Friday, October 3, 2014

Dressage: It's Not about the Ribbons, part 2

(Note: This is a ridiculously long post, so skip to the end for a picture if you can't take all the minute detail.)

So, the day of the show finally arrived.  And wouldn't you know it.  Temperatures for the two weeks before the show were beautiful and temperatures for the indefinite future after the show were beautiful, but the day of the show was HOT.  As in upper-80's/near 90 hot.  The kind of hot you do not wear a polyester show jacket for.  And my ride times were 3:42 and 4:18, the peak of the heat.  And I was still sick (my primary problem was congestion at this point, but I was also just plain tired).  And the dear friend who was supposed to be my moral support was down for the count with a migraine, so I was on my own.

I first stuffed myself into my control-top white tights.  (Dear God, why are these even available for sale?  It's like being stuffed into a sausage casing.)  And I added the breeches, assorted female undergarments to prevent things like muffin top and any undesirable movement, and show shirt.  I topped all that off with a yoga pants to keep the breeches clean and a T-shirt that said "Have you hugged your chickens today?" to keep my shirt clean (and to give me a mental boost because the t-shirt makes me happy).  And I loaded all my crap into the truck.  And then I wanted to lay down and die.  I was sweating and exhausted and I hadn't even gotten to the barn yet.  (Random thought:  There should be a dressage test for endurance riders, where your horse wears his regular endurance tack and you wear your regular endurance clothes and you get bonus points if you have a functional tack repair made with duct tape or baling twine and more bonus points if the colors of your outfit are hard for normal people to look at.)

I'd given Nimo a full bath the day before, so he was mostly clean when I got to the barn.  I brushed him and then braided his mane.  And then I stripped off my sacrifice clothes and put on my tall boots, stock tie, jacket, helmet, and gloves.  At that point, I felt so loaded down and wrapped up that getting on Nimo was a bit of an exercise, which was unfortunately observed by more than one person and to those people I sincerely apologize for my especially ungraceful mounting procedure.

For the warm up, I'd intended to keep it brief, but I could tell Nimo was frazzled by all the activity on the farm.  There were easy-ups, a barbeque, horse trailers everywhere, and lots of horses he didn't know.  I knew immediately we weren't going to have a good ride.  I realize that sounds like a defeatist attitude, but I've done enough shows with him to be able to tell when we're going to click and when he's going to be too distracted.  I'd been hoping that being in familiar territory would help, but I was seriously mistaken.  This horse will slide down a muddy mountain in the middle of a rainstorm, but an easy-up will send him leaping into my lap.  (Note to self:  Do more bomb-proofing clinics.)

It was at this point that I realized that my stirrups were too long.  I had gone back and forth on the length and finally decided to go with the longer length because anything shorter caused my knee to hit the thigh block and push me back in the saddle, so I always felt like I was struggling for my position.  However, stirrups that were too long made it hard for me to keep my heel down and hard for my feet to even stay in the stirrups.  I debated about adjusting the stirrup length and finally decided against, promising myself that I would just be really careful about my heels...

And I next realized that Nimo really is not fond of his old bit, a Myler MB-02 snaffle mouthpiece with eggbutt cheeks. His new bit was still a Myler, but with the MB-04 mouthpiece and d-ring cheeks with hooks for the headstall and reins.  According to the USEF, the organization that sets the dressage rules for Training Level through Fourth Level dressage tests, the MB-04 mouthpiece was legal, as was a d-ring cheek piece.  However, the hooks (or slots in the d-ring for the headstall and reins) were not.  I had originally purchased the bit as a second bit for my endurance bridle, but Nimo had gone so well in it that I was also using it for my dressage work.  The advantage of the MB-04 mouthpiece was that it had a low, wide port that offered more tongue relief.  The hooks on the cheek pieces gave the bit more stability in his mouth, which I found attractive for longer rides where I wouldn't be riding on contact as much.  Here is a picture of the mouthpiece, so you can see how slight the port is:


Anyway, I found that Nimo seemed much happier in this bit and it was much easier to get him "on the bit" when schooling.  But, I couldn't justify buying a whole new bit that was legal just for one schooling show because I still had some experimentation planned with bits or lack thereof (more on that in another post).  So I decided to ride him in his old bit.  And to be honest, I can't say for sure that the difficulty I had in getting him to be responsive to my aids and move forward in a First Level "frame" was totally due to the bit.  He really had his head up in the air and was definitely struggling to understand how his whole quiet barn world had seemingly changed overnight.

