Friday, August 23, 2019

To Show or Not to Show

The sun was beating down on me like I was an ant under a magnifying glass.  The air was hazy with heat, humidity, and dust.  All I could think was, "How am I here?"  I'd had plenty of time and a perfectly reasonable suite of acceptable excuses to use.  And yet, there I was, sitting in a pool of my own sweat.  I was miserable.  I felt like each breath was an effort.  I wanted nothing more than to be away from that place.  I silently cursed Mother Nature for the cloudless sky.  Seconds later, a breeze blew by, and at first, I was thankful, anticipating a small respite from the suffocating heat.  Until my skin registered that the air in the breeze was actually hotter than the surrounding air.  I mentally gave Mother Nature the finger and reflected on my poor decision-making skills.

There is this part of me that keeps expecting me to develop wisdom as I get older.  I mean, the more experiences I have, the better I should be at exercising sound judgment, right?

Well, as it turns out, that part of me continues to be disappointed with each passing year.  In June something happened that started a chain of events that could only end in sweaty disappointment.  And yet, the wise part of me was too quiet and apparently went off for a drink somewhere and didn't return until it was too late.

If you've been following my blog for awhile, you may remember this particular show, which went fine in terms of score and placing, but I was traumatized by it.  The heat (OMG, the unrelenting sun!), Nimo's stiffness and general something-isn't-quite-right movement, and show nerves combined left me convinced I would never show again, even though when I wrote the post, I must have thought I would show again.  I had started working on Science of Motion with Nimo just before the show, and it didn't take me long to realize that showing just wasn't going to be for us.

Of course, that is what I had said after I went to this show back in 2014 (part 1 and part 2).  Actually, I think in my blog posts, I said it was a good idea because it highlighted some things we needed to work on, blah, blah, blah.  Which was probably my attempt at putting a positive spin on what I believe I referred to as our "worst ride ever."  As of today, all I really remember is being really hot and that my mouth was really dry and I sincerely regretted ever stuffing myself into white breeches.  (I mean, what IS that?  WHY, oh WHY, would WHITE breeches be the clothing of choice for showing a HORSE???)

So anyway, suffice it to say that I don't really have any positive memories of showing Nimo.  We have had some dressage tests that went well in terms of score and/or placing, and we've had at least a couple of shows where I wondered why we were allowed to appear in public.  And that was a big part of my issue with showing - our inconsistency.  I never knew how Nimo would act and I always felt like I was pushing us too hard at the show to "get the movement."  It was stressful (and almost always hot, so hot...).  Plus, I always felt constrained by the rules for proper attire and tack.  I never felt comfortable or like myself.

And so at some point after our last show in August 2016, I swore off showing for good.  It didn't matter if it was conventional dressage or western dressage.  Neither one was a good idea.  And definitely showing in August was not a good idea.  I mean, August in northern Virginia is easily a substitute for Hell.

But then something happened in June that reduced my perceived wisdom on this particular subject to rubble.  It was nothing, really.  A friend of mine knew a lady who wanted to compete in a dressage show on a horse owned by someone my friend knew.  The horse had some expert training in dressage (and maybe eventing) earlier in his life, but had since been a pleasure horse for many years.  The owner was open to having other people ride him to help keep him in work, and my friend made the connection between the owner and the rider.  Shortly after the rider had been riding the horse, plans were made to take the horse to a schooling show.  At this schooling show, said horse and rider did very well, getting a good score and winning their division (Introductory Level).

I am not very proud of my reaction.  It went something like this, "Are you KIDDING me?  This lady rode this horse like 6 or 8 times, has never ridden dressage before, and went to a show and won?"  I mean, come on!  How does that happen?  I come from the school of thought where if you don't feel like giving up 100 times and want to crawl in a hole and die at least 15 times, the thing is not worth doing.  (I will note that I curse this school of thought on a regular basis and constantly try - unsuccessfully - to convert myself into the school of thought that makes things easy.)

I felt petty and mean-spirited about my reaction, and I thought it would go away.  The wise part of me kept saying things like, "The horse had been professionally trained and competed at a much higher level, so of course Intro Level would be easy."  The petty part of me thought, "But he hasn't competed for years, so wouldn't the horse need some dedicated effort to bring him back into fitness?"

The wise part pointed out that maybe the horse's owner was a good rider and had been keeping him fit and working him properly.  Maybe the horse is also a naturally gifted mover.  Not everyone tries to do dressage with Friesians, you know.

The petty part of me responded with thoughts about how it isn't fair that someone with no dressage experience should get to just hop on a made horse and go win a show.

This kind of internal debate kept going on in my head, and I couldn't get rid it.  After a couple of weeks of it, the part of me that isn't wise and that makes questionable decisions even if I'm well-rested decided that the solution to this madness was for me to enter a show.

