Today was pretty much perfect, spent outdoors in beautiful weather, with friends and horses. I took Remy, along with students Sarah (with Derby), Liz (with Cloud), and Cassie (with Coda), to a schooling show at the lovely Paddock Hills. A few other barn friends joined us, and it made for a most enjoyable way to spend a beautiful Sunday.
My goals for this show were to get Remy out and get some mileage on him. I was hoping that my Little White Fence training would prove successful, and that he would be more relaxed than he was at his first show so that we could improve our test, hopefully getting something more like what we have at home.
The day started early, well before the sun came up, chit chatting in the barn with my riders as we braided our horses. The trailer ride to the show was uneventful, and all the horses settled quietly into their stalls for the day while we unloaded our gear. A walk around the show grounds revealed the looks and snorts under Remy’s calm demeanor, but nothing more. We walked laps around the show ring while he observed the tent where the judge would sit, the tent where the crowd of awestruck fans would sit, the vineyard just beyond the arena, and the grassy area where trailers were parking just beyond C. Remy observed and took it all in with more curiosity than apprehension. I love that about him. Once he had acquainted himself with the surroundings, he finally noticed the little white fence. He stopped, mid-stride, and put his nose down to it, snorting a little, as if it had only just appeared. Tentatively, he touched it with his nose, and it flexed a little then sprang back, shaking gently. He backed a stepped and snorted at it again. My heart sank. It looked like Little White Fence training had failed after all. After a few more looks and snorts, he lost interest and we walked on, wandering back to the barn, leaving me secretly hoping that somehow that little moment he had with the fence was enough to settle his nerves in that regard.
Remy went back in his stall with a few flakes of hay to wait for a few hours while I warmed up a couple of students (who, by the way, all did awesome!! But that’s a topic for my new blog at rettgerdressage.wordpress.com). When it was finally Remy’s turn, we headed to the warm up ring where we began with a long walk. He felt a bit tense, more so than at the first show we did, but I figured he’d settle once he walked around a bit and took everything in.
As he started to relax, I picked up some contact and asked him to trot, a request which was met with an exuberant flourish of both head and tail, and as he trotted off, I suddenly found myself astride a very large stick of dynamite. My first thought was to wear some of the energy off, since he really wasn’t doing anything naughty, he just felt tightly strung and like any small twitch on my part would light the fuse. We cruised around a little at a trot, and I was starting to think it was under control when I attempted to turn Remy and change directions. Again, as I tried to gently support him with my inside leg, I got the head and tail flourish and I realized I had no steering ability. We walked a minute, sorted ourselves out, and reversed direction at the walk before trotting again. He still felt wound, but ok. Then I tried to steer him a little, and again I was met only with tense resistance.
I started wondering how I’d possibly get through a test without the ability to steer, and especially if it was this bad here in the warm up safely housed in a building with sturdy walls. With this lack of steering, we’d certainly be sailing clear over the little white fence immediately after the first canter transition, assuming we made it that far in our test. I mentioned my predicament to the friends watching me, and they offered encouragement. As continued trotting the sort of holding pattern we had established, I formed an idea. I would do gentle serpentines on the long sides, slowly increasing my steering ability as he began to accept my aids. The first curve was hesitant and jerky, but the second was better. It didn’t take long before my steering was reinstalled, and I could trot figure 8’s. I breathed a sigh of relief.
We walked for a minute, while I talked to myself about cantering. This is the hard part about going to a show AS the trainer instead of WITH the trainer. I knew I had to canter, but I wanted to be smart about it and set us up for success, just like I do for my students. It crossed my mind to get in a two point and let him burn some energy, but as I considered the other riders sharing the arena, I quickly crossed off that idea. If the canter felt a little crazy or out of control, I would come back to trot until back in control and then canter again, doing short canter sets until I could get good transitions and a nice gait. But if the canter felt ok, then I would canter him around some and burn off some steam. I knew the best I could do to help get a good canter was to sit back deep in the saddle and use my seat to control his stride, as pulling back on the reins of a nervous ex-racehorse would be an exercise in futility. I took a deep breath and gathered myself, sat back, and asked for the canter.
