Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Western Dressage Update

I last wrote about our western dressage experience in this post.  You may remember that I planned to show again, and I did.  I signed up for the September show, and it was only marginally cooler than the August show.  I kind of regretted my decision as I sweated my way through warming up.  But Nimo seemed to be doing OK, and I felt like we could do as well as we had at the previous show.

As my ride time approached, I moved Nimo closer to the judge's table (or car, as the case may be!) and waited for my time.  As I approached the vehicle, I planned to let the scribe know that my number had changed so it wouldn't match my score sheet.  But I never got the chance.  I was still about 30 feet away when the judge rang the bell, indicating I had 30 (or maybe it's 45?  I can never remember) seconds to get to the entrance of the arena, which was on the other end.

I don't know about everyone else's experience with dressage schooling shows, but out of all the ones I have been to, I have never had that experience before.  Competitors are ALWAYS allowed to walk around the perimeter of the arena, or at least halfway, before the bell is rung.  It is to give the horse and rider a chance to see where they are and in some cases, the judges I've shown for have allowed a few minutes if there is something that is obviously worrying the horse, so the rider has a chance to let the horse see it.  (That opportunity has never really helped with Nimo, but I've always very much appreciated the thought.)

In this case, I was never even able to check in.  I am embarrassed to say that I completely panicked for about 3 seconds.  And if you are ever wondering how sensitive horses are to their riders, I can provide some anecdotal evidence for you.  They are hyper-sensitive.  In less than a second after my panicked reaction to the bell ringing long before I expected it, Nimo reacted.  His head went in the air and he started prancing and not wanting to go forward.  I started worrying about getting to the entrance of the arena in time, and pushed Nimo to trot, which was probably a mistake, because it made him even more reactive.

We somehow managed to scrape out a test, but it was awful.  I mean, just awful.  Nimo was tense and trotting too fast and our circles were almost unrecognizable.  I don't know how we scored a 61-something.  Maybe sympathy points?

After I had a chance to regroup, I kind of beat myself up for my huge overreaction.  I have discovered this interesting little tidbit about myself over the years.  If I anticipate that something really horrible will happen, I can almost always handle whatever does happen without too much trouble.  However, if I expect things to go smoothly and they don't, it really upsets me.  Like in a big, big way.  I might even appear to be completely irrational and unreasonable to other people.  It's one reason why I typically plan for the worst-case scenario and tend to be negative about trying things.  It might sound strange to others, but thinking that way seems to help me handle situations better.

In this case, Nimo had done well at the previous show and he warmed up well too.  I was absolutely not anticipating missing our usual walk-the-long-side-of-the-arena-to-make-sure-we-are-focused.  And it threw me for a loop and cost Nimo his calmness.  I'm not sure how to feel about it, even with the benefit of lots of hindsight.  While my reaction was unnecessary - we would have had enough time to walk the long side of the arena and still get to the entrance in enough time - I am kind of upset that we weren't allowed what is the standard opportunity to see the arena.  I don't know if the judge did that to any other competitors, but I'm sure she didn't do it to everyone.

I mentioned it to the show organizer afterward, and she said something along the lines of the judge trying to make up time because she felt she was running behind.  Number one, as far as I could tell, the judge was running on time.  My ride time was within 2-3 minutes of my scheduled time.  And really?  I can't have 20 seconds to prepare myself?

And this brings me to another reason why I don't like showing.  I don't want to be the kind of competitor who blames poor performance on the judge or the footing or the weather or the facility or the trailer ride.  There are some riders who can never seem to own their own mistakes.  It's always somebody else's fault.  And it can be easy to fall into that trap.  Look how easily I just did.  Yes, the judge should have given me a few seconds to check in and verbally confirm that I was ready and had no additional information (like a number change) to relay.  But, it's my responsibility to remain calm and not panic over minor (or even major) things, so that my horse can focus and do his job.  I failed to do that, and eventually I decided to accept that I made a mistake and learn from it.

