This is not the blog post I was hoping to be writing right now. What I had hoped to do in this post was to proudly proclaim that after a winter of hard work and rebuilding, Anna and I had triumphantly returned to the show ring at Third Level with scores solidly in the 60’s. But that is not what happened. The truth is much less glamorous—because after a winter of hard work and rebuilding, our 2019 competitive debut was somewhat…lackluster.
Last June, I rather overambitously moved Anna up to Fourth Level, mostly because there was a show in my area that was permanently going off the calendar, and it had just seemed like a weekend of beginnings and endings and so I thought, ‘what the heck let’s just do it.’ The ride was sort of a disaster. But unlike moving up in eventing or jumpers when you are not quite ready, the risks to do so in dressage seem low. Or so I thought.
Here’s the thing. I know that this level of dressage is a reach for Anna—she is an average mover and has less than average forward intention. But I do really believe that she can do it, to a modest degree. And right now she is the best horse I have, and I enjoy riding her. There was a little tagline I read somewhere a long time ago, which has always stuck with me:
“Not every champion has to cost a whole lot. You do the best that you can with the best that you’ve got.”
When I compete Anna, I don’t go out hoping to best everyone in the class. My personal goal is to feel that I have shown the horse off to the best of our combined/mutual ability on that given day, and if the score comes back mediocre, at least I can still feel good knowing that we put our best selves forward. My tangible goal, always, is to break 60%. I don’t have 100% control of this, of course, but if I can deliver a consistent test that has some highlights (for Anna at Third Level, this is usually the walk work and the flying changes, some of which are coefficient scores), I feel like I don’t give the judge a choice but to award us the (often dreaded) score of 6: satisfactory.
But after our failed attempt at Fourth Level last summer, I hit pause. Clearly what I was doing wasn’t working, and if I wanted this little horse to be her best, I needed to change something about my strategy.
The first thing I changed was a bit unconventional—I pulled her shoes. Every summer for the past five years, the quality and integrity of her hoof wall just seemed to go downhill, until they were cracked and thin and hard to keep shoes on. Her hind feet have NEVER been shod, and the hoof wall is great. She was barefoot her first few seasons under saddle, and I only added the shoes when I sensed a little tentativeness in her stride when I began adding more intense conditioning sets for eventing. So pulling her shoes wasn’t maybe quite as odd of an idea as it might sound. I added Farrier’s Formula for about six months, and within just a shoeing cycle or two her walls were thickened and tougher. She never took a single “funny” step.
I also decided that I needed more consistent eyes on the ground. I began working with a local trainer whose riding and training I admire very much, and admitted that I felt out of touch with the expectations of the level I was trying to compete at. We started working together in August, and immediately went totally back to the basics. I put away the double bridle, and we worked to develop a better stretch through Anna’s topline, with more correct and consistent connection.
Going back to these essential foundation concepts was both humbling and eye opening. In previous blogs, I have noted that just driving Anna forward with whip/spur is not effective in creating forward intention. She has to be supple to go forward. I know this—but sometimes I forget, or because she is pretty much the only horse I ride, I don’t keep my expectations of her suppleness high enough, and I become complacent in what I accept from her.
The idea is simple but the execution takes finesse and correct timing and practice. You cannot push a horse forward into a block, whether the block is in the topline, the jaw or the under neck. Instead, separate out your aids a bit—ask the horse to chew the bit with a rein aid, and reward any response from them which is in the direction of reaching forward and downward. Just like anything with horses, you must ask little, reward often, and recognize any small attempt to move towards the outcome you are looking for.
For months, all I did was ride Anna is a long and low outline, doing leg yields in the stretching frame, even working towards a stretching canter. As the stretch became more consistent, I began to do a little bit of shoulder fore or shoulder in, but always with the stretch. The second I lost the stretch, it was back to the basics. As the stretchy shoulder in became more reliable, the next challenge was to change to renvers without losing the stretch. For quite awhile I ran out of long side before I had really established the new position in Anna’s body.
