A little bit of the dream lives on…

Français : Un cheval shagya en compétition de ...

Français : Un cheval shagya en compétition de dressage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About twenty years ago my mother wrote a book. It’s a non-fiction book (so not the kind nearest and dearest to my heart), and not a very big book, but it’s still definitely a book – published by a real honest-to-gosh publisher, not a vanity press. You know how they say everyone has one book in them? Well, I guess this book is my mother’s one book, because at 89 I can’t really see her writing another one. It’s not that she couldn’t, necessarily, but I just don’t think she’d bother.

My mother’s book is called Guide to Dressage. What on earth, you may ask, is “dressage”? Well, it has nothing to do with fashion, I can tell you.  (It’s pronounced, roughly, dreh-SAZGE, where that “zg” is intended to represent the sound of the “g” in massage. (Very French, I suspect.) It’s a kind of horsemanship, an equestrian sport, if you will. It’s an Olympic sport, and also what they do with those Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, if you happen to be familiar with that. So it’s European in origin, it’s also quite old, and it’s pretty serious stuff. Dressage consists of a set of movements that the horse is trained to do in response to cues from the rider, and these cues are so subtle that a naïve observer generally won’t notice them.  The horse appears to be doing the movements all on its own – or to be reading the rider’s mind. It’s really quite beautiful to watch, and quite challenging to learn to do – especially if you train your own horse.

English: Lipizzaner stallion, performance Schö...

English: Lipizzaner stallion, performance Schönbrunn Palace Deutsch: Lipizzanerhengst, Vorführung vor dem Schloß Schönbrunn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The story of my mother’s book is the story of a dream she pursued for probably close to thirty years of her life. It’s a story of hard work and perseverance – and also, a story of only partial success, of limitations, and of deciding when it is time to put the dream on the shelf and move on.

My mother was introduced to riding at an early age. I’m not sure whether it was before or after her family moved from Washington State back to Wisconsin. I don’t know how much riding she did, or when, during her childhood and youth, but it was enough to get her hooked – to make a horsewoman of her for much of the rest of her life. I think, however, that it was not until sometime after she married my father and they moved to California that dressage captured her imagination. Certainly it was not until after all four of her children were born that she bought her first horse. (I know that because I remember the first horse.)

Somewhere in there, the dream coalesced. She set out to train a series of horses in dressage – to take each as far as she could go with it, then sell it and buy another, “better” horse, and train it, and so on. She intended to work her way up through all four “levels” of dressage in this way. And somewhere along the line she conceived the idea of writing a series of books explaining what she had learned so that others could benefit from her experience and insights.

Insights, you say, about horseback riding? Well, yes. There are a number of classic books about dressage written by the “masters,” and my mother, of course, read and studied them all. (I’m sure this intellectual aspect of dressage was part of what appealed to her.) She read them, and she attempted to apply them in her own practice of dressage and in the training of her own horses. Applying these writings required that she figure out what they actually meant in practical terms – which I gather was not always easy or straightforward.  What sets my mother’s book apart from others on the subject, I believe, is the fact that it is both a work of scholarship and a practical guide written by someone who actually did everything she describes.

There is no fairytale ending to this story. My mother never got all the way to fourth level. She did not manage to buy a wondrously talented horse that carried her all the way to the Olympics. And she only wrote the first book in her intended series. Her dream had been a very ambitious one – overly ambitious, I think, though she couldn’t probably have known that at the outset. And so, there came a day when she realized she was not going to achieve her dream. She was simply running out of years, and a fall from her horse that caused her briefly to lose consciousness had undermined her confidence. She came to realize that she was perhaps not tough enough or aggressive enough to be truly competitive, and that she was not really willing to take as much time from her other duties as was needed to progress at a faster rate.  Also, she had never been able to afford a really good horse.

Dressage, you see – at least on a competitive level – is something of a rich man’s sport, and my mother was a middle class housewife. You have to be able to own and keep a horse and have quite a lot of time available to ride it. And horses vary in physical attributes, personality, and talents, just as people do. Dressage requires a horse with good “action” (how the horse moves) because the judges have definite ideas on that. It requires a horse with enough brains and ability to focus, and also with a cooperative disposition. In short, an Olympic-class horse is a little like a Stradivarius violin, and my mother had a banjo budget. She also had four children to raise and she also served as the household’s cook, housekeeper, purchasing agent, bookkeeper, etc.