And so that is why I found myself entering the October show.  I was determined not to lose it over minor stuff and be a better rider for Nimo.  Also, it was a costume show.  So I could dress up Nimo and myself and ride our test in whatever costume we wanted as long as it was safe.  I've had this Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean) costume sitting around for at least 10 years, maybe longer.  I had bought it for another costume dressage show many years ago that ended up being cancelled.  I never had another opportunity to wear it because I never showed after that year, except for a couple of isolated shows that convinced me each time that I shouldn't be showing.  I had planned to sell the costume on eBay (it includes some pretty authentic reproduction stuff that is probably worth something), but hadn't gotten around to it yet.  So I dug it out and got excited to wear it.  Nimo would get some of the cool beads in his mane and he would also wear a scarf around his head, and I would wear the pirate clothing plus a few little accessories.

As luck would have it, the show was cancelled.  (Why do you do this to me, Universe?)  It was raining, and apparently unlike endurance people, dressage people do not show in the rain.  (This statement will become ironic in a little bit...)  The organizer did set up a new date for it in November, but wearing the costume seemed weird and anti-climactic, so I put away for another year.

We did compete again at the November show, though.  The day was cold, windy, and damp, but not raining.  I'm not sure it was a significant improvement over the day in October when the show was supposed to be held.  But Nimo and I showed up and warmed up and everything was good again.  I mentally prepared myself for an unexpected bell ringing and I was bound and determined to stay calm no matter what happened.  Bridle falls off?  No biggie - Nimo won't go very far before he's going to want to eat some grass.  Stirrup leather breaks?  It's OK, I'm not posting anyway.  Horse is spooky?  No problem - I have excellent balance.

Of course, everything went fine.  No problems.  Nimo was good.  Probably not quite as forward as he'd been at the show in August, so our score reflected that.  But it was still very respectable at a 67-something.  Plus, we got some nice comments from the judge.

We got lots of 6s and 7s and even an 8!
In fact, it was such a positive experience that I stupidly agreed to sign up for the December show when one of my friends suggested it.  Yes, we show year-round here in Virginia:)  The winter shows would be held someplace else, though.  Not at the barn where I keep Nimo.  So I'd be throwing in a whole new wrinkle for Nimo.  It's not that he's a nutter when I take him to new facilities.  In fact, he's usually pretty good.  I haul out for lessons to several different places and as long as he has a chance to look around for a little while, he's OK.  But based on my previous experience hauling to shows, I know that most facilities have something about them that makes Nimo uncomfortable.  Like jumps stacked right next to the arena fence.  Or the now infamous floating mirror.  (I kid you not, one arena had a single, large mirror mounted on tall posts.  So it literally looked like it was floating 8 feet above the ground.  Most horses at the show were reactive to it and Nimo lost his mind over it.  We couldn't use about one-quarter of the arena for the test.)  Or the time the show organizers thought it would be fun to use straw bales with reflective pumpkins set in them along the perimeter of the arena.  (We did the entire test on the inside track.)

I had never even heard of the facility that the December show would be at, but it was pretty close (maybe a 20-minute drive), and so I thought, "How bad could it be?" (insert maniacal giggling here)

By this time, I was really comfortable with the test, and I'm pretty sure even Nimo knew it, so I didn't feel the need to practice at all before the show.  I mean, I still rode, but we just did our regular routine without running through the test pattern.  Nimo had seemed to anticipate several movements during the November show, so I figured practicing it more would lead to more anticipation which might lower our score if he made the changes too soon.

The day for the December test was predicted to be cold (like 40 degrees, which is a little below normal for early December, I think) and rainy.  Yep, rainy.  The organizer decided to keep the show on because the tests would be done in an indoor arena.  That's great, but guess where the warm-up area was?  Outside.  So I could haul in the rain, park in the rain, saddle my horse in the rain, warm up for at least 30 minutes in the rain, all so I could ride for 5 minutes inside.  It amused me a little that the October show had been cancelled for conditions that were not that much different than the December show.

I have lots of experience riding in the rain (and the sleet and the snow), so I wasn't particularly phased by the forecast.  Given a choice, I would rather have stayed home and snuggled with a cat and a mug of coffee, but it wasn't that big of a deal to ride for 30 minutes in the rain.  It seemed like a huge improvement over the two endurance rides (actually I think one was a CTR) that I attended and spent hours riding and camping in the rain.