I boarded Anna at a local indoor in the winter. I mostly rode early in the AM or at night after work, when the ring was empty, diligently working on the stretch. It can be hard to motivate in New Hampshire in the winter, in the dark and the cold, but I was committed. And slowly, little by little, things got better, and more consistent, and without force, Anna’s energy levels improved. Her shape changed, with more correct muscling through the neck and a thinner throatlatch. While my social media feed was full of friends enjoying the warmer climates of North Carolina or Florida, I was diligently doing my homework, and truthfully looking forward to a payoff come spring and summer.
Because here is the thing—Anna is going much better. She is doing work now in the snaffle that I couldn’t have touched a year ago in the double. And more importantly, most of the time, she seems happy in the work. Is everything perfect? Of course not. Am I expecting 7’s and 8’s on most movements? Not even close…but this is part of the art of dressage, to show off the movements and elements that are your horse’s forte, and to support them in the moments which are not as easy. Most horses (except maybe Valegro) find some components of a level easier than others.
So I was pretty crushed when I took Anna to our first 2019 show at Beland Stables in Lakeville, Mass., and she scored a 59%. Yes, it was below my 60% threshold. But more frustratingly, the test was so not representative of how she has been schooling. She warmed up well but the second I started circling the arena I knew I was in trouble. Anna felt like she was stuck in the mud—the sand footing of the arena felt deep and I had no response to my leg at all. We made it through the test but it was a royal struggle, with Anna completely blowing off the walk-canter transition (which she NEVER does), and I feel as though I owe the judge a fruit basket or something for her generosity of spirit in the scoring.
Our next show was just about a week later, much closer to home at Longfellow Dressage in Nottingham, N.H. We had several decent schools during the week and I was prepared to chalk up the performance at Beland to the deep footing and warm temperatures that day. Longfellow has high quality GGT footing and a relaxed environment, and I knew there would be no environmental excuses. We had scored a 59% at Beland with a lackluster performance. Surely Longfellow would go better.
But instead, we went down two points, to a 57%. The first four movements were 7’s, and then we hit the first trot half pass left, and it was like someone put Anna on pause. Once again, I felt like I had no horse at all throughout the entire test, and she totally blew me off in the second flying change, usually one of her most reliable movements. By the end I was just kicking helplessly while my glasses slid down my nose. The judge’s only comment at the end of the test? “So much kicking…he [sic] just shut off.”
Here is the thing I have come to believe about horses. They are pretty authentic. They don’t scheme against us or plot to ruin our day. They live in the moment, and if they are content or unhappy, confident or nervous, you see it in their behavior. Horses just are. But they do have long memories and if they have had an association with something from the past, good or bad, it can influence them in the moment.
I am left wondering what Anna is trying to tell me. She schools well but clearly isn’t maintaining that ethic in the show ring. I wonder if moving up last year did more damage than just adding a low score to our resume. I wonder if it left Anna feeling that when she goes into the large arena, she is going to be asked to do something she can’t do. Maybe moving up before you are ready, even in dressage, can cause damage you don’t see.
My challenge now is to try to figure out how to change the equation, and to learn what (if anything) will motivate Anna to turn on her best self in the show ring. Since Longfellow, I have already had our vet out and done a thorough once over; we will make a few minor edits in her physical care but I am reassured that there is nothing obvious in her physical body causing this problem.
While I am disappointed that I can’t write the triumphant blog post that I was hoping to, I realize now that despite this current set back, the truth is we are still further ahead than we were a year ago. Most of the time, Anna is working more correctly, with a better topline and better balance. She is sound and healthy and I think our rides are more harmonious now. I have a clearer picture of what it is I am looking for from her, and as a result I think I can do a better job of riding her to that end, even if we don’t yet maintain it in the show ring.
Plus, taking the time to review the basics has also made me a better instructor, in my opinion. I have begun looking at every horse I work with through a more specific lens, one which is focusing on the fundamental correctness of the connection. Staying true to these foundation elements is the only correct way to move forward. There are no short cuts.
So for now we will continue to lay down strength and suppleness and go hacking and try to keep our focus positive and fun. If I want my horse to feel like a partner I need to try hard to figure out what she needs from me right now. Scores and showing and the rest cannot be the main motivation. At the end of the day it is all about the relationship with the horse, and knowing that you have done your best by the animal.