Monday, July 17, 2017

Whirlwind Weekend: Dressage Schooling Show & Conquering Fear

I had every intention of posting this sooner, but unfortunately I have had too much going on to sort through the copious amount of media necessary to do this post justice! I also have crap internet at my house and uploading photos was quite the feat...72 hours of attempting. (I typically wait until I can strategically upload them from my parents' place.) So, without further ado, finally, the telling of our first dressage show...

A Busy & Relaxing Morning

Despite a busy first day that turned into an evening that went past my bedtime and resulted in a headache, Sunday promised an early start yet again. Austen's test was first thing in the morning and mine weren't until 2:27pm and 2:51pm. Full day at the barn for a dressage show: engage!

Our little group stumbled out of the house and into the car by 6:30am Sunday morning to commute to the barn so Austen had time to prep Pig and warm him up.

I'll leave the storytelling to her, but will say it is such a joy to watch the pair of them doing what they love. I admit fully to having some tears in my eyes at the end of the test as Austen loved on Pig and thanked him for executing his job so well once again.

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Following her test, we took a few "glamour shots".

However, knowing Austen had ample glamour shots of her and her boy from years past, I encouraged them to pursue something else they loved but didn't have as many photos of: galloping.

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I love how these turned out and I think it's safe to say that all parties enjoyed the photoshoot thoroughly.

We still had 4 or so hours to kill before my tests. We visited the tack sale, wandered the property, cleaned Griffin up, got snacks from a local farmer's market, and generally lazed about gabbing horses. The weather was absolutely heavenly and it was so pleasant to just laze about in it fully soaking the sunshine, light breeze, and total lack of jungle humidity.

Austen's photo
Find the item that doesn't belong!
PC: Austen
Not. Amused.
PC: Emma

PC: Emma

Finally, it was time for me to get Griffin warmed up for our tests.


I'd done a great job keeping my nerves gagged and locked up in a closet up until this point, but unfortunately, the binds began to break loose and my mind and body became a flurry of freak out. I absolutely manage my fear better than I once did, but still, the tense internal vibration of self-doubt and fear swirled inside me.

Grif, that expression could be a little more enthusiastic!

Regardless, I tacked Grif up and proceeded to the indoor to warm up.

We started just walking so he could see everything. He was a Very Good Boy. I then began to add in spurts of trot, though not quite with number of transitions I would at home. The traffic in the indoor was blowing my mind a bit, despite Griffin being totally nonplussed. Having a larger-than-normal space to work in coupled with additional riders totally blew my brain and my nerves loosened their binds even more.

I kept warming Griffin up and added some circles per Austen's recommendation. Errors on my part and weakness on Griffin's led us to execute quite a bit of counter canter which was unnerving minutes before our test! Fortunately, Emma gave me a beautiful pep talk in a way that calmed me, and then noted that it was almost time for my test and we should go wait by the ring. (All following photos of Grif and I are by Austen.)

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Trying to be a very good boy despite the traffic and the strange location

Cue: nerves fully releasing their binds and running amok in my headspace.

Let's Talk About Fear for a Moment...

I'd like to take a moment to fully address the level of my nerves going into my first dressage show.

See, while I did some 4-H shows as a kid, they weren't anything to write home about. They consisted almost wholly of members of my club that I spent a lot of time with on the regular. When I attended a slightly bigger local show, I only participated in the fun classes like egg and spoon, bareback riding, trail class, barrels, etc. I was in my comfort zone, a safe space, and it was okay.

"Showing" note my super casual attire

For a very long time growing up, I hated ever pushing outside of my comfort zone. I especially didn't like to be in front of people in a manner that I could be singled out. My brother is an actor and I'm amazed by him daily. That kind of thing makes my stomach squirm to think about. I'm the anal-retentive math-science kid. Give me a set plan to execute with reasonably certain outcomes and I'm as happy as a clam. I don't like improv and flying from the seat of my pants - I'm pretty crappy at it! I have reached a point, due to my science career, that I can and I happily will speak publicly, but that's about it so far as me liking to be the center of attention.

My competitive sport of choice that I absolutely excelled at through high school was swimming. I can't hear or see anyone when I'm swimming. It's me and the water and the clock. Zen-like, certainly, and something I have worked on harnessing for other areas of life, but distinctly more difficult without water!

