AFTER 22 YEARS in the Bay Area of Northern California — and losing a home in the 2017 Santa Rosa wildfire — Paradigm Sporthorse Training has opened its barn doors in Port Townsend.
Co-owner and dressage instructor Becky Cushman is a Grand Prix rider who has competed at the international level on multiple horses and with goals of doing so again. She’s also a United States Dressage Federation (USDF) bronze, silver and gold medalist.
Growing up in Point Reyes, Calif., Cushman was a “horse nut” who worked on ranches and did some jumping. But it wasn’t until a dressage trainer moved into Point Reyes when she was 15 that her goals became focused on competing in dressage at the Olympic Games and becoming an international competitor, goals she still hopes to obtain. For now, she’s focused on building up her new training facility after a few tragic events knocked her off course.
Physical therapy work and rehabilitation are additional services she provides. She spent nine years as an apprentice before starting her own business. Emphasizing she is not a chiropractor or massage therapist, Cushman says she is one who is called to do “ the maintenance work needed to get the horse sound again.”
Stretching, building core muscles and eating nutritious food are key to staying healthy and helping to prevent injuries for both horse and rider.
“With my horses, I do a lot of cavaletti (small jumps) work, uphill work and long trotting — all that stuff — to get them strong enough to stay sound,” she said. “Or if they had something happen, I do the work to get them sound again.”
Cushman knows a thing or two about physical therapy and recovery. In 2007, while starting the qualification process for the Pan American Games, a horse flipped over and landed on her, breaking her back in three places.
“That was a very long rehab,” she said.
And I imagine very depressing. Since then, she’s experienced “lots of hiccups” that have kept her from reaching her international goals.
Once healed and back in the saddle, she received another huge blow when she had to put down her beloved stallion, the one she thought she’d be riding in the Olympics and other international events.
In 2017, she lost her home in Santa Rosa, Calif., in the Tubbs Fire. And that was quickly followed by a divorce. Mike Piro, her friend and horse farrier of 21 years, also got divorced.
“We’d always had a connection,” she said. “We were both looking for a change and hoping to find a place on the coast to rebuild our lives. Then, we saw this place. We could afford it, so in July of last year, we took the plunge and moved up here with 18 horses.
“Now, we’re working our tuchuses off, and the place is starting to come together.”
She said Piro has closed his practice; he’s got his hands full taking care of the horses at Paradigm and working on the many projects needed to improve and renovate the property.
Together, they’ve been happily surprised with the large number of people in the area who are interested in dressage and taking lessons.
“Mike and I just feel really lucky to end up in a place that’s welcomed and supported us,” she said.
Competitive riding aside, dressage is a way of training and riding a horse using the body and hands to cue and communicate with the animal.
The object to training any horse is to have the animal respond to a rider’s cues: stop, go, left, right, back and so on. To safely ride, all horses need to have an understanding of those basic cues. In dressage, the horse and rider gain an understanding of these aids through movements that help the horses build balance, flexibility and strength and improve responsiveness. Naturally, this requires the rider to build his or her own core strength and flexibility.
Having an effective seat is emphasized in dressage, and that comes through good core strength and balance. It allows riders to feel what the horse is doing. It also enables the rider to influence the horse via leg and rein aids. Ideally, this can happen on a more subtle level via the rider’s core muscles.
Dressage student Amy Greenhaum seeks to master consistency in her riding and cues in her lessons with Cushman. Since retiring in June after 30 years in broadcasting, she’s living her dream of attaining “an educated seat in dressage, which takes riding consistently and under a watchful eye,” along with working toward her bronze USDF dressage medal.
As Cushman reminds her: “Every horse needs the rider to have a strong seat, along with good leg and arm positions.”
Greenbaum said she’s learned that she needs to work on being consistent when she rides to the regulations set by the USDF, or equivalent, so any dressage-trained horse would be able to respond to the cues she gives with her legs and hands.
Easy peasy, right? Not when you’re trying to meld those cues with the biomechanics of the horse.
Biomechanics studies the forces that affect the body’s movements, examining the way muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments operate in synchrony, enabling a horse to walk, passage or perform lateral movements. Different anatomical structures work together while the bones are the support structure.
If that sounds too daunting, stop worrying. Each student starts by learning to apply simple cues such as walk, trot, canter and whoa. The goal is to master each small step before moving on to the next.
A previous trainer cautioned Greenbaum about obstacles that would get in her way, such as having kids and working full-time, so avoid learning to ride on a green — not fully trained — horse.
So, she followed her trainers advice and got a “nice mare that was third-level dressage and trained for me.”
Sadly, that horse passed away before she was able to reach her goals, and she’s now riding a horse not fully trained in dressage, so they’re “learning how to work as a team,” Greenbaum said.
Greenbaum grew up in the United Kingdom, where she was an “active rider and have continued to be all my life. I’ve done tons of cross-country riding and hunting, and later in life — after kids — is when I started studying dressage.”
She’s also an avid trail rider and member of the Back Country Horsemen’s Buckhorn Range Chapter.
Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Sunday of each month.
If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at [email protected] at least two weeks in advance. You can also call her at 360-460-6299.