"That is stupid," Wise Me said.  "You HATE showing!  Remember last time?  And the time before that?  It was so HOT!  And remember that time that Nimo wouldn't use one quarter of the arena because he was scared of the judge's stand?  Or that time he was worried about the reflective pumpkins on straw bales around the perimeter of the arena, so you had to ride the whole test on the second track?  Or how about the incident at the arena with the mirrors that appeared to be suspended in mid-air that freaked out Nimo and most of the other horses and resulted in only half of your test being worth anything?"

Not Wise Me, "But I'm so MAD about how that lady did!  It's not right that someone puts in so little work and wins!"

Wise Me, "Who told you life was supposed to be fair?  And maybe this lady is a really good rider who deserves her success.  You don't know."

And perhaps the most important question would have been, "How would you going to a show fix being mad about someone else's performance?"  But no one asked me that question.

It was so easy to enter the show.  Gone are the days of hunting for an entry form and filling it out by hand, writing a check, and having to go to the post office to mail the entry.  Now, you can sign up through Facebook and use PayPal.  And within minutes, Not Wise Me had signed us up for a show.

Thankfully, Not Wise Me had the sense to sign up for only one test and to choose Intro Level, but guess when the show was?  AUGUST...I pretended that because we'd already been having a miserably hot summer that August would somehow be cooler to balance that out...

After I signed up, I was determined to make sure I had all my equipment in order and learn the test well in advance of the show date.  I was going to turn over a new leaf.  No more procrastinating and waiting until the last minute for me.  Nope, I was going to be ready.

I really waffled on whether I would do a conventional dressage test or western dressage test, because I no longer identify with any discipline.  I've spent more time than I can remember switching saddles and bits and headstalls and attire between and among disciplines.  I currently ride in an English-style endurance saddle with a western style bridle.  Although it is often a double bridle and when I ride with a single bit, it is a Baucher snaffle, which isn't a legal bit for either type of dressage show.

But when I really thought about it, I simply identify with western riding more than English riding.  Western riding was the way I learned to ride, and quite honestly, the attire feels more comfortable to me (for the most part) and I can't bring myself to ride in a dressage bridle or white breeches.  So I choose the Intro Level, test 4 for our show.  It would have been nice to be able to do Basic Level (similar to Training Level), but Nimo's canter is not balanced enough yet to support an entire 20 meter circle consistently (I know, I know, that is a whole other blog post...or maybe a book).  And one thing that Not Wise Me got right was to focus on a level where there should be nothing that would give us any problems.  If we haven't gotten to the point where we can do a walk/trot pattern, then maybe I need to give up riding altogether...

And that was really the whole issue, although I didn't know it at the time.

So I diligently began my preparations.  Because I had committed to a western dressage test, my first goal was to learn the test.  Which I did.  It was pretty straightforward and not difficult to learn.  The only remotely exciting thing about it was a shallow loop on the long side of the arena.

Then I thought about what bit I should use.  As I mentioned, I typically ride in a Baucher snaffle or a double bridle.  I occasionally use a hackamore too.  As luck would have it, NONE of these three things are allowable in western dressage.  Baucher snaffles are not allowed, although you can basically use any other kind of bit, including Tom Thumb snaffles (which many regard as one of the most severe bits you can use), cathedral bits, and spade bits with ports up to 3 INCHES.  Double bridles are also not allowed.  And while bosal and side-pull type hackamores are allowed, the kind I use (which is one of the wheel hackamores) is not.  Apparently there is some concern that it might have a small amount of leverage.  Because God forbid that a hackamore use leverage when you allow curb bits with 7" shanks and 3" ports.  Not Wise Me was starting to remember why I didn't like to show.

My first thought was to kick myself for having sold every extra bit I had on eBay, including a perfectly good Myler snaffle that would have been legal for the show.  It wasn't Nimo's favorite bit (he seems to like bits that have more stability, like the Baucher or the Mylers that have the slots for headstalls and reins), but I am sure I could have ridden a single dressage test in it.

My next idea was to buy an inexpensive low port curb bit similar to what I was using in the double bridle and use that by itself.  I mean, how hard could it be?  Nimo is literally ridden in everything else, so surely a curb bit would be fine.  Yeah, to start with, finding a western curb bit that is 5 1/2 inches wide is an exercise in futility.  Apparently western bit makers cannot comprehend that a horse would have any size mouth other than 5".  The one I ordered for the show back in early July is still on backorder.  So my new plan was to use one of the two English-style curb bits I had for my double bridle.  One was a bit too big and I hadn't sold it because it was such an inexpensive bit that it didn't seem worth my time to sell it.  But I figured it would work fine for the show and I had seen that some Western riders were using them for western dressage.  Apparently, the moving rings to which the reins attach provide "pre-signaling" to the horse when the rider picks up the reins.  Whatever.  I would have preferred a bit without them, but that wasn't going to work.