Couldn't find any photos of me actually swimming, but this is immediately post race

Similar to swimming, endurance riding is me and my horse on the trail without spectators. I excel at it because I'm still within the confines of my "comfort zone". Rock climbing, mountain biking, and skiing are all similar: I'm in a safe space with little to no scrutiny. Adrenaline doesn't bother me when it's due to the direct task at hand and not pressure based on a spectator or judge.

As I blogged and learned more about dressage, I really found myself wanting to pursue it. But unlike endurance, I knew I would really need an instructor to make ends meet if I were to find success with dressage. Moreso, I realized I'd probably need to get over my fears of putting myself on display in a show setting in order to get good feedback on where I was with my training. The problem was figuring out how to get past my mental fear block!


But then I found and began following Austen's blog. The way she wrote up her lessons and her show recaps was so matter-of-fact and accepting of feedback received from trainers and judges - you know, the way it's supposed to be. The irrational, illogical mental fear block I'd built up began to shrink as I read post after post of Austen's. The more I read, the more my irrational and illogical thought patterns rearranged in such a way that I knew I could push past my fears and out of my comfort zone.

Right about this time, I also began reading Emma's blog. She, too, wrote up lesson recaps and show recaps with aplomb. The way Emma recaps lessons and shows was [is] in such a manner that I knew I was ready to get out there and find lessons to take and clinics to attend. While still present in some fashion, the mental fear block wasn't in my way anymore.

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Life Coach Emma

It took a few years to put all of the pieces together and reach a point where I was ready to show. I became more and more confident as the time passed, but I know myself really well and knew I'd still have a hard time - especially the first time.

Both Austen and Emma noted to me after-the-fact that I didn't seem so nervous right before my tests. I've worked really hard to reach a point where I'm not as outwardly freaking out as I am on the inside; I'm glad that shows to some extent! But internally? Oh dear god. Internally a war was raging. Logic parried every attack Irrational Fear tried. The mental exercises and practices I've instilled in the years since college to improve myself won out and Logic prevailed in my head....if only by an inch.

Training 1: 66.304 / 3rd Place

And so, using all of the tools in my toolbox, placing faith in my abilities, and trust in my horse and the training I spent so much time putting into him, I trudged marched past the judge with what I hoped wasn't a Scared Shitless Smile. I greeted her with a word of, "It's our first dressage test ever," and headed around the dressage court so Griffin could See All the Things before we entered at A.

Horses being horses, I feel confident Griffin knew my headspace was trying not to freak out. He didn't use this as an opportunity to act out on his own though. He seemed really fucking chill actually. I was so grateful.

In moments, the judge rang the bell and Griffin and I picked up a trot and entered at A.

Enter working trot, halt, salute, proceed working trot. Score: 6.5 
Judge's remark: Shoulders right, haunches left

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We're crooked but damnit we're square. Not too shabby for our first attempt at this thing...

Track left, circle left 20 meters. Score: 6.5 
Judge's remark: needs better contact in outside rein for regularity

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There are a lot of things I'd like to fix about my position, but for where we are in this moment, I'll take it!

Circle left 20 meters developing left lead canter in first quarter of circle Score: 6.5
Judge's remark: slight lean on inside shoulder

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Lean. Yes. But he's picking up the correct lead! WIN.

Working canter. Score: 7
Judge's remark: be softer in contact

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Grif doesn't look too restricted from the contact, here, he's certainly looking around though!

Working trot. Score: 7
Judge's remark: obedient, slightly abrupt

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Obedient...and distracted. HAI CAMERA.

Medium walk. Score 6.5 
Judge's remark: needs consistent contact to express walk

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Yeah. My brain fell out for most of the test so far as the Riding Every Stride goes. I was more focused on staying in ring and
changing gaits at the proper points.

Change rein, free walk, medium walk. Score: 6.5
Judge's remark: needs consistent contact to express walk

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The only moment of stretch he the first 3 strides.

Working trot. Score 7
Judge's remark: None.

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Uh yeah. I have no comment on this either. Good boy.

Circle right 20 meters. Score 7
Judge's remark: needs contact on outside rein and bend

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Outside rein contact is optional though?

