I have already written a memoir about how I fell in love with dressage, but I have not written anything about how that love was tested. One particular story always stands out in my mind, although there are many. The story also has a lot to do with the role of the trainer. A good trainer can build up confidence, but can sending it crashing down just as easily. I often look back on this story with feelings of anger. I did not deserve to be treated so harshly. I always gave 100% as a dressage student. It wasn't fair. Or was I unable to see past my own perspective? Things did work out and have worked out for me very well. I still love dressage. I am a confident rider and horseperson. I am a very different rider and horseperson now, than I was then, but I am not sure that I can really wish any event erased from history. I am a product of all my experiences.
Maybe, I should just leave it at that.
I was riding dear Blue in the show and I was in high school. This was not our first show together, but we were still in our maiden year. He was the first horse that I had shown besides Pony and we were already at First Level. I did not really understand the significance of the level designations, because "first" sounded like beginners and was followed by things like "Second through Fourth Level", "Prix St. George", and the rest of the FEI parade of ridiculously difficult tests. I wanted to ride those some day, so First Level just seemed like a stepping stone. For some reason, my trainer (my original dressage instructor with the gorgeous mare) wanted me to enter the Training Level test before my First Level test. I thought this sounded kind of silly, because if First Level was beginner stuff, Training Level was "baby stuff". My impressions were not totally ill-founded. My trainer did not encourage me to practice the Training Level Test 4 before entering the show ring. She said that I didn't need to practice, because it was my "throw-away" test. So we only ever worked on the First Level test in my lessons on Blue, a tall Quarter Horse/Thoroughbred cross who resembled more the latter with his 16.1 hand, gray frame and reliable yet somewhat nervous demeanor. I also had the invaluable opportunities of watching my trainer practice things like tempi changes, half-pass zigzags, and half-steps on her big mare, so rein-back and cantering 15 meter circles did not seem even remotely impressive. Looking back, I was exceptionally lucky to have, quite literally, stumbled onto that farm. I would not even have the resources now to duplicate the experiences which I gleaned in high school and college.
When test day rolled around, I went through the usual preparations. I did not show very often (a couples times a summer), but I knew how to get myself and my horse ready. I memorized Training Level Test 4 and First Level Test 1. We were on time for our Training Level test and I marched into the show ring with a smile on my face, because I was coached that "it helps" and I really wanted to impress. The reader read the call for me to halt at X. I performed my salute and the rest...
...is a blank.
I have absolutely no memory of the test. Somehow I completed every movement without going off course, but my brain was totally shut off. And shut down. I choked in every sense of the word. My autopilot was good enough to keep the test going and cue poor, abandoned Blue to walk, trot, and canter in the appropriate places, but the test was a total bust. Another rider from our farm told me that he thought at some point that I might just stop and excuse myself from the remainder of the test. I respected his opinion and he was not a negative person, so I am sure that he was being honest. It must have been bad. And Blue was not a confident show horse, so he was, no doubt, a rigid, inverted mess. Maybe even scared.
I left the arena in a daze. I cannot remember if the judge spoke to me or just smiled and waved good-bye. My trainer was waiting for me at the gate. Since I was a teenager and basically naive, I thought to try and lighten the impact of the inevitable poor score and readied a comment to the effect of "Oh well, you win some, you lose some", but I do not think that the words left my mouth. My trainer was glaring at me. I halted Blue next to her and she leaned closer to speak to me. I leaned toward her out of courtesy, even though my instincts were telling me to run. Her ice-blue eyes locked on mine and she whispered with measured words,
"You. did. not. ride. even. one. step."
Then she turned and walked away.
Stunned and embarrassed, I tried to smile and pat my horse as I walked away from the group of riders, trainers, and bystanders waiting at the gate. I pleaded with myself not to cry. I bit my lip. I fumbled with my helmet. I coughed and cleared my throat, which was tightening by the second. I tried not to think the words "hate", "unfair", and "mean". I focused on Blue and told him he was a "Good Boy". He didn't answer me back.
Once at the trailer, I was desperate to get away. I wanted to find a place to hide and cry, literally. This was before I learned about tying horses to trailers, so I could not leave Blue. I needed someone to hold him, so I could retreat and refortify myself before the next test. The important one. I was not about to ask my trainer to hold him, so I asked her husband. He coolly remarked that he was too busy at the moment. They were working together. I was being taught a lesson, but I felt set up. I managed to bite back my tears and focused on the next test, but first I would have to get through the warm up...
My trainer accompanied me to the warm up arena. She was all business. My problem was that I was not sitting up and sticking my butt in the saddle. She coached me from the center of the ring, with a fence line of spectators. Other riders were there with their trainers, but mine was the only one who was yelling. She threatened to pull me from the dressage test and make me ride a jumper round if I didn't sit up tall.
I felt resentment creeping in. Why is she doing this to me?
Then, I was angry. I'm going to show her.
I gritted my teeth and finished the warm up. Blue did his best, despite the ball of tension on his back, and, thankfully, he was more than willing to listen after watching his rider get schooled. Blue was not a stupid horse. He knew the trainer too, and he was not about to be a part of the problem.
By my second ride time, I was worlds more nervous than I had been for the Training Level test even though I was much more practiced and prepared. As I entered at the gate and walked my horse around the show ring, I started to unravel in my head.
"I do not ride like a dressage rider at all."
"I cannot sit up like I am supposed to."
"Maybe I am just not good enough."
"I am better at jumping and I am not even that good at that, so where does this leave me?"
"Blue feels tight and unhappy."
"I am unhappy."
"Why am I even doing this?"
My feelings must not have been well hidden as I wallowed in self-pity. I did not see the previous competitor passing me as she walked her horse to leave the arena, but I looked up as I heard a very sincere, "Have a good ride". An elegant rider with a short, professional haircut, gazed down at me from her dark mount. Her smile had that knowing look, which could not be mistaken. Did she see my last test? Was she present in the warm up? Did she hear me get yelled at? Or maybe she just read my mind. I think any of those are likely. Her presence at that moment made all the difference.
I went out there and I rode my First Level test. Blue and I were a respectable team. We didn't make any major mistakes, we rode accurate figures, and I kept my head on for the entire test. I was proud of our effort and my trainer gave us an approving nod. The need to cry had subsided until I saw my score. We broke sixty percent for the first time! This time my eyes filled with tears of joy. The throw-away test was thrown away, but the lesson not soon forgotten.
|Our first show together in 1999: Blue was 13 and somewhere in the world, Harley was a yearling. Looking back, Blue was one of the best horses in my life. He was honest, kind, and willing. It was a privilege to learn from his back.|