Remy stepped fully up to the plate, swung, and delivered. He offered me that lovely gait that I fell in love with the first time I nervously asked him to canter when I brought him home from the track. His canter is so balanced, so cadenced, so heavenly… I immediately relaxed and sat back to enjoy the ride. With a firm hold on the reins and my seat anchored deep in the saddle, we rolled around the ring in this awesome gait, and soon I heard his deep, rhythmic breathing matching his strides. I smiled to myself. There’s nothing like a thoroughbred.
We trotted, reversed, and repeated the other direction, as our warm up time slowly ticked away. Then we stopped to walk on a long rein. We were as ready as we were going to be. I was hoping I had taken enough of the edge off to have a good ride, but not used up so much that I wouldn’t have any horse left. As we walked around, he still felt like a tightly strung bow, ready to release at any moment. But he never did a thing.
The rider before us entered the ring, and I stood Remy off to the side to watch. He didn’t want to stand, so we made lots of circles as I attempted to watch the ride. It was my student, Liz, and I really wanted to see how she did, but Remy couldn’t stand still. Finally, as she came down the center line for the last time, Remy took a deep breath and exhaled, clearing his nose as he did it. Then he wiped his slimy, foamy mouth all up and down his perfectly clean legs, and stood quietly. It was our turn.
Again, Remy surprised me. I need to learn that I can trust him, but I think I am still expecting him to blow up like Liam would when Liam got tense. As we began the long walk around the show arena, Remy didn’t even look at the little white fence, but instead focused on the photographer, shying a little and wanting to back away. Luckily my friend and fellow rider, Mandy Solner, was photographing the show, and as she extended a kind hand for Remy to sniff, he immediately settled. In typical Remy style, after being nervous about a single person, he then bravely walked past a small crowd sitting in bleachers under a tent, and then walked right up to the judge’s tent and waited patiently while I told the scribe our names and she shuffled papers trying to find our test. Once she had the right test in front of her, Remy and I walked down the long side on the far side of the arena, nothing but grape vines and sand to look at. We found our zone, and as we rounded the corner past A, the whistle blew and we turned back, picked up a trot and entered.
The test flew by, and I scarcely remember it. I remember his back tight and strong under me, he was using it and he was very engaged and powerful feeling from behind, but his back was not soft and swinging, it was tight. I sat up and rode each stride, carefully maintaining control of the big, powerful trot he was giving me. I felt like I rode just the edge of control, but we somehow held it together. He was tense, but he was listening. We nailed every circle and every transition. For the most part, he remained on the bit. Our stretchy trot was pretty weak, and our free walk showed some nice moments interspersed between his head flying up and sideways to look at something. After the final canter, we returned to trot and I felt him take a deep breath and exhale slowly. Finally his back began to swing and he began to relax. In the final halt he stood quietly, with a hind leg cocked in a blase manner. I saluted, and returned to consciousness. We had completed the test, with no errors! He had stayed on the rail and not given the little white fence a second thought. He had picked up both leads as easily as if he’d always done it that way, and he had held himself together in such a composed manner despite his nerves! This horse was made to be a show horse.
I patted him as we left the ring, thrilled we had topped our previous performance. Once again feeling that Remy and I are a team, and I can trust him. Even tense, he had not followed through with a single spook or buck. And when I got our score back, I saw that the judge had recognized that power I felt, the contained energy in Remy. It dawned on me slowly how I had bottled it up and channelled it, turning nervous energy into performance energy. We had received two 8’s on our test, for Gaits and for Impulsion. On the actual test, we received pretty much straight 6’s with a few 7’s sprinkled in. Comments reflected the need for better connection in almost every movement, but this time only two mentioned tension and a lack of attention. That landed us a 5 for submission, the lowest score in the test. Over all, we ended up with a 63.3%, a HUGE improvement over the 50% we got for our first test!