Circle right 20 meters developing right lead canter in first quarter of circle. Score: 7
Judge's remark: tilt to inside

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Tilting like a barrel racer! Yeeehaw--wait, this is a different discipline?!

Working canter. Score: 6.5
Judge's remark: slight resistance

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I think the resistance may have been before this photo because I'm pretty sure I popped him one with my whip

Working trot. Score: 7
Judge's remark: None

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Yep. No comment from me either. My smile says how happy I am that we're done.

Down centerline, halt, salute. Score: 6.5
Judge's remark: overshot centerline, shoulders right, haunches left

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Crooked and overshot, but pretty square for a n00b. Also, he isn't wiggling. At home he wiggles when we halt. #winning

As we came down the centerline for our final halt and salute, a wash of feelings overcame me: relief, joy, gratitude, happiness. 

We'd done it. I did it. Griffin did it. The very moment I'd been visualizing for months - trotting down the centerline, halting, saluting - was a reality. 

Now, I just needed to do it again during my second test!

But first, I thanked the judge before exiting the ring. She smiled and made a kind remark about my first test that I don't remember due to my frazzled nerves.

Training 2

I had a short ~20 minutes between Training 1 and Training 2 to learn my next test. 

A more prepared person would have probably looked at the test some before hand. I used to be a more prepared person once upon a time. But now? Now I learned it for true in those short few minutes before I needed to go ride it. 

My nerves were still frazzled from conquering the irrational fear right before my first test. I noted that while I was still nervous for my second test, that nervous was much different this time: I was only nervous because I worried I couldn't memorize the test in time. The fear about going into the ring didn't bother me much at all now!

I quizzed myself again and again as I looked at diagrams of the test until I was certain I knew it. Then I watched the rider in front of me completely forget part of it and knew I would be okay.

In moments, Griffin and I were entering at A again.

Enter working trot, halt, salute, proceed working trot. Score: 6
Judge's remark: not straight

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Track right, circle 20 meters. Score: 7
Judge's remark: sitting behind leg

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Brain was in survival mode, not sit pretty mode. Next time I'm going to work on being more present and riding every stride.

Change rein. Score: 6
Judge's remark: good before X, uneven steps after
I forgot to upload this photo, but take my word for it that it was mediocre. Griffin does move best across the diagonal though, so I believe the judge's comment was accurate and fair.

Working canter left lead. Score: 6.5
Judge's remark: tilt

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Once again, he's on the correct lead and that's all I was really aiming for at this point. I will work on the tilt and our geometry.

Circle left 20 meters. Score: 6.5
Judge's remark: tilt

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Working trot. Score: 7
Judge's remark: obedient
My remark: Probably rather mediocre work.

Circle left 20m rising trot, allowing the horse to stretch forward and downward, shorten the reins, working trot. Score: 6.5
Judge's remark: more stretch out and down

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I'm trusting that the stretching down and out will come with time. For now, he'd rather just ride flat with his nose out.

Medium walk, change rein, medium walk. Score: 5.5
Judge's remark: quick, above bit
My remark: Yeah. I'm just glad we didn't get a 4.

Change rein, free walk, medium walk. Score: 6
Judge's remark: more stretch over back for overtrack

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Not shocking, our walk needs work. We're straight at least?

Working trot. Score: 7
Judge's remark: against hand

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He was sticky and cranky at this point, but he was still playing the game which makes me happy.

Circle left 20 meters. Score: 5.5
Judge's remark: steadier contact for steadier rhythm

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Our contact will be more consistent when we've got more miles off property. Right now everything is too exciting to stay in the contact.

Change rein. Score: 6.5
Judge's remark: better

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Oh so better. Look how cute he is.

Working canter, right lead. Score: 7
Judge's remark: None

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Not so much tilt?

Circle right 20 meters. Score: 6.5
Judge's remark: losing balance on second half, good start

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This is the most awkward photo...

Working trot. Score: 7
Judge's remark: fairly obedient
My remark: Probably a lovely little plodding trot with some semblance of contact...

Down centerline, halt, salute. Score: 6.5
Judge's remark: shoulders right, haunches left

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Crooked but not wiggling. GOOD BOY.

After my test this time, I walked once again toward the judge.

