Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Hard Part of Showing

I love showing horses, truly I do. I enjoy the training and strength-building process, then taking that training and polishing it up until it is performance ready. I enjoy figuring out how to ride each movement so that it earns the most possible points, every time. 

I enjoy writing the pre-show training schedule, timing the hacks and variety days so that the horses are mentally ready as well as physically ready.  I like writing the show schedule (yea, I’m weird like that), playing trailer-packing Tetras so things easily come out in the most efficient order for set-up – load riding stuff first, then  tack stall hardware, then stable management, so they come out of the trailer in reverse order.

The night-before anticipation, that’s the best. When the actual class is still far enough away that nerves haven’t taken over, and hope runs high. In those moments, we all see Valegro in our mounts, and it is wonderful.   

I enjoy walking my tests in the barn aisle, reviewing the parts that are important to each horse.  I enjoy going over and practicing warm up plans for both my rides and my students. I like clarifying goals for each trip down the centerline, so everyone knows what a “good show” will look like for them.

Sometimes it all works out, I have a ride I’m happy with, and I earn the score I want, we get a pretty ribbon, and everyone is happy.  Those days aren’t hard at all.

Sometimes it  goes well, but I don’t place in the class. Sometimes good riders, mounted on better quality horses than I have, take home the ribbons.  Of course I get a twinge of “I wish I had the ride on that fancy horse,” but those twinges don’t last long. I tend to be a “love what you have” kind of person, so that isn’t the hardest part for me.

Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and I’m stuck dealing with the emotions that come with disappointment. Sometimes my test falls apart for whatever reason, be it environment, weather, or distractions, and my horse’s trust in my aids evaporates.  Sometimes judge thinks less of the ride than I did.  

These days are tough, but they aren’t the hardest part of showing for me. 

After the tough rides, I wouldn’t be a good trainer if I didn’t spend the next weeks dissecting my training, looking for weaknesses in my system.  I wonder if show stress affected my riding, and made the I-thought-we-had-this-solid movement somehow fall apart in the exact moment I needed it to work.  I wonder what I can do to better prepare my horses for the crazy, completely unnatural conditions we call a horse show. 

But even this isn’t the hardest part for me.

The hardest part for me is after the show.  That’s when the ugly inner-demon of self doubt shows up.  And that demon isn’t picky, he’ll rear his nasty head whether the show went well or not.   If the show went well, the demon tells me I got lucky, and “the big boys” weren’t there, or the score could have been higher.  If things have gone poorly, the demon starts in with “A more skilled trainer would do a better job with this horse.” The demon feeds on after-show fatigue.

No matter how solid my track record has been, either with a particular horse or in this sport in general, when I’m show weary, the demon speaks loudly, and ignoring him, and the emotions he dredges up, that’s the hard part for me.   

I suspect anyone who works in a performance industry is plagued by this demon.  Our “what have you done for me lately” society seems to value current success over historical track record.  But horses don’t have the same values. They prosper with long-term consistency, or, in short, good history. 

I battle the demon with rest, a hack, a long groom session to remind me why I love these wonderful animals.  If that isn’t enough, I go with facts – I look at my strengths on each horse, and the trends of their scores.  When all else fails, I whine to my support system, who either look at me like I’m nutty for listening to the silly voices in my head, or get me off the farm for a few hours or more, to remind me that the pseudo-reality called horse shows, that I care so much about, is only a part of who I am as a person.  

But the bitter truth is the demon could be right. My mounts might progress faster, or show better with  different trainer. Then again, the demon may be wrong.  But even if the demon is correct, I know that I have done my best for each and every one of my mounts.  I know that I will continue to hone my skills,  every day, so that tomorrow, my best will be better than it is today.  

Hopefully that is enough to banish the demon.                           

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Where ya been?

I’ve been a bit busy since my last blog post, which, for any self-employed person, is a good thing. But it means that this, my beloved blog and hobby, gets put on the back burner.