Luckily, on the day of the show, the rain was really more of a drizzle, so it was not a big deal to get the trailer hooked up and my stuff loaded.  The rain did start to come down harder once we got to the facility, but it still wasn't awful.  Parking was kind of tricky, though.  I just have a little PSA for facilities that host shows as a little side gig.  Please don't assume that competitors have ever been to your facility.  Don't assume we just know how you want us to park.  No matter how obvious it is to you, it isn't obvious to us.  We've just spent a whole bunch of time navigating Virginia backroads in the rain and then trying to figure out how to get from your unmarked entrance through the winding and complex road system on your farm to what could theoretically be a parking area.  So please cut us some slack and put up a sign or even better, have a person standing next to the parking area who can answer questions and provide specific information.  Do not have someone in a distant vehicle waving randomly around.  I can't see you clearly because it is raining out and you are far away.  I don't know what your hand pointing means.  And it doesn't tell me where to park.  Absolutely do not make me get out of my truck multiple times to talk to other random competitors who are also confused.  I have paid money and taken many hours of my day to support a show you are hosting, so please respect that by doing me the courtesy of helping me park with ease.

Enough said.  After the excitement of parking, I got out to wander around some more to find the check-in location.  Also not that easy to find and I had to ask 2 different people.  (Again, signs, people, signs.)  Once I was checked in, I unloaded Nimo and let him eat hay for a few minutes.  I had about 10 extra minutes to chill before tacking up.  Using the experience gained from rainy endurance rides, I threw a sheet on Nimo so I could use it to cover the saddle once I got it on, so it would stay reasonably dry.  Nimo was quiet and calm for the whole process.

He did start to become quite alert when I went to get on, because I now typically have a water tank in the bed of my truck (for the ducks...) and he hadn't seen it yet.  But what has been years and years of training kicked in and he stood next to the truck so I could use the tailgate to get on.  (I always use my tailgate when we haul for trail rides, so it's part of his routine.)  He continued to be very alert as we walked over to the warm-up arena.  But he was doing OK.  We warmed up as well as we could in an arena that was quickly becoming sloppy from the rain and I mentally sympathized with riders showing later in the day.  We had a morning slot, so things weren't too muddy yet.

After I got Nimo warmed up for about 20 minutes, I turned him toward the main barn and attached indoor arena.  There was apparently a small space next to the competition arena that competitors could use to finish their warm up and wait for their ride time.  It was probably about 20x20 meters.  That is not that big.  But Nimo was a rock star.  He not only headed in to the indoor, he stopped so I could take my rain coat off and hand it to my friend, who was also there showing.  Then he walked into the arena and we actually continued our warm up in that tiny space with probably 3 other horses.  Nimo was great about doing tiny circles at the trot (like 6-8 meters in diameter) and he was very well-behaved.  I started to think maybe things were going to be OK.

But as we walked into the arena (this judge was giving all competitors a few minutes to explore the arena because there was no way to walk around the perimeter), I realized we shouldn't have bothered coming.  In the middle of the long side of the arena was a giant open space that could have had a closed door, but didn't.  If you've ever read Dr. Temple Grandin's books, you may remember her talking specifically about how cattle are often quite frightened of changes in light, because it throws off their depth perception.  This information that also applies to horses.  In particular, my horse.  Nimo is really sensitive to changes in light.  So, there was this whole dark-walled arena with one big bright spot along one side.  At the letter H.  According to the photographer who was standing there, it is referred to as H for Horrifying because so many horses have concerns.  I did spend several minutes letting Nimo hang out at H.  He sniffed things and snorted, but I knew from the level of his reaction that it wasn't something I would be able to resolve in a few minutes.  So when the judge asked if I was ready, I said yes, because there was no point in spending any more time there.

And we did the test as best as we could, given that we couldn't use about a quarter of the arena (remember how that has happened before?).  We got a decent score, given the issues (I think it was a 63-something), but it was really disheartening.  Because Nimo really did do a good job.  Much better than I expected, honestly.  He was definitely worried, but stayed steady.  No spooking.  No attempts to bolt.  No refusing to go places (except near H).  He was also a little wary of working on the rail, because the wall of the indoor was the rail, but that is something that could be overcome with a little more experience.  But not the door at H.

The solution, of course, is simple.  Close that opening.  I can't imagine why there isn't a door that closes there.  Especially if so many horses spook at it that the show photographer knows about it and there is a nickname for it.  I mean, really?  I know there are people who have the attitude that a well-trained horse should be able to handle certain adversities.  And I don't disagree with that.  But if there is something that causes lots of horses to be concerned and the competition is dressage (as distinct from say, an obstacle course), then why not fix it?  There was also a manure bucket in one corner of the arena that Nimo was not happy about.  Again, is it really that much trouble to remove the manure bucket for the show?  I've never shown at a facility where there were actually things in the arena.  The corners are for showing how much your horse can bend, not for going around obstacles.

