Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dressage: It's Not about the Ribbons, part 1

About 6 weeks ago, I made an ill-advised decision.  You see, the barn where I board hosts regular dressage schooling shows.  And seeing how informal the atmosphere was combined with a couple of comments from my riding instructor over the past few months about how I might want to think about showing with her barn because they had so much fun had got me to thinking about it.

Nimo and I used to compete in dressage schooling shows quite frequently.  I think we once went to 7 shows in 2 months (that is too many shows, for the record), and it was horrible most of the time.  And by most of the time, I mean all of the time.  I would get extremely stressed before and during each show, my riding and Nimo's performance generally got worse instead of better, and I felt increasingly frustrated by problems that I saw in the dressage world.

And so, after maybe 3 years of competing, first regularly, and then only rarely, I decided to give it up completely.  I made my decision maybe about 4 or 5 years ago, so it was during the time of the rollkur debate.  I never understood why there needed to be a debate about riding a horse with a hyperflexed neck (i.e. chin to chest).  The very sight of a horse in that position is the exact opposite of what dressage is supposed to be, yet it was done and defended by a few of the world's top-ranked riders as part of their efforts to produce high-scoring performances.  I believe that the FEI now does ban that type of riding, even in the warm-up arena, thanks to the tireless efforts of people like Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, but the fact that it took years of debate and presenting scientific evidence showing how bad it was for the horse is a testament to how embarrassingly little the FEI cares about equine welfare.

Also about that time, I saw one of Isabel Werth's 2008 Olympic performances.  Her horse, Satchmo, had a complete break-down in one of their tests.  And by complete breakdown, I mean that he stopped and then started backing up as fast as he could go.  There was some rearing and maybe bucking involved.  She tried unsuccessfully more than once to get him going again before finally convincing him to continue the test.  She won the silver medal.  I don't know how heavily that particular test factored into the medal scoring, and it's almost impossible to find any information about it.  I tried without success to search for a YouTube video of it, so I guess you'll have to take my word that it was the kind of disobedience that probably should have resulted in elimination or at the very least, not a silver medal.  My husband saw the test as well and even he could tell that things did not look good.  I will be the first to admit that horses aren't robots and even the most bomb-proof of animals can theoretically have a "moment," but Satchmo also had a mini-breakdown during the Kur (musical freestyle) performance, so I think his antics were probably a sign that he was under extreme stress or in pain.  I have no way of knowing what really happened, but I admit that I've always thought less of Isabel Werth and the whole idea of dressage competition because of that incident.  I think Werth's test scored in the mid- to upper-seventies, which is a very respectable score, particularly at the time.  (Recently, a British rider got some record-breaking score of 87-ish at the World Equestrian Games.  I didn't watch her performance, so I don't know if that score fit her performance or not.)  Anyway, I had heard and then came to believe that judges used information that wasn't on the official scoring sheet and that a rider's international status and history played a role in scoring, which is obviously what happened in this case - there is no other explanation for how things turned out.

Admittedly, I was showing at local schooling shows rather than international events and to the best of my knowledge, no judge ever penalized us because Nimo was a Friesian (it sometimes surprises people to learn that Friesians are actually not an ideal breed for dressage and that some judges apparently may have trouble with seeing them compete) or because I was short or for any reason, other than that we failed to execute a movement properly.  In fact, most judges were probably more kind than we deserved, except for one who chastised me for being an ineffective rider and allowing my horse to repeatedly spook at the straw bales with reflective pumpkins sticking out of them that surrounded the arena.  (Nimo was 4 at the time and had only been showing for maybe a month or two.)  Nonetheless, I just could no longer stomach being part of something that seemed to have anything but the horse's welfare in mind.  And let's not forget about the fact that you have to show in a suit jacket and white pants.  Why would anyone think that it makes sense to wear white pants around horses?  Trying to keep those suckers clean has definitely shortened my life span by several years.

Anyway, I walked away from what was once a dream of mine (to compete successfully in dressage at upper levels - not to wear white pants while riding), and decided to focus just on our training.  At some point, I realized that wasn't working either, and over a period of several years, I made a lot of changes like moving to a different boarding stable, and then another one and getting a new trainer, and then riding without a trainer, and then deciding I wanted to try endurance riding, and then recognizing the importance of dressage schooling for us and going back to taking lessons.

I feel like our riding has been approaching a happy medium, where we spend some time out on the trails and some time in the arena.  The amount of time varies from week to week, but overall, I've been really pleased both with Nimo's improved fitness and his progress in dressage work.  And so, that little dream of mine that I thought I had squashed flat started to creep back into my brain.  I spent months arguing with myself about it.  I don't care if we place or not - when we used to show, we had good scores and bad scores and sometimes we placed and sometimes didn't.  The placings very rarely correlated with how good our scores were and how well I thought we did.  It wasn't that I thought the judges scored us incorrectly, it's just that placing really depends on who's competing against you that day and how you and your horse do for those 5 minutes.  And so if winning a ribbon wasn't important, then why do it?  Why go through the stress and extra expense?  Why put myself out there for a few minutes in time if I'm happy with the way my horse is progressing?

