Monday, October 6, 2014

The Short and Long Story of Dressage at Devon

Devon is over, and I can see my desk again, so it’s time for a recap, while I’m still basking in show afterglow, or is that the cold medicine? I’m not sure.

For those results-oriented folk, here’s the short version:
  • Wednesday I rode Capitano, Shelley’s super 5-year-old German riding pony, to an 8th in Suitability and a score of 71.4% for 6th place in Materiale.
  • Also Wednesday Aneesa competed Ming, her 5-year-old mare, and brought home 5th in Amateur Handler.
  • Thursday Secret earned a 62.071% in 4-1 on wet footing (NOT her thing, by the way) for 8th out of 12.
  • Friday Secret earned a 65.357% in 4-1 again for 8th, this time out of 17.  Both classes were won with a
  • I needed to do a last-minute horse switch for quadrille, and managed to stay in line and stay on top in the Dixon both Friday night and Saturday mid day.
  • Sunday Paige and Slingshot brought home red in Jr Dressage Seat Equitation with a 70.0% 

Now, of course, there’s always more to the story, and in this case, it involves lots and lots of snot. I felt a little funky on Monday, and I chalked it up to allergies. Tuesday the same. Wednesday I woke up with my throat on fire, my sinuses filled with battery acid, a serious case of vertigo and a runny nose. I employed chemical warfare – pretty much every cold medicine we had in the house. In this slightly-drug-induced state, I put a foot in the stirrup of a 5-year-old in what is, let’s face it, a pretty lousy show environment.
Devon show grounds is in the middle of a neighborhood. It is small, and cramped, with very limited warm up. That warm up is crammed with youngsters in hand, FEI horses, and 8-20 other horses that will be in the Materiale and Suitability classes. Most of those horses are young, and September in PA can offer some crisp nights. I’ve had some rather exciting rides in the Dixon and seen some downright dramatic ones. I’ve only been riding Capi since May, and although he has always proven to be trustworthy, it is Devon, so who knows.

Then, as we are tacking up, I couldn’t find Capi’s girth. I borrowed Secret’s girth, but Capi has a young-horse chest, and Secret is built like a tank, so her contour girth was right up against his elbows, with the buckles almost over the saddle pad.  He held his back tighter than normal in his first ride and didn’t do his normal nose-blowing, but if that’s my only complaint on a 5-year-old at Devon, we are doing very, very well. 

As I said, Capi was perfect. When he got cut off in warm up, he came right back to me. When the bigger horses were thundering around him in the ring, he was cool. I’d feel him get a bit tight, so I’d hug him with my legs a bit more, and he’d take a breath and go forward like the good boy that he is.  He was so obedient and steady that I had two people ask if he was for sale before we even got back to the barn. Nope, not this boy—he and his human, Shelley, have a long, exciting career ahead. 

In the afternoon we had some tough time crunches. Capi and I were in the gold ring just before Aneesa and Ming were due in the Dixon. Immediately after Aneesa’s mounted class she was scheduled in Amateur Handler. So the whirlwind went like this – hop off Capi, go cheer Aneesa on, then while Aneesa changed clothes, Sue, Ashley, and I toweled off Ming’s sweat marks and shined her socks. Then Aneesa grabbed the reins for a sprint to the ring and a sprint around the triangle.  It was worth the hustle, as Aneesa left the ring with a big pink ribbon.

Aneesa took the 5-year-olds home, and I stuck around to school Secret and Sling, who was my mount for the DVCTA Quad Squad, under the lights. Secret handled the lights like a pro. I gave her a full workout, as being an Arab with only one class per day on Thursday and Friday, I wasn’t worried about her bottoming out. 

Sling, on the other hand, didn’t seem like himself. He was tender across his back, and he was really, really needy–not his normal Dennis-the-Menace personality. I wasn’t sure if it was just the small stalls and the stress of Devon or something else, so I decided to climb on and see. He started out fine under saddle, blowing his nose and relaxing. But when I asked for the canter, he wanted to hop in place. When I asked for more forward, he started swapping leads behind.  Once back in the stall, he parked out quite elaborately and peed a very small amount of cloudy, dark urine. I called the vet, took him home, and started him on SMZ for a suspected bladder infection.

