I have been piloting young horses on their maiden show voyages since 1992. Over the years I have discovered that horses can have opinions radically different from mine on how the first show outing might proceed.
Thus, I am prepared for anything. I may, in fact, have seen it all. Or close to it.
I decided to begin my show season with Dubai locally, at a small but very legit schooling show. I like the “real show” feel of business, activity, and hustle and bustle that comes from a show of a decent size. Yes, this can present more problems than attending an extra chill show, but hey, it’s a good way to enter reality.
Dubai is a super good pony, and he braided up nice and pretty, loaded on the trailer eagerly, ate his whole net of hay, and arrived happy and ready to go.
His little eyes bugged out a bit as he observed the new and wide open show location, but he longed calmly, and we went to warm up. Warm-up made him suspicious. Warm-up is always the first test, as it is difficult to navigate around other riders while your ADHD pony is leering around with barely disguised horror. I never get overly concerned about the gawking and squirreling about, as it is par for the course with a youngster. I just hang on and ride forward and pray, just the tiniest bit.
I may have been planning to ride training level, test 1, but instead I took a crack at a new test for young dressage horses, aptly titled “Chaos, Test 1.” I expect it will debut officially at this year’s Markel/USEF National Young and Developing Horse Championships! I believe this is a test that every 4-year-old, and some 5-year-olds (and occasionally my old horse) can perform in a truly smashing fashion!
A review of this groundbreaking new test, from Dubai’s point of view:
1: A: Enter in working trot of absolute horror as you discover that you are ALONE!!
2: X: Halt and lift head high. Very high. Many sights to see, many, many THINGS to look at! Proceed working stagger to M in order to cleverly avoid scary human sitting in box.
3: E: Hexagon in varying gaits. Mostly forgetting what trot is.
4: Between A & F: Canter scoot and show your best haunches out or in. Your choice. Trot at some point.
5: C: Walk. Oh! You know how to do that. Score 9!
6: A: Remember that you are ALONE! Spot attractive gray mare in distance. Fall in love!! Stallion bellow to her imploringly, whilst being put back to extended trot/tranter. (I am not a stallion but whatever. She doesn’t know!)
7: E: Triangle-ish shape while bellowing to amazing and sexy gray girlfriend. Show her all your gaits during that movement for extra marks.
8: M: OMG YOU GUYS, THE GROUND IS LAVA!!!!!!!
9: C: Return to earth.
10: H: What is that banging away on my back? Oh wow, my human is up there. When did that happen? S**T, I better pay attention. TO THAT GRAY MARE, THAT IS!!!
11: A: Diagonal slant down centerline in passage, because advanced Grand Prix achievements have been made.
12: X: Stumble halt, bellow, leap because OMG THE GROUND IS LAVA!
Gaits: Ability to show all gaits, plus a one-beat gait, on a 20-ish meter hexagon. (Check)
*Not* submission: No marks for submission in this test because that is silly. (Check)
Rider’s position and seat: Remaining unflustered and refraining from exclaiming rude words when the ground inexplicably turns to lava. (Check)
Ride’s effective use of aids: While appearing to be altogether ineffective, simply remaining in the arena and on top of steed must be given top marks. (Check)
Post test requirements:
Chuckle, school a bit, get back in the arena, behave, go home!
I must admit, from a trainer’s point of view, all of his antics were entirely silly and not at all scary. He was quite simply overwhelmed, and to have him manage to completely cooperate by day’s end was excellent. He was actually rather convinced, when all was said and done, that he had won a major prize. He was feeling pretty satisfied with himself, which is good, because he came around like a champ!
My assumption, because Dubai is a very sensible young horse, was that this schooling outing would work to plan. I hoped that all the baby sillies would be somewhat over with and that we could crack on and have fewer issues at our next event. Since our next event was our first “real” show together, I was not sure that “chaos, test 1” was something they would allow me to ride. (I have brought quite a few young horses to this particular show over the years, and *may have* taken down a show ring or two or cleared out warm-up. I won’t confirm or deny. Who can remember, really?)
So with great hope (and a parachute and all the longeing equipment and the blood pressure meds) we scooted off to NEDA Spring. Time for some REAL training level, chaos test be damned! I was feeling comfortable and extra chill because my trainer Susanne Hamilton would be there. When she is there and has time to coach me (she did!) I can unplug the side of my brain that plans meticulously for any potential issue that I might encounter. I can just get up and ride, and if there is a calamity she can tell me what to do. (She would have, if needed!) In my line of work, it is a luxury outing/day off when your coach is there to be your security blanket.
Long story short, apparently we have already retired chaos test. We didn’t even need the bag of longeing stuff. None of it!
He got his little yellow booty around that horse show in fine fashion, and came out with a 79.7 in his first test! Holy cow!
As I walked out of the arena, a woman asked me if he was the same horse from the schooling show two weeks prior. I said that he indeed was, and she was amazed. “What did you do in the last two weeks?!” I laughed and said that I was just a seriously, seriously amazing trainer (actually, I said that the first outing had done the job!). Oh, and then I got asked if I was a junior rider, proving that riding a pony can make a person look 20 years younger. Love it.
He was entirely magnificent all weekend. He only got second-placed ribbons, so we win for consistency! He took naps in his stall when my other horse was out working. He had a ton of fun and made many new friends! He had a huge smile on his little horse face all weekend (as did I, on my little human face). I could not be happier.
I love getting good scores, but what I love more is riding a horse that is trainable and learns quickly to trust. All of us trainers know that is not always the case. It can take years to get a horse to bring better focus into the show arena, and I can already feel that developing. So exciting!
He’s enjoying some baby time out in the paddock right now before we think about what’s next.
We have a nice, long summer ahead of us, and I am really looking forward to some fun training time and a bit more showing. I am so fortunate to have recently been awarded a NEDA (New England Dressage Association) scholarship to put towards Dubai’s training expenses. With the goal of developing him for the 4-year-old test, I am so happy to have the funds to get some additional one-on-one time with Susanne (for new readers, that is Susanne Hamilton, FEI rider, USEF “R” judge, super good person!). I am very serious about my own education, so this will be an exciting time.
I’m Sara Bradley, USDF bronze and silver medalist, young horse trainer extraordinaire (today anyway) and owner of Waterford Equestrian Center in Maine. When I am not wrangling 4-year-old horses, I am wrangling 4-year-old children and attempting to teach them to focus and ride ponies. (I also teach adults, who occasionally require less in the way of wrangling.) I also enjoy long walks (runs, let’s be real), my giant hairy dogs, horse showing with my mom Linda, who everyone calls “Sara’s Mom” and adventuring with my excellent horse husband, Eric. Read all of Sara’s COTH blogs.