It’s been a good summer, with lots of shows, lots of ribbons (check out our Facebook page for stats and such), lots of laughs, lots of delicious meals away from home, a very wet go-kart race, and lots of goals met. We are packing for our last overnighter of the year, and have 2 schooling show championships left on the calendar, and then 2016 show season is a thing of the past. 

One thing that has kept me busy is staffing issues. We’ve had a bit of turnover, and right now have a “help wanted” ad out for weekend help.  I have a super working student right now, but only temporary as she has a semester off from her masters program. So if anyone would like to check out the inside view of a dressage program geared towards helping people achieve their goals, now’s the chance.  Shoot me an e-mail if you are interested.

I have a few half-written blogs, that hopefully I’ll get polished in the next few weeks.

Until then,


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Continuing Education in Freestyle Judging, hosted by DVCTA

Lois Yukins
On March 19 and 20th, 2016, the Delaware Valley Combined Training Association (DVCTA) hosted the USDF Continuing Education in Freestyle Judging Program. Saturday was filled with a classroom discussion held at New Bolton Center, and Sunday was comprised of live freestyle rides at Ardara Sporthorses. Presenters were Klassic Kur Freestyle Designer Terry Ciotti Gallo and FEI 4* and USEF "S" Judge Lois Yukins. The audience consisted of 12 Participants, made up of L-graduates and USEF-licensed Dressage Judges, approximately 25 auditors and 11 demonstration riders.   

Yukins began the day by describing the path to creating the USDF Continuing Education in Freestyle Judging Program.   Her description began with “a box of stuff” that was handed around the L faculty, but no one could sort out how best add the information into the already-densely-packed L Program itself.  Yukins approached Gallo about the problem, who utilized her enthusiasm for freestyles and background in gymnastics judging to turn the “box of stuff” into this well-thought-out program. 
Lois Yukins
With that introduction, Gallo began Saturday’s lecture.  She started by defining the purpose of the event—to eliminate the “touchy-feely” element of filling in the “artistic impression” side of a freestyle score sheet, which often intimidates judges.  The silence coming from the participants illustrated her point. Terry solved that problem by tossing Easter eggs filled with candy to everyone who contributed to the discussion.
Terry Ciotti Gallo
Participation came more easily as Gallo outlined the specific criteria judges are to use to evaluate each category of the freestyle performance, augmented by video of good examples and poor examples.  By putting the evaluation into familiar judging methodology of “Basics + Criteria +/- Modifiers = Score,” she created a comfortable format for judges to begin their evaluations. 
Gallo began with an example of how music can enhance or detract from the horse’s gaits.  She played a short video clip of Steffen Peters riding Ravel in a trot half pass, and played several music clips with it.  The video clip never changed, but different music made him look lighter and more elegant, while other clips made him look slightly hurried. 
Using this as her segue into explaining methodology for evaluating the “Music” line on the score sheet, Gallo stressed that suitability of the music to the horse is the primary factor in evaluating the “Music” score.  According to Gallo, the criterion for this mark is the suitability of the music for all three gaits.  If the music is suitable, the score starts at a 7.  If the music enhances all three gaits, then the score is higher.  Modifiers that can push the “Music” score higher are cohesiveness, or is there a common thread in the walk, trot, canter music, and seamlessness of the editing. If music is suitable, music works together, and editing is good, it can earn an 8.0 or higher. In summary, the “Music” score is about the music selection and preparation, and is the score least affected by the technical performance.
After that, Gallo tackled the topic of “Interpretation.”   The primary criterion for “Interpretation” is what Gallo called “six-point phrasing.”  She defined “points of phrasing” as times when the horse’s movements changed with a musical phrase or dynamic change. A ride that shows six key “points of phrasing” should earn a 7.0 in the “Interpretation” category.

The six key “points of phrasing” are as follows:

Tracy Basler adn Bondurant awaiting instruction from Terry Gallo
  • 1.       Initial halt and salute
  • 2.       First movement changes
  • 3.       Lengthening or extension in trot
  • 4.       Lengthening or extension in canter
  • 5.       Gait change
  • 6.       Final halt/salute

 If the ride shows more than these six “points of phrasing,” the score can go higher than a 7.0.  Gallo showed her personal shorthand system for counting points of phrasing, where she made tally marks for each point of music phrasing or dynamic change highlighted by the choreography. 