Anyway, my first reaction to all of this was to think that maybe we should haul in to the arena in a week or two and pay more money so I could work with Nimo on the things that bothered him.  But now that I've had a chance to further reflect, I think that is ridiculous.  For one thing, I don't actually care that much about showing.  When showing is convenient at my barn, that is a different story.  Especially because Nimo was really good for 2 out of 3 shows and the problem at the third show was me and not him.  But to go through so much effort for what will be 3 more shows in January, February, and March (one or more of which will likely be cancelled due to weather) seems pointless.  Plus, it is time that I could be out on the trails, which is something I haven't been able to do much of for the past few months (more on why in a later post).

So, for now, I am done doing the western dressage shows.  I'm glad we did them.  And I'm even glad that we went to the December show.  Nimo did so many things right and I honestly don't think his reaction to the open door was unreasonable (unlike the time that he spooked at his own poop - that was, just,...I mean, what????).  We got out there in the rain and rode on a day that I wouldn't normally have ridden and we tried something.  It didn't end up working out, but that's OK.  It makes me feel really good that we were able to try it.

So we will now be able to go back to focusing on my current mission - cantering and piaffe.  More about how those things are coming along in future posts...


  1. I hear you! I am curious as to what is preventing you from trail riding, as that is absolutely my #1 favorite thing to do.

    We have an open arena backdoor that occasionally gives us a hard time. The riders and the horses need to learn to deal with it. Some would prefer it be shut. I do better when I do not give "the thing" power, and just keep riding forward. Eventually the horse learns to tune in to me, and ignore the surroundings.

    1. Trail riding is my favorite too! So it is a bit frustrating not to be doing more of it:)

      The door openings on arenas are definitely one of the issues Nimo has. In almost all cases, like at clinics or lessons, we can work through something like that without too much difficulty, because it's easy enough to move the exercise we are doing to another part of the arena until Nimo has a chance to settle and focus on our work. Unfortunately, that type of strategy doesn't work in a dressage show setting. 3-4 minutes isn't enough time for Nimo to overcome his reservations about something that really worries him and the test requires that we go past the door. So short of hauling him to that arena several times and practicing in the arena for an hour or so at a time to get him really accustomed to the door, there isn't much I can do. And it just isn't worth the effort for 2-3 schooling shows that I don't really care about anyway.

      Plus, Nimo can be funny about things that spook him. The typical advice is to keep him moving forward and ignore the thing, but I have never found that particular method to work for him. I understand that it does work for many horses, but with Nimo, he really needs to be allowed to investigate the thing. He wants to sniff it, look at it from different angles, and avoid it for awhile, before finally deciding that it is OK to be around. If I try to force the issue, I can guarantee that he will never truly accept the thing that is scaring him. We once boarded at a stable that had a huge wooden mounting block in the indoor arena. Nimo was there for 3 years. We worked in the indoor arena several times a week during that time, and I specifically focused on the mounting block both during ground work and under saddle. He never stopped spooking at it. In 3 years. I think it is because I used the technique of trying to make him focus on me and ignore his surroundings. If I had just let him investigate it right away instead of trying to push him past it, he may have learned to accept it. But he remained convinced that there was something about it that wasn't right (despite the fact that I used it to get on him almost every time I rode).

      I think of it sort of like this. If I asked a friend to go down to a basement that was poorly lit and sort of spooky or creepy and that person said no, they'd rather not, but I kept insisting, it would escalate the situation. On the other hand, if I left the request open-ended and maybe made some changes to the environment, like better lighting, the friend might eventually go down into the basement out of curiosity. Nimo really is sensitive to being pushed through something that bothers him, so I've learned over the years to gauge his reaction and act accordingly.

      I do understand your point, though. If you board somewhere, your horse does need to become accustomed to the general environment, even if there are things that aren't as horse-friendly as they should be. But there is more time to work through the issue than there is at a show. So I do think that facilities that host shows should make an effort to avoid having obstacles or things in the environment that many horses would likely be concerned about.