From dressage dreams to trail riding dreams

Recently, I started a guest blog series for the Dutch website called PaardenColumns. In these guest blogs I talk about my journey with Bats, an Arabian mare I backed in 2020 and still ride every day. She also happens to be the love of my life. This made me realise that I haven’t written on my website about how I got into trail riding, what kind of horse riding I used to do before, and why I never want to ride dressage competitions again. Bats might be bred for dressage, and we do our fair share of dressage training at home, but competitions aren’t in our future.

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My first pony and our dressage career

Honestly, I always wanted to do showjumping as a kid. However, on account of being absolutely terrified of jumping, I started with dressage instead. I rode my first competition when I was 8 years old. My pony was called Branca, a Welsh Cob x Haflinger cross of 12 years old, and I couldn’t handle her at all. I must have fallen off of her over 200 times over the 7 years that I had her. At some point, I loved going to competitions and we were actually doing pretty great! We won quite a few prizes together and rode up the levels. Eventually, I got too big for her, and my dressage dreams required a bigger horse. She was a difficult pony to give up, and I still think about her often, but she has an amazing forever home now and is enjoying retirement from the dressage ring. 

Dressage pony
Branca at one of our early competitions.
Yes, I still stick my tongue out when I'm concentrated

A bigger horse and weekly dressage competitions

I’m an extremely competitive person, which is definitely one of my lesser qualities. When I started riding my horse, Zantos, I wanted to compete in dressage as often as possible, and I only felt successful if I ended first. I truly believed that ending second meant being the first loser. Thankfully, the friendly giant Zantos was up for the challenge. He had ridden at a high level of dressage before and was an uncomplicated ride, I quickly fell in love with him. I was allowed to start him out at a medium level of dressage competitions immediately due to the level I’d ridden before with my pony. It wasn’t fair, we won everything. Zantos already knew what he was doing at the medium levels, and so did I, but I didn’t care that it was unfair, as long as I kept winning. We went up the levels again, and before reaching the second to highest national level, I was probably at my worst mindset. We weren’t winning that many competitions anymore, our competitors was simply just better. I wasn’t ready to make peace with that statement just yet and wanted to reach one more level, which I wanted to achieve in only one competition. This seems unreasonable, but it was quite achievable for us, we needed 4 points to advance, and we usually scored either 3 or 4 points per competition. Of course, in this competition we ‘only’ scored 3 points. I was furious, and upset for weeks afterwards. Don’t get me wrong, that is still a score to be very proud of, but I kept wanting more, and that wasn’t possible. I loved my horse and of course never blamed Zantos for not scoring higher, it was completely and utterly my own fault, I simply wasn’t talented enough, and that’s fine (now).  

Dressage horse
My beautiful Zantos at a competition.

Starting cross country riding 

My dressage dreams fuelled every single competition I went to, but I realised that it wasn’t for me. My competitiveness was getting in the way of my relationship with my amazing and honest horse. I wanted to try something else. Zantos always enjoyed dressage, especially the higher levels, I think he felt like he was playing a really cool game. Now I had to find something else he enjoyed, and I remembered he is actually bred for showjumping. Terrified, I took a few showjumping lessons. Even though he was jumping-bred, Zantos had never jumped in his life. The mix of a terrified rider and an inexperienced horse caused some hilarious scenes. I never wanted to jump a whole showjumping course, but somehow wanted to try some cross country courses with him. We signed up for the lowest possible level, which was an unofficial course with 0.8M jumps. We both absolutely loved it. I wasn’t all that scared and Zantos jumped his heart out, loving every step of the way. I realised that riding out in nature was a lot more satisfying for me than in the arena, and Zantos had the same opinion. 

Cross country riding
I wasn't joking when I said he jumped his heart out.

More outrides through the Netherlands and my first long trail ride

We started trying out more cross country courses and loved it. In our free time, we went riding out in nature instead of in the arena. Besides our trail rides, we also started to work on our bridle-less and tackless riding a bit more. Eventually, Zantos and I could go on short trail rides bridle-less. This achievement with him felt more significant than all of our dressage wins combined. After my first trail ride on a horse safari holiday in South Africa, I was sold, this is what I wanted! Unfortunately, this meant that I had to find a new home for my beloved Zantos. He now lives on a farm near the house I grew up in. He gets to do the things he loves the most every day, show jumping and outrides! Thankfully, I can visit him whenever I want, and knowing he's in a loving home makes me feel so grateful.

Tackless dressage riding

My Arabian’s future: dressage or trails

Very obviously and quite boldly bred for dressage, Bats has a high energy level and a compact body. I started to train her in early 2020, and fell in love with her tremendously, so I still ride her to this day. The only things are, she is also bum high just like Zantos, and she is officially a pony, not a horse. The good thing is, I never want to compete again. Trail riding is what I love, and I’m afraid Bats loves it even more. When we go out, just the two of us, she trots out the gate, ready to explore everything around her. She doesn’t want to go home, and when we get close to home she gets nappy and upset, and tries to continue straight instead of going up the drive. Usually, I need to jump off for the last stretch as she refusing to acknowledge that the trail ride is over. She completely trusts me and I completely trust her, and our trail rides are the most important thing to me. 

I still absolutely love dressage. I believe it’s a beautiful way to build a harmonious relationship with your horse and work together to strengthen their bodies. Even though I don’t appreciate some of the practices used to achieve results in dressage, the basics will always be a part of my riding. 

Occasionally, I see videos come by on social media, or get memories from my camera roll that remind me of the dreams I used to have and the dressage career I so badly wanted. It definitely upsets me for a minute, as it was something I wanted for over a decade. Quickly, however, I always remember how much happier my horses and I are with our trail rides, and without the pressure to perform. I will always love dressage, but am happy to never ride a competition ever again. 

Bareback horse riding in the field
She truly is the love of my life.
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