The modifier that can push the “Interpretation” higher is if the music expresses the gait. To illustrate this, Gallo played several music clips, and asked the participants decide if it was walk music, trot music, or canter music.  She stressed that the horse does not need to be “in step” with the music, but if the horse is in step, as this is a very hard thing to do in a show setting, it should be rewarded.  In summary, if a ride expresses more than six points of phrasing, has music that suggests the gait, and the horse’s gaits match the footfalls most of the time, the score should be an 8.0 or higher.

The third element Gallo explained was “Degree of Difficulty.” Evaluating this criteria is pretty clear-cut—if the requirements of the freestyle match the highest test of the level in all three gaits, then the score is a 7.0.  If the freestyle pattern is harder than the highest test of the level, and is performed well, then the score should go above a 7.0.  However, if the choreography includes a difficult movement, but it is not performed well, then the “Degree of Difficulty” score will be reduced.   This score, and the “Harmony” score, are the two scores where the strength of the horse’s basics will impact the number earned.

Next Gallo explained the requirements for the “Choreography” score. “Design Cohesiveness” is listed as the criterion for this category on the score sheet.  According to Gallo, choreography that shows a clear and logical pattern that is easy to follow meets the criteria for a 7.0.  If the pattern uses the entire arena well, shows equal use of right and left rein work, and has some elements used in interesting or uncommon ways, the score should be higher.  This score is mostly independent of technical execution, except when the technical execution makes the choreography hard to see. 

The final element Gallo covered in the lecture is “Harmony,” which relies largely on the technical execution of the freestyle.  Gallo said she put this discussion last because it is comprehensive of the entire freestyle performance.  To earn a high “Harmony” score, the horse needs to be calm and attentive, and the freestyle should look easy and fluid.  If the horse shows some tension issues during the ride, the harmony score should be below a 7.0. 

Gallo and Yukins also discussed that the FEI Freestyle sheet differs a little from the USDF Freestyle score sheet, placing “Rhythm, energy and elasticity” on the artistic side of the score sheet, whereas USDF places the equivalent score, worded as “Gaits, Impulsion and Submission,” on the technical side of the sheet.

Day two involved using live horses to allow the participants to practice their new methodology.  After Gallo used a live horse to demonstrate how she selects suitable music, Yukins took the lead in discussing scores for each of the 10 demo rides. 

The demo rides ranged from a training level teenager on a pinto pony to a Pas de Deux to a CDI rider’s Intermediate freestyle. Yukins began by giving a tactful evaluation of the first ride.  Her comments helped each participant understand how she arrived at her numbers, and helped each demo rider understand the strengths and weaknesses of their performance. As the day progressed, she changed tactics and started asking the participant judges to do the evaluating before she revealed her score.  Yukins' gifted teaching skills created a comfortable environment for the candidates to begin to use their new skills, by teasing the high-scorers that “they’d get hired a lot” and accusing the low-scorers of “Sunday grumpies.” By the last few rides, participant’s scores were very similar to Yukins and Gallo’s marks.

After two days of education, participants came away with a clear methodology for evaluating freestyle rides.

Lois Yukins discusses scores with the participating judges

DVCTA would like to thank Lois Yukins and Terry Gallo for sharing their knowledge of judging freestyles with all who attended.  Your style and your wit create such a positive learning environment for all involved.  Many thanks to all our volunteers and to our demonstration riders without whom this weekend would not have been so productive:

Karen Anderson / Fhinland - Third Level
Lauren Annett / Savannahh - Intermediate
Tracey Basler / Bondurant - First Level
Anecia Delduco / Captain Morgan - Fourth Level
Melanie Delduco / Flacon - Fourth Level and Pas de Deux
Lauren Kramer / Mazur - First Level and Pas de Deux
Rebecca Langwost-Barlow / Chesapeake - Intermediate
Silva Martin / Aesthete - Intermediate
Jordan Osborne / Domino - Training Level
Jamie Reilley / Feinest Proof - Second Level

Melanie Delduco and Flacon

Monday, April 11, 2016


In response to my last post, I’d like to answer several questions that keep coming up:

Yes, the splints are out of my nose now. Those things were much bigger than I thought they were. Like truly huge. And I don’t mean “the fish that got away” huge, but in reality huge. Honest.