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She called out, "Are you on the centerline?"
My mind fuzzy, I replied, "Sorry? What?"
"Are. You. On. The. Centerline?"
Oh..., "...."
"Stop right there. Okay. Now, are you on the centerline?"
"You're crooked. Every one of your halts has been crooked in both tests. You're giving up easy points. Work on that so you don't have to give them up next time."
"Oh. Okay. Thank you! Yeah, I knew they'd be a problem...we practice in a big open field in the middle of West Virginia, haha, but I'll work on them! Thank you!"

And then my thoughts are fuzzy because the sheer RELIEF at being done overwhelmed and took over.

We did the thing.

Collective Marks and Final Thoughts

Training 1 Collective Marks
Gaits: 6.5
Impulsion: 6.5 "desire to move forward" and "suppleness of the back" are underlined
Submission: 6.5 "acceptance of the bit" and "straightness" are underlined and she wrote "tilts in canter"
Rider's position and seat: 6.5 she wrote that I need better contact in outside reign for clear rhythm
Rider's correct and effective use of the aids: 6.5 "clarity, subtlety" are underlined
Further remarks: A reasonable test with a nice horse. Work on establishing steadier contact and lateral aids

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I think everything noted is super fair. None of it surprises me at all. I know we have weaknesses with contact and I know those magnify when we're in new places with distractions. I expected comments on our contact more than anything else because I know it is the first thing to go out the window when Griffin has distractions around him. When the contact disappears, a lot of other things unravel which is to be expected. 

I think what I was happiest about with this test (and the second one, too) was that we nailed the correct leads for our canter. Second to wanting to stay in the ring, I really wanted to nail those leads. We succeeded at both of these things. YAY. Small goals, y'all...

Training 2 Collective Marks:
Gaits: 6.5 she wrote that we need more march in the walk
Impulsion: 6.5 "suppleness of the back" is underlined
Submission: 6 "acceptance of the bit" is underlined
Rider's position and seat: 6 she wrote that I need to stay seated over my leg
Rider's correct and effective use of the aids: 6 
Further remarks: Better ride.

Once again, nothing here surprises me greatly. That my leg was so much worse this test stings a bit, but c'est la vie. My nerves fried my brain and I can honestly say I wasn't focusing as hard on my position at ALL through much of this test. I was very preoccupied with getting the movements correct when I was supposed to that I really let everything else fly out the window. Honestly, I'm surprised she didn't call out my geometry on my last canter circle because if I recall correctly, it was atrocious!

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Things I will be focusing on in coming weeks: consistency in the contact, straightness, FORWARD, keeping my position no matter how tired/mind-boggled I am, our walk, consistent rhythm in our trot, and a more upright canter in 20m circles. Each of these things is absolutely fixable and workable. They'll definitely be different when we're in a new venue vs. at home, but we'll work to improve them as much as we can while we are at home!

I know I have a lot to work on, but I think we did really well for where we are right now. I'm really proud of doing as well as we did considering I've had a whopping ONE dressage lesson (with Stephen Birchall) to get me to this point. Other than that lesson, all of our training has been guided through conversations with friends, books read, videos watched, etc. This horse and I are self made alone on a small farm in West Virginia. 

For all the lack of close-at-hand resources to help us, I honestly couldn't be prouder of where we are. This feedback helps give me more to focus on in the future. I have feel like every point above is something I can accomplish. I look forward to correcting these issues and finding new problems next time.

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I'd like to end with a really special, heart-felt thank you to Austen and Emma for being there for me all day. Your posts were the original catalyst for helping me believe in myself; the way you told about horse showing/lessoning truly ignited the horse show flame for me. I'm so thankful for your continued help and support as I pursue dressage and eventing from afar. It isn't easy to get eyes on the ground very often where I live, but you two have been there to lend guidance and advice when I need it. Your words of encouragement in the weeks leading up to and the day of this show helped me more than you realize.

And so, I guess Griffin and I have added another item to our resume. I can't wait to get back out there and improve upon our baseline.

