Nothing makes a more dramatic impression than feathers flying in a ground-swallowing extended trot across the diagonal. Shires are making inroads into the Warmblood-dominated sport of dressage, proving that drafts are fully capable of performing through the international Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) levels.
Dressage: Beautiful Basics
To many, dressage has a reputation for being fancy and complicated, yet dressage is, in essence, simple training that teaches the horse to use its body correctly. In fact, the French word dressage actually translates as "training." Any breed can benefit from fundamental dressage concepts and techniques; good dressage schooling embraces a holistic approach which develops the horse both physically and mentally.
Murphy’s Law … Or Not!
"If anything can go wrong, it will" definitely does not apply to one stellar Shire, HUSKA Millennium Shires (HMS) Murphy’s Law, who has proven himself as a pioneer in the sport with his successful performance through Prix St. Georges, the first rung on the ladder of international dressage tests. Owned by Marcia Mayeda and shown by trainer Tiffany Kell Brinton, both of Southern California, Murphy has wowed audiences while acting as an ambassador of sorts between the draft and dressage worlds. “These are very beautiful, striking horses. They get a lot of attention and are a real crowd favorite,” remarks Mayeda. “They really do stand out.”
So why is a Shire that's successfully contended the FEI levels a newsworthy event? Few drafts have done so. While Murphy’s success may seem a one-off, it’s actually the result of sound training and diligent work, which can be applied to any horse of any breed.
One of Murphy’s biggest accomplishments has been his achievements in the United States Dressage Federation’s (USDF) All-Breeds Awards program, garnering titles at Fourth Level in 2010 and Prix St. Georges in 2011.
The Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards are designed to honor the accomplishments of individual breeds participating in USDF recognized dressage competitions. A joint venture between breed associations and the USDF, horses at all levels of dressage vie for year-end recognition.
The American Shire Horse Association (ASHA) is currently the only heavy draft breed association registered with the All-Breeds Awards program. Other draft-type breed associations involved include Draft Cross Breeders and Owners Association, Gypsy Cob and Drum Horse Association, Gypsy Horse Association, Inc., Gypsy Vanner Horse Society, International Drum Horse Association and the Irish Draught Horse Society of North America.
“We’ve seen growth in membership in the last five years,” explains Mayeda, who also serves as the ASHA’s liaison to the USDF. In addition, Mayeda serves on the Board of Directors for the American Shire Horse Educational Foundation and is a former member of the ASHA Board of Directors. “I think this recent trend has been positive. If people in the dressage field see these horses at competitions, they get interested in them.”
With 13 horses currently declared for ASHA eligibility for All-Breeds Awards, the numbers pale in comparison to Warmblood registries whose participants number in the thousands. Nevertheless, this is a huge stride forward for a breed which is currently listed as critical on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Conservation Priority List.
Draft enthusiasts greet this development with a mixed reception, explains Mayeda. “Some people are very supportive and like to see Shires moving into different disciplines. It is a rare breed. We do want to see the Shire continue and don’t want to see this beautiful breed just fade away. We almost lost the breed after World War II with the mechanization of agriculture. The more different disciplines these horses are used in, the better for the preservation of the breed,” notes Mayeda. “Those that want to see the breed continue and used in different forms than the traditional plowing or driving are very supportive of it. There are others who don’t think you should do anything with any draft horse other than drive it. It can get a little contentious in the draft world depending on the individual’s perspective.”
Similarly, the dressage community’s reaction to Murphy tends to run the gamut. “When we would take Murphy to horse shows, he either had a very strong following or got snubbed. At one point I had a lady leave the warm-up arena on her fancy Warmblood while saying, ‘I can’t ride with that thing in here.’ Evidently the fancy Warmblood didn't like Murphy’s fluffy feet,” Kell Brinton says tongue-in-cheek.
Road to the Top
Mayeda purchased Murphy as an unstarted four-year-old with the intention of trail riding him, yet when the trainer who began working with him suggested dressage, she jumped at the idea. “I’ve always admired dressage. It’s such an elegant discipline. It’s very subtle. To some people it may seem too subtle, because you’re not flying over jumps or turning barrels, but it’s really a difficult sport. It requires a lot of finesse and a lot of partnership with the horse,” remarks Mayeda. “I was thrilled that she thought that would be a good start. Now that I know more about it, I think dressage is an excellent discipline for any horse under any circumstances, because there’s so much about athleticism, keeping the horse fit and I think it’s good for the animal because they get better workouts. The increased athleticism helps them last longer, have a better overall longevity and quality of life.”