Yes, I’m riding again (silly humans, of course I am). As happens this time of year, my ride list is a little shorter. Horses that came for a winter boost-our-training-up-a-notch have transitioned from me in the saddle to the owners in the tack, learning where all of their nifty new buttons are before they head home for the summer.  Plus I have a quite effective working student right now.  So I’m only sitting on 4 to 7 a day.

Yes, I was sore on Friday. Of course I was, but TOTALLY worth it.

Yes, I’m wearing a mask. It is horribly uncomfortable, steams up my glasses, and has caused my chin to break out like a teenager. The upside is, according to one of my closest friends, it makes me look like a Marvel Super Villain. Can I get any cooler than that?

So I did some research. Turns out there are tons of ways to stop dust from coming into your nose – everything from gas masks to foam pompoms stuffed up your nostrils. These two caught my attention: 

How can that be comfortable? 
Now this look is total super-villain, and even comes in green.

As I'm a bit over having things stuffed up my nose at the moment, I ordered what looks like a band aid with a filter in it. Hopefully it will be more suitable than my mask, but somehow I don’t think it’ll be any more classy.

No, I won’t have to dust-filter my nose forever, just until everything heals inside.

Yes, my hair is much better. My hairdresser is a miracle worker.

No, the cookies did not turn out well. They are the worst chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever made. The dough was a bit on the dry side to start, then while it was “resting” in the fridge, somehow about a fourth of it mysteriously disappeared. When I actually got around to baking them, they came out hard as rocks. I gave up after the 3rd tray and left the rest as dough. The dough is better than the cookies anyway.

Which means yes, my sense of smell and taste are returning. 

Yes, my headaches are MUCH improved. I can even blow my nose now.  No one appreciates being able to blow their nose enough.

Yes, I’ll post the DVCTA article here, but I thought I’d let DVCTA, who asked for it, run it first. That seemed polite.

Yes, my teeth are still being brushed, but not as frequently. Breathing from my nose is a really, really nice thing.

Now off to ride the ponies.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


I am grounded off of horseback for a week.  It’s been a long week.

Last Wed I had sinus surgery, to correct some structural issues in my nose that the doc thinks contributes to my frequent sinus and ear infections.  I’m a lifelong veteran of ENT offices and the assorted surgical things they can do.  I’ve put this particular procedure off for about 8 years now, mostly because I truly hate general anesthetic’s side effects, but this year the sinus infections and earaches have been almost constant, so it was time.

Normal people usually return to work a couple of days after this particular surgery, but as dust, getting bonked in the nose, and breathing heavy are parts of my daily life with horses, the doc advised me to take a week off. 

For those who have not had sinus surgery, essentially, while you are taking a nap, the doctors do their thing.  Before you wake up, they fill your nose with what they call “packing” and “splints.” Then they use a giant rubber band between your ears to hold a hunk of gauze under your nose.  In essence, giant plastic discs and tampons go up the nose and a maxi pad goes underneath.  Over the course of the next week, these things are gradually removed. No, I did not take a selfie of my swollen, black-eyed self with all this stuff on and inside my face.

All that aside, I felt like crap for about 2 days.  Then I got restless.

