Fresh from seeing Kevin Corcoran’s title character run away and join the circus in the 1960 Disney film Toby Tyler, young Hollie Cutler “fell in love” with horses.
“My parents promised me that when I could pay for the [care of the] horse they would buy me one – never imagining, I guess, that by the time I turned 16 I would still want that,” admits the Annapolis-based trial attorney.
But want that she did, and so her parents honored their bargain.
“It probably kept me from being a juvenile delinquent,” Cutler laughs, “[as] I was either riding or working to pay for the horse.”
Although Cutler ultimately sold that horse upon starting college, her love for riding never waned.
“I didn’t get [my own] horse again until about a year after law school,” she says, noting that during the interim she “found other people’s horses” to ride.
Cutler was particularly fond of jumping, but the passing years inevitably made each landing a little harder than the last.
“I was getting older,” she admits, “and jumping hurt, especially when [I fell] – and you fall more frequently when you jump.”
Faced with giving up a well-loved aspect of riding, Cutler somewhat serendipitously came to embrace a lower-impact form of riding: dressage, a sort of “horse ballet” in which the animals are exhaustively trained to perform delicate and complicated maneuvers in response to subtle full-body signals given by the rider.
“One day, I was at a barn, and a dressage trainer came out to give someone a lesson,” Cutler recalls. “The someone didn’t show up, so I took the lesson – and I just fell in love with it.”
The fundamental purpose of the ancient art is to improve the horse’s dexterity, form and overall performance. Dressage competitors, who sometimes perform to music, are judged on such movements as the half-pass, pirouette and tempi changes and scored on a scale from one to ten – with ten, Cutler notes, “being probably more rare than it is in gymnastics.” Competition ranges from amateur to Olympic levels, under rules established by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports.
While the warmblood horses are often favored, says Cutler, virtually any breed can be trained in dressage. By her estimate, the animals reach their peak condition for the sport between the ages of 11 and 16. Cutler herself rides a 13-year-old Oldenburg named Anton.
“I competed in the first year I had him, then decided to wait until we were more polished and got our act together, to come out at a higher level,” says Cutler. And the approach paid off: Cutler recently returned to competition, placing second in the Prix St. Georges test on June 22 at Exhalt Farm, near her home in Harwood, in Anne Arundel County.
“It was love at first sight,” chuckles Cutler, who purchased Anton from a neighbor three years ago. “I think maybe to be a true horse person you have to have some ‘sixth sense’ of matching up horses and riders, and [my neighbor] does. Somehow, she knew that this horse and I would get along. She had seen me ride once before, [but] I’ve seen her do it with other people, also.”
According to Cutler, the deep connection that dressage fosters between horse and rider leads to a better overall experience for both.
“I remember being young and going to watch international jumping and the riders just kind of yanking their horses around to get them over the fences,” she recalls. “I think as dressage has become more [widely] utilized…you realize you can tell your horse to turn without yanking, because you’re really giving signals from other places.”
In addition to her personal bond with Anton, Cutler also considers herself “lucky” to live in “horse country.” Local farms host warm-weather outdoor events, while area venues like the Prince George’s Equestrian Center provide perfect year-round conditions – particularly in the winter, when the frozen ground would otherwise be too hard to accommodate the fine maneuvers of dressage.
But for a mother of a six-year-old to be able to spend up to 10 hours a week riding, Cutler admits that having a supportive spouse is crucial.
“I can only do that because I have a really cooperative husband,” she says. “I ride early in the morning, and he drives our daughter to school. Or, I ride early in the morning on the weekends, and he hangs out with her.”
And her own daughter – Mikayla Lipsetts – may one day in fact give Cutler a run for her money, having already won, despite her tender age, three hunter-jumper championships with her pony, Coffee.
“[That’s] another reason I probably haven’t been competing,” Cutler laughs, “because I’ve been schlepping her to horse shows.”
In the end, says Cutler, the best part of dressage may be the sport’s “humbling” nature. “The more you learn,” she acknowledges, “the more you realize how much more you can learn and need to learn.”
Which is not a problem for Cutler; time, after all, is on her side.
“That’s one of the cool things, I think, about dressage: you can do it forever,” she explains.
And then she laughs. “Kind of like golf,” she adds. “You can do that a long time – as long as you’re still breathing.”