June 25, 2016

Mostly sunny

Horse ballet

Dressage is a French term meaning “to train” and rhymes with massage. Dressage teaches a horse to be willingly obedient and responsive to the rider’s lightest “aids” (body signals) while remaining relaxed, yet energetic. The aids, like a squeeze of the calf or a brush of the leg, should be imperceptible and result in graceful movements performed by horse and rider that may look effortless, but are the result of years of training.
Fallon Walker, 22, of Medina is a trainer of international dressage horses whose efforts have ranked her and Guilliani, her horse, third in the nation. They have been invited to compete at the Markel/USEF Young Horse National Dressage Championship, where the winner will be the best young horse in America.
Walker began competing when she was 9 years old, entered her first Federation Equestrian International competition at 16 and has been doing international competitions for six years. It’s not uncommon to find her in the barn caring for and training her six horses. Guilliani, her 4-year-old Hanoverian gelding, is a very talented horse who’s also very fun to ride, she said. Sonik, German for “to frolic,” was a rescued horse she took in and trained. Now he’s competing at the Olympic level. He loves to do one-tempi changes, a difficult maneuver where the horse changes from one lead to the other.
“The crowds love it,” she said. “They get excited, and he knows that’s he’s doing something fancy. Her other horses are purchased, trained in dressage and then sold, which provides her income.
Guilliani was just 3 in his first competition. It’s rare that a 3-year-old horse could show and be successful, but Walker said this is what he was bred for.
“He has a wonderful temperament and loves to go into the ring and show off,” she said.
At competitions, there often are many other horses being given commands nearby, so Walker cues Guilliani in German to avoid confusion with the English words he hears.
Dressage horses advance through a graduated series of levels, with tests of increasing difficulty. At the training level, the first of competition, judges watch to see if the horse is relaxed, can steer properly and go through a basic walk, trot and canter in large circles. They look for a good partnership between the rider and horse and scrutinize every movement, she said. If cues are too obvious, or if the horse’s tail is switching because it’s tense, points can be taken off.
The first, second, third and fourth levels and FEI levels progressively add more difficult movements, where each movement is scored from 0 to 10. Horses also are judged on how obedient they are throughout the test, how vibrant they are and on their overall impression, Walker said.
Circles become progressively smaller, which is more difficult for the horse. Gaits and movements include collected and extended walk, trot and canter. More difficult tests include a half pass, which is sideways movement; passage which is a slow-motion, energetic trot; piaffe, a highly cadenced trot-in-place; tempi changes, where the horse appears to be skipping; and pirouettes, when the horse will turn in place at a canter.
Dressage horses are shown in minimal, dark-colored tack, with mane and forelock braided. Dressage riders wear formal white breeches, a white shirt and stock tie, gloves and a dark jacket. A top hat or helmet covered in velveteen completes the ensemble.
Even a well-bred, well-trained horse might be tense when going into the ring, Walker explained, so to get Giuliani familiar with the show experience she took him to shows and walked him around to familiarize him with it. Typically there are loud announcers, golf carts, lots of horses and flowers and banners in the ring. Exposing them to all this before they actually have to perform means they’ll be more relaxed because none of it is new to them, she said. Guilliani is used to trailer rides and staying in an unfamiliar stall.
“He just about knocks his stall door down when he sees me getting his traveling things out to the trailer,” she said.
The usual age for a dressage horse to compete is about 6 or older. Guilliani was the youngest horse to compete recently at Grand Haven Stables in Jefferson, Ohio, but had the highest score of more than 120 horses. A good average score for a horse to have would be about 65 percent, but Guilliani holds a USEF 4-Year-Old score of 78.8 percent.
Next year they’ll compete in the FEI 5-year-old division in the Young Horse Championship qualification season, and the winner will compete in the World Breeding Federation Young Horse Championships in Verden, Germany.
“It’s like the Olympics for underage horses,” she explained. Horses must be 8 years old and at a Grand Prix level before the Olympics, a goal they’re working on as a team.
 Barnosky can be reached via e-mail at petlady@roadrunner.com or by writing The Gazette, 885 W. Liberty St., Medina, 44256.