Monday, July 30, 2012

Memoirs: A Horse Girl's Dressage Show Misadventure

It was an experience.  I am not quite sure where to begin.  How about with something nice.

Harley is a little girl magnet.  I saw exactly one little girl at the horse show and she came up to my horse right away.  Before I could introduce her to him, she was right next to him, stroking his nose and his neck, with eyes like saucers and a toothy grin.  Harley obliged her and stood like a statue despite the very unusual situation we found ourselves in.  I decided they had already met and instead introduced myself.  That little horse girl pretty much made my day, because not too much went well yesterday.  I just think about her smiling face and my horse's sweet expression and know that he is a wonderful and amazing boy, no matter what.  Thanks, fellow horse girl.

Weather wise, the good news is that there was not a heat wave yesterday.  The bad news is that it thunder-stormed and rained all day long.  My husband and I followed the trailer in a separate vehicle, so needless to say, my heart was in my throat when I heard thunder in the distance and it started to monsoon.  My horse and his trailer disappeared from sight when traffic at a toll separated us from the barn owners.  I couldn't help feeling a little sick.  I would not have been able to forgive myself if something happened to my dear horse, because we tried to trailer to a low-key schooling show.  Why didn't I just call up and scratch before we left or turn around and go home?  Well, the weather has been really strange around here lately.  It reminds me of Florida.  The weather forecast says "isolated thunderstorms" almost everyday, even though they do not happen every day, and sometimes it pours for twenty minutes while the sun is shining and then goes away.  So I conferred with the barn owners before we left and decided that we might as well just go.  Our destination was less than an hour away, so we decided to persevere.

I teach a science curriculum by profession, but a teacher's job also includes instilling certain values in young people.  One of the character qualities that I try to encourage is perseverance.  I like to think that this quality is rewarded in the face of opposition, unfortunately this is not always the case.  And, dually unfortunately for me, was not the case for us yesterday.  Ready for the gritty details?

We were separated from the trailer and arrived at the show grounds on our own.  The trailer had been well ahead of us, so when we arrived I fully expected my horse to be waiting for me, but he was no where to be seen.  I immediately became very nervous.  I tried calling, but it took a couple tries to get through.  Apparently, we had somehow passed them on route.  I did not feel better until I saw the trailer pull up about ten minutes later.

Harley was not totally soaked coming out of the trailer, but the windows had let a fair amount of rain in, leaving his face and sides streaked with water.  Thankfully, he is a sensible guy and did not seem too worried about this, although I did see that he barely touched his hay and had a loose manure in the trailer.  His pretty calm demeanor coming off the trailer was misleading.  Harley was nervous.  After checking him over and letting him mosey around and pick at some grass, I handed him to my husband and opened the tack room section of the trailer.

Uh-oh.  All of my gear was wet.  I forgot about those little windows with grates at the front of the trailer.  They were open, which is normally a good thing, but the rain had been beating down with a determination to drench everything I owned and it nearly succeeded.  I brushed it off, realizing that my gear was about to get soaked anyway, if I was going to go through with the tests.  The only saving grace was that the facility had an indoor, which I had been told was available for warm up.  Thank goodness.  All I could think about was getting in there.  At least I could give my horse the experience of riding somewhere new and maybe get a few positive moments out of a quickly deteriorating experience.

I found out that there was a place for me to change (I normally change in the trailer, but that would have been very unpleasant).  I was so, so grateful for that dry bathroom.  I took a few moments to compose myself.  I gave myself a pep talk.

"We are going to go out there and do our best.  The score doesn't matter.  We are here so let's make an experience out of it.  We can still take something worthwhile away from this."

I left the bathroom in my new, dry, show clothes and headed back outside.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature had decided that it wasn't raining quite enough yet.  She opened the flood gates and let out a down pour.

My husband and I walked back to the trailer, he with an umbrella and me with a rain coat, to find that my horse had been untacked and he was being asked to go back on the trailer.  I saw his nervous expression and raised tail and knew that he was not happy about going in a trailer in a downpour.  Of course the intention was to get my tack and my horse out of the rain, which I appreciate, but it just didn't work out.  One of many things on a growing list!  I was thankful for the efforts on my behalf.

