Recently, a friend asked me if I am going to do the local dressage series of schooling shows this year. I hesitated in answering, and then responded with "not in May". The truth is that I am thinking about looking for a new place to show. I am not determined to show, so there is no hurry. I am having fun working with Harley without the thoughts of a show date looming over my head. I know that many riders love showing and like to have a tangible goal to work towards, but that just isn't me. In fact, every time that I do show, I feel like I am literally forcing myself to go. Why do I do that? I believe that it is good experience for my horse to travel once in a while and I like to put myself out there to be evaluated. Well, maybe "like" is too strong a word, but it is good for me. The downside of infrequent showing is that we never really get comfortable with it, so it is difficult to give our best ride, but that hasn't seemed to hold us back too severely.
Last year we when to two of the three horse shows in the dressage series, rode the First Level tests 1 and 3, scored 60/61% in all four tests, and received a Reserve Champion First Level year-end award for our little local series. I was given a pretty, fancy ribbon, a monogrammed collapsible red chair for the trailer, and a 2011 show series T-shirt. Not bad considering that we did not show at all in 2010 and previously went out for Training Level only. If I took regular dressage lessons, and by regular I mean more than six times a year, I am sure that we could have beefed up our scores, but I was happy to have received the respectable 60% on my own, so to speak, and with my beloved, Harley.
Why do I want to find a different place to show? The venue is comfortable and friendly. The staff is competent and the shows are well run. The problem is the footing. When I ride, my test times are usually at the end of the day. Last year, we were the last ride at both shows. This means that 50 to 60 people had been in the show ring before us. The ring was probably watered and groomed before the first ride, but by the time it came for us to enter at A, the footing was very uneven. The corners were especially deep, the worst parts being at the C end in front of the judge.
Now I know that a craftsman should not blame his tools, but...
...I was really frustrated by the footing. Dressage depends upon rhythm, straightness, and impulsion. From these elements the contact and connection between horse and rider is developed with relaxation at the helm. I found it very difficult to maintain these things in the deep corners of the ring. And those corners come up very often! I do not ride with spurs and Harley is very peppy and willing, but when we entered at A, his legs seemed to be stuck in molasses. This presented itself as "resistance" and also caused me to work too hard with my legs to keep him going, which by the way, does not happen at home! This compromised my position and definitely impacted the quality of our ride. I watched the tests on video later, which confirmed what I was feeling in the ring. I overheard at least one competitor and her training discussing the footing. They were also not happy.
A couple segments of the 2011 Bloopers Video depict our dilemma.
At home, Harley and I are not used to anything fancy. We ride in sand with lots of round pebbles. The rings are dragged about once a week, which is good and bad. The sand gets leveled and more even in depth, but more rocks get dragged up. We have a lot of rocks here and the riding rings are really just glorified paddocks. They have never been graded or set with footing, unless you count dumping more sand. If they were graded or leveled it was probably ten years ago. Maybe more. The footing at the show location is a sand mix of some sort. I was told that a large quantity of arena footing was donated from a traveling rodeo after they left the area. This is the footing that I was frustrated about. The warm up is grass, which is fine. Harley warmed up great and then lost steam as soon as we entered the show ring. He even power trotted his lap around the letters before entering to be judged. I felt really good about that trot, only to find that we lost it as soon as it counted!
I could just go again and deal with it, but I feel like I already did that when I went back for the October show. Harley was very fit after a summer full of riding. We had no issues maintaining gait at home and I felt that our connection was very good and reliable. Certain parts of the test were a challenge for us (the counter canter loops in test 3), but maintaining energy should not have been one of them!
So what do you think?
How much does arena footing matter to you?