Hey, guess what? It’s been a weird year. Shocking, I know.
I had a plan—getting Elvis to the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions—only to have it rerouted by COVID-19, amongst other things. But I also had a few plans for the other horses in my life: trying to qualify as many as possible for the USDF Finals. And then those were canceled.
I must confess that I did not shed a tear for the USDF Finals. For sure it’s one of my favorite shows, run by a crack team and with a very “Big Deal” feeling. I’ll miss not being there, but not nearly as much as I’d be anxious and scared, knowing it wasn’t fair when so many couldn’t be there, knowing what a dangerous and irresponsible proposition such a big gathering of people, largely indoors, from all over the country, would be.
And not for nothing, but being done a month earlier wasn’t breaking my heart. Every horse in my life is developing, not finished. I want to see them rise to their potential, and I want to do it smart, letting my horses have downtime when I can. So being done competitively by mid-October instead of mid-November? A silver lining I’m perfectly happy with.
So it meant that the Region 1 Championships were our year-ender. I’d qualified Puck (Gretzky RV) for the third level championships and Patrick—Terrina Baker’s De Angelicus MTF—for the first level championships when we were in Florida. Helio earned his fourth level and Prix St. Georges qualifying scores over the summer. And off we went.
It’s important to note, at this point in the story, that Puck and Helio both have spent the last few weeks really thinking about fitness, because Puck is a big dude with a lot of power, whereas Helio is a wonderful little Lusitano for whom throughness did not come easy, and so it’s taken time to build both their toplines and their cardiovascular capacity to what it needed to be. Just a few weeks of focus, through which I hadn’t really had time to see a major difference at home. More on that in a moment.
For Helio, the move up to Prix St. Georges was a big one, and in the championship he put in a solid effort but was just outgunned by the very experienced combinations in the class. Still, a 66% is a solid endeavor, especially for one who decided last week to start attempting to steal every flying change to the left. The fourth level class was two days later, and knowing how fatigued in his back he could get, I gave him Saturday off, and then, to hedge my bets, put on slightly bigger spurs than I’d been showing in. Hardly weapons of mass destruction, but I thought he might need a little help with the carrying power.
Fourth level, test 3, is a monster, a nasty little thing with lots of tight turns and movements that come up FAST. The first of those hairy things is a series of 10-meter half circles in counter-canter, followed by a flying change. And in that first change to the right, he smiled, humped his back and LAUNCHED. Fortunately, I’m a big strapping girl, and I ride a lot of mongrels, so 16 hands of launching Lusitano isn’t really intimidating, but it was inconveniently timed. He proceeded to leap about through the test, helped by a moment of my going off course. (Seriously, USDF, the diagonal is a stupid place to put the flying change after the canter pirouette. Someone should fix that.) I treated myself to a last-placed finish by a Kentucky mile.
Oopsie. At least Helio had a grand time, and fitness camp, clearly, is having the effect I wanted it to have.
Patrick had two good first level rides with some tension; we are 7 now, and we’ve decided that spooking and breath-holding is a thing. Kids these days.
But the hero of the weekend was Puck.
Longtime readers know that Puck has not been, ahem, easy. When he started going to shows this spring, it felt like a breakthrough, but I didn’t want to count on it. Once the world started to reopen, I hedged my bets and took him to one more show, just to check in on his reformation process, and he made good on it, some very big scores at third level. And he’d been rocking around at home like a genius, making his Prix St. Georges debut at a schooling show, and getting a heckuva lot more confirmed in his piaffe and passage. So third level felt like an easy thing, and I felt good about our shot at the big ribbon.
He nailed it. Rideable but energetic as hell. Letting me sneak in some moments of the Big Fancy Trot I can sometimes get at home; he’s still learning to own it, but it’s there. Smiling at me. Darn good in the contact. He won his championship class and then, still full of running, absolutely smoked around an open third level class that would have been about a 75% if I’d shown him the show ring in advance; instead, he decided to let me know that there were horses competing down the hillside by slamming on the brakes mid walk pirouette and pointing them out, to the tune of a score of 3 on a double coefficient movement. (Still got almost 73. Boom.)
So: fitness camp. It worked.
The only reason I claim my own horse as the hero of the weekend is because my team’s other rockstar, my friend and student Abe Pugh on Alice Drayer’s phenomenal Trakehner stallion Elfenperfekt, has been well behaved far longer than Puck has. But it should go without saying that Abe and “Pistol” were super smarties this weekend too, just getting pipped in the Grand Prix freestyle championship but smoking the heck out of the open Grand Prix championship, 72s in both. Pistol has never been more through and more honest in his back, and Abe has never ridden better. I’m supremely proud of all that they’ve done this year to grow together.
And now… we’re done. I did a mountain of laundry because of course it rained for two solid days. All the show horses had Monday off, and then Helio and Patrick hacked on Tuesday. (Puck went to work, because fitness camp REALLY worked, and he felt fabulous, so off we went for a light school.) And I have some choices to make about what to do next with them all, as it’s only mid-October, and we’ve got two months until we leave for Florida. But I get to sit quietly and make them, without pressure, without panicking about what comes next. COVID-19 is certainly a nasty bugger that’s changed millions of lives for the worse, and I wish this would all hustle the heck away, but it is nice to have a moment of pause forced upon me.
As ever, a huge thank you to the crack team that organizes these shows for us, Bettina Longaker and her tireless crew. They’re always amazing, but in 2020, their efforts (as well as those of the Virginia Horse Center) towards our safety were remarkable. They cannot be thanked enough!
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.