Last year was the first year since I was 10 that I did not attend one single competition. Of course, this was not exactly by a well-designed and premeditated plan. (Thanks, COVID-19!)
I am never delighted about having to stay put for more than a calendar year with a spicy young horse, in part because training at home rarely can replicate the terrors of a horse show. However, that was exactly what I did.
In 2020, I managed to get in some incredible training time. I made huge strides toward Dubai becoming a lean, mean, yellow dressage machine. I literally checked off the boxes of the training scale. I basically marched out daily (mind you, into my own arena) and won the whole show! So much winning, all in my own yard.
Right. So 2021 arrived, and it was time to get back on the horse. The “at a horse show” horse, who may or may not remember that he has been thoroughly schooled in the art of steering, stopping and focusing. Critical life skills.
When I have a 7-year-old, I am often torn about what level to do. My main objective is looking towards the shiny FEI future, so I don’t tend to agonize over perfecting my second level, test 2. (I have ridden enough training through Prix St. Georges tests to sink a ship with the test sheets, so I’m not in dire need of more scores at said levels.) Knowing that Dubai’s flying changes were still more “creative” than “focused,” I concluded that a few second level tests were in order. One does not wish to go out and look like a hot mess express when making one’s great re-entry, after all!
Thankfully for me, my decades and decades (and decades, but who is really counting here) of show experience did not vanish in one 18-month period, and I managed to get my entries in on time and (mostly) complete, I made it to the horse show in one piece (and not even noticeably late) and proceeded to ride around like I knew what I was doing. (Impressive!) Honestly, things were so calm and top-level-expert feeling on the schooling day, that I almost had a false sense of security. But I knew better. (There comes a time when you always know better.)
At high noon the next day, little golden Dubai was all beautiful and braided, and ready to make his grand appearance as a real-life second level horse. I was so proud!
I, however, had a small problem. A pain-in-the-butt problem. I had started my day in a most excellent way, by falling down an entire flight of stairs and literally breaking my a** so yes, there was that one small issue, but I knew I could power through. I placed my bruised booty carefully in my saddle and carefully made my way to warm up. And, we won the warm-up in fine style—my rear end felt OK, and my horse’s rear end felt even better. It was one of those warm-ups where you absolutely and undeniably feel a mid-70s test coming up, and I figured if I could get my broken behind in the ring with even 50% of the warm-up power, a 70% was in the bag. THE BAG (I never trust this bag…)
So you guys, in I went. Ready to seize the day. I cruised around the judges box by C ready for a full send, when—I kid you not, I cannot make this up—from a field across the road, a huge herd of cows began to stampede. They were mooing! They were … galloping?! They were thundering like it was the Wild West!
The judge stuck her head out of the box and exclaimed, in absolute terror, “COME OVER HERE AND HIDE!” (which is the best thing a judge has ever said to me). The cows eventually, and loudly, departed, to get lunch or milked or whatever it is cows do, leaving a path of horror in their wake. Despite this undeniable chaos, we more or less dusted ourselves off and put in a remarkably respectable test. Maybe not the 70-plus that I had felt in warm-up, but I did have a horse under me who was cooperative enough to allow me to control him after Cowgate 2021. Not a hot mess express. And I will never forget the look on that judge’s face as she asked me to hide from certain death by cow.
Now let’s be real. I can prepare for a lot of things at home, many things. But cows? Nope. Never going to be ready to come face to face with those weirdos. The good news? The cow horror show completely took my mind off my bruised tush.
Needless to say, this was quite the exciting return to the show arena. It does seem that if there are going to be shenanigans, from tumbling down stairs, to surviving cow chaos, I will be in the midst of them. Luckily, I always have many ice packs on hand, as well as a healthy sense of humor which allows me to see the gigantic entertainment factor in all of this. Also, it was just so great to be back in the show scene that no cow could get me down. It was wonderful to see my fellow trainers once again in our natural environment—if a cow farm counts as that—and to get back down that centerline.
I’m Sara Bradley, a full-time dressage trainer (and definitely NOT a cow farmer!) from the lovely state of Maine. Most of my time is spent educating young horses and young riders at my facility, Waterford Equestrian Center. (And yes, I do like to instruct mature horses and humans as well, and I have some lovely ones in my stable!) When I’m not busy juggling the day-to-day activities at my farm, I enjoy activities like trail running over actual mountains and running marathons. (Life in the slow lane is not my style!) I look forward to more non-Dairy Farm adventures with my German Riding Pony, Dubai’s Dream, during the 2021 season, and you can follow this journey on Instagram @dubais_dream.