I'm not sure that I have a good answer for those questions.  I used to be a lot more competitive than I am now.  I still enjoy doing well, but I don't have the same drive to win that I did when I was younger.  I guess now it's much more about doing the best I can.  And this might sound a little weird, but I think a dressage test and an endurance ride actually have a lot in common.  The endurance motto of "To Finish Is to Win" is not really that far off of the dressage scoring system where you are scored against a standard, not other competitors.  Generally speaking, scores of 60% (out of 100) are respectable and consistent scores in the mid- to upper-70s mean you are ready to move up a level.  But, much like with endurance, you can keep competing at a lower level if that's where you feel comfortable, or you can push yourself to higher levels (distances) and work to have more accurate, correct tests (or faster times).  Most people who compete in dressage ask about your level and score, not your placing.  And I would guess most people in endurance probably ask about your distance and your time.  Placing isn't insignificant, but good scores at higher levels are more meaningful in the dressage world.

In terms of why I would want to go back to a world I was unhappy in, I guess maybe that's the reason.  I was so unhappy doing it, and I shouldn't have been.  I wanted to do it.  I have this beautiful horse who works really hard for me.  And when I focus, I'm actually a decent rider.  A big reason why I was so unhappy can be linked to the work I was doing with my trainer at the time.  I just wasn't making progress and there was a short period of time when I contemplated selling Nimo and never riding again because I absolutely despaired of ever being able to even canter my horse around the arena one time, much less canter out in a field or trot down a trail.  (We were really messed up.)  I hated riding and I came very close to quitting.  Looking back, I have trouble believing I felt that way, but it was a very real crisis at the time.

So, I think getting back into competing is a way for me to slay a demon (totally mixed metaphor, but too late at night to fix it) that's been bothering me subconsciously for awhile now and also provides a way for me to motivate myself to work up the levels and maybe achieve that dream of doing upper-level dressage.  I last competed at Training Level, so I set my sights on First Level for the upcoming show.  (For my non-dressage readers, First Level used to actually be the first level, but people like me had trouble entering into the competition ring at that level, so over time, Training Level was added, and then Introductory Level (for those who aren't ready to canter their horses)).

There was an issue with timing, though.  The show was set for September 21, and I was scheduled to be out of town for several days the week before the show.  Also, you may remember that I was searching for a new dressage saddle because mine didn't fit Nimo or me very well anymore.  And, of course, I was in the middle of trying to condition Nimo for our first Limited Distance ride at the end of October.  I decided that I could either use those things as an excuse for not going to the show or I could just suck it up and deal with the fact that life does not really work in any sort of convenient way for me.  So I sent in my entry fee for First Level, Tests 1 and 2.  (Note: There are now three tests per level, with each one getting progressively harder.)

Then, I looked at the dressage tests that I had signed up for.  And got a little bit of a shock.  Apparently, when the tests were rewritten a few years ago, the First Level, Test 1 had been revised to include a canter lengthening.  We had never practiced a canter lengthening (at least on purpose - I'm not going to count the time we were chased by a Rottweiler).  Also of concern was the 15 meter canter circle.  In the back of my mind, I sort of remembered it, but I kind of dismissed it because Nimo's canter work was coming along so well, I figured he could handle it.  But, we hadn't really ever practiced it.  Test 2 included the canter lengthenings and 15 m canter circles and added leg yields at the trot, which I wasn't too worried about.

An additional problem was memorizing the tests.  I had to learn two new tests (both in the 5-6 minute range) and I had a month to do it.  I used to be good at memorizing things.  Then I had a baby.  Now, I frequently blank out on things like my social security number, my husband's birthday, my phone number, and what day it is.  Luckily, the United States Equestrian Federation has an iPhone app that has all the tests on it, so I could obsessively practice in my head and check how well I was doing even when I wasn't at the barn.

