Free Access: Dressage Horses Just Want to Have Fun

This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Heels Down Magazine. For more stories worth reading, subscribe now in the app and get a new issue delivered every month.


By Caroline Culbertson

Denielle Gallagher-Le Griffon is debunking the myth that dressage riders don’t have fun and is improving her horses in the process.

While she’s no less serious about training than any other highly competitive and successful Grand Prix dressage rider, Denielle breaks the orthodox training regimen, sticking to short rides of 45 minutes and under, five days a week – sometimes four. She hacks frequently and even jumps her dressage horses of all levels.

Her horses have flourished under this program, which she feels keeps them mentally and physically fresh.

“A friend I was stabling with at a show asked me, ‘You only train five days a week. Do you feel like you get enough time in the saddle to get the training done?’ I really do. My horses all had gone to that show and scored in the high 70’s and were happy and sound.

“You just have to install the training, and the fitness can be done gymnastically. It doesn’t have to be done by pounding around in the ring,” explained Denielle, who runs Brilliance Stables in Wellington, Fla., and Bedford, Ny., with her husband and French show jumper, Bertrand Le Griffon. “I have found that they really thrive under that program. I’ve noticed a big change.”

The Canadian rider, who made world history last year when she rode the first purebred Irish Draught Stallion to compete in a CDI3* Grand Prix, adheres to the following schedule: The horses work Monday-Wednesday, have Thursday off, work Friday and Saturday, and have Sunday off. Unless, of course, a show alters the week, and then she adjusts accordingly.

“The first day back after a day off, I find that I can only just do stretching and relaxing work. Then I can ask for a little bit more the day after and even the third day, but then they’re needing a break,” she explained. “I just find they stay sounder longer and mentally they don’t get fried because they have lots of breaks in their program.”

Denielle has years of experience across disciplines as both a rider and a professional groom, so she has extensive knowledge for what keeps horses at their best. When she was 20 years old, she went to groom for Olympic show jumper Eric Lamaze before switching disciplines entirely to run Olympian Ashley Holzer’s dressage operation. She had an extensive jumping background including eventing and show jumping, but had no dressage experience.

“Ashley put me on this big black stallion that was her Grand Prix horse at the time. I couldn’t sit the trot. I was terrible!” the now 37-year-old laughed. “So I learned to ride dressage as well as groom, and I worked for her, running her operation for about 10 or 12 years.”

It’s not going to ruin your horse to trot with her head in the air for a few minutes.

When Denielle and her husband found out they were expecting a baby, Ashley helped her start her own business and in turn, set her own schedule.

“This all began because I wanted to have weekends off to spend with my children, but I found that after two days off, the horses were just too fresh on Monday. So I started thinking, ‘What if I break up their days off?’ and just played with it, and Ashley and I came up with this system.”

Hacking and physio work are two other important components of keeping the body and mind happy, says Denielle. She says that her horses receive chiropractic care, acupuncture, and/or massage every couple of weeks. They also wear magnetic blankets before she rides, and her training plan includes lots of hacking on a loose rein.

“I’ll go out on the canals and let my mare trot around with her head straight up in the air and let her look around. Nothing too confining, nothing restrictive,” said Denielle. “Dressage can get so demanding and I feel like sometimes we drift away from the willingness of the horse. It’s not going to ruin your horse to trot with her head in the air for a few minutes.”

She also jumps many of her dressage horses through grids and gymnastic exercises to prevent boredom and keep them focused.

“I have this young horse and she’s a little hot and was starting to get spooky. She wasn’t before, and I didn’t know why this was starting,” she recalled. “And my husband said, ‘She’s bored and needs more stimulation. Start jumping her.’ I started jumping her and she stopped spooking because she had something in front of her to focus on. It was a real breakthrough for me. My Grand Prix horse that I sold a year ago – I’d jump him once a week.”

Of course, it’s just as important to keep it fun for the riders – a goal which is no problem for the group of accomplished dressage riders Denielle works and trains with. She recalled a little at-home competition that she, Ashley, and Canadian Olympic dressage rider Jacqueline Brooks, held to upstage each other and have a good laugh.

“We called it the bareback challenge. Ashley did bareback one-tempis on her Grand Prix horse so she said, ‘Ok Denielle and Jacqui, what are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘I’m going to top you. I’m going to take the bridle away and just do it in a hackamore, oh and I’m going to do a jump at the end.’

“After I did it I yelled, ‘Top that, Ashley Holzer!’”

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