And then after some walking, snorting, eyeballing, trotting, cantering, and general lack of suppleness, it was time for our first test.

I walked Nimo up to the judge's table, which was under an easy-up, to check in.  This set-up was very helpful for the judge and scribe, but not super helpful for me, because Nimo was convinced that bears somehow lived under the easy-up, it was just that he couldn't see them (you know, the INVISIBLE bears).  He tried very hard to express his worry about his safety by snorting and trying to exit the arena as expeditiously as possible.  I eventually made it clear that we were going to have to walk next to the easy-up and I did get him to walk by it in both directions without being too much of an idiot (judges at schooling shows are generally pretty tolerant of spooky horses and are happy to give you a minute or two to help your horse overcome his fears).  I actually thought that we might be OK...

And so we turned away from the judge's table at C and proceeded to start trotting down the outside of the long side of the dressage arena while the judge rang the bell that signaled that we had 45 seconds to get to A.  For those of you not familiar with the way dressage arenas are set up, below is a diagram.  Note that the short side is 20 meters (or about 66 feet) and the long side is 60 meters (or close to 200 feet).  All riders enter at A.  The letters are supposedly for marking transition points between movements, depending on how exact you want to be...

My first test was First Level Test 1, of which I've got a sort of small, hard-to-read diagram of below so you can follow along with our test if your eyes work really well.  I liked the format of Jitterbug's Guide to Dressage Tests so much, that I'm going to copy it for the description of how our test went.  However, instead of just including the horse's point of view, I'll include mine and the judge's (from her notes on my score sheet) too, you know, so you're getting the whole picture:)  Each numbered movement gets a score from 0 (not done at all, even the tiniest bit) to 10 (so perfect you should be a famous dressage master!).  Some of the movements get coefficients of 2, so if you're smart, you focus on doing those movements especially well, so you get the most points.  I am not smart...

1.  Enter at A in working trot.  Halt at X and salute.  Proceed at working trot.

Nimo:  Dear God, what in the name of all that's holy is that giant blue tent at the end of the arena?  I do NOT want to go this way!

Me:  Oh my God, why are you being such a baby about the stupid blue easy-up?  We JUST walked past it 85 times in both directions!  Keep trotting!

Judge:  Straight into halt, then tense.  (This was an understatement, but at least I got a halt.) = 6 points

2.  Track left.  Half circle left 10 meters.  Half circle right 10 meters.

Nimo:  I will NOT go on the rail near C to make the turn to the left.  That Thing is there!  But I consent to sort of doing the stupid half circles.  However, I wish to lodge a protest that we did not go in a straight line across the arena.  Why can't we take the most direct route?

Me:  Thank God, we can do these half circles.  Not the greatest, but not embarrassing.

Judge:  Need more supple bend.  (She's not wrong.) = 6 points

3.  Lengthen stride in trot across the diagonal.  Continue in working trot.

Nimo:  I really don't want to do a lengthening now - you've been mean to me and it's hot outside.

Me:  Gaaa!  Just go!

Judge:  Clear ground cover and lift but tight in the back.  (She means we managed to get from point A to point B, but Nimo's head was up in the stratosphere.)  = 6.5 points

4.  Circle left on a 20 meter circle, while allowing the horse to stretch forward and down, aka, the Stretchy Chewy Circle, because the horse is supposed to fluidly stretch forward and down into the increasing length of rein you're giving while neither increasing nor decreasing his tempo and you get bonus points if the horse looks like he's super relaxed and softly chewing the bit.

Nimo:  I'm not putting my head down.  That scary Bear Tent is still there and I need to focus!

Me:  Sigh...Just keep trotting.

Judge:  No stretch.  (No explanation needed here.) = 5 points

5.  Medium walk.

Nimo:  Aaaahhhh, finally the walk.  I'm so done with the trotting.

Me:  At least you're walking.

Judge:  Abrupt and pulled into walk.  (She misinterpreted what she saw which was Nimo completely collapsing into the walk.  She probably figured I yanked on him, when really all I did was think, "Walk."  I've never ridden a horse so happy to slow down.) = 5 points

6.  Free walk across the diagonal to P (not F, dummy).

Nimo:  Yee Haw!  I'm walking, I'm walking.

Me:  Not bad, but oh S*&#!  We're supposed to go to P, not F.  Gaaa!  Maybe if I ease Nimo over, the judge won't notice I overshot the letter.

Judge:  Horse grabs rein rather than taking what was offered.  = 6x2 = 12 points

7.  Working trot at F.  Then working canter right lead at A.

Nimo:  Seriously, I have to canter?  It's hot out here, and I really wanted to keep walking!

