Friday, May. 24, 2024

In Praise Of The Schooling Show

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A million years ago, in a time of much healthier knees, I did triathlons. If you’ve never stood next to me, I’m 5’10” and built like a refrigerator, so when I tell you I did triathlons, I did them slowly, and I did the shortest distance class: a sprint, which is usually about a half-mile swim, 15-mile bike, and 3.1-mile run. I could do one in about two hours. Competition in these things is often by age group, but because I’m no pixie, I competed in something called the Athena division, for female athletes over 165 pounds. (Lest you were curious, the men’s division, for athletes over 200 pounds, is called the Clydesdale division.)

When you go to a local sprint-distance triathlon, you see all shapes and sizes. You see weekend warriors like me. You see the more ambitious amateur athletes, really going for it. And you’ll often see a few pros that are doing a little sprint to stay sharp, or begin a season, or test the waters recovering from an injury, or maybe just there to inspire their local triathlon club. There are prizes, pizza and beer at the end. It is an absolute hoot.

One of the many things I love about dressage is what I loved about local sprint-distance triathlons: There’s a level, and a competition, for everyone. 

And for many, that level is schooling shows.

Blogger Lauren Sprieser loves schooling shows like the White Fences Equestrian Center (Fla.) series for the low-cost opportunity to take out babies like Clearwater Equestrian Partner’s Tjornelys Solution DWB. Joanna Jodko Photo

My triathlon accomplishments are roughly the equivalent of being Reserve High Score Champion of the intro division at a local schooling show. And I was THERE FOR IT. I have glassware. I have a medal from one that hangs in my office, even though my running days are long behind me. I had the absolute time of my damn life doing them. And to prepare for them, I did what a lot of weekend warriors do. I read a lot; biked with my local bike club (cheerfully being one of the slowbies behind the front pack of 60-plus-year-old dudes who train for the Ironman races at Kona and Lake Placid, badasses all, but who often had a tip to share); did a one-hour private lesson, one time, at the local running shoe shop; and threw caution to the wind. 

If I’d wanted to get better, I’d have taken more lessons, done some weekend clinics with coaches, had better quality gear. It would have cost more time and more money. But I didn’t want to spend either. And because I was happy in my little lane, I didn’t feel a need to.

This is true of dressage riders’ competitive ambitions as well. We’re at the time of year, outside Florida and California, where U.S. Dressage Federation and U.S. Equestrian Federation recordings are being processed, and recognized show plans with regional and national championship goals are being formulated.

If you want to be competitive at the international level, you’re going to throw a ton of time and money into horses and tack and lessons and travel and lessons and show fees and lessons and lessons and lessons. You can get away with spending less to be competitive nationally, or regionally, but they’re time-consuming and expensive, too. The bar is lower at schooling shows. You can find them locally. You can trailer in for the day, no need for a hotel. You probably don’t need to be a member of any organizations. You can just show up, with your horse and its Coggins test, and do your thing.

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And just like at my local sprint triathlons, you’ll see heavy-hitters at schooling shows. You’ll see pros taking out babies, or people sorting out talented horses who’ve lost the training plot and need some time away from the bright lights, big city of recognized sport. And some of them will beat you, just as I got thoroughly beaten in my races by plenty of people who, yes, were more talented than I, but more importantly were better trained and more devoted to the sport. I bore them no ill will, as I really was there to compete against myself. (And get the pizza.)

I’m writing this as we head north from our winter location in Wellington, which is a nine-minute door-to-door walk from the White Fences Equestrian Center, a beautiful facility that holds several recognized competitions a year. But they also do a schooling show every third Wednesday. In addition to traditional classes, they do the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen at a schooling show: the “X” Division, where riders can have their coaches in their ear with a radio coaching device. For the rider who’s nervous, it’s a godsend. 

Schooling shows are consequence-free. Take the young horse out. Take the new competitor out. If they blow it, it’s an $80 failure, instead of a recognized-show, $300-plus failure. But it’s the same test they’ll do at the recognized show, or the regional championships or whatever other Big Hairy Goals are out there. You get real judge feedback. You get a score, one you can compare (with some wiggle room, of course—one judge’s 60% can be another judge’s 71% sometimes, particularly at the schooling show level where not all judges are extensively trained or experienced) to your other scores to track progress. Sometimes, there are prizes. Sometimes, there’s even pizza.

Mostly, there’s a lot less stress. There’s virtually nothing at stake. Rarely are there membership fees. It’s the grassroots, but for a lot of us, that’s the right type of grass to feel successful, to be competitive, and to have some freaking fun. 

So let us celebrate the winners of Big Hairy Things. But schooling shows are amazing. Particularly as we watch other equestrian disciplines fighting for their definitions of success, and for ways to make their sports more accessible, we in dressage-land should celebrate our many lanes in which to play.


Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist with distinction making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s C. Cadeau, Clearwater Farm Partners’ Tjornelys Solution, as well as her own string of young horses, with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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