So I rode Nimo in a curb bit.  And he hated it.  He would warm up fine, but if we got into any serious work, he would be overbent and I spent the entire rest of the ride battling it.  We were both miserable.  I even tried switching to a mullen mouth curb, and while that helped a little, it was still no good.  It took me awhile to figure out what the problem was.  It turns out that Nimo still seems to want or need light contact.  With the snaffle, double bridle, and hackamore, I can provide that contact without a problem.  But when the only source of the contact comes from a curb, it is too much.  The port, chin strap and poll pressure add to the tongue and bar pressure, and Nimo is getting overwhelmed by signals which makes him want to suck back and drop his head to evade all the pressure.  I don't blame him for that, and I feel kind of dumb that I didn't think of that much earlier.

So that left me with going back to the Baucher or the hackamore.  I finally decided that because both would not be legal, I would go with the one that would allow us to give our best performance.  Nimo does work in the hackamore fairly well, but he tends to pull down a bit, particularly as the ride goes on, which I don't like.  It results in me spending more time than I like dealing with that instead of focusing on other things.  Whereas with the Baucher, I don't typically have to spend much time on dealing with bit-related issues and we can focus on movement and my position.

I would be competing at a schooling show, and typically schooling shows are not as rigid about requirements as long as there doesn't appear to be harm to the horse.  And I would rather have gotten disqualified than try to torture my horse with a bit that wasn't working.

Next I had to figure out what to wear.  I actually own a couple of western shirts that I use for riding because I like them.  And I recently bought a new helmet and converted it into a HellHat (another subject for another blog post).  So the top half of me was feeling western.  But the bottom half liked English breeches and tall boots.  Who wants to ride in jeans in August?  When I checked the dress code, though, it said the requirement for my bottom half was pants.  Not light or white colored full-seat breeches.  Just pants.  (Or a riding skirt or one-piece equitation suit.  Please no one tell me what that equitation suit is.  I have this vision in my head of one of those jumpsuits that Elvis wore for some of his performances, and it gives me great pleasure to imagine someone doing a western dressage test looking like Elvis.)  I can do pants.  So I decided that I would just wear my dark blue breeches, which sort of look like they could be jeans from a distance.  And I've seen pictures of competitors with their jeans tucked into their boots, so I reasoned that wearing tall boots is simply a form of tucking my pants into my boots.  I did decide to add a lightweight vest to my ensemble because I wanted to make it clear that I was definitely western, and I felt like the vest added a finishing touch without adding much in the way of weight or expense.

Now on to the big ticket item.  The saddle.  I'm currently riding in an English style endurance saddle that looks like a hybrid between an all-purpose saddle, a dressage saddle, and an Australian saddle.  I briefly contemplated sticking western fenders on it and calling it good.  But I do still have my Specialized Eurolight (which is a western-style endurance saddle) and a Barefoot Madrid (which is a treeless baroque style saddle).  According to the rules, if I put western fenders on either of them, it should be legal.

I opted to go with the Eurolight.  I have been planning to sell it, but wanted to have a goodbye ride, so to speak, because it reminds me so much of our endurance journey.  I figured the show would be a great way for me to remember that I didn't like it anymore and I could sell it with a clean conscience.
As I am prone to doing, I forgot my vow not to procrastinate, and waited just a bit too long to deal with it.  I had pulled off all the shims and panels long ago and I knew Nimo's shape had changed since the last time I'd used it (which was probably at least 3 years ago).  I wasn't looking forward to refitting it.  Which is why it was about 4 days before the show before I lugged it out to the barn.

I sweated my way through fitting it because of course it was about 100 degrees out with the humidity lingering in the barn.  I had apparently defiled one set of panels and lost another set, so I was left with the 3/4" panels, which were probably a bit too thick.  I also had a massive bridging problem.  When I first got the saddle, I think I found minor bridging on one side, but now it was crazy.  I just started sticking shims on left and right and trying to make sure I didn't have any harsh edges.  Eventually, I got it to a point where it was close.  Not close enough for endurance work, but close enough for us to do 3 or 4 half hour arena rides.

The next hassle was getting a girth to fit.  I pulled out everything I had (which is substantial - I may need to sell more things on eBay!).  My long girths were too long.  And my dressage girths were too short, even the 34" one.  I even tried the trick of using baling twine looped through the billet strap and the girth buckle to give me leverage and I could not get the girth to the first hole.  I've been putting a concerted effort into putting weight on Nimo and it was clear I had been successful.  I finally managed to get my mohair back-up girth to the first hole, but Nimo was pissed off at me for the effort.  I made a mental note to go to the tack store and get a long girth in a size like 40" because there was no way I was going to deal with the girthing issue even 3 or 4 more times.

When I got into the saddle, I expected that the wide twist would irritate me and that I would long for my current endurance saddle that has a narrower twist.  As it turned out, I felt like the saddle put me in a better position and the wide twist didn't really bother me...Interesting...

I had also stumbled on another bit when I was looking for a hole punch and extra girths.  I think it was probably the very first bit I got for Nimo - a simple eggbutt Myler snaffle - that was shoved in a random drawer.  It was totally legal for the show.  Eureka!  I swapped the bits on the headstall and Nimo and I headed out for a trial schooling session.

