Dressage debut

The weather, which had been so pleasantly sunny in the morning, had proved fickle again, and by the time I got out of the door with my clean tack, white saddle pad, jacket, camera and drink, it was very rainy indeed. I had knotted my hair up and I was wearing my show gear except for my long boots, jacket and hairnet, but I had a large pair of waterproof trousers and a waterproof jacket over the top so that everything would stay clean. I’d planned to wear the waterproofs just to stay clean but as it was raining they served a dual purpose.

I arrived at the yard and, after a bit of dithering about parking spaces, managed to transfer myself and my stuff from car to stable.DSCN4201 Pleasingly, Drifter seemed not to have dirtied himself much since the grooming that morning, so I could focus on plaiting and then just give him a quick swipe with a brush or two. When plaiting I am always pleased that he’s not too tall – I can plait standing on the ground, saving me from balancing on an upturned bucket. Really I should have pulled his mane a little shorter – the plaits are rather bulky, but I thought they did the job OK. I’m afraid it’s not a great picture but it’s the only picture I have of the mane before we went out. I had plenty of things to think about and pictures of plaits wasn’t high up my agenda. Here a picture of the tail that I took afterwards.
DSCN4230We have an agreement, regarding mane pulling and plaiting. He’ll stand nicely without needing to be tied up and let me do it and in return he’ll get regular bribe treat breaks. This seems to work well for us. If he looks round hopefully for a treat and I think he’s not being patient enough I push his head gently back to looking ahead of him and carry on. In general if I’m doing things with him in the stable I don’t tie him up. On occasions when he’s stressed or upset and we’re in the stable I find him easier to manage at liberty than when his head is tied but he’s swinging the back end to and fro. If he’s free to turn to face whatever’s bothering him he stays a lot calmer.

Mr Sparrowgrass arrived while I was plaiting and kept calling regular time checks to me. I finished grooming and tacked up, including the new white saddle pad and the new flash noseband, put on my hairnet, stripped off my waterproofs, changed into my long boots, added the jacket, thrust the white gloves at Mr Sparrowgrass to hold, brought Drifter out, got Mr S to hold him too, put hoof oil on him (D, not Mr S!) and put my gloves on. A member of staff came round just as I was finishing all this to check we were on our way to warm up. I led him into the warm-up arena and tried to tighten the girth. Unfortunately my new white gloves afforded no grip on the clean leather, so I had to take one off to get the job done. A spectator offered to hold him for me to mount at the block (he is often impatient at the block and with 4 other ponies in the arena warming up with us, he was about to be unhelpful if not encouraged not to walk off before I was on board), which was much appreciated. During the warm-up I was really glad of the jacket as the rain sheeted down on us. After only a few minutes the sleeves were soaked through.


As I warmed up I took stock of the competition arena adjacent. The judges “booth” was a small car which had been parked so that the judges in the front seat had a nice view down the centre line at C. The entry bell was the car horn. That sounds savage, but it’s quite a modestly voiced car, and I did not see any horses startle from it. Because the arena is ordinarily longer, the letters attached to the fences are not in the right places when the end is chopped off the arena. For this reason there were moveable signs with the letters on at the correct positions for a test. It didn’t look too scary.

We were allowed a caller to read the test as we rode it (at a small extra fee) and I’d opted to use one for the reassurance that under pressure I wouldn’t suddenly get lost and forget where to go.

It was our turn. We entered the arena and walked and trotted around a little. I made sure to take him past the car at C to give him a chance to look at it before we started.

I think it’s fair to say we were both pretty tense. He stuck his head in the air and I forgot about pretty much everything except steering. I had a moment of blind panic where I hadn’t really listened to which letter the caller said and suddenly wasn’t sure “is it at this corner I turn across the diagonal or do I wait until the next one?” I turned, and it was the correct place. Also in the 3-loop serpentine I panicked because there were no “middle” letters. Apparently in a small arena R, S, V and P aren’t supposed to be marked, although they are marked in all of our schools regardless of size. I set out on the first loop of my serpentine expecting to turn at a letter and suddenly finding that there was no letter in front of me. As I progressed through the serpentine I realised none of the letters I was looking for were there and I had to plan my own route for the first time ever. I’m not sure I breathed until we finished that figure! I felt very hot despite the freezing rain on my soaked jacket. In both an eternity and no time at all it was the end, halt, salute and leave the arena. After cooling him off I led him back round to his stable, where Mr Sparrowgrass took some more relaxed pictures of us. DSCN4214

Then I rugged him, fed him and waited for the results.
DSCN4239There was a professional photographer there and we occupied some time perusing her wares. It appears that next time I do a dressage test I need to consider doing the test without grimacing constantly. There were very few frames in which I wasn’t gurning, but we did purchase a few to commemorate our first dressage test.