My friends know I’m not exactly the lay-around type, and keep asking me what I’m doing to stay busy.  In order to entertain myself, I did typical geeky-dressage stuff, and other day-off stuff:

-          Organized a fix-a-test for my students to keep them busy while I am trapped in the house.
-          Played with freestyle choreography and music for Capi.
-          Mapped out and laminated some dressage tests and organized my judging bag.
-          Scanned in everyone’s USEF Vaccination report and sent them to my students      electronically.
-       Brush my teeth. Breathing through my mouth makes my mouth feel gross.
-          Printed Coggins/Vaccine report/Membership verification for the horses I’m         competing this season.
-          Wrote an article for DVCTA.
-          Did SFD’s beginning of the month paperwork.
-          Colored my hair. This didn’t go so well. My bathroom looks like a homicide scene, and my hair looks like Ariel.
-          Cleaned out my inbox.  That took a while….
-          Took the time to figure out how to make my phone quit doing the series of annoying things it does.  That didn’t take nearly as long as I expected.
-          Followed up on judging requests.
-       Brush my teeth again. It just feels nasty.
-          Finished reading a book about the end of WWII – way too heavy of a read for being trapped inside.
-          Got off my plateau in Candy Crush.  That took FOREVER.
-          Spent an afternoon shopping. I hate shopping. I was that bored.
-          Tortured my husband with my cooking.  This really didn’t make sense, as I can’t taste much. But it did remind him why he does the cooking.
-          Touched base with several friends who were checking up on me – first to see how I felt after surgery, and later to make sure I was following doctor’s orders and not doing too much.
-       Brush my teeth again. I have the best dental hygiene ever.
-          Got caught up on House of Cards and Agent Carter.
-          Played with my dogs. The puppy is becoming a pro at fetch.
-          Wrote this nonsensical, fairly pointless blog about trying to entertain myself. 

I have resorted to standing outside of the barn and asking people to bring me horses.  I did sneak in one afternoon, after all the dust-rousing sweeping and chores were done, to visit.

Today I plan to make cookies and run some broken tack to the repair shop—hardly a full day’s worth of activities.  Wednesday I’m going to go visit Harry, our young horse who is off being backed, visit the hair salon to correct my Little Mermaid look, then get the toothpicks, er splints, out of my nose.  If that’s not enough to fill my last two days left of my confinement, I may need to sneak into the barn to pet horses again.

I can’t wait to sit on a horse Thursday. I suspect Friday morning I’ll be feeling the effects of a week with no exercise, but it will be completely worth it.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Training "The Breakfast Club"

My mind loves patterns. As I go about my job of training dressage horses, I noticed that the patterns of a few of my mount’s personalities seems pretty similar to high school, which got me thinking of the movie, “The Breakfast Club.” 

Before I dive into this slightly-stretched metaphor, I need to comment a bit about all the factors that go into  developing a training plan for a specific dressage horse:  
  • ·         steps of the technical knowledge they are trying to impart in their horse
  • ·         horse’s natural physical  natural strengths and weaknesses,
  • ·         horse’s mental and physical sensitivity level
  • ·         horse’s age and training history
  • ·         horse’s ability to accept pressure
  • ·         horse’s attention span
  • ·         horse’s intensity of their innate fight or flight and herd instinct. 

But for this blog, I’m just going to babble about the horse’s personality, because frankly, figuring out how to get a horse to try is one of the things I love about training hoses. And figuring out a horse’s personality is key to figuring out what makes them want to try.  

 The only way to develop that stand-out-in-a-crowd expression, along with the obedience to perform a tidy test, is to train with the horse’s personality in mind.  Every horse is different, and three horses I’m preparing  for the showring for their owners this season so clearly fall into separate categories that I thought I’d share a bit of it with you.  All three are wonderful horses, and are each “A” students, but three very different kinds of A’s.  In order to bring out their best, I need to figure out the best way to motivate them.  In describing their personalities, I find that, much like the characters from “The Breakfast Club,” high school stereotypes seem to work best.

Slingshot - The Millennial

Sling's big ego shows clearly in this shot of him as a 5-year-old.
Slingshot is a millennial by nature.  Typical millennial-types are nicely-put-together, talented horses, who try to get by on good looks. If he were a high-school kid, he’d spend afternoons in mom’s basement, enjoying his video games, or goofing off on the basketball court.  Academically, he’d be the 90% A—the one who put in just enough effort to make the grade, and not a bit more. This is not the horse that digs deep and tries 100%, it’s the one who figures out how much you want, and that’s what you get.  If he were in the cast of “The Breakfast Club,” he’d be the jock.