Me:  Oh, thank God, he cantered.

Judge:  Strides very short but obedient.  (Picture me hysterically laughing at the word "obedient.") = 6x2 = 12 points

8.  Circle right 15 meters in canter.

Nimo:  Wheeeeee!  I'm gonna be a barrel racer someday!

Me:  What the...?  The circle is supposed to be 15 meters, not 8!

Judge:  Circle very small and lacks balance.  = 5.5 points  (This score was a gift!)

9.  Lengthen stride in canter.  Then return to working canter and begin crossing the diagonal.

Nimo:  I feel very uncomfortable going fast in this arena.  I guess you didn't notice that there is a photographer standing at the side of the arena and I don't know her and she's next to the building where the scary horse-eating badger lives and she probably doesn't know it so maybe we should tell her.

Me:  Just canter, you idiot.

Judge:  Bold, but doesn't come back and lacks balance.  (Picture me laughing hysterically at the word "bold."  Also, I think Nimo completely stopped cantering well before we were supposed to and I totally gave up and just pretended that I thought we were supposed to be trotting.) = 5.5 points

10.  Begin working trot at X (in the middle of the arena).

Nimo:  Well, I'm already trotting, so that was easy, but I do not want to go back to where the blue tent is!

Me:  Why are you doing this to me?  You've seen the stupid tent 100 times now!

Judge:  Resisting rider.  (I really wanted to beat him at this point.)  = 6 points

11.  Working canter left lead at C.

Nimo:  This is craziness, I can't canter under these conditions!

Me:  OMG, it's an mf-ing tent!

Judge:  Canter starts from front end not hind.  (I consider it an amazing achievement that Nimo cantered at all here.)  = 6x2 = 12 points

12.  Circle left 15 meters in canter.

Nimo:  I'm exhausted.  I don't think I can do this anymore.

Me:  Ack, my mouth is so dry.  Why is there no water?

Judge:  Unbalanced.  = 5.5 points

13.  Lengthen stride in canter.  Then return to working canter.

Nimo:  Wheezing...

Me:  Wheezing...

Judge:  Shows some length but breaks.  (What she means is we somehow did a lengthening, but then collapsed into a trot from lack of oxygen.)

14.  Working trot at C.

Nimo:  Gasp, gasp, gasp...

Me:  Gasp, gasp, gasp...

Judge:  Some length.  (I have no idea what that means - she probably should have put "some movement" because things were getting pretty dire at that point.)  = 5x2 = 10 points

15.  Lengthen stride in trot across the diagonal.

Nimo:  [Panting]  Maybe I can do it.

Me:  Where am I?  Why is everything going black?

Judge:  [No comment]  (She's probably so thrilled we're almost done, she gives us pity points.) = 6 points

16.  Trot down centerline and halt and salute at X.

Nimo:  Why are we going back THERE?

Me:  We're almost done, just keep trotting.  Why is X so far away?

Judge:  [No comment]  (What she means is, Hurray! They're done!) = 8 points

And so that concludes our first dressage test in several years.  We got a whopping 57.580%, which was actually probably a gift, given our performance.  But it wasn't over.  Because, you see, there is this expectation that the judge will talk to you after your test and tell you what you did wrong.  It's always so helpful because, of course, the judge thinks that you don't know you had a crappy test, so she's going to nurture you by itemizing your problems.  Several years ago, I went through almost getting a masters degree in secondary education (long story), so I feel like I have some insight into how learning works and how teaching works and I can unequivocally say that the typical end-of-the-test discussion is not super useful.  What would be useful is for the judge to pick the one thing that you did the best and talk about that.  It provides encouragement without negativity and "constructive criticism" and helps the rider identify what went right instead of focusing on what went wrong.

Anyway, I prepared myself for what was likely to be a slightly painful rendition of our faults.  I figured the judge would tell me to shorten my stirrups or maybe learn how to control my horse at the canter.  But here's what she led with:  "Why are you wearing a jacket and stock tie?  Take them off.  I'm absolutely not impressed.  It's too hot to be wearing them."

Ummm, what?  She was right.  It was hot, and I was under no obligation to wear the jacket.  But I assumed it was my choice, and while I didn't expect her to be impressed necessarily, I assumed she would value the fact that I took the time to groom and braid my horse and to make sure I was presentable.  I admit to being a bit pissed off at this point.