So after I don’t know how many years of going to the stable every week to ride and practice and of single-handedly trailering her horse to lessons and shows, she hung up her saddle, sold the horse trailer, and found a good home for her last horse. And she moved on. I’m not sure how many activities and hobbies my mother has pursued over the years – before and after she let go of her dressage dream. She earned a second Masters degree at an age when most people are retired – in Linguistics (on top of her earlier one in Economics). She is still tutoring students in grammar and pronunciation. She plays recorder (“Baroque flute”) with an amateur group, and her book group still meets – the one that’s been going since probably about the time she took up dressage. The term ‘life-long learner’ describes my mother well.

And her book? Well, just for a lark I searched for it on Amazon.com – and found it! One new copy and a number of used ones were offered, and she had one review. A five star review! I’m sure the book’s out of print, but after all this time, it is still serving the dressage community. I called my mother up and told her, and I read her the review. It made her day. She’d rather lost track of the book. It’s been through three editions that she knew of, and she had authorized a fourth some years ago that she didn’t care to be involved with. As I’ve said, she moved on.

I know my mother had regrets when she made the decision to but her dream on the shelf, but she isn’t sentimental. She’s long since gotten over it. Still, she spent a lot of time on that unfinished dream, and I’d like to think it wasn’t wasted. If she hadn’t dreamed the dream, after all, she wouldn’t have written the book. And through that book, a little bit of her dream lives on. A little bit of my mother will live on in it, too, I hope, after she is gone.

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  1. I never attempted dressage—I didn’t have the skill, temperament, or money. I stuck to hunt seat and a basic level of jumping. (A five-foot fence was more than I could handle psychologically.) For your mother to do as much as she did was a great accomplishment.

    If I ever get to Austria, I would love to see the Lipizzaners at the Spanish School. 🙂

    • You’re still braver than I am, to do jumping. My mother naturally tried to introduce her children to riding, but none of us took to as she did. I did learn to ride, and I love horses at a conceptual level. But they were so big and I wasn’t “bossy” enough with them. They ran away with me.

  2. What an interesting story! And who knows, her book might be just what someone is looking for. Non-fiction on a narrow subject can be a smart publishing move. I’d consider it myself if I didn’t prefer to make stuff up. 🙂 I also admire your mother’s practice of life-long learning. One is never too old for education, whether formal or informal. The day we stop learning is the day we stop living.

    • Here, here! My mother has never made much money on her book. That was never what she was in it for – she was in it for the love of dressage and her desire to make a contribution to that field. It’s a “niche market”, and I think her book is still around because a) it does have a unique quality, and b) the niche continues to exist. Like Classical music, it’s a small part of the total picture, but a part that has a continued resonance with some number of people.

  3. Your mother sounds like an amazing woman. It sounds as if you have inherited her love of learning.

    I may be one of your few blog readers who did know about dressage. I was horse-obsessed during my childhood in the 1970s and owned a couple of horses myself, though they were by no means of championship quality 🙂

    • Thanks, Audrey. I think my mother is in many ways remarkable. She will never be rich or famous. She didn’t win medals or even blue ribbons (just ribbons of other colors), but she did about as much as a person of ordinary means could do with ordinary horses. And I hope I will be as much involved in life and learning – as interested in the world – as she is when I’m her age.

  4. Well, I love your mother too (and am going to look for the book). I am a dressage rider and a professional trainer. I can’t speak for your mother, but dressage riding is kind of a discipline bigger than horses for lots of us. I bet your mother is still a rider today, in a different way. I too share the need to ride and write- and I appreciate her decision- I am sure it wasn’t taken lightly. She must love you and your siblings very much.

    • Yeah, I could tell you’re a rider and a trainer and I think that’s wonderful. I think it was advancing age that was the major factor in my mother’s decision (we kids were all grown by then). We didn’t live in a place where horses were part of the landscape, either. We were part of L A ‘s vast suburban sprawl.

  5. Good for her! I hope we all learn from all that she did.

  6. Great post. I recently flashbacked to a time in my life when I wished to own a horse, but never learned how to ride. I love watching horse and rider together in competitions and races. You (and your mom) just taught me a few things about dressage, although I’m familiar with the term, just not what it entails. Your mom sounds like a neat lady.


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