For this horse, training has to be a game, and he has to feel like he’s winning the game. If I pick at him too much, he’ll get sulky. If I praise try, even sloppy try, he’ll try harder.

I’ve trained many, many millennials.  Most of my re-train sales horses have fallen into this category, as millennials often come with tempers (especially as youngsters), and angry horses are not fun to ride.  So I’m able to get them inexpensive, help them get over their anger, figure out how to get them to try, then find them an owner who understands their minds.

A millennial re-train horse (which thankfully Sling is not) often has a defensive side, so I have to be careful not react to that.  My mental self talk has to be motivational.  I often think “play with me,” instead of focusing on my technique. I am over-the-top gushy with the praise with these guys, and they love it.

Every horse has their “issue,” that thing that keeps creeping up time and time again in the training. For the millennials, often that issue is keeping them in front of the leg.  This, if the horse has a temper, can make him tricky to train.  In order to get a millennial in front of the leg, he has to be pain free, uphill, and straight, and then held to a consistent standard of obedience.  If I change my standard for a day, because I’m not feeling 100%, or I think he’s feeling tired, or whatever, I’ll pay for it the next day.  If there’s an escape route, either in the balance or the standard, the millennial will take it. But when the balance, straightness, and obedience are there, they often give a clear, wonderful feeling of “locking in.”

As I said, millennials like to play games, and happily do things that are easy for them, so fitness is very important.  But repetition does not work with these guys. To help them get strong enough to climb to the next level, I figure out an exercise that they like, and pair it with an exercise that they view as work, and go between the two.  If the game is fun and easy for my millennial, he’ll get tons of gushy praise, which will bring out his playful, expressive side. Once he’s in playful mode, his ego kicks in, and the sky’s the limit.

Capitano -The Overachiever

Capi looks a bit surprised that I'm thrilled with is performance, doesn't he?

Capi, a typical overachiever-type, has a very intense, slightly insecure, very obedient nature.  He’s the high-school student who lived in the library or the lab, was on the chess team, and not only got the A, he did all of the extra credit, and ended the year with a 110%.  He’s the kind of horse that will give you a movement for a “10,” and apologizing because it’s not an “11.”  If this were “The Breakfast Club,” he’d be the brain.

For this type, he has to feel like he’s pleasing me. He’ll work hard, and do things exactly the way he thinks I want them done.  So I support “try,” and reward when he gets it 100% correct.  When I praise my accountants, it’s more of a humming under my breath for “try”, and a halt and stroke when he understands something. If I did the elaborate, gushy millennial -volume praise on one of my accountants, it would scare him.

Because the overachiever types never think they are good enough, they often feel tense at the start of a ride.  Riding around with not much structure, waiting for them to relax, will make them more tense, not less. These guys crave routine.  They don’t like strong, quick aids, they like supportive, encouraging aids. 

These guys are fun to show because they will let me focus on my technique and truly influence every step in the arena.  If things fall apart in the ring, he’ll be focused enough on me to put it back together. 

Unlike the millennial, the overachievers thrive on repetition. They will happily let you go over each detail of the set up of each movement.  They will memorize your pattern to set up each movement, then, if you are consistent, offer that movement at just the right time.  When I’ve done freestyle with my accountants, they always learn the music cues.

The problem with this personality type is, because they try too hard, the tension often affects the swing in their back.  This creates all kinds of funky gait abnormalities, like tempo variations, unlevel knees, etc, that may look lame, but the lameness is not coming from their bodies at all. The funky footwork is coming from their mind.

Because the overachiever is so locked into doing what the rider wants, he often won’t “lock in” to his ideal balance point like the millennial will.  I use my video camera more with this type than any others.  Because the accountants are more committed to doing what I want than what is easy or correct, it’s up to me to learn which feel brings out his best gaits.  