Then she said, "I could tell that you were having trouble with the pattern, so you probably want to go back to Training Level, where things are a bit easier, until you aren't so nervous."  Again, she was right.  I did have trouble with the pattern in a few places, although some of them were just because I was dealing with a 1500 pound nutcase.  I also admit to being deliberately inaccurate in a couple of places just for convenience.  Plus, memorizing this test gave me some trouble and I still felt a little hesitant about it, so that probably showed.  However, I'm pretty sure I would have had the same trouble if I'd had to learn a Training Level test.  And Nimo certainly wouldn't have behaved any better at a lower level test.  And my nerves were mild and still would have been there even if we'd shown at a lower level.  I explained to the judge that it was our first time at First Level and our first time in the show ring in many years, so we were probably a bit rusty and needed to improve.  (This sucking it up and making nice with the judge when all I want to do is whine and make excuses is particularly difficult for me, but necessary because, in this case, I still had another test in front of that judge and could easily see her at another show.)  But I honestly believed then and I believe now that First Level was the right choice for us.  We can do all the movements the tests require (except for counter-canter, but that isn't until the 3rd test), and I don't know how we'll get any better at showing those movements unless we compete at that level.

And that was the end of our discussion with the judge.  I don't mean to imply that she was mean - she wasn't really, but, as expected, they were not super helpful comments.  And as a parting comment, I smiled and said, "See you in 20 minutes when we're going to do First Level, Test 2!"

I probably should have gotten off my horse and given him a break because of the heat, but with our next test so soon, I knew that keeping him walking would be best, and I still wanted to try to get some suppleness from him.  So we walked back into the barn to get out of the sun for a few minutes and for me to get some water because I swear to you, my mouth has never been so dry in all my life.  There was not a drop of moisture to be found.  I'm not sure if it was nerves or the heat or being sick, but it was really unpleasant.  The water helped some, but I still felt like I'd spent the last hour licking a super absorbent towel.

So after a few minutes, we headed back out to the arena for a little bit more warm-up, which didn't really happen because the lady riding before us was doing a musical freestyle.  That meant a giant boombox blasting out some kind of heavy classical music (the horse was also a Friesian and spectacularly more balanced and connected to his functioning brain than Nimo).  Anyway, Nimo freaked out about the music, so I spent the whole freestyle just trying to get him to walk.  I then had just a couple of minutes to quickly do a couple of canter transitions and leg yields before I was up again.

I checked in at the judge's table and chatted pleasantly with the judge for a few minutes as I tried to convince her that a dressage test for endurance riders would be a good idea (which, BTW, she thought it was), and then we trotted around the arena for the beginning of our second test.

I will spare you the running commentary through this test because it was remarkably similar to the last test, except for 4 things.  In the interest of full disclosure, I admit to LOSING MY STIRRUP after a nasty canter-to-trot transition.  It is possibly the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me in a dressage test, and I've had a lot of embarrassing things happen, just on this day alone.  I don't know if the judge knew what happened because she was on the other side of my horse at the time, but it is possible that I started swearing and inappropriately verbalizing about my horse's lack of attributes.  We got a 4 for that particular movement.

On to the good things, though.  About midway through the test, Nimo and I finally started to connect a little.  We got a 7 on our free walk as Nimo started to relax a bit.  Then as we neared the end of the test, there was a lengthening at the canter and Nimo came together a little more.  We got a 7 for that lengthening, which I'm really pleased about.  Shortly after that canter lengthening was the final trot lengthening, and we got a 7.5.  That final crossing of the diagonal, Nimo's brain started to focus on me and we achieved the First Level rounded frame with a swinging back and nice forward movement.  It kind of sucks that it took so long for us to get there, but at least we got there.  I was kind of despairing that I would ever see my fantastic horse again, so even though it was the second-to-last movement in the test, I was grateful to get it.

The judge noted our improvements during this test, and I think she started to understand that we were capable of the First Level movements, but got off to a rough start.  She did absolutely chastise me for continuing to wear my jacket.  I tried to explain that aside from my see-through white show shirt, all I had was my "Have you hugged your chickens today" t-shirt, but she was adamant that I was torturing myself for no reason.  (Oh, there was a reason and you'll see it below.)

And that was it.  Weeks worth of work (well, really months and even years, if you think about all the training and lessons we've done to get where we are now) all boiled down to about 10-12 minutes of ride time.  We had a lot of things go wrong, but we did have a few things go right.  And now I'm more sure than ever that doing the show was the best thing for me, even with all the issues leading up to it.  (I'll leave it up to Nimo to explain his feelings on the matter...)  We essentially had one of the worst rides ever, so really the worst is over and I've set the bar pretty low for the next show, which takes the pressure off in a weird sort of way.  Part of me wishes we could have had one of those ABC Family movie moments where all our hard work paid off and we won the class and bunches of people applauded our amazing comeback.  But the rest of me is OK with the fact that we still have work to do, because dressage isn't about the ribbons for us - it's about the development of the two of us together, for better or for worse.

