Dressage at Devon is a magical show each year. Take the largest DSH breed show in the country, complete with tons of cute, nervous babies, add a prestigious CDI with the fire-breathing FEI horses, then top it off with a kick-butt trade fair, and you have a A LOT going on. Then cram the whole thing on a show grounds the size of a city block. Yes, this is a recipe for craziness, and yes, it is an intense show, but somehow it works.
This year, Slingshot, Wendy Adam’s super-star 4-year-old was my ride. Sling, more than any other horse I ride, has a fan club. Wendy owns Glory Springs Farm, a big, active boarding barn in Wernersville, where I teach a couple times a month. We joking call it SFD West. Wendy bought Sling in utero from Marilyn Cormier, another student, and he grew up at Glory Springs, so all of the boarders know him. He’s been with me at Red Bridge since January, and his fun personality combined with his loud snore (this boy can saw some logs) as endeared him to the home SFD crowd. So when we show, everyone comes out to cheer him on.
I love this young horse too. He’s goofy, personable, honest, gives 110% every ride, and has an AMAZING hind leg. True to his bloodlines, he is a slow-maturing horse, so Wendy and I decided to wait until he was fully 3 ½ before we started his formal education. He’s been under saddle since mid-February, and rewarded our patience by being mentally ready to start his show ring education by July. I specify mentally, because every time I enter him in a show, he hits another growth spurt, tipping his balance hither-and-yon, resulting in some interesting dressage tests. That is the reality of showing young horses.
I love the young horses. Helping these young horses learn confidence and trust is really exciting to me. To build confidence, I have to take the youngsters to the edge of their comfort zone, then bring them back to more comfortable, over and over again. To build trust, I have to clearly create boundaries for when they are nervous, but I can’t add pressure when they are at that edge. I have to sense when they are on the edge of overload, and take them to where they feel safe. I have to be completely ok with any embarrassing shenanigans that may happen. Often, to help, I enlist an equine babysitter—a seasoned, nothing-bothers-me, no-nonsense horse to help.
In July, the NJ Horse Park show was perfect for Sling’s first outing. Secret was going too, so she could play babysitter. The show was 3 days long, so he could be there long enough to work through the worry, then get over it. We requested the back side of barn C so he could have a quiet place to get away from the show ring commotion.
As expected, Sling was OVERWHELMED. On Friday, when he was completely beside himself, we didn’t canter on the left lead at all. His safe spot was anywhere that Secret, his babysitter, was. We spent a lot of time walking and lunging, and had to keep our mounted work in the quiet, tucked-away-out-back warm up. Secret came ringside with him and watched his tests. By day 3 he was much more confident, both leads had arrived, and we could watch the big boys in the crazy warm-up, but joining them in the sandbox, well, not yet. He showed in the 4-year-old test, and earned respectable scores. Wendy and I were very pleased.
Since July he has had 3 other day trips, twice with a baby sitter and once flying solo, but all at quiet venues, and he has become more and more confident with each outing. But Devon is anything but quiet.
We arrived on Monday afternoon, and a stroke of luck had us stabled with Ursula Ferrier, who owns Scimitar, Sling’s dad. Ursula is not only a great horseman, she is a fun person to hang out with, which kept the atmosphere calm and relaxed, which is exactly what Sling needed.
On Monday, when I schooled Sling, he seemed cool as a cucumber coming out of the barn, so I mounted and rode to warm-up. Our timing was unfortunate—everyone seemed to leave right as we arrived. His confidence left with the other horses, so I got off and went back for lunging equipment. A few minutes on the lunge, and it seemed a light bulb went off in his head. It was like he said, “Oh, yea, I know how to do this,” and my good boy returned.
Tuesday Sling’s entourage showed up to watch him go in Suitability to be a Dressage Horse. Sling was a perfect gentleman about having so many humans fuss over him. He warmed up great, and once in the ring, he noted that I was making suggestions from the saddle, but was a bit too overwhelmed to truly respond to them. I played my supportive rider role (“no, Sling, the judges stand won’t bite,” “Good boy Sling for going around the flowers instead of jumping them,” etc.) and tried to keep him away from crowd. We did ok staying clear, that is, until they called for the right lead canter. Right then I was looking for my way clear, but was behind two horses and with one on my right. They all started cantering. My vote was for us to make a circle, and depart on that circle, but herd instinct pulled Sling into the canter – which would have been ok, if it had been the correct lead.
I brought him back to trot, and actually cued the canter, but by then he was upset, so he took the incorrect lead again. By try 3 we got the lead, but Mr. Try-too-Hard was flustered. The rest of the class was nervous rushing. His mind didn’t even settle in the line up–he stood there fussing with his bit, which is new for him.
Wednesday our Materialle class was later in the day, and Wendy and I alternated walking him around most of the day. But it really didn’t matter, by the time I got on he was wound up. I spent warm up asking for his attention, and about the time I was concerned I wouldn’t get it, he settled in to my aids. Then I started to get ambitious. I know Wendy wasn’t concerned about the placing, but I like to give owners ribbons when they let me compete their horses.
So we went in, and frankly, I over-rode the trot work. As a result, I got his neck a little short, and he got fussy in the contact and inconsistent in the tempo. After the first trot, the judge had us walk for what seemed like forever, which gave Sling time to settle into the arena and me time to mentally whip myself into shape. I allowed his neck longer for the canter work, which allowed his incredible hind legs to do their thing, earning him a 7.6 for his canter. He earned a 7.6 for general impression, and a 6.7 for walk. Not surprising, his trot was his lowest score, at 6.5, for an overall of 71%, ranking him 7th overall.
But the best part for me was after the class, when this huge, goofy warmblood, in the craziest show in the area, is such a good boy that Paige, Wendy’s 10-year-old daughter, can lead him around in all that commotion. This is a super horse on so many levels.
Thanks Wendy, for the opportunity to show such a fun horse.