Nimo did pretty good.  He fussed a little with the new bit, but I hoped that if we rode in it a few more times, Nimo would settle and it would be OK for the show.  The saddle worked well and Nimo gave no sign that it was uncomfortable, so I figured my shim job was adequate.

And so three days before the show, everything was in good shape.  My outfit was clean and ready.  My tack was amazingly enough all legal, with the exception that I decided not to put the western fenders on the saddle.  When I dug them out of storage, I remembered that I had to drill copper rivets out and replace the biothane leathers that had broken a few years ago and then reassemble.  I just didn't feel up to it.  And to be honest, I don't know why western fenders are required.  The saddle was clearly built on a western tree with western leather and conchos.  The use of western fenders seemed more of a preference than a necessity.  Whether I had them or not, my ride would be virtually the same, except I wouldn't have an extra piece of leather between my calf and the horse.  Even a conventional western saddle can easily have the fenders swapped out for regular stirrup leathers because the fenders aren't integral to the saddle.

Plus I was tired of dealing with "legal" issues, to be honest.  Legality is one of the main reasons I don't like showing and why I was initially attracted to endurance riding.  Good riding is good riding, regardless of tack.  The single most important thing is that the horse is comfortable, so using a saddle, pad, bit/hackamore, headstall, or whatever that fits the horse and allows good communication with the rider needs to be the overarching principle.  Not whether something is tradition or matches a discipline or "looks" right.

But now that I had finished all that I needed to do to prep for the show, I didn't have anything to distract me from the voice in my head.  That voice that we probably all have that acts as an Inner Critic.  The voice that tells us we aren't good enough or didn't do something as well as we should have or could have.  I've been struggling with that voice my whole life, and mostly can recognize when it's getting too loud.

But lately, that voice has been taking over.  And after I got that saddle fitted, it became relentless.  Why are you still showing at Intro Level?  You've been riding this horse for 13 years.  Why are you having so much trouble cantering?  Maybe you just are not a good rider.  Maybe you shouldn't be doing Science of Motion anymore.  Nimo's topline still hasn't filled in all the way.  Maybe you aren't feeding him the right things.  Or if you hadn't been procrastinating about building your horse barn, you could have him at your own place and feed him better.  You aren't riding enough.  You aren't disciplined enough.  All your friends are able to canter their horses.  They go on conditioning rides every weekend.  But you don't.  Nimo isn't even fit enough to do an Intro ride.  He's spooky on the trail again because you aren't working with him enough.  You aren't being a good owner.  You've wasted all the work you did with him before.  You don't fit in anywhere.

"Maybe I shouldn't be riding anymore."

I was horrified to discover I had said the words out loud.  To Nimo.  While I was riding.  The silence hung in the air as if I'd been having a terrible argument with a significant other or close family member and had said something that I wished I could take back immediately, but couldn't.  The thing that both people in the argument knew was somehow true but was too honest and should never have been spoken.  The thing that creates this terrible silence because there are no words that can be worth anything after having said the thing.

I don't know if Nimo understood what I'd said, but I suspect he knew that I was upset and something was wrong.  I felt a shift in his energy.  I'd felt like this once before.  That I simply wasn't able to ride well enough to keep trying.  That I was so defective that even basic skills were beyond me.  It was stunning that I would think that after I'd been pursuing Science of Motion work and taking regular lessons and in fact, been making improvements.  But they weren't the kind of improvements that anyone else (except for a few people in a closed Facebook group that I don't know and that often live in other countries) would recognize or even value as worthwhile.  And the idea that I no longer have a single person, other than my riding instructor, to talk to about how I was riding, was overwhelming.

I had just spent several weeks trying to get ready for that show, and at every step I was reminded about how I didn't fit into the horse world.  My bit wasn't legal.  My clothes don't match a single discipline.  My saddle and bridle aren't the same discipline.  I don't use western fenders.  I want to do endurance using what I've learned from Science of Motion, but haven't figured out how to do it yet, and there is literally not one person on this earth who can really help me or who even thinks that is a worthwhile pursuit.  (This is how I was feeling, not necessarily reality.)  Even when I was practicing the test pattern, which wasn't difficult, I realized that I spend almost zero time doing any patterns at all when I ride.  Everything is based on whether the horse is ready to perform the movement or the figure, rather than riding a specific pattern for accuracy.  While that sounds all noble and great, the reality is that I often can't get a whole circle from Nimo if he gets out of balance and sometimes I just want to ride a circle or do a figure-8 or a serpentine or something to get a mental break from the focus required for Science of Motion work.

And I got kind of pissed off and depressed and then mad again and then despondent.  And I was stuck in this roller coaster of feeling isolated and still wanting to try and then remembering that I was alone.  And it just sucked.

And then I was mad at myself for having all these emotions RIGHT BEFORE THE SHOW.  I mean, I couldn't have waited to have some kind of a life crisis until AFTER the show?

