2016 $6,000 Lindgren Recipient: Brianna Zwilling

I was honored to receive The Dressage Foundation’s Major Lindgren Scholarship in 2016. Being a busy trainer in the heart of the Midwest, it is difficult to find reasonable options for furthering my education as an instructor and a rider. I applied for the scholarship after my young horse, Griffindor’s, first season of Prix St George. The future was looking bright with not only his progress but also helping my students progress up the levels. I planned to use the scholarship to travel to New Jersey for two, ten-day trips in order to train with Betsy Steiner, one in the spring of 2017 and the other in late summer of 2017.  

I had the pleasure of clinicing with Betsy a number of times over the past few years and really appreciated her patient and perceptive approach to both the horses and students while helping them achieve their goals and enjoy dressage. My goal for the training trips was to not only gain knowledge about refining and training the upper level movements, but to also observe and experience the way Betsy ran her business and how she helped her students on their horses.  

Unfortunately, life with horses is predictively unpredictable. Griffindor began to struggle with his training around February of 2017. Nothing was obvious, but my normally willing-to-work horse became unhappy. I listened to my gut and got my veterinarian involved early. After some injections in his stifles, he seemed to get better, but only for a couple of weeks. Then, he started to struggle again. My veterinarian and I tried everything we could. Radiographs and ultrasounds were all clean, but Griffindor just did not feel right.  

I made the difficult decision to have arthroscopic surgery done on his left stifle where all of his problems seemed to be coming from. Surgery was a success and it was a good decision to proceed this way. Griffindor had weak, soft cartilage in his stifle that was causing him pain and inflammation. The surgeon believed it was a developmental problem which had been there for years. With age and more difficult dressage movements, the weakness became a hindrance. Also, since the joint appeared normal on the exterior, surgery was the only way to view and assess the joint cartilage. While this was a great relief to feel that I had done the right thing for my dressage partner, this also meant a long rehab.  

The Dressage Foundation was very understanding of my situation and allowed me to postpone my planned training trips until fall. When fall arrived, however, Griffindor showed me he was just not quite strong enough to be back to full work to make a trip to New Jersey before Betsy moved her business south to Wellington, Florida in mid-November. With approval from TDF, I changed my plans and decided to utilize my scholarship for one trip to train in Florida with Betsy.      

I left a cold St. Louis, Missouri at the end of January and headed south, full of excitement. After over-nighting in Atlanta, Griffindor and I arrived just before dark at Betsy’s barn, located at the White Fences Equestrian Center. We were tired, but happy and healthy and most definitely enjoying the warmer weather. 

White Fences, with five regulation-size dressage rings, offers schooling and USEF-rated shows on the grounds throughout the year. As they say, walk out of your stall and you’re on the showgrounds. In fact, two days after I arrived, a recognized show was held on the grounds which provided immediate learning opportunities. The show was packed with rides. Horses being trailered in from the surrounding areas with the competitors working out of their trailers and other horses being hacked over from nearby properties. This was already very different for me since most of the shows in the Midwest are a six-hour drive away. Instead of spending hours and hours on driving, packing, loading and unloading, I could focus on training.   

While Griffindor was resting from the long journey I took advantage of my time and sat by the warm-up rings. I listened in on lessons from a variety of instructors. It was very interesting to hear each of their different teaching styles and see how their students responded. I also watched many riders school their horses. I believe you can learn so much from watching and analyzing on your own. I would try to focus in on a particular spot on each combination, asking myself, how did that rider use their seat, how did that horse use its hind legs and so on.  

After the weekend show during which I just did some light rides, Griffindor was more than ready to get to work. We had daily lessons with Betsy, mainly working on throughness and connection in the basic gaits, and lateral work during the first week, then building into more detail. I took time every day to sit with Betsy and watch her teach. I was able to learn interesting new exercises to help my amateur riders and exercises to help my horses at home in training.  

One of the things I enjoyed and that sparked my trainer brain was watching a horse Betsy had in training that is out of the same sire as one of my horses in training back home. They are both similar in age and in level of training. I could see so many similarities between them, the horses are both very athletic but have the same connection issues. I learned a lot from being able to watch that horse work through different exercises and analyze how or why the work was helping or what may need to be changed.  

Besides being at the barn, taking lessons and watching lessons, I also ventured out and took advantage of the wonderful Wellington horse community. I loved going to the different tack stores and seeing what new inventions were hitting the market and how we can better care for our horses. I also spent time at numerous CDI competitions, watching the top athletes school and show their horses. I really enjoyed observing and analyzing the rides, witnessing certain problems that happened in the ring and then seeing how the riders warmed up their horses the next day to minimize these problems in the ring. I learned so much and highly valued the time to just be able to watch and learn.   

Throughout the six weeks of training, Griffindor and I gained knowledge and strength in the upper level movements. He is a big-moving, powerful horse who tries his heart out. But this can sometimes be an issue. Betsy and I worked a lot on refining the tempi changes. We discussed how he uses too much of his power for the changes and almost pushes himself off balance. Betsy helped create exercises that helped Griffindor keep his natural expression in the flying changes but also keep him balanced to be able to do tempis with ease. Some of these exercises included performing changes on a circle, through the serpentine, and in between medium and collected canter transitions. We also worked to improve self-carriage and balance which is so important for any horse at all levels.  

One of the characteristics that I value the most about Betsy is that she is able to treat each horse and rider as an individual and create ways to inspire and educate each member of the team. This is something I truly value and hold most important when I teach my own students. 

I am so thankful and honored to have received TDF’s Lindgren Scholarship. My experience in Florida is one I will never forget. I was able to learn so much more than I even expected. I not only furthered my riding and teaching education through direct lessons, I was able to observe so many other instructors and riders. I saw what worked and what did not work and how these instructors’ students responded to different teaching methods. I met so many wonderful people and made connections with other professionals. I feel that I am a more confident and educated dressage professional, and am so happy to be able to share my love of horses and the sport with my students. Thank you TDF!