This, of course, did not bode well for the Quad Sqad performance, scheduled for Friday night and Saturday mid-day. On my way home I called a student who has a smallish, red, Arab-Warmblood PSG/Intermediare 1 horse named Fox, and asked her if I could borrow him. I can’t thank her enough, and I am really quite humbled that she trusted me enough that she didn’t bat and eye.  She said “sure, when do you need him?” Then I broke the news to the Quad Squad Director, Anne Miller, that I was going to be riding a different horse—one that had never met the other horses in the group, or been to Devon, or ridden to music, or even done quadrille. I assured her Fox would be fine (as I crossed my fingers behind my back).

Thursday I woke up feeling decidedly not well. I took a handful of cold medicine to control the symptoms. Linda, who lives close to the show grounds, did the morning feeding, so rode a couple of horses before heading to Devon and watched the drizzle and wait for our 7:03 ride time.  Secret hates wet footing, so Linda and I alternated wandering through the shops and hoping the weather would break and the footing would miraculously dry out. 

While Linda and I were killing time, Secret, who didn’t care for only one evening class a day, was trying to tunnel her way to the show ring. So we tacked her up in the afternoon and did 20 minutes of light work to prevent further barn destruction.   

By 6 p.m. the rain had ended, and Secret warmed up like the seasoned show horse that she is. Then we went in.

My internal dialog went something like this:

Holy crap, I’m headed down the centerline in the Dixon Oval at Dressage at Devon!! HOLY CRAP!! Ok, get it together, what is our plan – canter, ok, canter. I’m cantering in the Dixon!!!  – organized, brain, organized…BUT I’M IN THE DIXON!!! your plan Ange….work it IN THE DIXON!!

Then we passed the judge’s box at E and the decorative corn stalks rustled. Secret spooked and shot forward. That was just enough to get my brain back into riding mode. I half halted, laughing at the silly little Arab mare, and headed around as the whistle blew.

The trot work went as I had planned it, nicely up in the shoulders and correct in the shoulder ins. Overall the footing was pretty good, except for the corners. I could feel Secret getting tighter and tighter every time we went into a corner.  In the canter, where she pushes off more with her hind legs, it got worse. I’d give my reins forward a little but she’d hold herself. She did everything I asked, just a bit tighter and more held than I would have liked to show the judges. But I could feel the tension building.

Then we hit the final extended canter, and she was, well, exuberant.  If I can hold the tempo in her exuberant moments, the judge’s comments are usually something like “bold” or “confident.”  If we don’t stay together, the comments aren’t so positive.  This was not one of our together moments. She did come back to me in the corner, though, and ended with a polite halt at x.

Then the crowd applauded. Seriously, it surprised me a bit. (Who watches dressage??) The Quad Squad riders had came out to support me, as well as many of my friends and students. That was pretty dang cool.

The ride scored better than I expected, at a 62.071%, with the winning ride being a 68.071%. One of the judge’s commented on Secret’s connection in the trot, which made me feel quite good.  I have focused a lot of training time teaching the spunky Frie-Rab to take an honest connection and not pose in her neck, particularly in the trot work.

Then it was Fox’s turn for the Quad rehearsal under the lights in the Dixon. He warmed up outside of the ring like a pro. Then we headed into the Dixon. He was like – Whoa, that’s a big ring, big lights, big music, gotta stop and take a look at that….then he’d gallop forward to catch the others, then he’d back off again. Once we hit C and headed into the dressage ring, though, I could almost feel him go “oh, dressage arena, letters, got it.”  He locked into my seat and handled all of the scary moves in the pattern, including cantering head-on towards another horse, as if he’d done it for weeks in rehearsal.

By Friday the cold medicine was controlling the plague symptoms better, but I still knew exactly when the meds wore off.  Linda again fed for me so I could sleep in a little. I taught a couple of lessons, then headed over. 

