Road to Bronze, July 25th; My First Dressage Show

Autumn Hill Dressage Festival III Saturday  July 25, 2015 CSU Equine Center   Fort Collins, Colorado   My first show was well managed with a friendly, helpful staff.   The facilities at the CSU Equine Center were really nice, except the wash stalls weren’t working.  We had to bathe outside in a gravel parking lot.  The show arena had 2 rings and with two S judges, which gave me the opportunity to earn both my qualifying scores at First Level. 5:15 AM  After a fitful sleep, the alarm went off way too early.  I dressed and headed to the barn.  I was pleased to discover that Monarch was still pristine with a braided mane intact.  After feeding the horses and graining Monarch, I removed his fly sheet, brushed his coat, unbraided and brushed  his tail.  I was way ahead of schedule, and made a mental note to set my alarm for an hour later the next morning.  I returned to the camper to try to eat something, drink water, and dress for the show.  It felt good to don my new show clothes.  They gave me confidence. 8:00 AM  With the two of us in our show attire, we headed for the warm up arena.  Our test time was scheduled for 8:42 AM.  After a loosening walk, Deb instructed me to pick up the trot and get Monarch forward.  As expected, the warm up arena was crowded.  As I put Monarch into a forward trot, I learned to navigate among all the riders, horses, trainers coaching from the sidelines, and show nerves of various horses and riders.  Deb told me we would not do any specific movements, instead we would focus on developing the qualities of  dressage- forward, on the bit, obedient.  We worked the trot, doing transitions within the gait, as well as walk/trot.  Then we worked the canter, transitioning from working and lengthening the canter.  Monarch was amazing.  As a Lipizzan, he was bred for exhibitions.  Very quickly he became forward, prompt, and through.  He was enjoying himself.  With such a good warm up, Deb asked me to do a few leg yields, which were continuing to improve. At 8:35 I dismounted, put on my dressage coat, and headed for the show arena amidst well wishes and admiration for my beautiful horse.  My attention was so occupied keeping track of all the details needed to show,  it enabled me to keep my nerves in check.   The whistle blew, and there I was entering at “A working trot, X halt salute.  Proceed working trot.  C track left.”  Monarch felt good, I felt confident.  Then after the lengthen trot across the diagonal, as we made the walk transition at A, I heard the bell ring.  My brain went into rapid chatter: “wait, wait- I can’t be off course.  Why did the bell ring?  What should I do?  Should I approach the judge?”   Well my indecision put Monarch off the bit and he lost impulsion.  I looked up at Deb, and she seemed still focused on the test, so I proceeded.  When I did not get another ring from the judge, I simply continued with the test.  Before I knew it, we made the half circle at E, down centerline to G, halt, salute.

X halt salute

X halt salute

Leaving the arena, I was so grateful to have such a willing, lovely horse.  I didn’t think we had made any huge mistakes, except the bell at A.  I was soon to learn that in a 2 ring show, one judge uses a whistle and the other uses a bell.  I had heard the bell for the rider in ring 1 to enter.  We hadn’t gone off course, but if I had stopped riding to approach the judge, we would have.  Upon receiving my scores, I also learned that I had earned my first qualifying ride at First Level.  It’s a good thing I didn’t stop riding at A!  Including my coeffient scores, (which count double), I received 10 scores at 60%, 14 scores at 65%, and 2 scores at 70%, giving me 172 points for a final score of 63.704%.  My biggest errors were pilot errors, based on my inexperience in a regulation arena and my first first.  When I thought I was off course, the judge’s comment was “more forward in walk.”  I needed to better gauge the size of my circles, (though I erred on the side of small which helped me maintain a respectable score), aiming point to point in my diagonals, and overshooting the halt at X.  Monarch’s stretch in the trot circle and the free walk were deemed unsteady.  I was happy he did not jig!  Both 60%, barely passing.  The high point of this test was a 70% for the trot lengthen across the diagonal and a 70% in the collective marks for Gaits.  The rest of my collective marks were also respectable with 65% for all marks except Impulsion, which earned a 60%.  This was a big improvement for Monarch, as he is a laid-back horse.  We have worked very hard on creating a forward horse.

