Behind the Scenes – Dressage Shows Simplified

Walnut Creek

Halfway during my test at our show this past weekend my fiance ran up to the fence and asked if we had started yet.  Apparently no one heard the announcer say my name, or heard the whistle blow, or saw me enter the arena and solute.  And it occurred to me that my friends and family have no clue what dressage showing is all about, or how it even works.  I can’t blame them, it’s not obvious when watching and it’s difficult to explain to an outsider, but I’m going to give it a try.  I love having supporters at my show, and it’d be nice if they knew what was going on 🙂

How it works:

Class listDressage shows are broken up into classes, which are then judged according to a test.  A sample “prize list” is to the right.  A prize list is a list of all the classes offered in any given show. Each class has a different test, and the tests are based on the level of training the rider and the horse have completed.    For example, Savy is only 4 years old and has just been started in her training so we entered in classes Introductory Level – Test A and Introductory Level – Test B.  These are the very easiest dressage tests, and they’re for young horses, horses new to dressage, or beginner riders.  These tests only include the walk and trot.  As the horse and rider complete more training, they can start to move “up the levels” of tests.   So once Savy can comfortably canter and balance a rider on her back we can compete in the next level of competition.  And once Savy and I learn the next movements we can move up another level in the tests.  Dressage competition is really a training system that follows a linear progression.  The lower levels teach the horses and riders skills they need to learn the more advanced levels.  You can’t skip from one level to the next without learning the movements.  The more advanced your training, the higher the level of competition in which you can compete.  The lowest level is Intro (where Savy and I are) and the highest level is Grand Prix, which is the Olympic level.  Still with me?

showingThe tests are a series of movements, like a pattern, that each person in the class completes and is judged on.  The judge gives you a score on each movement based on a scale from 0-10.  Your final score for the test is a percentage based on all of your individual scores.  Anything in the 40’s and below is bad, 50’s is average, 60’s is decent, 70’s is good and anything over 80% is great.  Most people score in the 60’s and 70’s.  The judge also gives you comments explaining your score, which is nice.  What I love about dressage is that you’re really just competing against yourself and trying to beat your score from the previous show.

Getting ready:

As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s a lot of preparation for a show.  At least a month before a show I start pulling and banging (cutting) Savy’s mane, so that it’s ready to be braided.  She has A LOT of mane so this process takes awhile, especially since she hates it.  People always ask why horse’s manes are given such a short hair cut.  There are several reasons.  The manes are easier to maintain when they’re short, and it shows off the horse’s neck muscles.  Neck muscles are an important thing in dressage.  If the horse is carrying himself correctly, his muscles will have developed in certain places.  So you can tell right away if a horse is being ridden correctly.  Also, not every horse looks good with a long mane.  Only certain breeds (like Andalusians, Frisians and Morgan) typically keep the manes long.  These type of breeds have very thick, beautiful hair. 

Walnut Creek2The day before the show I bath Savy (as much as I can given the weather) and clean all of our equipment so that our leather is spotless and shiny.  The day of I get to the barn as early as I can to braid Savy’s hair.  For our last show my best friend came up to the barn and continuously fed Savy sugar cubes to try to get her to stand still while I was braiding.  Once she is braided and groomed (thank you Nicki), I load the trailer with everything I could possibly need during the course of the day.  This is the most nerve-wracking time for me.  I get so nervous about forgetting something or not having enough time to finish braiding, or showing up at the show with a dirty horse.  The horse isn’t judge by appearance, but it certainly makes a difference.  Judges like to see clean, well turned out horses and riders.  Also, it’s a really good time to show my pretty girl off 🙂 

In the Show Ring:

Before you get in the show ring you have to warm up.  The warm up ring can be a hectic place with nervous horses and riders going every which way.  Savy hates the warm up ring.  She gets very tense and pens her ears and sticks her chest out at each horse that comes near her.  My goal for showing this year is to get used to the experience so she can go in a warm up arena and not panic.  If I could actually get her to warm up calmly, I could focus more energy on our actual test.  Once it’s your time to show, the judge will either ring a bell or blow a whistle and you have 45 seconds to enter the arena and start your test.  Each test begins and ends with a halt and a salute to the judge.  Once the test starts you cannot talk to anyone outside the arena and they can’t talk to you, with the exception of the test caller (are you listening Clay!).  The rider is allowed to have someone call out the test during the show.  And then it’s over.  All you have left to do is wait for your score and the class results and hope that you placed.

