse experiences by reading about rider psychology, listening to dressage podcasts on my way to the barn, and watching Dressage Today Online (DTO) videos (receiving a discount on the subscription by mentioning its related podcast).  On Zeta’s day off, I focused on this research, specifically on designing an effective warm-up, the new Second Level tests, the elements of Second Level, and rider biomechanics.

Effective rider biomechanics was also the focus of my Pilates sessions. Although Camile, my Pilates coach, had a family emergency during part of the period, we were able to meet for several group classes and a private session that addressed areas of importance to equestrians:  deep core strengthening, symmetry, independent use of pelvis/shoulders, and balance. Since Heather and Kjirsten had encouraged better use of my weight aids, these sessions gave me tools to strengthen those areas. To share in this bodywork focus, I treated hard-working Zeta to a relaxing massage from her favorite equine masseuse.

Finally, I engaged the OVS community in this education. OVS presents a monthly series of programs during the winter, and I volunteered to organize January’s session, based on a topic from the USDF Convention. I represented my GMO, Central States Dressage and Eventing Association, at the 2022 USDF Convention in Lexington, KY, and attended “Developing a Wellness Program for the Aging Performance Horse” by Dr. Avi Blake of American Regent Animal Health. For the OVS program, I worked with Dr. Anna Renier, OVS’s primary equine veterinarian, to develop an interactive session on wellness for the mature horse. Twelve people attended the potluck and Dr. Anna covered general health concerns of mature horses and how to work with your care team (vet, farrier, nutritionist, dentist, masseuse, chiropractor). She provided a template for a personalized wellness plan and answered attendees’ questions. Door prizes included samples of Bute or Prascend, Purina Carb-Conscious treats, and toe warmers for riders (it was winter in Minnesota, after all). Two boarders commented that knowing how to care for mature horses informed management decisions of their younger horses.

”I didn’t necessarily want to be the best, but I wanted to be surrounded by better people because that’s where the learning happens.” - Henk Van Bergen, Dutch Master Trainer at the 2023 Adequan/USDF Trainers Conference.

At the end of this enhanced learning, I enrolled in a two-day clinic (using private funds) with Emily Miles, a dressage trainer and competitor from Paola, KS. (Emily and her horse Daily Show were also 2022 recipients of TDF’s Carol Lavell Advanced Dressage Prize). Emily had come to OVS for several years and is Heather’s primary trainer. I rode in her prior clinics, but never while schooling Second Level. During this clinic, I demonstrated the skills gained over the month of training. Although the first day was hampered by minor soreness in Zeta’s right hind foot, Emily commented on our improved contact and straightness. We worked on several Second Level movements - shoulder in and haunches in, rein back, canter/walk transitions, counter canter, and turn on the haunches at the walk. By the second day, Zeta was moving better, her counter canter was smoother, and her cross-over at turn on the haunches was more fluid.

Bettina Drummond, a trainer in the classical system of French dressage, stated that the horse reflects what the rider puts into it. After this intensive training, I am more confident in my understanding of the purpose of Second Level and am better prepared for the challenges of the upcoming show season. I have a new awareness of how to more effectively learn through observation and an enhanced knowledge of resources available to continue my dressage education. I documented my experiences and will continue this practice as taking notes also enhances my learning. The fundamental beauty of this experience was that I worked with my existing trainers and Pilates coach, so I can continue working with them using this experience as a foundation for growth. Finally, my partnership with Zeta has increased the trust and confidence I have in this hard-working little pony mare!

Photo by Huppert Photography

Thank you again for the support of The Dressage Foundation. I encourage all adult amateurs interested in expanding their growth in dressage to apply for this unique opportunity. The Gifted Memorial Fund for Adult Amateurs is a valuable educational resource that is a generous gift to those of us who aspire to improve our riding and deepen the powerful connection we have with our horses.