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  1. <3 this!! congrats again on getting out there and doing what is a legitimately difficult thing, and doing it quite well! you should be so proud of those tests - they all the more impressive knowing what you've gone through to bring Grif along in a discipline new to both of you in an area lacking much of a dressage or eventing community.

    it's been so awesome getting to know you through blogging and seeing your plans finally come to fruition! and in a way, it's even more cool having been similarly inspired by bloggers to go out and get my trailer to embark on my own training journey. that's maybe my favorite thing about this blogging community :D

    anyway - congrats again, i had so much fun and seriously look forward to the next time we can all get out together again!

    1. This community is so great. I'm continuing to learn more and more from people as time continues.

  2. Really enjoyed reading through your write-up! Congrats on a job well done and for getting out there and conquering your nerves. You and Griffin look like such a good team, that comes through clearly in a number of the photos. So exciting for you to branch out in a new discipline and succeed!

    1. Thanks, girl. It's definitely not the easiest of paths, but I'm learning so much and really having fun pushing myself into new realms.

  3. I loved everything about this post- your honesty shines through in every word. The judge has to judge a test as though you believe you could totally nail it but sometimes it's just about doing the thing. And you did the thing. And did it well. The rest will come.

    1. Aw, thank you, Teresa. ☺ I can't wait to continue getting out there and Doing the Thing. I'm trusting it will become easier with time.

  4. LOVED this post. You guys did so well.

  5. You guys are amazeballs! Great job! All of life's answers lie in the outside rein LOL.

    1. lol I'm gonna try telling my higher ups that when they're pushing about our Hell Project. "Oh, what's that? This effects table has errors? Well if you'd applied outside rein then we wouldn't be in this mess..."

  6. You two did amazing!!! Conquering fear is no small act and you went out there and tackled it in beast mode. Congrats on a wonderful first show. You two have an amazing future ahead of you

  7. Congrats on the show. The fear is real. I totally get it, though for me its only jumping that triggers it. But I still get it. I will say, the more you do it, the better it will get. Lots of lovely pictures. Griffin looks like such a good boy.

    1. He is a very, very good boy. I think jumping will be a whole other fear thing for me! I'm interested to find out if I'll cling like a monkey to survive through it or if the "must-do-this" part of my brain will kick in and help me actually navigate through a course. We shall find out in August!

  8. Wahoo! First thing is getting in the ring and remembering where your head is. Second is halting on centerline straight :-p

    1. Hahaha, yes. Next big goal for our next tests are "HALT STRAIGHT".

  9. <3 I'm with Jan. Your first tests (at any level) are always more about remembering where you're going and whether you can even do the thing. Later you refine. You're so on the right track!

    I think Griffin's understanding of contact is phenomenal. Especially considering neither of you had any clue, and just one lesson to start you on the path! Outside rein is definitely your next lesson, but the fact it was pointed out means you've already graduated from step 1!

    I'm just so damn proud of you. I know how hard you work on things, and I loved getting to see that work pay off. You're totally an inspiration for me, too.

    1. Aww...thank you <3 We're getting there and will continue to get there! Feel free to flood my email inbox with lots of fun outside rein reading resources and videos in coming weeks. ☺

  10. I loved this write up--for being an individual sport, riding is such a team effort. So glad you had friends who could be there for you.

    And I definitely get the show anxiety--I've shown more than you, but that means I have a lot more baggage than you. It's a double-edged sword.

    1. I've always been drawn to individual sports that present with a team effort from a training/sideline perspective. As much as it skeeves me out, I like performing alone, I think it's a control thing...I like to be solely responsible for any mistakes made. Group projects in school made me really nervous lol

      Ah man, I never thought about that double edged sword but you're so right!

  11. GREAT JOB!!! So excited for you and Griffin 😁😍

  12. Wow, you have SO MUCH to be proud of here!! What a huge, scary thing you have accomplished, and those scores are nothing to sneeze at either for your very first tests! It is so frightening to put yourself out there and know that you might fail in front of people; it's really amazing that you went through everything you had to go through to get yourself here, to this schooling show, and do it despite that fear! I'm so, so happy for you and SO excited to read about the rest of your show adventures with Grif! Maybe I'll even see you at Loch Moy this fall?!

    1. Thank you =)

      And YES. That IS the goal. I hope to make it to one Twilight eventing first and then debut on Sept 10 in the Fall Starter series. Can't make the October 15 one but am absolutely planning on the November one - I planned my vacation around that one!