trot lengthening across diagonal

trot lengthening across diagonal

trot circle looking ahead for geometry

trot circle looking ahead for geometry

work in the trot             My second test came up shortly after the first, so I didn’t have time to study the judges remarks.  I also found the scribe’s handwriting very difficult to decipher.  Knowing that I had already qualified allowed me to relax a bit for my second test.  I couldn’t relax completely, as I knew we still had to  show an improved leg yield, particularly to the right.  With all the excitement of my first day showing, the second test was very much a blur.  Reading the judges comments from my second test, I see that I made many mistakes.  I was certainly keyed up and also tired from training so hard, then getting up very early on very little sleep.  The neither trot lengthening was brilliant, as we had trained (55%); wrong lead-left- at F, resulting in a 30%;  though we quickly corrected the lead, it set us up for a too-large (>15 meter) canter circle on the forehand (55%), and because I was fatigued my Rider Aid score also dropped to 55%.  On the positive side, we scored a 70% for the 15 meter half circle right, the leg yield left (wow!), the medium walk, and his Gaits collective mark also stayed at 70%.  The 70% scores and the coeffients scores, (all at 60% & 65%) were enough to  counter the low scores, resulting in 60.938% overall score.   Though my goal was not to compete, I was pleasantly surprised to receive 2 ribbons, a 2nd and 3rd place.  My daughter pointed out the rankings to me, as she is competitive.  “Mom, look at how many points you beat those other riders.”  In a sport that measures in fractions, the closest rider was 5 points below me.  The rest were even lower. Studying my test remarks that night, my task the next day was to get control over my weak left leg.  The judge commented that my heel was always up, and I used the spur too much.  (Repeated injuries and surgeries have made this my number one challenge in riding.  Besides my left heel coming up, the left leg tends to slip back, and then I tend to sit heavy on the left seat bone, even in movements to the right.  All this creates communication and balance issues for my horse, resulting in mistakes such as the wrong lead in movement 15, (working canter right lead- he picked up his left, and probably because my left seat bone was too heavy) and the loss of impulsion and contact in the right leg yield.) Other areas for improvement included the need to continue building energy and connection for the lengthenings in both trot and canter, the need to plan ahead for whip changes, the need to better visualize circles and half circles for correct geometry, and the need to turn sooner from the corner, making our path on centerline more accurate.  With sound feedback for focus, two qualifying scores, an extra hour of sleep, and even two confidence-building ribbons, I was ready for the next day’s test.

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Road to the Bronze: July 8-24

