One of my clients had to back out of a schooling show on Saturday, and I made the last-minute decision to take her place. But who to ride? Training 1 and 2, hardly daunting tests. But should I take Fender, give him an opportunity to get off the farm and try wearing the big horse pants, or take Douwe, the Friesian I train who needs to get off the farm but goes better in a first-second level kind of way than in a training level one?
I picked Douwe, because Fender’s been a bit of a teenaged turd, whereas Douwe’s owner (who lives a good distance away and is rarely in town) happened to be around this weekend. He’s an interesting horse, partially because of his breed, and partially because of his life story. Friesians in general have this gooey quality to their necks that makes them a challenge to keep up-and-out; Douwe is completely comfortable with his chin flush against the underside of his neck, and often goes there when I simply take contact. Weird.
And then there’s his past—he was a pairs driving horse for years, so neck up, pull with the shoulders, always with a buddy and always with blinders. He was ridden, of course, but not as neck-out as I would have liked. A more sensitive horse by nature, his history has left him insecure when alone; strong and muscled a little counter to dressage; and VERY spooky, especially about things behind him.
Fortunately, he’s also a great egg and has really made progress. But the more I think second level, uphill and gathered, as opposed to training level, forward and free, the better he goes. So in practicing the training level tests on Friday, I felt like the bigger figures and simpler geometry actually made my job harder.
Off we go on Saturday, and I timed my departure badly, so we arrived only about 15 minutes before my ride time. Yikes! Douwe stood like a star trailer-side while I unceremoniously dumped some tack on him, flung myself over, and went into the indoor. We called “door” and stepped inside.
And then there was trouble.
I hate being a jerk in the warm-up. Hate it. I’m a professional rider, unimpeded by nerves. I should not only be a good example for others, but I should try and accommodate the lowest common denominator. Instead, Douwe and I careened around the arena, spooking at everything, unable to steer, and trying valiantly not to plow into either the very wide-eyed woman on the chestnut or the dapperly dressed young man on the gray. To you both, should you read this, I apologize profusely. We were a big ball of flying hair, whipping around the ring with nary a care as to who or what we bounced off of.
Poor Douwe just locked up. Neck cranked up like only a carthorse can, his ears up my nose. To prevent him from slamming on the brakes and high-tailing it back to the trailer, I had to pretty much bury my spurs in his sides and go Mach 2 with his hair on fire around the show ring, although at least by that point we were alone and unable to injure anyone. The judge let me make it around a few times, but he still wasn’t settled when we went into the ring.
All our prep, all our work for the last few months, went out the window. We’ve made such progress in maintaining an uphill balance; his hind legs were back in Nebraska. I’ve slaved over an up-and-out contact; with a loop in the reins, he still put his chin on his chest. I’ve toiled over a half-halt that went from hind legs to shoulders without affecting the neck; we had one speed, and that was DON’T YOU DARE FREAKING STOP!
Upon completion of the first test, the judge informed me that he needed to stretch out, and to go a little slower, and that the way I rode him was not really correct.
Well. No freaking kidding.
It’s OK, funny even. The judge has to say something, of course. And when we left the arena (Douwe drenched in sweat, the poor guy), his owner and I both shrugged and went to towel Douwe off in the few minutes between tests.
I actually got to warm up for my second ride, and after a few moments of keepgoingkeepgoingkeepgoing, he took a big, deep breath. And suddenly I had my horse back. He took a half-halt (reasonably well, at any rate). He whoa-ed. He used all four legs. And he mostly reached for the bit. I still want more organization, better trot-canter transitions, and some bend in the corners, but I thought he earned the 71 percent and blue ribbon he received. Mostly, I’m THRILLED that he got it together.
And I’m REALLY glad I didn’t take Fender!