This is my text from the Walnut Creek show.  Next to each movement there’s a score and an explaination. 

WC Intro A 002


Equine Affaire

I went to Equine Affaire both Friday and Saturday, in part to do some shopping and to enjoy the variety of horses, but mostly for the Jan Ebeling clinics.  Jan Ebeling is a Germany native turned US Citizen, who rode Ralfalca (Ann Romney’s horse) in the 2012 Olympics.  The clinics were supposed to cover several topics and range from training level to grand prix.  I thought I would learn a lot and be inspired to ride.  This was not the case. Overall, I was disappointed in the clinics.  There were 4 altogether, and each one was supposed to have a different topic.  But he had the same horses and riders in each clinic and they went over the same things.  With the exception of one horse and rider, which were showing at 2nd level (and a training level horse which I missed), all the horses were at least at Prix St. George.  They performed most of the movements flawlessly, so it was fun to watch, but not good for learning. 

tryingOn the heels of watching all these perfect gorgeous horses and a terrible ride on Savy Friday night, I’m feeling deflated.  Training can be so difficult, and Savy is very challenging.  It seems nearly impossible for me to get her on the bit.  For my non-horsey friends, being on the bit refers to a way of moving for the horse.  The horse is supposed to engage their hindquarters to create energy, and rather than just going faster, the energy should be used to increase suspension and impulsion in the gaits.  The horse should look balanced, floaty and have their neck arched, accepting contact with the bit.  This is the very first step in training for dressage.  If the horse is not able to be on the bit, they will not be able to do any of the more advanced movements, and will not move past training level.  If Savy accepts contact with the bit, she will not move forward enough, if she moves forward, she will not accept contact with the bit.  To be on the bit she needs to be doing both.  I’m really frustrated because we’ve been working on this since October and it’s not getting any easier or better.  At this point we seem to be regressing.  We have a show on Sunday and I’m worried it’s going to be a complete disaster. 

We are having two lessons this weekend to try and pull ourselves together.  Hopefully we can get some consistancy on the bit, and we can stop riding around with Savy’s head straight up in the air.

Our First Show

2Since our second show of the year is right around the corner I thought I should write about our first show.  Let me start out saying it was cold.  Really cold.  Like no amount of clothing is going to make you warm kind of cold.  When I got to the barn my car thermostat read 18 degrees!  I needed to at least wash the mud off Savy’s legs and the water hose was frozen, so I happily carried my 2 gallon bucket into Megan’s nice cozy house to borrow some of her warm water.   My shampoo and braid magic were frozen, so they had to be microwaved.  Then I had to carry my big, full, very heavy 2 gallon bucket of water back to the barn.  This did actually make me warm.  And it made my arms and shoulders sore for 3 days.  Savy seemed to enjoy getting her legs washed with the warm water, but she did not care for her mane getting braided.  And the braid magic (which is basically heavy duty hairspray) made my fingers wet, which made them really cold.  The time between my painfully cold fingers and arriving at the show is very blurry.  I know I started to get nervous and I feel like it took me 2 hours to do my make-up and change into my show clothes. 

3Arriving at the show grounds.  The nervousness had abated somewhat and Savy and I were doing pretty good.  I manage to advert a wardrobe crisis by packing a complete extra set of show clothes.  Next time I will definitely remember to bring my sewing kit.  And I almost had to ride without socks because I stepped in a puddle while putting my boots on and apparently it’s impossibly to slip wet socks into tight leather boots.  Luckily I had an extra pair of those too.  In my purse.  I’m not sure why they were there, but I know I had been carrying them around for a while.  Finally I was all dressed and Savy was all tacked up and we headed to the warm up arena. 