On July 8th, we loaded Monarch to spend the next week and a half with Deborah Hindi, my talented, generous trainer.  I would be traveling for the next 12 days, so Deb agreed to work with Monarch to keep him fit and ready for our first show while I was away.  The show would be held at Colorado State University Equine Center July 25 and 26.  I would only have 5 days after returning to Colorado to work with Deb to polish my skills and learn how to ride for a show.  (Deb told me several times during that week, “First you learn to ride your horse; then you learn how to ride your horse to show.” )  This made me nervous since we were short on time, though I planned to use the Digital Horse to learn my tests and mentally ride them with the animation feature.  As it turned out, during the time I was away, I was unable to get internet, as our lodgings in the rural Shenandoah Valley had a very poor connection.  Unable to watch the animated tests, I was glad that I had downloaded the PDF tests with diagrams, so I could “ride” the tests in my mind and on a rectangle of carpet in my condo. On Monday, July 20th I met Monarch and Deb at a clinic in Montrose.  I arrived early to watch the other riders.  As my ride time approached, I tacked up and we entered the arena to loosen up on a long rein.  My back was very tight from all the traveling and poor mattresses.  I’ve learned that by following the horse’s rhythm and motion during walk on a long rein, the gentle undulations will loosen a rider’s tight back.  Just as our lesson was to begin, the weather turned ominous with black skies and continuous rumblings.  There was electricity in the air, and I felt Monarch grow tense.  Mary Pat’s husband called to warn us to take cover.  He was about 15 minutes away, and the storm was so bad, he had to stop driving and pull his car to the shoulder.   We reached a covered stall in the nick of time, with the wind roaring and the skies dumping.  With a break in the weather, we headed to the large covered round pen for our lesson.  On a large 30 meter circle, Deb focused on me- my position and my aids, first at trot and then at canter.  My aids were too strong, particularly in the canter.  I had to release and relax my leg to get it off my horse.  This resulted in an improved position, and the spur on only when asking for engagement.  By the end of the session, Monarch was nicely forward and relaxed, stepping through with a long neck. After the clinic, I followed Deb back to Gunnison where we would work for the next three days in preparation for my debut on the dressage show scene.  I was apprehensive; it didn’t seem like enough time.  How could we pull it all together?  Deb’s family warmly welcomed me into their home.  Her husband Beau is a world class cook.  Each long day included strenuous work, a hot shower, and fabulous dinners.  I fell gratefully asleep in anticipation of what the next day’s training would bring. Tuesday, July 21st was an intensive day of training.  We began by getting Monarch forward and through in the warm up.  Deb insisted that we needed to get right to work.  Gone were the days of leisurely walking on a loose rein for 15 minutes before the work would begin.  We began our work at walk, during the warm up, in the “sashay”on a long rein, (not loose).  The rider engages her core and “sashays” her seat in rhythm with the horse’s walk, she supples and releases the horse’s back.  After about 5 minutes of walk on a long rein, we began our trot work- still on a long rein.  I was learning how to ride Monarch with contact on a long rein to get him forward and tracking up.  This have been one of his greatest needs.  As I built his energy, he came more on the bit and through his back. At this point, it was time to learn the tests.  We began with First Level, test 2.  I rode the full test pattern several times at the trot to learn the geometry, (as I don’t have a regulation arena at home), to review the patterns, and to supple and connect Monarch.    I had to keep many tasks clear in this work, particularly navigating while focusing on improving my horse.  I later learned how important this exercise was, as it taught me how to focus on the task at hand when in a crowded, chaotic warm-up arena during a show.  While I was building Monarch’s fire and desire to go forward and through, Deb was building my increased stamina and the mental fire I would need to succeed in the show ring. During our first real run-through of the actual test 1-2, our holes were discovered and addressed.  I needed to better lengthen Monarch’s neck and lower his head for the trot and canter lengthenings to show brilliance.  I needed to encourage a bigger stride and longer neck in the free walk and stretchy-chewy trot circle while maintaining contact on a long rein.  This can be particularly tricky in the free walk, because Monarch has a tendency to jig when asked to take longer steps.  His walk has greatly improved over the past 2 years, but still needed more scope. Our biggest hole was leg yield, particularly to the right.  We spent the final time working to get him to remain parallel to the long side, while moving laterally in his bigger stride.  Though we drilled it many times, Monarch was not accepting contact on his outside (right) rein.  To compensate, I was making the classic mistake of holding him with an opening inside rein. When I let go of the inside rein, he ran through my outside rein.  I had no half halt, so I could not straighten him.  Without the outside rein, my inside leg was also ineffective, so instead of moving laterally, he just speeded up and moved diagonally toward M.  Deb was relentless in the pursuit of correcting my aids and our communication.  It was only after the movement had improved, that she allowed us to rest and end on a positive note.  She told me that Monarch can do this, as he had for her the previous week when she was riding him.  She insisted that I needed to find my right seat bone.  This was especially evident when our leg yield to the left was noticeably better than our leg yield to the right.  I needed time to process what my body was doing to confuse my horse and what I needed to do to clarify what I wanted. After our lesson, I thought about everything Deb had said, reviewing her feedback with what I was doing.  I practiced riding leg yield zigzags on the ground without my horse.  It was then that I realized I stay in my left seat bone whether I am leg yielding left or right.  -LIGHT BULB-  Now I could practice the outside half halt, shift my weight to the outside seat bone, put my inside leg on the horse, and yield over.  I practiced this all the way up the road from the arena to the house, mentally rehearsing what I would do with my horse the following day.  I was also doing some remedial re-patterning of muscle memory. Wednesday, July 22  More work on the leg yield.  It was becoming more honest, as I began to find and use my right seat bone.  I also needed to be clearer with my right half halt to put him in connection with the outside rein.  We had to slow the movement way down for Monarch and I to process the correct aids and to break our bad habits.  This did not please Deb, as the slower rhythm shortened his stride, and he was no longer tracking up.  However, it did help me learn a new movement pattern and develop some muscle memory.  Deb told me that when we are under pressure, we grab any muscle memory that happens to come into our brains without processing what we are doing.  To ensure that we are grabbing the correct memory, we want to deposit far more correct patterns into our brains, as opposed to incorrect patterns.  This is why it is so important to never practice a movement incorrectly, as we are patterning the wrong muscle memory for both ourselves and our horses.  The big lesson for me was to be very disciplined and correct when training, (and of course every moment with your horse is training.)  When I feel that the movement has become labored and out of balance, I should not continue to practice.  I should leave it alone until I can get guidance and direction to avoid creating ingrained bad habits.  Only when I am correct, can I correctly train my horse. Thursday, July 23  Our last training day- we still had not practiced First Level test 1 as Deb could not find a copy of this test in her barn.  Luckily, I had this test well memorized from the Digital Horse print outs.  We rode the test well, our lengthenings were balanced and rhythmic, the stretchy-chewy circle was well ridden, and Monarch’s free walk was showing scope.  One last day to practice the leg yield.  With a better feel for my right seat bone and a better connection in my right hand, the leg yield out of center line to M was certainly passable.  Time to give Monarch some rest, clean my tack, and pack for the “big show.” Friday, July 24  Up at 5 am, we loaded 4 horses, tack, and sundries into Deb’s trailer and hit the road.  We had a caravan with Team Hindi in the big rig and with me following in my truck with pop-up camper.  We arrived in Ft Collins around 12:30, checked in with the show office, found our stalls, and began the process of moving in for the next 3 days.  With the horses settled and everything unpacked, it was time for our final rehearsal.  Schooling was allowed in the main arena.  Since it was relatively early, the arena was uncrowded, and we had the time and space to work out the kinks.  Monarch found the spooky spots, and Deb told me to put him right to work.  “Give him something else to think about,” was her advice. This worked well.  In the electric environment of a show arena, it wasn’t long before he came on the bit, tracked up, and connected with me.  We practiced a few lengthenings, brushed up on the geometry of 15 meter circles at P and V in canter, practiced a few leg yields, and finished with a stretchy-chewy trot circle. Marissa, my daughter who lives in Ft Collins came to give me moral support and to help me bathe Monarch.  It takes some time and elbow grease to get a grey horse sparkling, and with the help of the “purple” shampoo, he began to transform.  Monarch has a huge, thick tail and mane.  It was especially hard to get the inner parts clean.  Repeated shampooing, conditioning, and brushing did the trick.  When we were done, his tail was huge.  It blossomed like a floribunda rose!  We decided to take the risk and French braid his mane that night, with the thought that even if it came loose, it would be easier to re-braid than starting from scratch in the morning.  We also braided his tail, just to keep the shavings and manure out of it, knowing that when I brushed out his tail braid in the morning, it would add more body for the show.  I admired his glowing silver coat before putting on a clean sheet and tucking him in for the night.  I spread an extra bag of shavings to help him stay pristine.  Before leaving the barn, I touched up my tack.  It was as spotless as my horse!

Monarch shows off his French braid to admirers.

Monarch shows off his French braid to admirers.

Marissa took me to the grocery store to stock up for the weekend before dropping me at my camper.  I “popped up,” got settled, then began preparing for the next day.  I unpacked my show clothes, Monarch’s show blankets, and the pdf diagrams of the tests for a last review.  I meticulously drew up a timeline of what I needed to do and where I needed to be from the moment I woke up until I rode my last test.  I was ready, I was tired, it was late, but sleep would not come.  Though I worked hard to stay calm and not give in to nerves, I was experiencing some pre-show anxiety, anticipation, and excitement.  I planned to get up at 5:15 am to be ready for an early test.  I had my ducks in a row, and it was time to show the judges where we were on the continuum of training.  I reminded myself that I was not competing.  It didn’t matter whether I won a ribbon or even placed last.  What mattered is that the judges deemed our tests to be worthy of 60% for qualifying scores at First Level.