Dressage for everybody

    Snoopy's dressage ribbon
    Snoopy kindly tolerates my whims, from trying out dressage to posing with the resulting ribbon so I can have a photo to post on the Internet. What a good boy. Photo: Leslie Potter

    They say dressage is good for every horse and rider. It’s just correct training, right? So when the announcement for my boarding stable’s annual dressage and combined test show series came up, I said, “Why not?” and signed Snoopy up for Intro Test A.

    I rode dressage for a semester in college and even showed. Of course, I rode a knowledgeable schoolmaster back then, and that was right around ten years ago. Snoopy’s dressage history was even shorter, which is to say, he didn’t have any. He was bred and trained from day one to be a saddle seat horse for the Morgan breed circuit, and he was good at that. But I’m quite certain he’s never had a real dressage rider on his back.

    Still, how hard could a walk/trot test be? It’s just a couple of circles and diagonal lines. But in the days leading up to the show, I was feeling nervous. I wasn’t worried about not doing well. In fact, I fully expected not to do well. But I was worried I’d do something stupid, like forget to salute or enter the ring at the wrong time. I felt like a stranger in a strange land, but I didn’t want to make it obvious to everyone else that I was.

    On show day, I went out to the barn in the morning so I’d have plenty of time to get ready and maybe watch some of the earlier rides before my mid-afternoon ride time. Upon arriving at the barn, I realized my white saddle pad was sitting at home, right where I’d left it after washing it the previous day. I looked at my alternate saddle pad, which is a lovely shade of bright purple, and decided I’d better hurry. I retrieved Snoopy from the pasture and gave him a quick bath, then drove the twenty minutes home to retrieve the pad.

    Lesson 1: Always use a checklist when packing for the show, even when it’s at your own barn.

    I made it home and back without cutting it too close. Since Snoopy’s long, Morgany mane is unpulled, I put it up in a running braid before tacking him up with the freshly cleaned white pad and the jumping saddle that just screamed, “I’m not a real dressage rider!” I put on his bridle, trying to avoid getting slobber on my white shirt. I toweled off my boots, climbed aboard, and off we went.

    After a brief spook at the bit check lady, Snoopy relaxed. Or maybe he decided it was too hot to put energy into worrying about all of the strange people and horses that appeared at the farm.

    The rider ahead of us completed her test, and off we went. I prepared for a major spook, but Snoopy trotted right by the judge’s booth without batting an eye as we circled the arena. After trotting both directions, I brought him down to a walk and started wondering if I had to wait for the whistle, or if I could just go in any time. My thoughts were interrupted by the judge yelling that she’d already blown the whistle. Oops. I thought that was just someone cheering over at the jumper ring! I turned Snoopy around and headed in.

    Lesson 2: Know what the whistle sounds like before it’s your turn.

    The next few minutes are kind of a blur. I remember that Snoopy had his game face on as we boldly entered the ring, and that he still didn’t give the seemingly scary judge’s booth a second thought. I had solicited advice from dressage-riding friends prior to show day, and they’d told me I should focus on accuracy. With that in mind, I concentrated on making sure my circles went all the way out to X and my diagonal lines were as straight as possible.

    Somewhere near the end of the second and final 20-meter circle I realized that it had taken us a really long time to make it around. The next instruction was to transition to a walk between C and M. I had intended to trot to M and transition there, but Snoopy must have been studying the test and knew he didn’t have to keep going. At C, he slammed on the brakes. I pictured a fuel gauge on the back of his head with the needle pointed at E. Fortunately, all we had left was a free walk, then a medium walk to X, halt, and salute.

    I have Snoopy big pats as he sauntered boredly out of the ring. I thanked the judge, and she replied, “Your horse is adorable!”

    “Thank you!” I said.

    “Hooray!” I thought, wondering if the “horse cuteness” score had a coefficient of two.

    After cooling Snoopy out, giving him lots of treats and putting him back in his paddock, I went to find out my score. And there it was: 58%. I knew that wasn’t great. If it was a math test, I would have just earned an F. But was it okay for our first time out? It was good enough for fifth place, anyway.

    I’m finding that there are two things to love about dressage shows. One is that they tell you exactly what time you’ll ride. No guessing necessary. The second is the judge’s remarks. It’s nice to know why you scored how you did. For us, we started really strong, earning an 8 on our entrance! But after that, we quickly declined to mostly 5s with consistent comments about needing more bend and more impulsion. Our final halt and salute earned us another 8. It was a hot day. Snoopy was really into halting.

    In the “further remarks” section, the judge wrote, “Cute pair!” Aw, yeah we are! Not surprisingly, this was followed by advice to work on bend and impulsion to improve future scores. In my quest to be accurate, I guess I did sort of forget to RIDE. I’ll know for next time. And there will be a next time. Move over, Ravel. Snoopy is a dressage horse now.

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