BR Danny’s Secret -The Student Council President

Secret's confidence was right at home at Dressage at Devon
Secret completely fits this description.  She has an intense personality, but little insecurity.  True to her type, she always knows what’s best.  She would be the high school student who, in addition to being student council president, sings in the choir, runs track, makes honor roll with a mid-range A, and always has her things in order.  In addition, she not only knows what is best for her, she knows what is best for everyone else.  If this were “The Breakfast Club,” she would absolutely be the princess.

For this type, they need to feel right. These guys have the work ethic of the overachiever, but have the ego, and sometimes a touch of the temper, of the millennial.  Fair is the name of the game when developing Madam President.  When I praise her, the emotion coming from her is more of “yes, that was lovely, wasn’t it?”  This type I can give a quick scratch on the withers in the corner and keep going, and she will be very happy to continue to be perfect.

As schoolmasters, Madam  President is wonderful. She’s patient enough to let her student sort it out, and confident enough in her skills to lock into the movement when the rider gets it right. 

When learning new skills, though, Madam President can be tricky.  Because of her confidence, she will often take over in the ring if allowed. She knows best, so I have to make sure my direction is clear, logical and fair. Because if she thinks I’m wrong, she’s going to do it her way.

I show Madam President very differently than I do my accountants.  I set up movements for her, then throw in a helpful half halt every now and then, and accept what she offers.  I never show a president at a level they aren’t 100% comfortable with, as helping her out when there’s show pressure doesn’t always work out well.  I always teach the presidents their tests, as when they know best, they show best.

Just as described in the synopsis of “The Breakfast Club,” all horses tend to have a bit of each personality in them, and sometimes change shift a bit as they become more mature and confident in their training.  But for now, we’ll see what the judges think of the performances of these three very different personalities.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

How Attending the L Program Changed How I Show

I enrolled in the L program because, the way I saw it, no matter how much money I spent on lessons, the judge ultimately determined my score.  The more I saw things from their perspective, the higher my potential score.  During the program, I learned that the judges are much more objective than most riders think. 

After going through the L program, I realized if I’m going to earn the scores I want, I needed to become as objective as my evaluators.  As a rider and trainer, changes in my horses’ balance and gaits are exciting, and feeling a horse begin to offer a movement is goose-bump worthy. But as a competitor, I had to be objective about what that offering looked like.  Let’s face it, the worst place to see what a horse looks like is on top of the horse.  So I had to pull out my video camera.

I videoed my tests, and once I got over picking apart my faults (which took a while), a funny thing started to happen. Previously, as soon as I left the arena, I was surrounded by either the euphoria of performance high, or crushing negativity because something didn’t work.  I was sure I had either hit it out of the park, or hadn’t broke 50.  Then I’d get my results back and be confused, because usually I was somewhere in the middle. I’d grumble and complain about the score, sure certain movements were better or worse than the judge’s scores. 

After I started taping my rides, I’d sit down with my score sheet while I watched the video.  Watching my performance with the evaluation in front of me showed me three things. First, the look and the feel of a dressage movement are not always the same.  Second, the judge is trying to tell me some specific things about my performance.  Third, sometimes I disagree with the judge’s evaluation.

First, “feel” versus look.

Feel is such a tricky thing, because what we feel is not necessarily correct or incorrect—what we usually feel is a change. Sometimes that change is for the better, sometimes it is not.  Sometimes the horse gives us a bigger change in the feel than can be seen from the ground. 

For example, say I’ve been working hard to improve the shoulder in.   My work may have created a better angled, steadier, more cadenced shoulder in than last week, but is it fairly good?  In the judge’s number-based vocabulary, “fairly good” earns a 7.   If that shoulder in isn’t a 7 at home, or is a 7 sometimes at home, I can’t get angry when the judge doesn’t give it a 7 at a show. The catch, of course, is if I haven’t taken a look at the shoulder in, I’ll only know that it has changed, but not necessarily how much it has changed.

Which brings me to another point -- judges are evaluating what is “trained” to a level, not what is “training” at a level.  From a rider’s perspective, a horse is “trained” in a movement when he can successfully complete that movement 75% of the time in a relaxed, confident manner – hence he’s capable of a fairly good score, or a 7.  So in my shoulder in example above, my horse is “training” the shoulder in at home, not “trained” to shoulder in, so expecting 7 from every show performance isn’t really fair. Expecting a “trained” score from a movement that is still being developed will set up unnecessary frustration.