My ride time was fast approaching, so I decided to take my horse and my tack to the indoor, tack up there and get on.  The rain was coming down in sheets, so tying him to the trailer and tacking up there was just not possible.  It was indoor or bust, so off we went.  My husband and a friend, who was a very, very welcomed helper, carried my gear as I led Harley.  I swear he stole a look at me that said,

"Woman, you have got to be kidding me."

I apologized to him silently.  I fully admit that my horse has better sense than me, but I was persevering.

I. was. persevering.

I was not going to give up just yet.  And I was careful to thank everyone who was helping me and profusely.  I understood that they were just as drenched and just as miserable as I was.  I kept that in my mind all the time.

We made it to the barn, only to find that the indoor was unavailable for warm up.  What?!  I was given a reason, but looking outside and seeing what the weather was doing, I just could not believe it.  Of all the days to close an indoor arena.  I felt a little shattered, but decided that I had no choice but to invite myself into the barn aisle.

"Please, just let me stand here and tack up my horse."

I was close to begging and that's when the cute little girl starting fawning over Harley who stood like a rock, despite the pouring rain, the unfamiliar barn full of new smells and new horses, and his owner's desperation.  He just stood there and he looked cute.  Cuteness does come in handy.  I think this was why we were allowed to hang around for a few minutes.  I am pretty sure that it is not typical to tack up anywhere but at your own trailer at a horse show, but like I said, there was a monsoon outside.  I believe this qualified as an unusual situation.

I accepted the fact that we would have to warm up in the pouring rain (the thunder had stopped).  I accepted the fact that we were going to get totally drenched, including my leather tack.  I accepted the fact that we were not going to get a good score today.  And then I decided to scratch the Second Level test.  That test was very challenging for us under the best of conditions.  Yesterday, it just would have been foolish.

Remember my warm up plan?  Completely went out the window.  Our warm up area was very small at maybe a third the size of a standard dressage arena, on wet grass, with standing water, and uneven terrain.  I had to be very conservative.  We did trot and canter, but I asked Harley to keep everything very small and controlled.  This is the complete opposite of how Harley likes to start out a ride.  His back simply never warmed up fully.  Some cantering and a few transitions helped, but there was no way to let him stretch safely, in my opinion.  He was listening, my sweet boy, but he was very tense.  He tried for me and that is all I can ask of him.  I love my horse.

I took a deep breath and we entered the show arena.  You can see in the pictures that there is a lake near "C" and standing water throughout most of the ring.  This was no one's fault and could not be helped.  You would think that since I was riding the sensible quarter horse, I would have had the advantage under these conditions, but that was not the case at all.  I watched a couple other riders ride their tests (I only saw about five riders brave the weather yesterday), and their horses marched through the puddles without much trouble.  I was pretty surprised, actually.

"Okay, maybe this isn't going to be that bad.  If they can do it, we can do it, too."

Wrong.  Very wrong was I.

First Level Test 3 was a train wreck.  Just about the worst test I have ever ridden in competition.  The only one that was worse was the Training Level ride on Blue, when I was first starting out, but that was for completely different reasons.  I didn't choke during the test.  I stayed present for the entire monstrous thing.  I smiled and shook my head a few times, but I kept it going.  I am the queen of keeping a test going.  No reader.  Just me and Harley and a burning determination to ride the pattern even if it barely looked like a dressage test.  At some point it became an exercise in getting it done, going through those puddles, and trying to ride a few nice strides here and there.  We broke gait about half a dozen times.  Harley absolutely refused to canter through the lake at "C".  He also had no stretch over his back so no stretchy trot, which was also supposed to happen in the lake.  Relaxation is one of the first elements on the training scale and we just didn't have it.  I cannot rebalance my horse when he is tense and tight.  Half-halts were a distant memory.  To his credit, he did not hop around, buck, spook, or do anything dangerous and we did manage one shallow counter canter loop on the left lead, when leaving the dreaded "Lake C".  What he did do, was raise his neck, drop his back, and lift his legs as high as he could to avoid the puddles.  He rushed around the arena and no amount of clever aiding or soothing on my part was going to convince him otherwise.  How the other non-quarter horses sauntered through those puddles without coming off the aids or losing frame is beyond me.  They still looked very nice, even in the pouring rain.  I guess they were just much better than us.  I could see that and I chose to ride anyway.