I kept watching the weather hopefully as the predicted temperature climbed from 93 degrees to 97 degrees for the day of the show.  The July show had been cancelled because the "Feels Like" temperature hit 110 degrees and while that day and the two following it were really awful, I found myself hoping it would happen again to the August show.

Then I hoped the extreme heat and humidity would cause a severe storm that would cause the show to be cancelled.

Finally, I realized I could just scratch our entry from the show.  It was going to be hot.  No one would blame me.  I'd only told 3 people I was going to the show - my husband, daughter, and best friend.  None of them would judge me negatively if I scratched, and no one else would know.  (Except for the new boarder at our barn who had the misfortune of being there the night I was fitting the saddle to Nimo.  She watched in amazement as I did the shimming and struggled with the girth.  At one point she said, "Did you not realize you were signing up for a western test?"  Because of course, no rational human being would sign up for a show in a certain discipline unless that was the discipline they rode.)

But I didn't scratch.  And the morning of the show, I cleaned the bit and reins and polished my boots.  I'd cleaned the headstall and saddle at the barn the night before.  I wasn't showing until 3:49, so I had plenty of time.  Lots of time.  I ran errands in the morning.  I did some watercolor painting.  I checked Facebook and email.  I kept asking myself why I was doing this show.  The more I thought about it, the more inadequate I felt.

Finally, it was 1:30 and time for me to head out to the barn.  (The show was hosted by my barn, so at least I didn't have to haul.)  I had given Nimo a bath the day before and we've had such dry weather that he was unable to find any mud to roll in, so he was still clean.  I braided his mane.  Again, this is something that was probably wrong for the discipline.  Western horses with long manes are shown with their manes unbraided.  But because of the heat, I felt like braiding was the most common sense thing to do for Nimo's comfort.  After all, he wasn't the idiot who signed up for a show on a 90+ degree day.

I checked in with the show organizer and found out a couple of riders with ride times before mine had scratched so I could ride early if I wanted.  I suspected that would happen, and that would have been a great opportunity for me to scratch too.  But I didn't.  I got my number and said I would be ready to ride a little early and I would just check in with the scribe to see about a specific time.

I saddled Nimo and we headed out to the arena to warm up.  He was immediately suspicious about all the unexpected activity.  Horse trailers, cars, other horses, and random people were all around in his space.  One thing that Nimo often does when he worries about something is he slows down or even stops moving.  That is probably better than the alternative of spooking and bolting or behaving like an idiot, but it can still be frustrating.

I let him walk slowly to the arena and stop and look as many times as he wanted.  Then I got on and we started walking around.  I saw that a man was videoing a rider from the bleachers and realized if I rode in the whole warm-up area, I would be crossing in front of him.  So I stayed in one section until the rider was done.  That worked OK, because Nimo was focused on identifying all the different things and stressing internally about them.

And that was when I realized how hot the sun was.   And how tired of dealing with Nimo's issues I was.  How I very much wished he was different.  And how I didn't want to be there.

So I did what I often do when I get stressed or am miserable.  I made a sarcastic comment.  I didn't direct it at anyone because I didn't know anyone there.  (A friend was supposed to come and video my ride, but her AC unit broke down and she had to wait for the repair company.  In that heat, it was a true emergency.  And my husband had taken my daughter outdoor rock climbing that morning.  He had offered to come in my friend's place, but I could see how tired he was, so I told him to stay home.)  I think I said something along the lines of, "OMG, it's like being in a windy oven."  Because of the hot breeze that started blowing.  For some reason, everybody around me laughed.  It wasn't funny, but maybe they were stressed too.  I don't know.  In any case, the laughter really helped.  All of a sudden, life didn't seem so bad anymore.  It was like some of the stress had dissolved.

I realized how lucky I was that no one was there watching me.  It didn't matter if I made a mistake.  No one would be disappointed or have preconceived notions of how well we would do.  I felt a little bit more of the pressure lift.  And then we were able to walk to the other side of the warm up area.  Nimo was a bit "looky" at first because of some equipment in the distance.  But he started to settle, and we just walked.  I didn't worry too much about how correct his walk was.  I focused on breathing and steering.  Eventually we did a little trotting.  The good news was that Nimo was really responsive.  The bad news was that the trot was not anything too exciting in terms of movement.  But as soon as I asked for more bend to increase the quality of the trot, Nimo would stop moving.  I concluded that even though he wasn't really showing it, he was still nervous.

So we walked some more.  I had plenty of time before our ride time, and there was no requirement for me to go early.  As we were walking, another western rider came into the ring to warm up.  I smiled at her and said something about how nice it was to see another western rider at the show.  (There usually aren't too many western riders; it's still mostly conventional dressage or eventing tests.)  I think her first words to me were, "You know, that saddle you're riding in isn't legal."  (Thank you, Hermione Granger.)