As for our ribbons, we got a 3rd and 4th place (I beat myself) because there were only 3 people at the show who did First Level at all, so instead of just competing against people doing the same level and same test, we First Level competitors competed against each other regardless of test.  Everyone else did Intro and Training Levels, and the show was full, so that's a lot of people still doing Intro and Training Level.  I don't mean any disrespect to those who compete at those levels.  That was me for a long time.  And no one should feel pressured to move up if they're not ready, but I'm glad that I got out of the cycle.  Nimo and I can do more and be better.

I still have concerns about being part of the competitive dressage world, but it has occurred to me that my voice will never be heard if I don't participate.  Assuming Nimo and I can eventually keep it together for a whole test, we have an opportunity to compete in the right way and maybe someday I can convince somebody important that white breeches should never be allowed in the show ring again!:)

Now, for those of you who stuck with me this long (or those who value their time and skipped to the end), here is the reason why I wore my formal show attire - a professional photographer was at the show.  The prices for digital photos were crazy expensive, but I bought one so you could see what we looked like.  And possibly so you could marvel over the expression on my face, which is sort of indescribable.  But it was either a variation of that or a maniacal grin reminiscent of a serial killer in the middle of a killing spree.  And I realize that I look really stiff, but it was a hell of a ride.  Enjoy!

Photo by Katherine A. Turnbull at


  1. Hahaha, loved the annotated test. Nimo looks fabulous and hey, you've got that foot in the stirrup, so the picture rocks.

    I hear you on the high-level objections, too. I hate all levels of TWH showing and I won't participate at all, but I hate FEI endurance racing and I'm a huge proponent of the lower levels. You just have to find your comfort level, I think.

    My friends have had a running joke about "endurance dressage" for years. "Canter 3/4 oval around sagebrush, then halt. After rider remounts, proceed at working trot for 2 miles to stock tank. Stretchy walk to tank, rub rein clips off of bridle on lip of tank. Complete remainder of test with left circles only." I really like the bonus points for blinding onlookers with one's colors!

    1. I like your version of the dressage test:) And yeah, the TWH showing scene is truly horrific, so I can see why you'd want to keep your distance.

  2. Really loved the annotated test! I was laughing throughout. Thank you for showing the dressage arena with the letters! I did "proper" dressage just long enough to kind of have an idea of where the letters are on a short arena (20x40m) but I have no idea about the extra letters in a 60m-long arena! It was great for being able to mentally picture where you were doing what and where you were headed with the different figures.

    I love your thoughts on dressage in general re: how judge's comments could be more helpful, and your views on the differences between upper levels and lower levels. I totally agree.

    Interesting that the MB-04 Myler mouthpiece is legal! Good to know!

    And totally laughed out loud over the suggestion of the "endurance dressage test", especially the bonus points for obnoxious colors!

    A tough ride, but a learning experience for sure. Can't wait to hear how you guys do in future competitive endeavors, dressage as well as endurance! Nimo looks gorgeous in that pic and like Funder said, at least your foot is in the dang stirrup! ;)

    1. I still have trouble remembering where the letters are - they make no sense!:) And the USEF has made a little progress on the bit approval scene. There are several types of Myler mouthpieces now legal, including I think the MB-06 and MB-36, which offer a little more tongue relief.

  3. I'm actually starting my comment three paragraphs into reading because OMG, YES, an endurance rider dressage test! I would so do that.

    It sounds like it was a good learning experience. It definitely made for a great story for the rest of us to enjoy!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Figure:) Writing it up made it a little less horrible for me and it allowed me to see the humor, so it helped me too!

  4. Different bit, different saddle, out of practice with showing and yet moved up a level - considering all that, you guys actually did very well.

  5. Love the commentary, captured perfectly. I think you did great, and your photo is priceless. We've all had that look: I think its determination to not let your horse continue to be an ass. Congrats on a goal accomplished.

  6. Bahahaha your test synopsis w/ Nimo/you/judge etc. LOVED it. And GREAT photo!

  7. I haven't even read this all yet and I'm cracking up!! I look forward to reading the rest, and continuing to enjoy your humorous journey in dressage..

    1. Thanks! We do have some experiences together:)