So my biggest disappointment, is that the judge didn't recognize our perseverance or the horrendous riding conditions.  I smiled at her as we headed down the centerline and turned left at "C" to begin our test.  We started off with a string of sixes, and during the test, I thought for a moment that maybe we were going to pull it off, but then Harley let me know that this was not our day.  During the second leg yield off my right leg, which is so easy we can do it in our sleep, Harley broke to walk, ignored my insistent leg taps, and proceeded to drop manure right in front of the judge.  At that point, the reality of the situation pretty much hit me.  I still continued to ride.  I still sought softness and connection and balance, they were just beyond my reach.  But I still tried for them for every step of the test.

When I halted in front of the judge to discuss the ride, I thought she was going to say something of our efforts.  Something witty or light-hearted would have been nice:

(in my words)
"Nice weather we're having, isn't?"
"So your horse doesn't like puddles, does he?"
"Bring your swimmies next time it rains."
Or even just,
"Thanks for coming out and riding."

Then lay it on me.  I can take it.  I knew that our ride was terrible, but so were the conditions and the day.  The judge did no such thing.  She began by asking if this was our first dressage show (ouch) and then proceeded to list every single thing that we did wrong.  I shelved my smile and replaced it with my game face.

"Okay.  Okay.  Okay.  Yes.  Thank you."

I can take the low scores.  I can take the 51%.  I know that is not indicative of what we can do.  I believe in my horse and myself.  What I have trouble swallowing is the disdain that the judge seemed to hold for us.  I mean it.  She seemed disgusted or maybe even insulted by our presence and our performance.  My husband said that she was probably having a bad day.  I get that, but we all were, and it is worth noting that she was sitting in a covered gazebo dishing it out while I was soaked to the bone.  She did not say even one nice thing to me and did not write anything encouraging on my test.  I hope that is very unusual for dressage judges.  It was certainly something that I have not seen before and hope not to see again.  And this was supposed to be a "laid-back" schooling show.  Whoa.  It didn't come off that way to me.  I saw some serious competitors, some serious horse flesh, and a very serious judge.  I am serious, too, but of more modest means.

So all in all, it was a bust.  Worst show experience of my life.  I am so, so grateful for my husband, my friend, and the barn owners.  They were such awesome people to come with me and spend their Sunday under those conditions.  My husband was so incredibly supportive.  He did everything from playing chauffeur to holding Harley, to being a human saddle rack, taking pictures, getting yelled at for holding an umbrella near the barn, navigating shore (tourist) bumper-to-bumper traffic on the drive home, helping me clean out the trailer later on, and then consoling me when we got home and the inevitable hurt set in.  I can only hold it together for so long.  I mean, I am human, and I do care a great deal about my riding and my horse.  I did not seek to fail, but, unfortunately, I did.  I am rarely in that position.  I should just take the bitter pill and move on.  It doesn't change anything that really matters.  Really.  I am very lucky.

I will try to remember the support of my husband and friends and the gigantic smile of the little girl petting Harley.  One bystander commented that Harley would be a good horse for the girl to ride.  Although she was unbelievably sweet and genuine, I am going to have to disappoint her there.  Harley belongs to this horse girl, and with me he shall stay!

Harley may not be a lot of things, but one thing is for sure: he is a good horse and he is a dressage horse.  I do not care who contests it.  We will just have to agree to disagree.

"C" is at our right as we enter the lake.  Harley's expression basically says it all.

Harley's carousel horse impression after breaking gait:  He just was not having it and I cannot blame him.

Shallow counter canter loop on the left lead.

This was a brief moment of success even if we didn't quite make it out to X.

