Dacia Funkhouser on Schooling Hunters

by Pam Whitfield
(First Published in “Riding Highlights”, Spring 1999)

Even though I’m riding at an ‘A’ level, I ride almost all my horses on the elementary level,” says Dacia Funkhouser, the 1996 world champion amateur/owner hunter rider. This year she and Interlude are again leading the standings for this award.

Dacia, who got her first taste of the forward riding system at an ANRC clinic and rating center hosted by St. Andrews College, says, “The ANRC really changed my riding. I came back from that clinic and found it took the frustration out of my teaching as well. The system gave me a guideline of what to do. Anytime I have a problem, I go back to elementary level, the basics, and figure out what is going on, where the confusion is coming from. That’s where things usually get screwed up.”

Dacia says, “people get on a horse and the first thing they do is try to round the horse up. They end up with an excited horse because they haven’t allowed it to relax.” Warming up on a long rein sounds like simple advice, but it works. “Horses are usually made to contract and never allowed to extend, ie. relax the back and neck.”

Dacia emphasizes the importance of stabilization in schooling horses at any level. “As a judge, I like to see a horse that can go around on his own. Most horses aren’t stabilized. That’s why everybody loves the school horse. He’s learned to go in an economical fashion.”

For green horses, elementary work is crucial. “That part is the hardest because you want to literally hold them up. It’s very uncomfortable for the rider because the horse trips, wants to fall in or speeds up,” says Dacia. But she stresses the importance of using circles, serpentines and poles early on to teach the horse to find its own balance and regulate its own pace. “I learned almost all my stuff from [the late] Jimmy Cantwell. Riding through the awkwardness is what I learned most,” she says.

“If I had to sell a horse in thirty days, I would still spend more time on flatwork than jumping,” she adds. Dacia seldom jumps her show string at home; she devotes her sessions to flatwork on a long rein.

“I do a lot of imaginary courses, using poles on the ground. What you do on the flat is paramount to what you do over the jumps,” she continues. “People get so wound up over the jumping. I rode a horse that had never jumped a course until he arrived at the showgrounds. He knew how to go in a straight line and how to go forward off my leg. The jumps were only two strides out of a fifteen-stride line, after all.”

“I don’t see a lot of horses being stable because nobody takes the time to teach them that. But stabilization is honestly what makes a great horse. At the top shows, the best horses go around quiet and soft, at twenty miles per hour and stay at twenty miles per hour,” Dacia states.