I did not know the existence of dressage as an attainable equestrian discipline until high school. I had been riding for a while, mostly over fences, and I had certainly been taught some aspects of bending and preparing the horse for a turn or a transition, but I still pretty much thought of dressage as something that happens at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria. My tattered Encyclopedia of the Horse had a section on dressage, which I had read and reread, but the pictures always seemed to be from some far off place, outside the view of regular riders like me. Until ninth grade, my only up-close and personal experiences with dressage had been the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament and one of my instructors. This instructor was a college student pursuing a degree in equine studies. One time, she got on one of our lesson horses to demonstrate "dressage". This type of riding seemed to include our typically sweet-faced lesson horse pursing his facial muscles and humping up his body. He started frothing at the mouth and his eye looked a little wild. I cannot remember exactly what she was doing, only the way our lovely horse was reacting and the obvious relief on his face when she dismounted. I also vividly remember her explaining to my friend's mother that she had recently gone to a competition and the judge told her that she was using her hands too much. When she described this, she was holding her hands in fists and moving them left and right in the air. As a side note, I think that I learned close to nothing from that instructor while I paid her for lessons, and it was shortly after this demonstration that I found my new barn.
Within weeks of my dwindling riding experiences, my neighbor approached me about visiting a local farm with her and her daughter. Her daughter, who was probably around seven or eight years old, had spent numerous summers listening to me talk about horses and was in the stages of begging her parents for riding lessons. The horse bug is contagious! Fortunately for the little girl, my neighbor also had a love for horses and had even ridden on occasion, so it did not take much arm-twisting to convince her to find a riding stable for her daughter. My neighbor wanted to know if I would come along to check the place out with her. Honestly, she probably just wanted some company and knew that her little girl would be happy to have her older horse-nut friend in tow. I was not one to say "No" to anything that included horses or farms and since my neighbor also happened to be one of my favorite people in the world, I eagerly agreed.
When we arrived at the farm, I scanned it with the cool overconfidence of a young teen. The farm was small with about ten acres, but the owners had made the most of their property. A little jump course adorned the front field, two turnout paddocks had been built wrapping around the sides and back of the property, and modular stalls stood at the base of the dirt driveway. The garage was doubling as a feed and tack room and had certainly not seen the likes of a car in quite some time. I was taken by the organization of the garage. Every hook and space had a job and the bridles lining the wall were neat and sparkling. The owner was very polite and friendly, as he brought out the pony for my neighbor's daughter and explained that his wife was the riding instructor. She was just finishing riding her horse, so we were going to walk to the riding ring to meet her and begin the lesson. Looking around, I wondered where on Earth they were hiding a riding ring. Driving up, I had not seen anyone riding, let alone an arena.
We left the garage and started our walk behind the house. The backyard was a hill, steep enough to prevent our view over the horizon. As we marched through the trees and up the hill, a riding ring became visible below. The ring was cut into the hill, and the husband explained that they had built the ring twice, the second time to improve leveling and drainage. This left an interesting "natural" step between the fence and the immaculate riding surface. Tall trees and shrubs lined the far side of the ring, giving it a "Secret Garden" appeal.
I was about to comment on how neat their ring was, when I saw the rider. She rode a huge chestnut mare, with waves in her red tail and a coat that shimmered in the sunlight. The rider sat seemingly motionless as her horse trotted with remarkable energy all around the ring. Every time I blinked they were doing something different. First a small circle, then a change of direction, next they were gliding across the ring sideways. The mare looked of solid muscle and her neck was held in a glorious arch, her mane springing along on top of her crest as she trotted. I was speechless. Literally dumbfounded. At this point the instructor had noticed her onlookers and her new riding student, and then she saw me. I can only imagine that I must have been quite the spectacle, with my gaping mouth and saucer eyes. It is quite possible that I was drooling, because I cannot remember anything except that mare and her rider surrounded by the crystal fog of a dream. No one else was there.
I am sure that the instructor saw some of herself in me and understood what to do next. She moved her horse into canter and headed for the diagonal. Her mare leaped into the air changing leads multiple times as they cantered toward me. In the next moment, they were gliding sideways again, this time in canter. I did not know that horses could do that! If the rider and her horse were not so perfectly in sync I might have thought that the mare could fall as she skipped sideways across the ring. For the grand finale, the woman brought her horse back to trot and they stormed up the diagonal. The mare demonstrated incredible reach and power as she launched herself into the air with each diagonal set of legs. Through all of this, the woman's seat never left the saddle and any cues that she was giving to her horse, I could not see. They halted in front of me and the mare's tail swung forward from the momentum. The woman reached down and stroked the arched neck with fondness. "This is Garbo", she said.
At last my senses returned to me and so I replied,
"Can I sign up for a lesson?"