Can you see all the rain drops in the photos?

If it looks like I can't see here, it is because I can't.  My new show bow (for my hair) was too big and was tipping my helmet forward over my eyes.  I couldn't fix it without taking my hair down and redoing the bun.  The judge nailed me for accuracy.  I didn't make any excuses when she was talking to me, but this was one of the reasons that I had so much trouble.  The other was, well the weather, and the fact that I have not ridden in a lettered dressage arena since my last show in October.  I guess that is catching up with me, although I know that I could have done much better.

Our final salute and glad it is over.

Harley expressing his opinion of the experience.

Looking cute while we take it unsweetened.

Leg yield left: I thought this felt pretty steady and nice.  We got a six, but the judge made it clear that she was not impressed.

Harley's infamous poop tour.

Oh well.  I will live.  Good thing showing isn't my favorite horse activity.

A picture from before we left and on our new patio stairs.  I am very glad that my husband took this photo in the morning.

Cute, just not functional, and I probably will not wear it again.  The bow detached from the net when I took my hair down.  Looks like my 15-year-old show bow will have to come out of retirement.


  1. Well I'm sorry you and Harley had such a miserable day. You did look happy before you left.

    With the weather and Lake C I'm sure it was hard on Harley to try and keep it together but he mostly did and I'm sure you're proud of him. I've shown in this sort of weather and it is no fun at all. But you got through it and will persevere and do more shows. Next time will be better.

    As for Harley being a QH and not liking puddles; the best horse we ever had (Lifeguard) was a paint QH and excelled at shows and everything he did but he hated puddles and refused to go through them. This could get sort of hairy before or after a jump. Luckily he was very athletic for all our sakes. So don't feel that Harley is the only QH leery of puddles.

    The judge has no excuse for rudeness. I don't care what kind of day they're having judges are there to judge and give constructive criticism if warranted. Sometimes I fell they actually think they're a step higher than you because they are sitting in the judges booth. No so. Over the years I've seen some horrific judging to go along with the fair and excellent judging. It all comes down to human personalities.

    Give Harley and extra treat and tell him what a good boy he was!

    1. Thanks for the words of wisdom and the story about Lifeguard. That is reassuring to me.

      I really didn't think he was going to balk as much as he did. I guess he just didn't trust what was under his feet. Maybe there are a lot of quarter horses that are very quiet and steady, but Harley seems to be very sensitive and reactive, even though he is sensible about scary stuff like umbrellas and thunder.

  2. Oh good heavens, what a completely sucky day. I'm glad you persevered, despite the weather, the warmup, the test, AND the judge. It's these kinds of show experiences that make you wonder why you ever thought this would be a good idea in the first place. Hugs. :(

    Hopefully you'll be able to laugh at this, when you look back. If nothing else, it will make for a good story, in an epically tragic sort of way!

    And I definitely hope you'll try again. You and Harley can put in lovely tests, I have no doubt. Next time the cards will HAVE to be stacked in your favor!

    1. I was definitely wondering that and feeling bad that I had to ask other people along with me so that we could go. They were willing to help and good sports, but I still felt guilty. Not having a good day just makes it seem worse.

      Thanks for the encouragement! Writing the story helped me get it out of my head a little.

  3. Oh geez! I am so sorry to hear your show did not go well. :-( I agree it hurts when a judge is so negative. Good for you on persevering despite everything falling apart. You (and the rest of us!) know what you two are capable of even if in that 6 minutes things seemed terrible. Hugs to you! :-)

    1. Thanks, STB Eventer.

      I was told to "stick to walk/trot/canter with this horse". What is that supposed to mean? It just isn't nice.

    2. WHAT? That makes no sense. What a rude judge! :-( Remember one judges opinion is just that: ONE opinion. Don't bother to enter another show with this judge, but I do hope you will try again!

  4. Well ... Hell's Bells. What a big, fat bummer. I am so sorry that the weather gods conspired to ruin your day.

    I had to ride through a puddle (water truck created) in June and was thankful that it was on the drying side of things as I made my way through. My ponies aren't too thrilled about the puddle thing either. The "top dogs" rode through the above mentioned puddle like it wasn't there. I am guessing they just have a lot more experience.