Linda and I decided against an afternoon ride on Saturday, in case Secret was tired, and instead opted for a longer warm up.  Which had a potential time crunch, since Quadrille was scheduled at 7:05 and Secret was due in the Gold ring at 8:45. Linda and Fox’s owner were both available to play groom for me, and I’ve had crazier schedules at shows, so I wasn’t super worried. Keyed up maybe, but not worried.

The quadrille performance went better than Thursday’s rehearsal. Fox only backed off a couple of times, and with Emily’s 23-year-old horse showing off his levade at regular intervals, I doubt anyone noticed Fox much.

Once we got back to the barn, with so many awesome people there to help me, I had plenty of time. Enough time to fidget and fuss, which is my normal pre-warm-up routine.

Once I got my foot in the stirrup, I was fine. I went into warm-up with two plans – ride the rhythm more clearly in the canter, particularly in the changes, and not hang with my right hand, which is my “OMG this is IMPORTANT to me” default behavior, which had showed up in Thursday’s ride.

Right away in warm up Secret told me that she didn’t appreciate my right rein from night before. I spent my first couple of warm up sets (I generally warm Secret up with short work sets and lots of walk breaks, to get the buttons I need working while preserving relaxation and gas tank for the show ring) asking for better right side suppleness.  At one break, I walked over to Cara, who was my eyes on the ground (thank you again, Cara), and said I felt the stiffness on the right, but worried if I addressed it too much in warm up I’d lose the relaxation and thoroughness. It seemed to me that I could eat some points for the right bend in a few places, but I didn’t want to sacrifice Secret’s highlight, which is the fluidness of her overall pattern.

So I spent the remaining warm up sets focusing on uphill balance and forward-and-back adjustability.  Cara announced “that’s your show trot” moments before the ring steward flagged me over.

This time I kept my head in the game, kept my right arm from clamping, and kept my seat moving. Secret was right with me, every step of the way.  It was fun. I smiled like a fool, not because I was at Dressage at Devon, but because my girl was so on my seat it was like she was reading my mind.  Everything went pretty much as I’d planned it, except the right-to-left change, where I need to change at C then immediately begin a 20-M circle. When I cued the change, I turned my shoulders toward the circle point, but my hips didn’t swing as much, so Secret had an unbalanced moment. Otherwise, it was the ride I wanted to show the judges.

After the final halt, I leaned forward and scratched Secret, and the crowd applauded again.  The crowd was a group of my students, my fellow quad squad members, and friends from the Arab circuit. Earlier that day, I’d watched other riders graciously wave to their support teams, or point at their horses, you know, nice, classy responses. Did I do that? No, I blushed the bright-red color that us red-heads are uniquely capable of, and then buried my head in Secret’s neck.  So much for class. 
Did Secret and I pin? Seriously, folks, this isn’t Disney. She was a good girl, and showed herself well, but those horses were really, really fancy. She showed the judges what she is, an obedient, well-balanced, good girl. That is all I can ask.  Since I didn’t expect her to ribbon, we weren’t disappointed. That she showed herself so well, that was my goal, and I am thrilled at how well she scored.  Plus one judge gave us an 8 on harmony. In my way of thinking, I can’t do better than that.

Saturday the quad performed again, and by then Fox had it all sorted out. He was the super boy. Only a horse with a really wonderful mind would let me throw him into this totally nutty situation and trust me to get him through it. What a special horse.

Saturday afternoon I took Secret and Fox home, and by then Sling’s antibiotics were working. His back was much less tender. Paige rode him at home, and he was confidently cantering around in his normal way. So she gave him a bath and we decided to take him to Devon on Sunday.

Sunday Paige and Sling warmed up well, then went into the Dressage Seat Equitation class. She had a bit of bad luck in the class – she didn’t hear the judge call for the left lead canter, then when she saw the other riders cantering, she (in her words) “kicked and hoped.”  Sling took the right lead, then they corrected it. She had a good ride, but that mistake took her to the red ribbon. Regardless, I was crazy proud, watching a rider I had started on the lunge line at 8, and a horse I had backed, go in and show such quality work in such a stressful environment.

So, the long story turned out really long. This year’s Dressage at Devon will definitely go down as my favorite year yet.

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