I have decided that dressage competitions are very much like weddings. Lemme show you:
If you get to the venue well ahead of time, you can usually get in a rehearsal or two before the actual event, but if nothing else, you get to scope out the location of the bathrooms. Once you’ve at least looked around and made sure that there was nothing horribly wrong with the venue, you spend the rest of the day making sure your partner took a bath and that his/her hair looks acceptable, and that they are going to sit quietly and eat food that will not leave sticky smears all over his/her face and that he/she will not go play in the mud in his/her nice outfit. Then you can go to the bathroom yourself and put on makeup and get your hair done and cinch yourself into the various slimming undergarments and layers of traditional white clothing. And as you’re doing that, you wish you had eaten a few less Almond Joys and gone to the gym a little bit more often, because this would be a lot easier if you had.
Then, if you have time, you sit and wait and try to ignore the 16 different things you could be doing right now that you are fairly certain no one else will be taking care of because no one else is as OCD about this as you, because this is YOUR day, dangit! And if your friends are good (mine are), they will be asking you how you feel and if there’s anything else you need and offering you a glass of wine or to slip you a Zanex to help you stay calm. And once all this is done, and you enter the venue, the whole event takes approximately 6 minutes, and you wonder what just happened and hope that it went alright and you didn’t accidentally make any heinous mistakes along the way.
But when it’s all done, you remember that as crucial as those 6 minutes were, that sweating the little things will turn you into a psychotic mess, and that when it comes down to it, there are only two things that matter now: that you have no regrets, and that you focus on the future.
I have no regrets.
Which is not to say that it went perfectly: it didn’t. Right off the bat we were facing a few additional challenges.
Number one, this was only Champagne’s third time offsite, and it was our first dressage test. Ever. I’m not talking “it was our first dressage test together,” I’m talking “Neither of us had ever done anything quite like this before, because he was a freakin’ racehorse, and the last time I competed was in 4-H almost ten years ago, and they did not offer a whole lot of dressage.” And of course, I already have a “go big or go home, fly by the seat of my pants” mentality, so I decided that if we were going to compete in dressage, a national training competition seemed like a good way to go.
Number two, we were working barefoot. When we got there, I discovered that most of the other trainers had their dressage horses shod, and when I got a good look at the footing, I realized why. It’s good footing: somewhere between sand and gravel, so it doesn’t fly away in high winds, and doesn’t cause pain like rocks. But there were still those slightly larger chunks that hurt poor Champagne’s tender feet, and shoes would have prevented that. It was just abrasive enough that my trainer said “You won’t have to give him pasture rolls for a while.” But we’re still working through some nutrition issues with his hooves, and we’re waiting for Champagne’s hoof walls to be thick enough and strong enough to hold a shoe. So when it comes down to it, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do to prevent it.
And number three (which I knew was an issue but didn’t realize exactly what it was until my trainer articulated it after the competition), the bit we’ve been working in is just a little bit big for Champagne’s mouth, so it’s inclined to slip. So there was no way to get as good of contact as we probably could have gotten.
All of these factors combined for a non-descript, less-than-stellar set of tests.
I still have no regrets.
Instead of focusing on getting high scores, I decided to make this a training experience, and I think that changed my attitude immensely. Once my attitude was in the right place, it made the whole thing so much better, easier, and happier.
My main worry was that since this was only our third time off-site, and that we were going to be working around a lot of horses that we didn’t know, Champagne might act like a bit of an idiot. It’s happened before: we go somewhere new and Champagne thinks that his job is still to race everyone else. And because the rest of the horses there were ex-racehorses, my worry was compounded slightly. What if one horse acts silly and the rest of them pick up on it? Worse, what if my horse acts silly, and the rest of them pick up on it, and someone gets hurt?
I didn’t need to worry. Champagne was a perfect gentleman.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t try to prepare. When we got there the night before, I took him to the dressage complex while my fabulous support crew was getting the stall ready. We practiced our heeding and took the opportunity to see where we were going to work and what kind of horses we were going to be working with. Of course, that was a bit intimidating, because there were some excellent dressage riders there. But Champagne was on my aids the whole time, and when I took him back to the stall I was satisfied with what we had done.
The next morning, we saddled up and went to the dressage complex to warm up and stretch out. He wanted to look around a little bit, and that was just fine. I took this as an opportunity to let him see what the dressage ring looked like, because we had never seen one before. Thank goodness they had a line set up in the middle of the warmup area so that he could get so comfortable with the boundaries that he was trying to knock the pipes off of their posts. We also used this time to warm up, stretch out, and make sure that we could get correct gaits. Two days in a truck and trailer did not do either of us any favors, so that ride was absolutely vital.