    Puddles are not the same thing as lakes. I don't blame Harley one bit for being tense and wary. The conditions were just a bit too far out of his regular comfort level.

    I am quite surprised at the judge's attitude though. It is interesting that she was so mean. Just this month in the USDF Connection there was a good article on judges and what their comments mean. The author pointed out that MOST judges are actually rooting for the riders and want us to do well. When we run across less than supportive judges, the author suggested we let either USDF know (if it's a rated show especially) or the show management at the very least.

    Judges in general have become a thing of interest to me. You know I show at least once a month and have felt fortunate to have fair and supportive judges. I have wondered if that's just a California thing, or are the judges pretty consistent from region to region? Do you know if she was a licensed judge or just an L Graduate?

    I love your show bow, but I have the same problem. Those big, pretty bows don't fit below my helmet. I have to wear a small, flat bow so that it fits under my helmet. You must need a longer neck or a long head to make those things work!

    All in all, I am sorry the day was a bust. Nothing like bad piled on bad to make you feel like a failure. Dust yourself off, or wring yourself out as the case may be, and continue on with the work you were doing. There will be other shows (with better weather) in which to showcase Harley's accomplishments.

    One final comment - I know it must have been hard to share such a miserable experience. I applaud your commitment to honesty. It's hard to share with the whole world that you "failed" at something, but thanks for doing it It makes everyone else feel better to know that sometimes it's just not your day and that it happens to everyone.

    Forward and onward! :0)

    1. Thanks for the pep talk, Karen. And, yes, it was difficult to share, but it was also good to get it written down and the supportive comments make me feel a lot better.

      Since I do not know very much about the licensing process, I do not tend to pay attention to those designations, but I looked it up to answer your question: L Graduate.

      I had a very good experience at the two schooling shows that I attended last year. Both judges offered constructive criticism, but were supportive and made be feel like I was moving in the right direction with my horse.

  5. Oh no... I'm so sorry you had a rotten day.
    As someone who has organised many shows, I have to say the warm-up facilities sound unforgivable and the judge sounds like someone I would not invite back in a blue fit.
    From your description, I think I would have looked at the rain in the morning and said "I'm unashamedly a fair-weather rider/wimp." Fair play to you for persevering, and remember, fix your eyes on the next fence - don't look back (show-jumping clichés can work for dressage too!)

    1. Thanks, Martine. That is some good advice. I will be over this soon and then I will be able to just keep moving forward.

      Next time, I will stick to fair-weather, especially now that I know what Harley thinks of rainy riding conditions!

  6. Wow, well done just surviving a day like that! I don't think any horse I've had would have gone through those puddles (lakes?)! Well, except my first horse but he was blind. Just think, after this, pretty much any other horse show will be a walk in the park! I'm really impressed how you were able to stick it out and get through your test.

    You looked lovely in the pictures! How you managed to look so put together in all that wet I have no idea.

    1. Thanks, Story. I really appreciate the encouragement. You are right. Worst show out of the way. It should be uphill from here.

    2. Oh, I meant downhill. I guess uphill sounds more positive so I got confused! ;)

  7. I think that 51% is a very respectable score under the circumstances. You should be proud just to have gotten down centerline! It's just a schooling show, you're there to gain show experience and develop your strategy, not qualify for Nationals ;).

    Your experience is not typical of dressage judges. But, it is always advisable to vet the judge before going out to show. Many schooling shows use L graduates, who are not dressage judges. Only L graduates who complete the program with distinction are permitted to go on to the USEF Dressage Judges Training Program (that info is on the USDF website, BTW). Even among actual judges, there are differing levels of experience (r, R, S). And, you can always ask around about a particular judge before showing under them. There are only a couple of bad judges around here, but their reputation proceeds them.

    I use a hairnet under my helmet, instead of a bow. Keeps it from interfering with the way my hat fits.