I knew it wasn't legal because I hadn't put the fenders on, but I was curious about why it was so urgent that she share this information with me, a person she has never met and has no knowledge of.  For all she knew, maybe my fenders broke or I was borrowing a saddle.  She proceeded to tell me that it wasn't legal because it didn't have the fenders.  I told her I knew that and that I did have fenders for it, but hadn't wanted to go through the trouble of using them just for the show.  Having been thwarted in some way, I guess, she then felt compelled to inform me that my saddle probably still wouldn't be legal even if it had fenders.  Huh.  I asked her why she thought that.  It turns out she didn't have a specific reason.  She told me that "They [whoever they are] are getting pickier about saddles.  There have even been some people who tried to put thigh blocks on their western saddles.  And those are definitely illegal now."

Now, if you have ever seen the Eurolight, you know there is nothing remotely resembling a thigh block, so I'm not sure why she connected that to my saddle, but considering that conventional dressage saddles often have huge thigh blocks, I wondered why it was such a big deal if western saddles had them too.  Shouldn't it be the rider's preference?  I know some might argue that thigh blocks might make it easier to sit bad movement and disguise it, but as far as I can tell, even international level judges can't tell the difference between leg movers and back movers, so we might as well let riders be comfortable.  She went on to explain that she also competed in conventional dressage shows and she had to fight to get her Freeform saddle declared legal.  Of course, I wasn't competing in conventional dressage, so I'm not sure what that had to do with my saddle.  But maybe it was her mission to make sure everyone understood about saddle issues.

Anyway, I said something along the lines of, "Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't worry so much about what kind of saddle people rode in and focused more on dressage regardless of tack?"  Her response, "Oh no! They wouldn't like that at all.  There's tradition, you know."

And something happened to me then.  I realized that I don't want any part of that attitude.  I don't care if something is "tradition."  In my mind, things are only valuable if they serve a true purpose in aiding communication between horse and rider.  That is what our goal is supposed to be.  Whether my stirrup leathers are Biothane strips, baling twine, or thick slabs of leather shouldn't matter.  Whether my bit has slots in it for reins or not shouldn't matter.  Whether I'm wearing blue breeches or jeans or a skirt or shorts or leggings shouldn't matter.

I was also witnessing a young lady (probably mid- to late-teens) who was apparently at her first show.  The contingent of spectators that had laughed at my awful joke earlier were all there to watch her.  She looked scared and worried and tense.  After her first test, her coach barely waited for her to exit the arena before laying into her about all the problems with her first test and how she needed to do better for her next test.

Between watching that and listening to the "legal" expert, I was shaking my head internally.  What an awful place to be.  And that was the place I used to be when I showed.  I was worried about all my deficiencies and my horse's problems and what was legal and whether I looked OK.  It was miserable.  And it had been making me miserable that day.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was finally internalizing something that I have been saying for a long time.  The reason I've been so stressed about showing is because I really haven't believed myself when I said things like, "Tack shouldn't matter."  I thought I meant it, but deep down inside, a part of me still believed that I needed to "look the part."  If I didn't have the right tack and outfit, I wasn't representing myself and my horse properly.  I wasn't showing respect to the judge.  But in preparation for this show, I managed to relax a little and wear clothes that I was not only comfortable riding in, but in fact, were clothes I actually wore to ride (except the vest, but I really liked it).  The old me would have put the western fenders on.  But I was evolving and getting to a point where I really was starting to think more in terms of what was best instead of what was tradition.

The thing is, horse shows don't have to be like that.  They could be like endurance rides, where people are friendly to each other and chat even if they don't know you.  They could be places where experts and newcomers mingle and learn from each other instead of compete.

I decided to take my thoughts with me and leave the warm up part of the arena.  There is a field next to the arena that can also be ridden in, and it's where Nimo and I ride a lot.  He likes the footing better there.  So I thought we'd go to the field while I let my brain wander a bit.  We did a few canter transitions, and I could tell by the way Nimo did them that he was still really tense.  I happened to remember Mark Rashid telling a couple of stories in one of his books about horses that needed to blow off some steam in response to a stressful situation.  In his stories, he put the horses in an arena and let them run around.  I couldn't do that, but what I could do was let Nimo trot.  Instead of focusing on correct movement, though, I let him choose his pace, which was quite quick.  We did several large figure-8s while I let him blow off some mental stress.  After I felt him settle, we headed back to the arena.

Photo by E. Berkery Photography.  Used with purchase.  I didn't know the photographer was taking our picture as we walked back to the arena or I might have tried to smile.
I wasn't sure where we were at in the ride order at that point, so I approached the other western rider (the one with the saddle advice), and asked her what her ride time was.  She said it was after mine, but she was kind of upset because the ride organizer had put her tests back-to-back, and she would have preferred some time between them.  So I asked her if she wanted to go before me.  It didn't matter to me.  Another five minutes would not make any difference in our ride, and it occurred to me that I am perfectly capable of acting like a pleasant person even if the people around me are lacking in that area.  The other rider decided to go first, and she went off to check in with the scribe.