Then after that, it was back to the stalls to take a bath, show groom, and put in button braids. That was a challenge all it’s own, because I had only attempted (and failed) to do button braids once before. My trainer had done them, but it had been a while, and since then she had developed carpal tunnel in her elbow, and I wasn’t about to let her try to take on the whole project and risk her making it worse. I needed her in one piece. Armed with a homemade braiding kit, YouTube videos, and experience from our practice run, we went to work. I did the braids and she sewed the buttons. And then we cemented the darn things in with so much hairspray I’m glad no one was holding a match nearby.
I think they actually turned out alright. My tail braid failed miserably, but we took it out, so no one had to see my failure. But tail braids aren’t required for dressage, so no harm, no foul.
And then it was back to the campground and trailer to change into my new show clothes. It took me forever to find my way into them without dropping a white shirt on the dirty ground. I think getting dressed in show clothes should be a competition in and of itself. I decided to forego makeup, because makeup is exhausting, and getting dressed had been enough of a trial, thank you kindly. Instead, I returned to my trainer and driver to get help putting on my new half chaps.
That was totally the most entertaining part. For me, that is. Not for them. They were cussing me out by the end. But that only made it funnier to me.
And then back to the stall, where my trainer saddled and bridled for me and yelled at me to sit in the camp chair and to not move, because I was not allowed to get dirty. That was probably one of the weirdest things for me: I’m not sure I’ve ever been expected to sit still while someone else did the work. It was absolutely bizarre. And then once I handed my jacket off to our fabulous driver and mounted, my trainer was chasing after me with a microfiber cloth to brush the dust off of my new boots so that they stayed nice and shiny. I was like “Okay, this is weird, I don’t know what to do with this, but it’s time for us to go warmup for our tests, so BYE!” and Champagne and I escaped to the Dressage Complex.
The great thing about Champagne is that he is totally responsive to your energy, so as long as you stay calm and happy, so will he. Due to my determination to make this a happy experience (also, anti-anxiety medication is a beautiful thing: properly prescribed, that is), I was actually pretty happy and relaxed. We spent a while warming up in walk and trot to keep from draining or riling Champagne up, and my trainer snapped lots of pictures along the way. We worked our lateral work to get nice and stretched out, and then waited quietly and patiently for our turn.
It wasn’t a perfect test. I purposely rode him flat and with less motion, kind of like a western pleasure horse, because a) I knew that his feet were hurting on the footing, and b) my goal was to stay relaxed and happy. So I already knew that we weren’t going to score as high on Impulsion as we could. And then there was the thing where I lost my stirrup on the left lead and got distracted, because I really hadn’t planned for that and wasn’t quite sure what to do. My trainer missed that (she was calling the test for me), but there was a professional photographer who caught the whole thing. Not knowing what else to do, I slowed down the gait a little bit to get the stirrup back, got the stirrup back, and, now worried that we would down transition and break gait, I pushed Champagne forward and did break gait. Just faster, not slower. We lost points for that.
But when it was all said and done, when we walked out of that ring, I was very pleased. I couldn’t have been a whole lot happier if I had scored in the top ten (I was a very far cry from that), and I wouldn’t have been sad if I had placed dead last (As it was, we came in 70th out of 78). But we came in with scores in the mid-fifties, and while there were certainly criticisms on our scoresheet, it was nothing we didn’t already know and didn’t already expect. Actually, I was quite pleased that we had actually gotten something resembling a stretchy trot: we had never quite pulled that off in training. So even though the scoresheet said “Minimum stretch shown,” I was like “WAHOOO!!! The judge said we stretched! TEN POINTS TO US!” And of course, when the rider and the trainer can walk away from a test with a smile, you know that it doesn’t matter what the scores were: it was a good ride.
The demo ride was just a perk on top of that. It wasn’t perfect either: poor Champagne was getting tired and we were losing contact and connection, but he pushed through the tiredness and the soreness of his feet, and we walked out of that ring, satisfied with what we had done. After that, we took him back to his stall, loved on him, praised him, fed him, and left him be for some well-earned quiet time. And then we went out to dinner to celebrate, because we freaking survived. For our first test ever, that was as good as scoring in the seventies, if not better.
Would I do it again?
I would like to, certainly. But that may not be possible for us. Number one, that trip up to Kentucky from Louisiana was kind of brutal. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for people coming from California or Canada or England. It was hard on my checkbook, hard on my horse, and hard on us. Number two, my husband is military, so we’re going to be moving soon. The fact that we were able to do the Thoroughbred Makeover this year was actually kind of miraculous. Our next posting will only last six months: not enough time for us to settle, find a good barn, and get set up to do the Makeover. So next year, I’m out.
Maybe in another few years, with another excellent trainer and a little more experience, we’ll be able to try it again. But for this year, I am absolutely satisfied.