Once I started thinking of things this way, it changed how I read my test sheets. My reaction to the judge’s comments became much less emotional.  If I did a shoulder in that started well, then half way through the steps got short and my horse’s neck got tight, then he started falling over his outside shoulder, and the judge gave me a 5.5 and commented on those things, my thoughts became “good eye, judge.” 

Which neatly segues into my second topic—what judges are trying to tell us with the comments.

The judge has two jobs – first, evaluate each movement as it looks that day, using a number-based vocabulary. That vocabulary is the 1-10 scale, which is defined in the USEF Rulebook.  Second, in a few words, explain what I need to show them in order to earn a higher number.  Judges are required to give a comment if they thought the movement was sufficiently, marginally, or badly meeting the standard, or, in judge’s number-vocabulary, a 6 or below.  They aren’t obligated to comment on 7, 8, or 9s, but if I got a 7 with a comment, I knew the judge thought I was capable of an 8, 9, or 10 on that movement. 

A movement that earns a 7 is, by definition, fairly good.  Often, the difference between a 7 and 8 comes down to one of two things. Sometimes the difference can be the elasticity of the horse’s topline during the movement.  Sometimes the difference is the clarity of the movement, particularly the beginning and end of the movement. 

Elastic, swinging toplines are a product of suppleness, impulsion, and engagement.  Some horses begin with a more soft, swinging topline than others. Some horses come with more power.  Some come with a more naturally obedient personality.  Through training, all of these areas can be improved.  But if my horse starts with a 6 in natural topline swing and a 10 in try, the horse who starts with a 7 in topline swing and an 8 in try will probably pin ahead of me.

This can be disheartening, but it is part of the objectivity of judging.   A judge can’t be harder or easier on one horse than another, even if they recognize how much effort the horse is putting in.  Often the final comments will reflect that the horse is “trying her heart out,” but the numbers still need to objectively compare my horse to the idealistic “10.” 

But remember the clarity of the movement can bump the score up a number.  A judge can only evaluate what they see, and the more clearly they see it, the better they can evaluate it.  Elastic, swinging horses that present sloppy, wavering shoulder ins will score behind less-swingy horses with tidy performances. On the less-swingy horse, the rider needs to present a well- prepared test. Which to me is encouraging, because of all of the variables that horse shows create, test preparation is the one thing I can control.  

When I started watching my videos, I quickly saw ways I could improve my performance, and therefore pick up more points.  I started holding my accuracy to a much higher standard in my every-day riding, as well as my test riding.

Watching the videos revealed that, most of the time, I agreed with the judge.  But sometimes I disagreed, which is my third point.  

When I started to attend judge’s forums, I found out that not only do I sometimes disagree with the judge, judges sometimes disagree with each other.  In the L program, the examiners aren’t overly concerned as long as candidates are within 1 point of the evaluator on a given movement.  Their bigger concern is that the best, most well-presented horse wins the class and the weakest performance places last. 

But as a rider, the difference between a 5 and 6 on a specific movement feels large--much larger than its impact on the final score.  Often, when in forums where judges disagree, it’ll be resolved with “we are only talking about one point here.”  In terms of the overall score for the ride, 1 point is only about .01 or .02 percent, rarely enough to effect the order of placings.

That being said, it’s okay to disagree with a judge. Expecting a judge to sit there and give up to 36 evaluations plus a synopsis every 7 minutes, for 8 hours a day, and get every single evaluation correct, is optimistic. That judges get it right as often as they do amazes me.  But if I find myself disagreeing with every judge every time I head down the center line, it may be time to re-evaluate my standard.  The judges may be holding me to a higher standard than I am setting for myself.  

My time in the L program clearly clarified to me what I am trying to present to the judges, resulting in much less confusion about my marks, better prepared performances, and higher marks. 

Thank you to the DVCTA Marilyn O.  Heath Scholarship fund for helping support my trip to the judge’s box.