Plus, I had to get my show outfit together.  I still had my old stuff, but it either was worn, out of style, or it didn't fit my post-baby body.  So, I worked on getting a jacket, show shirt, stock tie, stock tie pin, white breeches, belt, tall boots, new white saddle pad, gloves, and of course, a blingy browband over the next few weeks.  I was able to get the ELT Show Coat from SmartPak for $100, which really helped my budget because show jackets are usually several hundred.  I got a pair of Tredstep Donatello field boots from SmartPak too, also with a budget-friendly price.  The gloves I decided on were the Roeckl Chester Gloves in white, which I ended up loving so much, I bought another pair in brown for regular riding.  My show shirt ended up being the Kerrits Venti Shirt in white.  I bought a real stock tie off of Etsy, but I ended up using my old, fake stock tie from Romfh simply because I could not get the hang of tying the real thing.  My belt was the Ariat Bristol Braid Belt, which I decided not to use because it added too much bulk under my jacket.  I do use it for my schooling full-seat breeches, though, and it works great.  (I have never worn a belt with my breeches before, but for some reason, this one works for me.)  I picked up a super cheap white pad from Dover because all my white pads look like they've been living with wolves for a year.  The stock tie pin was a clearance special at Macy's, and I actually beaded my own browband, using a blank channel browband from Delfina Saddlery and beads from Fire Mountain Gems.  The only thing I splurged on were the breeches.  Why, you ask?  It's not like you can use white breeches for everyday schooling.  However, the fabric used to make white breeches is horrifying.  It tends to be see-through and unflattering in ways that you can't even imagine until you put the breeches on.  Also, I'm kind of picky about full-seat breeches.  The only ones I like, despite the fact that they look like the starship trooper pants on Spaceballs, are the ones by FITS.  As it turns out, FITS is also one of the most highly recommended white breeches on SmartPak's website, so I got the FITS PerforMAX White Full Seat Breeches.  When I first put them on, I was still horrified, but when I tried on other pairs from Dover, I realized that they were simply the best of a bad situation, so I got some white control-top tights to go underneath them, hoping that they would improve the look.

While I was working on putting together my wardrobe, I was also continuing my dressage lessons.  I told my instructor about a month before the show that I was going.  I actually debated telling her at all because I figured it might make it into a bigger deal than I wanted it to be.  I sort of wanted to ease into things.  But because I'd been out of the show ring for many years, and because I still needed to learn how to do a couple of things (canter lengthenings and 15 m canter circle), I finally decided to let her in on my plan.  And it was a good thing I did.  She put us to work on cantering and leg yielding in earnest and got us to the point where I felt like we would not embarrass ourselves in public.  Nimo took to the canter lengthenings better than I thought he would and the 15 m circles were coming along.  I figured the worst thing that could happen is that I couldn't get the bend I needed in the test and our circle would be a little big.  (insert hysterical foreshadowing laughter - hahahaha....)

And I was waiting for my (hopefully) perfect dressage saddle to arrive.  And I waited, and I waited, and I waited.  And then we had to go out of town and still no saddle.  And we got back from our trip with 6 days to go before the show and still no saddle.  And eventually, it became clear to me that the customs purgatory that had my saddle was not going to give it up in time for the show.  Now I started to panic a little bit.  I'd been doing all my riding in my endurance saddle, which isn't legal for dressage competition (stupid rule #1).  I didn't relish the idea of using my current dressage saddle because of fit issues, so I called a friend who I knew had a saddle that fit a wide horse that she wasn't using.  She let me borrow it to see if it would work for Nimo.  And it was a no-go.  It had the same fit issues for Nimo as my saddle and it didn't fit me at all.  So, the day before the show, I rigged up a system of 3 saddle pads (show pad plus sheepskin half-pad plus Mattes cotton half-pad) to get my saddle to work for Nimo.  It would still be uncomfortable for me, but at least I wouldn't feel as guilty about using it for Nimo.

To spice things up, immediately after getting back from my trip, I came down with what I was convinced was Ebola.  I ended up taking 3 days off of work (and my husband did too to take care of our daughter because I was incapacitated).  I still took a dressage lesson and rode my horse in a desperate attempt to be ready, but I was not in good shape.

And a final issue was that I'd switched bits for Nimo a few months ago (I've been meaning to write about it), and the new bit was not legal (stupid rule #2).  I wasn't sure how he'd feel about going back to his old bit, but it was either that or not show, and I'd put too much effort into the whole endeavor to give up over something as seemingly trivial as a bit...

To find out exactly what happened, stay tuned for Part 2!


  1. What is this part one bullshit? You're killing me. Write faster.

    1. Sorry, Funder. The post kind of got away from me and ended up being a lot longer than I thought it would be and I just ran out of time. I'm already started on part 2, though, so it should be up in a day or two:)

  2. Seriously, I LOL'd at Funder's comment because I was thinking the same thing. All this leading and building, and then, bam! I'm still giggling like an idiot. Don't keep us in suspense too long :)

  3. You know you've done an appropriate buildup when, despite labeling the post "Part 1", your reader arrives at the end and still exclaims: "AAAAHH!! Dammit!" Out loud (and in case you were wondering, yes, I was reading during down time at work again. What is that definition of insanity again? The one about doing the same thing over and over? Lol!) Indeed: don't keep u waiting too long! :D

    1. *us! "Don't keep us waiting too long" dumb phone...

  4. I'm glad you enjoyed the post, Melissa and Saiph:) You're in luck because Part 2 is up!