    1. Thanks, Shannon. You make a good point.

      Since I am definitely small time when it comes to showing, I am not privy to the reputations of local judges and I do not know anything about the different licenses.

      I just want be treated fairly and kindly. I try to present myself and my horse in as respectful a manner as I can.

    2. You should be treated kindly and fairly. I didn't mean to come off like an elitist turd in my comment. It just burns me up that you were treated so poorly at a show. It shouldn't be like that.

      We have a voice. No matter how "small time" we are, we all deserve to be treated with respect when we go down centerline. We need to use our voices when it comes to poor "judging". By talking about our experiences, we out the bad judges. By refusing to show under the bad judges, we send a powerful message to the show venues.

      Never underestimate your influence on our sport. There are more "small time" riders than there are "big time" riders, and we need to start using our voices!

    3. You are absolutely right. Abstaining from a show with a judge that seems biased or unreasonable sends a strong message. I am not sure if this judge qualified as "poor". I definitely deserved the scores that she gave me, it was just the delivery and complete lack of encouragement that I didn't like. I was riding against a Friesian and what looked like a huge Andalusian, so it was not like I expected to place above them.

      I was not offended my your comment. I just replied cautiously, because, like I said, I do not know any of the local dressage stars. I don't want to offend you or yours. ;)

  8. Oh Val - what an ordeal! I am so impressed that you did the test at any rate - don't take too much stock with what the judge said. Harley is an amazing horse to still get out there even though he obviously wasn't pleased. Proves the bond you both have and that is worth much more than a dressage score. :)

    1. Thanks, Lisa. I will take your comment to heart.

  9. As I read this, I couldn't help but disagree with you more. This was not a failure (although that judge was). You rode Harley with tact, understanding, patience and kindness in horrible conditions. You strengthened your partnership with him. I applaud you for persevering, yes, but even more for being an example of horsemanship at the best. I had a horrible ride on Jackson once (for different reasons) and I focused on being patient with Jackson. The score was similar to yours but the judge said, and wrote, that I had ridden him with tact and patience. Your judge should have said the same. Shame on her.

    1. Thanks, Annette. I needed to hear that. I know you are right. :)

  10. Sounds like you persevered, and made the best of a very difficult situation Val. I probably would have reconsidered the outing when the weather turned so foul. It must have been hard to be there mentally for Harley in such adverse conditions.

    As for the judge, try not to take it personally. There are rude people everywhere - unfortunately including in the judge's booth. Please don't let her missed opportunity to be kind and compassionate in any way reflect on you and Harley's work together - that's apples and oranges. :)

    1. Thanks for your very encouraging comment, CFS.

      I will not be venturing out to a show if the weather looks like it could go badly again. Once was enough! One of my fellow teachers likes to say that "Adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it." She is right, but I think I am good for a while. I'll stick to fair weather next time!

  11. Wow, what a craptastic day to ride in!! That judge seemed to be your typical energy vampire (sucks all positive vibes away). In that type of show, you almost have to be your own judge and see what Harley did for you.
    In my eyes, just to SHOW and not puke/poop from nerves is a total success. I'm 100$ serious.

    1. *laughing*
      Well, at least one of us didn't poop from nerves!

      Thanks, Kristen. You most certainly are right.

  12. you persevered and did well considering the conditions in my opinion that should count for more than anything! If it was me I'd have seriously considered not going so i think you did well!

    When it comes to judges there are good and bad, I am lucky that in my last three competitions the judges have all been people i know fairly well (they dont treat me any differently to a stranger and forget they know me for the test). She sounds horrible and not a judge that I would have got on with at all to say the least! Don't take it to heart though hun you and harley do really well together! xx

    1. Thanks, Girl With a Dream!
      Your kind words make me feel better.

  13. Well I'll come right out and say it- Whatta Witch! There's being constructively critical and then there's just being nasty because you can.

    I hope this doesn't turn you off from showing. So Harley doesn't like the rain, neither do lots of horses that aren't complete automatons. Sounds like you were also thrown further off-kilter than normal too. Write it off as a bad day then get out and try again :)


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