There were only 4 adults doing the walk-trot test and I was pretty sure we would come last of the 4, so I decided that I would measure my score against all the other competitors regardless of age. After all I’ve only been riding for 2 years – less than some of the 6 year olds. I decided that as long as I didn’t come last out of the entire field then I’d be happy. And after all we hadn’t had any bucking or gone out of the arena and we’d completed the test, so we’d met the goals I’d set myself for the day.

Eventually the scores were available and the marks sheets and rosettes handed out. We got 61%, which I think is pretty respectable for a first dressage test. As I had expected this put us 4th of 4 in the adult competition but I was pleased to see that looking at all of the walk-trot scores for the day, we were pretty much in the middle of the field. The highest and lowest scores were 52 and 71, the 71 posted by the youngest competitor there.

I scored a mix of 6s and 7s, with a (double scored) 5 for free walk on a long rein. I was amused to see that both the serpentine and the diagonal where I thought I might be turning in the wrong place scored 7 each – I must have done OK despite the panic. I was disappointed in the free walk mark, not only because it’s not good to get your lowest mark on the thing that counts twice, but also because when we started practicing the test we couldn’t get across the diagonal on a free rein without wandering left and right. Still if we get a 5 when we’re straight, I dread to think what we would have got if we hadn’t already improved that!

I have a lot of different feelings now, some of them contradictory.

I feel like a champion because we completed the test with all the elements in place.

I feel ashamed of how far we were from going on the bit.

I think we looked awesome.

I think we looked like an overdressed gurner on a short black giraffe with funny plaits (yes we both had funny plaits, but mine were in a hairnet)

I’m delighted with 61%.

I’m disappointed with the free walk mark.

I’m delighted the free walk was straight.

I want to do next month’s test and show improvement.

I don’t have the energy to do another test any time soon.

In short, I am the old negative me and the new positive me, both at the same time. It’s quite confusing. But both of me agree that we achieved a lot, getting dressed up and achieving a dressage test and getting our first rosette.


On the centre line

DSCN3880On Easter Sunday it was the Easter show at the stables. It’s a chance for everyone to get together and have a friendly competition where all levels are welcome, and some (all?) of the entry fees go to charity. There is a walk-trot dressage test and a walk-trot-canter, each of which is open separately to pony club, junior or adult competitors as well as various show-jumping competitions from the pony club trotting over a pole only raised at one end, up to the Chase-me-Charlie that goes sky-high by the end of the afternoon.

I was not competing. Partly because we were not working well enough together to do a recognisable 20 m trot circle on the bad rein, and partly because I’d never watched a show and wanted to know what to expect.

Because we’re a long way from jumping yet I focussed my attention on the dressage arena. This was much less popular with spectators, so I was able to spend most of the day virtually alone in the tiny spectator gallery, seated right behind the judges at C with the perfect view of the arena and straight down the centre line. In fact, if I leant over the rail and squinted I could see what the judges were writing, but I didn’t try to read anything because it didn’t seem right that I would see their feedback before the riders did.

I was surprised to see that 99% of the riders had proper jackets, stocks/ties, pale jods, hairnets and long boots. I thought, because it was an informal charity fun day more than a competition, that maybe 50% would be looking the part. Clearly I was mistaken.

Some of the riders were fellow livery owners and some were lesson-riders on school horses and ponies. It was interesting to see people I’d been riding with bring out their skills. I liked watching different people on the school horses I’d ridden in the past and the ponies I’d groomed and tacked up when I was helping on Sundays.

Most of all I liked that even within the walk-trot dressage test there was a really wide variety of ability. One of the early walk-trot tests of the day inadvertently included lots of canter, one of the little kids got lost in his test (even though he was using a caller) and consequently had 2 goes at his 3-loop serpentine and one of the last walk-trot-canter tests was on a horse who had a severe aversion to the judges’ table and could barely be persuaded to approach that end of the arena at all. His rider managed to get a just-about-recognisable attempt at the test out of him, but that she got anything at all was entirely a testament to her skill and will! At the other end of the scale one of my favourite people on the yard won the junior walk-trot and came second in junior walk-trot-canter. Her tests were a joy to watch. The winner of the adult walk-trot was one of the new owners of Springy, a horse I would have bought if they hadn’t got there first. It was really nice to watch them together. He’s looking a lot more confident these days and I think he’s settled really nicely with them.

So I think I’ll be having a go at a walk-trot test in one of the upcoming shows. During the summer there are more of these, roughly one a month. I’m not ready for this month, but I think Drifter and I will be capable of it by May. Unfortunately I’m pretty busy at work in May (i.e. expect to be stressed and exhausted) so we might wait until June if my energy levels aren’t up to it. I think we’re going to prepare for the May date and see how we go. Final entry is only a few days before the competition so I’ll be able to see if it’s a sensible prospect and decide then. So watch this space!