Dressage Life: The Big Picture

A rider sees the big picture in her dressage life.

Molly Cabral and Giovanni | Photo courtesy of Reflections Photography

This year, I knew I was going to do well at the New England Dressage Association (NEDA) regional championships. But then again, I have known it before. A couple of years ago, my horse, Giovanni, was 6, and we were going First Level. We had won most of our classes with some good scores in the high 60s, so I thought I’d continue that trend at the championships. When we got to NEDA, the horse felt great and we won a few classes before the big day. But when I got into the ring for The Championship, I got tense and tight and, well, need I say more? We ended up just out of the ribbons.

But, that wasn’t the part that haunted me. