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By Lauren R. Giannini
Imagine riding to hounds on a horse trained to fourth level
or higher in dressage: thrilling gallops across open spaces
and through woodlands, up hill and down dale. Your horse
is keen, but obedient to your leg. The feld comes to a
trappy place and you ask your mount to shorten stride and
gather its hocks. Or there’s a jump situated at an odd angle
to a narrow ride and you ask your horse to collect and bend
as you turn to the coop…
Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason knows that three of the
basic goals of dressage training – fexibility, responsiveness
to the rider’s aids, and balance – are not limited to the
arena. As a matter of fact, she has found that dressage is
a vital component in training a good feld hunter.
“I started taking lessons with Elaine Gibala (“R” judge)
who has a barn in Winchester (KY),” explains Lilla.
“Dressage became a very valuable resource because
every problem I ever had in the hunt feld I could solve by
using the tools Elaine had given me in lessons.”
In 1982 Lilla took time off from the jumper circuit to
complete her education at the University of Kentucky
(Lexington) and answered an ad for someone to exercise
hunt horses. She had no experience with foxhunting and
fell into her ideal lifestyle, thanks to the Millers, Susan and
Jerry, who in 1988 bought a farm in the country hunted
by the Iroquois. Five years later Jerry became MFH and
eventually started hunting the hounds; Lilla whipped-in
and trained the hunt horses. A few years ago, she started
hunting hounds full-time and nowadays Jerry and his joint-
MFH Jack Van Nagell whip-in to her.
Dressage was the Answer
“I would take OTTBs to Elaine. We’ll get one that spooks
or bolts, and getting rid of them isn’t an option, because
Jerry doesn’t sell horses once they come into his barn,”
says Lilla. “Elaine always had an answer for me. Bonus
was one of those horses.”
By Fred Astaire, Bonus (not his registered name) had
reached the end of his racehorse career when Lilla bought
him for one dollar from a lady down the road who just
wanted good homes.
“Elaine said that I should keep up with dressage for him
and it was fun. He’s a very hot horse and it’s gone in peaks
and valleys,” recalls Lilla. “When I was in second and
third level, a handful of times I got whistled out of the ring
because he was being so fractious – I guess he scared the
judge. But Bonus can be very brilliant too. He’s athletic
and because Elaine is such a good trainer and puts the
time in, she really helped me work through all his problems
and here we are, at Prix St. Georges.”
Prix St. Georges – or Not?
Last September, at the beginning of the 2010-11 hunting
season, Bonus was ready to show at PSG, but at the time
USDF rules called for a double bridle to do the test. Lilla
recalls working with Bonus in the bit and bradoon, but about
two weeks before the show he blew a gasket.
“”He got hotter and hotter – no way was he going to
handle that double bridle, so we stayed at Fourth level,”
says Lilla. “Fortunately, they changed the rules and you
can do Prix St. Georges in a snaffe. We ride all our hunt
Dressage & The Hunt Horse
horses in rubber snaffes, and Bonus did his frst PSG test in June.”
The benefts of dressage became really evident back in 2009
when Lilla broke her leg the day after the start of the formal
season on the frst Sunday in November. She lost all of November
and December, but by January she was out of the big cast and
pestering her doctor.
“I wanted to know why I couldn’t ride,” she admits. “The doctor
said you could fall, you’re going to break your fall with your arm
or hurt your leg again.” I said, “What you don’t know is that I
have a fourth level dressage horse and can control every move
he makes.”
Lilla knew she had to ride with one foot in the stirrup and one
out, because the new cast was still too big. She also knew that she
could go from a walk to a nice collected canter and that she would
be right behind Jerry, who was hunting hounds in the interim.
“I knew I’d be absolutely safe,” says Lilla. “I felt perfectly
comfortable and we walked, cantered, nice extended trot. The
funny thing is that I got really excited after hunting Bonus and I
called my trainer Elaine and said I never thought I’d have to go to
Iroquois huntsman Lilla Mason got back to hunting sooner and
more safely after the big cast came off by riding Bonus, her upper
level dressage/hunt horse. Note the bulky splint and no iron on
the dressage saddle, but she felt perfectly comfortable. She
does dressage with all the hunt horses
Photo by Eloise Penn