I watched her test for a minute and then walked and trotted Nimo for a bit more.  And it was then that I made a deal with him.  He could move however he was most comfortable for the test.  I wouldn't ask him to do any more than he felt like he could do.  After all, he's been to more shows than I can remember.  He knows how it works.  He still gets nervous, though, and it occurred to me that by forcing him to give more than he is comfortable with, I'm a little like the parents I've seen at competitions with my daughter.  Some of them push their kids way outside their comfort zones.  I remember distinctly seeing one young girl shaking with fear as she climbed a rock wall that her mother insisted she do.  It was disgusting and saddening to watch.  And I've vowed I will not do that to my child.  And I shouldn't do it to my horse either.  Overcoming fear needs to be an internal process, not an external one.  So this show was simply a way to remind him what showing was.  Nothing more.  My job would be to remember the test and guide him in the right direction.

And then it was our turn.  I checked in with the scribe.  In what turned out to be a stroke of luck, the judge's blue Easy-Up had been replaced with an SUV.  I'm not sure if that was the judge's request or the Easy-Up was broken, but Nimo was significantly less worried about a vehicle then he would have been an Easy-Up.  (At endurance rides, he doesn't give them a second glance, but at dressage shows, he is terrified of them.)  We walked around the outside of the ring while waiting for the judge to ring the bell to let us know we could start.  When I heard the familiar tinkling, I asked Nimo to trot and we headed for the entrance at A.

Nimo powered through his trot and then we halted at X for the salute.  And the rest of the test went like clockwork.  I didn't worry that I would forget any parts because it flows really well.  And Nimo did everything I asked.  He walked, trotted, circled, changed direction, and did the shallow loops without any hiccups.  He was consistent and solid.  He wasn't perfect in the sense that one of our downward transitions was a little abrupt and he took a bit longer to halt for the last time then he should have.  But our circles were circles.  We stayed on the track when we were supposed to be on the track.  He wasn't distracted or spooky.

Photo by E. Berkery Photography.  Used with purchase.  Nimo and I are circling to the left during the second half of the test.
Photo by E. Berkery Photography.  Used with purchase.  Our final halt, and one of my favorite pictures of us.
For the first time ever, I wasn't nervous about a test.  I didn't fight with Nimo during any section of it.  When it was over, I didn't want to die from embarrassment.  It wasn't a brilliant test, but it was a good test.  It was a test that could form a good foundation and be improved upon.  I was sort of in shock.

We headed back to the barn so Nimo could get his dinner and a cold shower.  And the day was over.  I didn't yet know our score or placing, and because of the way the show works, the results would not be posted until a day or two later.  (Instead of running the show in division order, starting from lowest level to highest, the show is set up to accommodate people who are trailering together or need certain ride times.  That results in different levels mixed together all day, so the results can't be calculated until the end of the show, which is usually close to 10 pm.)

I also had a lot to think about.  One thing that had been bugging me was finally resolved, though.  I figured out why I was so mad about the lady my friend knew who had done well at the show in June.  I thought I was being petty by being mad about the situation (and my Inner Critic had added that to the list of Things I Should Feel Bad About).  In reality, I was mad at myself.  I felt guilty for doing things other than riding.  I felt guilty for not progressing the way I thought I should.  I felt incompetent because I was having a hard time doing more advanced work with Nimo.  I felt like I was disappointing my endurance friends because I'm not conditioning or riding with them.  I felt alone and isolated because of my riding goals.  I felt out of place because I don't ride in a specific discipline.  And I didn't know how to deal with all of that.  And maybe even more importantly, I didn't know if I wanted to deal with all of it anymore.

"Spiritual growth doesn't happen when you're meditating or on the yoga mat.  It happens in the midst of conflict - when you're frustrated, angry, or scared, and you're doing the same old thing, and then you suddenly realize that you have a choice to do it differently."
                                                    - Andrea Mills of Mills Horsemanship & Hoofcare 

Riding in the show was pretty cathartic, even though the time leading up to it was painful.  I think I needed to go through that emotion and feel my feelings.  I needed to say what I said and think what I thought to work through to a better place.

I think I have come to terms with the idea that what I do with Nimo is different than most other horse people I know.  And as far as I can tell, the only one judging me for those differences was me.

Western dressage is not a perfect fit for us, but it's close enough for now.  I've signed up for the next show in September.  I'm hoping we can have another good, consistent test, and work on making that consistency a habit.  I feel like the most important thing is not that Nimo moves as well as he can, but that mentally he is calm and feels comfortable with the situation.  Only then can we really work on improving our movement.  I'm continuing to take Science of Motion lessons and I'm not planning on changing anything about the way we ride.  I'm also going to stop feeling guilty if I only ride three times a week instead of the five times that I know is optimal.  While Nimo is a huge priority, so am I.  I need time to myself to decompress from raising a young and energetic child.  Sometimes that means cutting barn time short.  That might mean that we never become as great as we could be.  And I'm working on making my peace with that.

