Sabotage In The Show Ring

May 22, 2015 - 8:50 AM
Randi Heathman and Ricochet have developed a partnership and friendship over the years, but it's not without the occasional "discussion." Photo by Robert Heathman.

They say it isn’t paranoia if someone really is out to get you.

To that statement, I would add that it likewise isn’t just bad horse show luck if your beloved (but opinionated) horse really is out to sabotage your dressage test.

OK, maybe sabotage is an exaggeration. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that, during one particular test, my beloved (but opinionated) horse taught me a very important lesson in a very public way.

Allow me to explain: I’m the proud owner of the talented (but opinionated) Ricochet, a Dutch gelding better known as Rico, with whom I’ve journeyed from training level through the FEI. Because the upper levels were something neither of us had previous experience with, we’ve learned everything together and forged a pretty cool partnership, if I do say so myself.

At the core of our relationship is the principle that Rico is allowed to express his opinions when he doesn’t like something, but that I have the final say in what we do—as in, “I’m sorry you don’t like my left leg touching you, but it’s non-negotiable. Move.”

And while I know some horsemen would say I’m too lenient by allowing him this privilege, I like to feel that we’re friends and partners, that it’s not a total dictatorship.

In the human world, our true friends are the ones we trust to be completely honest with us—even (and especially) when we’re out of line. We rely on their input and respect them for it. During the sabotaged ride of 2012, Rico behaved simply as any true friend would have—much to my chagrin.

The conflict began in the warm-up. There was a mistake in the flying changes and instead of moving on, I made it an issue. And while I’m an educated rider who knows full well that training is for home and not the warmup arena, on that day I stupidly broke my own rule and things got ugly. Mea culpa.

My (surprisingly rational) Hail Mary was to stop trying to fix the myriad of things that were going wrong and hack quietly on a loose rein in the 15 minutes before our ride time. (My backup plan was to pray for a sudden thunderstorm.)

When we arrived at the in-gate, I confess, I actually felt like we might be OK. Rico’s ears were up, he was ambling at his usual lax pace, and our tempers had cooled. When the bell sounded, we cantered down centerline and Rico halted as softly as if he’d landed on a pillow. I’m serious—it felt like a 9.

Disaster averted!

Confident that I’d made the necessary amends, I dared to think about winning the class —until I asked Rico to trot and…

…nothing happened.

Correction: There was no forward movement of any kind, but I distinctly remember an ear sweeping back as if to say, “May I help you?”

I repeated the cue—stronger this time—and the stomp of a forefoot clearly told me, “Apologize or walk.”

The judge stared, the crowd whispered, and Rico stood parked at X while he patiently awaited his public apology. What else could I do but grovel?

Now, I’d love to tell you that the rest of the test was beautiful and we won despite the early blip, but I think you know that’s not what happened. Let me just say that we survived the test, did not score the 45 percent I feared we might, and by the end I was actually laughing, having fully digested a thick slice of humble pie.

What embarrassed me the most about the entire situation, I realized, was that it only took a split second in the warm-up arena for me to forget that, as riders, our relationships with our horses should be based on respect—especially since we fully expect them to return the favor. It took the duration of one terrible and completely humiliating test for me to remember that rule, and discover a newfound respect for my own horse, who clearly understands both the power of public opinion and how to use it to make a point.

Come to think of it, maybe I should be paranoid…

Randi Heathman is an amateur dressage rider from Michigan who exchanged the extensive travel requirements of a college admissions counselor for the extensive travel requirements of an educational consultant in 2012. Aboard her beloved (but opinionated) Dutch Warmblood gelding Ricochet, she has earned her USDF bronze and silver medals and aspires to earn her gold. The pair were named USDF Region 2 champions in the second level adult amateur division in 2009. 

Randi is one of the winners of the Chronicle’s second writing competition. 

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