One of the beautiful things about dressage is that there are so many levels at which to play. I don’t just mean training level versus third level versus Prix St. Georges versus Grand Prix; I mean that there are schooling shows, recognized shows, CDIs, and various regional and national championship tracks. My original goal for Elvis this year was the USEF Developing Prix St. Georges Championships, a track dedicated to 7-9-year-old horses, and a program for which the bar is fantastically high. The top 15 in the country go; I was 19th. Close, but no cigar.
So when that ship sailed, I made a new goal: the U.S. Dressage Finals in Lexington, Kentucky, in November. Qualifying for Finals requires either taking champion or reserve, or earning a “wildcard” score above a certain qualifying threshold at one of the nine regional championships. I live in Region 1, which has lots of very quality trainers on quality horses. The Prix St. Georges open championship tends to be one of the bigger ones. And Elvis and I drew a time early in the class.
I gave Elvis the month of August to fluff around, letting him do some basic work, plus some hills, plus some in-hand work as I forge ahead on Operation Piaffe, all geared towards letting him be productive, but not overwhelmingly fit, through the hottest of the Virginia summer. In September, I put him back to real work, and for the first time, I leaned on him for conditioning. Our rides were longer. I really got on his case about self-carriage, which has been the biggest bugaboo for us. I made him TIRED. The week before the show, I kept our collective noses to the grindstone. I’ve upped my own fitness program, and I didn’t back down on either of us until Saturday when I caught Elvis napping midday—unusual for him—and declared victory. He hacked Sunday. He had Monday off. He schooled lightly on Tuesday, just thinking sharp and bright to the aids. We drove to North Carolina on Wednesday, where I did the same.
And on Thursday, I popped on my tailcoat, and off we went.
It was a good test. Mistake-free, with lots of energy. I’d waffled on using the snaffle, which I’d shown him in most of the year, or the double, in which I’d yet to have a good test ride from a self-carriage perspective, but in which I was getting somewhere at home. I went conservative on the equipment—snaffle—but turned up the turbo. I took risks, some of which paid off (great extended trot! Awfully presentable right canter pirouette!), and some of which didn’t (flying change theft after the final extended canter! Put your damn front leg down in the first halt and stop waving to the judge with it, you weirdo!). But I just missed 70 percent, went to an early lead, and then went about the rest of my day. Mission accomplished: No matter where I placed, I’d cleared the very high threshold of 68 percent to qualify for Kentucky.
And then we went off to the award ceremony.
The online scoring had been wonky all day, and I had two other horses to ride, plus students showing, so I hadn’t paid a lot of attention. And it was a treat to learn that we’d held that lead all day long, and Elvis and I were the regional champions!
I’m so, so thrilled. By the time this blog runs, it’ll be my one-year anniversary with Elvis. I’ve always said it takes at least a year to really know a horse; as a professional, to get one that someone else has trained means taking partially-formed material and making it your own, and that usually involves doing some breaking in the process. I had to remold Elvis into what I needed him to be. He’s done the same to me. And a year in, we’ve got a big blue ribbon and a path before me that makes sense.
The baby boys were also great. Beverley Thomas’ and my Ellington, or “Swagger,” finished seventh in a giant first level open championship, also just shy of 70 percent. Not bad for a big moose of a 5-year-old who’s still partially made of Jello, and who I think is growing again, and who can only find thoroughness if he’s a bit behind the vertical right now. Terrina Baker’s De Angelicus, or “Patrick,” was just a few percentage points out of the ribbons in an even more monstrous training level open class because the judge from my warm-up class got in my head with her comments, and I foolishly changed the plan that got us here, and it didn’t work like I wanted. He’s a delightful horse, and I’m still looking forward to seeing where he can go!
My students also had a terrific show. Jen Drescher and her Morgan, Blue And White Raven, won the Grand Prix amateur championship, and she was the highest scoring amateur in the open Grand Prix freestyle, which means she’s qualified for Kentucky in two divisions. Abe Pugh suffered from going first in the open Grand Prix, with some weird judging inconsistencies to show for it, but with his high placing and his reserve championship in the Grand Prix freestyle aboard Alice Drayer’s stupendous Trakehner stallion Elfenperfekt, I’m cautiously optimistic they’ll be in Kentucky in two divisions as well. In the open show, my assistant trainer Jess Idol showed Jodie Harney’s Sullivan to a second level win over 70 percent, and my wonderful friend and Official Team Photographer Heather Richards won a GIANT open first level test on almost 70 percent as well.
My favorite thing about big shows like the regional championships isn’t the ribbons and the victories (though I’ll take ‘em, thank you very much); it’s the opportunity to see friends from all over whom I don’t get to see with regularity at the local shows. I never get to spend enough time with Lauren or Jim or Babsi and her brood, who is one of a small group of people who can rival me for herding massive numbers of students at a show. I got to see Emily win the other small tour championships and joke with her as she breathed down my neck in the Prix St. Georges. I got to talk shop with Ally and Tami and so many others, and it’s just a joy, because this is a crazy line of work, and if we’re not together, then we’re in for a lonely career. Plus, this show always has amazing local BBQ on Saturday night, so that’s pretty incredible too.
But I’m also happy to come home, do laundry forever, drink coffee in my PJs and write this blog before getting back to work tomorrow. I’ve got one more show to gear up for. It’s nowhere near time to rest on laurels. It’s go time!
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, Beverley Thomas and her Ellington, 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.