If you are wondering how we did at the show, we scored a 69.523%, which is very respectable, and we got 2nd place.  I hope we can improve on that over time, and even graduate to the next level.  I'm also reminding myself that my objective is not to be competitive, but to improve our communication and ability to work together.  I hope someday we can take that communication to an endurance ride, but for the near future, our rides will focus on something else.  I expect that the trails will still be there when we are ready.


  1. Sounds like the show was a really good learning experience, even with all the painful parts! :)

    And I wasn't going to say this, but since you are showing again in September, baucher snaffles are legal in dressage (although I don't know about Western dressage because I've never read their rules). I showed my azteca mare in a baucher for several years and I know people currently competing in them. If that helps the bitting situation next go around!

    1. Thanks for the tip about the Baucher. The Baucher is specifically defined as not legal for western dressage. But it's good to know that it is legal for conventional dressage. I might be able to get away with using it at a schooling show for western dressage if the judge is already used to seeing it in the regular dressage shows. Nimo definitely seems to prefer it over the Myler snaffle.

  2. I have felt and continue to feel most of the emotions you have expressed. Especially about riding for so long and I have spent so much money on lessons for years..and all I can do is a training level test? What is wrong with I stupid or what?
    But I try to ignore that voice. We all have our own path. I too can only ride 3 times a week, and I have to trailer out to ride after I have worked all day at a desk job. Why am I putting so much effort and money and getting so little in return? But I can't imagine not riding. And when we have a good ride, it makes it all feel worthwhile. So I guess we will keep plugging away, and cherish the small kernels of success when they come, whatever they may be. Happy Trails to you.

    1. Hi Carol. Thanks for sharing your feelings. It makes me feel a little better to know I'm not the only one:) Although I don't wish it on anyone. I think part of it is that the tests are not always the best fit for where we are as riders or where our horses are. Nimo could potentially do more complicated trot work from higher level tests, but he can't do the canter work, so we are excluded from showing the higher level trot work. It's the nature of having shows, I guess. There have to be boundaries and rules. But it means that some of us don't fit well and can get pretty frustrated as a result.

      And trailering out to ride sucks too. But in our area, only really wealthy people or people with jobs in less populated areas can typically live in places that have ride-out or larger acreages. It used to be that land owners gave riders permission to ride on the perimeter of fields, but liability laws have changed that. I feel lucky to board on a big farm, so I can at least get out of the arena if I want to for a short ride. But once I move Nimo to our acreage, I will lose that.

      Riding and having a horse are a labor of love, no doubt. And I feel like you do about spending all the time and money on something that only has occasional moments of happiness or feeling good. So something has to change, honestly. I either need to find a new attitude or reconsider having a horse and riding. It kind of sucks to think that way, but going through life miserable isn't good either. I'm definitely going to try working on my attitude first, though!:) Good luck to you!

  3. I love this post as it echoes some of my own feelings about showing. First of all, it's always in the hottest time of year and with all those heavy outfits it's miserable! Second, I also share tack across disciplines. Third, I wonder what the point is?

    If you are looking to get some feedback from a dressage test, you can now do them online, at your own time and convenience (and most appropriate weather), with a buddy to film you at C. You can do english or western.

    But really, I would rather just be out riding my horse in the forest. And I asked my horse, Im sure he would share my opinion.

    The pictures of you and Nimo are fabulous!

    1. Thanks, Nat D:) Yeah, showing does seem like a strange concept when you think about all the negatives. And I did try a western dressage online test once a few years ago. It was such a miserable experience because I had to set up my own arena (which was just the letter cones and a few ground poles to delineate the perimeter), and it was like the Bermuda Triangle out in the arena. I couldn't get the distances to work out and I think I spent an hour messing around with the cones and a measuring tape. Then I had to get my husband to come out to video my ride. And as luck would have it, a couple of people had hauled in to use the arena (which never happens). I told them what I was doing and asked them to give me some space for 4 minutes. They did not. They were loud and cantering all over the arena, which was really distracting for Nimo, so he was not focused. Then, I had a horrible time getting the video to upload. And for the grand finale, the organization claimed to have never gotten my email with the link to my test, so I never got any feedback on it. I was so disgusted that I haven't even considered entering an online show again. Maybe in the future. But when the shows are held at my barn, it seems like it is the least amount of work possible, which is probably the only way I can do a show:)

      And I'm pretty sure Nimo would agree with your horse about being out on the trails!

  4. I can identify with so much of this. I’ve tried every discipline under the sun and haven’t stuck with any of them for various reasons, everything from the expense to the attitude of other competitors (as in traditional dressage). I ride in all kinds of tack, or no tack at all, and sometimes I just hike with my horses rather than ride. At the end of the day, I just love my horses. Most recently I tried competitive trail and enjoyed it. Now it’s a matter of conditioning my current horse for the miles. I really enjoy your perspective on things. Thanks for writing!

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