The warm up arena is a scary, scary place on the back of a 3-year-old mare at her first show.  All the other horses riding past her in each direction all going different speeds really frazzled her.  I felt like she might actually bolt.  I think if she didn’t trust me so much she would have left me in the dust and high tailed it back to the trailer.  The longer we were in the warm up, the more tense she became.  I think she thought the other horses were trying to attack her, and I was starting to worry she would actually kick someone. 

savyI was relieved once we were called in to do our test.  At this point Savy’s mind was gone and she was totally in flight mode.  I realized this show was going to be all about getting through our test and staying in the arena.  She thought the judges booth was going to eat her, and she didn’t know what the sign on the wall was but she thought it best to keep a 10ft radius from it.  Even Megan spooked her.  Once we were in the arena my nervousness disappeared.  The entire test she was bent to the outside (trying to look at the birds I think) and had her head straight up in the air.  We still snagged a 4th place with only 1 point separating us from the top of the class.  The judges comments were very nice and encouraging.  She said Savy is a really athletic horse with the potential to go higher!! 

I couldn’t be more proud of my sweet girl.  Even though she was super scared, she was brave and really tried for me.

Moving Day

pastureAs I’m sure everyone knows, Megan (my trainer and the farm owner) is moving to Tennessee, and Savy and I have to find a new barn.  It’s going to be difficult to replace Bella Sera Farm.  Bella Sera is a farm straight out of an 18th century fairy tale.  The barn is open and bright, and has charming woodwork from the peg and hole ceiling to the “shabby chic” barn doors with 4 different paint colors showing through.  There is a beautiful tree lined alley which used to be the old road, acres of lush pastures, and a crab apple tree where Savy’s favorite grass grows.  It’s a place where time stands still, the world melts away and it’s just you and your horse…and the barn cats 🙂  And of course the barn is filled with Megan’s spirit and love. 

Luckily Megan helped set us up with a magnificent trainer who happened to have a stall available for us…Savy and I moved to Nicole Harrington Dressage at Hunters Run Farm!  The facilities are amazing, and the farm even has a few fairy tale touches, including a stream running through the pastures.  Hunters Run also has an indoor arena and I can’t express how happy I am to be able to ride, rain or shine. 

Moving day was difficult.  I woke up with a knot in my stomach, and because of work I couldn’t be there for the actual move.  I must have checked my phone every ten minutes waiting for a picture or an update from Megan.  It was killing me to think that my baby was standing in a strange stall scared and panicking.  Luckily I didn’t have a reason to be worried.  She handled to the move like a pro.  She settled in right away and started eating her hay and making friends with the new horses. babies march 012

When I got to the barn later that evening, Savy stuck her head out of her stall with hay hanging out of her mouth, looking like she’d been born there.  After I organized allll of my stuff (where does it all come from!!) we took a walk around the farm and checked everything out; Savy smelled the water tank, all of the grass alongside the paddocks, the rubber footing in the arena and each jump standard and pole.  Oh, and each pile of poop we came across.  Girl loves her poop.  After getting a look-see, we saddled up and went riding.  Savy was great!  She was too curious about everything to get an attitude and apparently loves cantering in our new outdoor. 

I also realized that going someplace new is a lot easier on Savy and I than staying at Bella Sera is for Megan and Coco.  Savy and I have new people and horses to meet and new favorite grazing spots to find, Megan and Coco have to look at our empty stall and don’t have anything new to distract them. Until they move of course.  The first day I moved Savy I stopped by Bella Sera to pick up a few things and I was so sad I could only stay a couple of minutes.  I already miss the farm, and the horses, and the cats.  I don’t miss Megan because I’ve been stalking her ever since the move lol! 

Here’s some pictures from moving day and our new barn….

Moving my tack trunk was the hardest part!  I’ll be honest, it’s more like a rolling mini shed, so it took longer than we intended.  Luckily our fellow boarders and friends, Anna and Nick helped us 🙂

Moving Day & Easter 009

The trunk wouldn’t fit so we took off the trim, but no luck there.  Then we took off the front doors. (Yes that’s Anna standing inside the truck) 

Moving Day & Easter 010Will it fit now?  Nope!  The cap had to come off the truck.  (Look at those big strong men!!)

Moving Day & Easter 005

Savy saying goodbye to Coco.  Coco and Savy are best friends, I can’t wait till they see each other at shows and when we go to visit in Tennessee.

Moving Day & Easter 007

Savy saing bye to Tori…they’ll be seeing a lot of each other at the local shows this year 🙂

babies march 024

Where are my treats???

babies march 009

Scary barking dogs

babies march 023

The good grass is under the bench! 

babies march 022

Ahhh!  Hanging out in the sun!

babies march 008

New fields to explore! 

babies march 017