Now retired from dressage competition, Murphy advanced steadily through the levels. Weighing in at 1,700 pounds on a 17.2 hh frame has helped Murphy in his dressage endeavors, being at the smaller end of the Shire spectrum. Still, for such a large horse, maintaining fitness is a continual challenge. “He’s very willing and very smart and he likes to work. The challenge for him is stamina,” explains Mayeda. “They aren’t built to do long, sustained advanced tests in which there’s a lot of trotting and a lot of cantering.”
Murphy isn’t alone in having to work extra hard to get and stay fit. “The biggest challenge in training most heavy–and even some light draft breeds–in dressage is stamina,” explains Kell Brinton. “Most drafts are designed to go long periods of time, slowly. Dressage demands a much more forward thinking athleticism. I found that to build the forward-thinking stamina, I have to really get these guys into shape.”
Kell Brinton and Mayeda’s show-ready solution for Murphy involved Kell Brinton riding five days a week in the morning and Mayeda riding an extra two to three times a week after work, in addition to long trail rides with good hills on the weekends. “That second ride really helped his fitness and stamina,” notes Mayeda. “That was important in keeping him fit enough to do the upper level work.”
Increased fitness brought with it multiple rewards. “Murphy changed from barely making it through a Training and First Level test to comfortably showing two Fourth Level tests in one day. The more fit Murphy got, the less I had to ‘encourage’ him to keep going. He also took to the harder movements much better,” remarks Kell Brinton. “Training the flying lead changes were a bit of a challenge in the beginning; it does take some strength and perseverance in the early stages of training. The first year was the toughest, because I was teaching movements, such as the flying lead change and lateral work, before Murphy was as fit as I'd like. This is where the strength, patience and perseverance come into play. I knew he could do the movements, it was just a matter of convincing him.” Brinton found with difficult dressage movements such as the pirouette and tempi changes, that once Murphy grasped the concept and was strong enough to execute the movement, progressing in his training was a straightforward endeavor.
Getting Murphy into peak form didn’t require any magic formula, just solid horsemanship. “I hear many people who try to build stamina through diet, feeding them more 'hot' food. Murphy didn't get a special diet; in fact, I took a lot of the supplements out of his diet. He got good quality hay consisting of an alfalfa/oat mix,” notes Brinton. “And lots of work. It takes dedication to make sure your drafts get the work they need.” The only supplement Murphy has continued to receive is a high quality glucosamine/chondroitin/MSM/ASU supplement to ensure joint health through the rigors of training.
In the Saddle
Every horse takes an individual approach, but some breed tips can help pave the way toward that "ah-ha!" moment. Brinton explains that a forward focus is crucial with drafts. “As a rider you must ride in a very forward thinking posture. The rider has to be solid and balanced; there can be no ‘holding on’ with your legs at all, no gripping with your knees or thighs. This is an automatic cue for a heavy horse to slow down or even stop,” explains Brinton. “The rider has to trust the horse. This is what made training Murphy so enjoyable: I had complete trust in him. The draft breeds are kind and gentle, leaving little worry of them bolting or bucking hard. I often choose drafts or draft crosses for my timid riders to gain their confidence in riding.”
Being a gentle giant doesn’t mean, however, that the horse can continually give. “One thing you have to be careful with in training the drafts dressage is that you have to know their limits,” cautions Brinton. “Now the unique thing about a draft is that when their ‘quarters run out’ as we call it, when they are done working, you have to let them be done. Murphy would literally just stop. You are not going to get an hour work session out of a draft. You need to be efficient in your training and be willing to ride two short sessions a day. I knew just how much time I had; I would make his show warm-ups brief and then walk around the outside of the dressage court until the judge blew the whistle. I kept showing easy for him so that he was always willing to give me 100%.”
After peaking at Prix St. Georges and schooling all the Intermediare movements, Mayeda made the decision to retire Murphy from competitive dressage just one step from Grand Prix while he was still sound and happy. “I recognized that he is a bigger horse and Shires are not bred to do Grand Prix work,” says Mayeda. “I could have pushed it and seen how far he could go, but if he had gotten injured in the process, I would have never ever forgiven myself. He retired at the highest level a Shire has gone, and did so soundly.” Murphy and Mayeda now enjoy time on the trail together with continued "just for fun" dressage schooling.
Itching to get in on the action?
Owners of horses that compete in dressage whose breed organizations don’t currently take part in the All-Breeds Awards programs have several options, explains Krystina Firth, the USDF’s Senior Competitions Coordinator. Competitors can request that their breed organization participate, or register their horse in a secondary registry, which entails either another breed registry if eligible, or a performance-based organization.
Why not give dressage a try? It’s an elegant way to bond with your horse, while increasing your horse’s rideability and athleticism. After all, it’s basic training which builds a solid foundation.