  13. I think y'all did a great job for your first time! These scores are really respectable, and Griffin is the cutest.

    1. Thank you! He gets cuter all the time. Wish he wouldn't because I already feed him too many treats for "looking cute".

  14. Congrats, I'm so happy for you two (: It seems like Griffin might have found his calling!

  15. Sounds like you got a lot of great feedback. For your leg, think of straightening your hip so your leg swings back under you more. "Open your hip angle" rather than trying to pull your lower leg back. Riding with a stronger inside leg rather than an inside rein will help with pretty much everything else the judge noted, and will help you fill your outside rein rather than riding from your hands. That one photo of "better" is adorable. Grif looks really good there. I'm proud of you for overcoming your anxiety to ride through this. That's the feeling I have at the start of every endurance ride. It's not rational, but all I can do is ride through it until it passes.

    1. Great advice! I'm adding it to the building list of things. Thank you.

  16. Whoop whoop!! Congrats on a fantastic first outing with Griffin :)

  17. Omg the galloping pic of Austen and Pig is to die for! Congrats on all the success, sounds like it was a blast! - Kelly @ Hunky Hanoverian

    1. Galloping photos are SO fun. I wish we could all have private photographers to capture those moments!

  18. Congrats on your debut. Griffin is looking good.

    Was this a rated show? Is the Open division more difficult than the Amateur? I know our Open and Amateur performances get much closer at the higher levels, but at the Intro and Novice A levels are closer in scores. Did you have to register with the USEF and USEA? Just curious.

    1. Just a schooling show, so super casual. Just my style! Cheap, too. $25/ride. I didn't have to register at all. I don't have any plans to pursue rated events for dressage or horse trials at this point in time; the money just isn't there and I'm also not so concerned with having/needing that record. I just want to have fun and get out there and enjoy/learn a new discipline. I think I'll probably register with USEA eventually though.

  19. I actually really, really like the way he looks in the photo where he was "sticky and cranky." His nose is on the vertical, poll is almost the highest point of his neck, his tail is swinging and relaxed, and it looks like his trot stride is swinging and relaxed too: he's tracking up nicely. That one and the "cute" photo are my faves!

    Huge congrats on going out there and doing the thing! It takes guts to show without a trainer, and you not only did it, but you did it well!

    I know you have Austen now for advice, but in the beginning I had the same issues as you with my own greenie back in the day and here's what worked for me: we did a LOT of shoulder-in and shoulder-fore to correct that tilt. Thinking of pushing him with your inside leg (entire leg, using calf and thigh, not your heel) into your outside rein really helps. My trainer would yell at me every time I nagged Lily with my heels: I was not allowed to use them. If I wanted more horse, I was to use my calves to ask for it. If that didn't work, Lily got tapped once with the whip behind my leg. That was usually enough. I know this might not be enough for Griffin away from home, but responsiveness is something you can work on at home so he's a little snappier in his responses to your cues when riding at shows. :)

    It takes a while to develop that straight-down balanced dressage leg. It's even worse when you come from h/j land! Haha My trainer had me think about pointing both toes and knees forward (we tend to stick our knees out when riding, especially in h/j land and in endurance). It should feel like you are standing on your own two feet on the ground, except there is a horse between your legs. Once you achieve that feeling, everything else is SO MUCH EASIER! :D

    1. Ooohhhh! Fantastic advice. Thank you! It is officially added to the literal list I have written. =) You're right. I absolutely need to work more on responsiveness so he can be snappier off property. It's gonna be an interesting beast to tackle considering how much more relaxed and responsive he is at home vs. away, but we'll get 'er figured somehow haha. And yeah, I was dinged a few years ago by a local lady about sticking my knees out! I have moments of clarity with my dressage seat, but I need to be really mentally "there" to have them with consistency right now. Practice will make them habit over time though, so I gotta do the work! I also need to, you know, not mentally shit my britches next time I'm riding in a show or clinic or lesson format lol. Being even a little more mentally present would have helped me tons this go around. But oh well, first time is the hardest/scariest. =)

  20. I love this so much. Congratulations, you rock. <3

  21. Well, that's inspiring. Great job guys!

  22. Way to go girl! Your sheer determination is going to make you an epic dressage rider!