The L Program is the first level of the judges’ education program. It covers training through second level, and for the first couple of sessions, it’s a mix of classroom discussion and riding demonstration. We need new judges to replace the retiring ones, and so when Kathy Rowse sent out an email looking for demo riders for the central Virginia dressage club’s L program, I wanted to help.
They wanted a group of training level, a group of first level and a group of second level horses, or horses of other levels that could demo the lower level work. I’ve got the whole spectrum here, and because I knew they wouldn’t just want to see perfect examples of the work, I sent Kathy the whole list: fancy warmblood horses? Check. Stiff and crunchy babysitter horses? Check. Friesian, PRE, draft cross? Check, check, check.
In the end, Kathy picked Fender to demo first level, and Tres for the second level section. Because assistant trainer Allison was participating in the program, and I needed working student Molly at home, I borrowed my student-and-buddy Heather, made some snacks, loaded up the boys and hit the road to Richmond, to the always-lovely Glamorgan Manor.
When you ride for something like this, it’s not a clinic, and it’s not supposed to be a learning experience for you (although, of course, it always is). It also requires a thick skin – even with a nice person in charge (in this case, “I” judge Lois Yukins, who I’ve always liked), you’re still riding in a room full of 40-or-so people who are talking about all the reasons you aren’t perfect.
The group picked up on Fender’s weakness right away, and it’s the reason I haven’t shown him since he was a kid – for him, a really authoritative connection to the hand is hard for him. He doesn’t step out to the bit brilliantly by nature, and while it’s improving every day, he is his most rideable and adjustable when I allow him to stay a smidge behind the vertical.
I took a little spanking from a few observers thinking I was pulling him behind the vertical, which I can live with – I know I’m not, and I’m glad that the future judges of the world are on the lookout for these things, and not just being dazzled by Fender’s gorgeous gaits and beautiful body. This was really good feedback for me; at home, while I know he’s still a long way from the wonderful finished product I know he’ll be, I sometimes get a little overly-confident in how great he feels and, frankly, how fancy he is. It was a good pat on the back for not showing him yet, even though he’s putting together pieces of the upper-level work and could certainly show third level with nice scores. I don’t want nice scores – I want to be brilliant, which means the connection needs to be beyond reproach.
Tres, bless his little Spanish heart, decided that second level was boring, and that he would, instead, demonstrate all of his upper level work. There were flying changes, well, everywhere. The simple changes were, instead, canter-halt or canter-piaffe or attempted canter pirouettes. And when I made medium canter, Lois said, “Easy! Not so bold!” Whoops.
But he did demo really good work, and the point of this thing was more to talk about what a judge might see – which you’ll know, if you’ve ever been to a little local show, can cover the whole spectrum! – than what they hope to see, a day of nothing but perfection.
The focus of the A session is biomechanics, and the group did spend some time talking about conformation. And I was glad they did, because after spending a few minutes talking about all the reasons Tres would never move up the levels – his shoulder too sloping, his pasterns too long, his neck too big – I informed the group he was a Grand Prix horse, and so all his weirdnesses clearly didn’t get in his way, so there. OK, maybe I was a little defensive about it, the poor little guy!
But seriously folks, it was a great opportunity for the group to think about Pretty Is As Pretty Does, something that’s important for future judges; to not be blinded by what the horse looks like going around the ring, and instead focus on how the horse goes in the ring. Gorgeous Fender isn’t perfect; funny little Tres transcends the issues Mother Nature bestowed upon him to become a wonderful and useful dressage athlete.
Who knows if any of the participants in this L will move onto their r, R, S, and onto the FEI judges’ ranks. But keeping that fact in mind, that good athletes (and bad athletes!) can come in all shapes, sizes, colors and creeds, will serve them well, I hope, and can’t be reinforced enough, right from minute one.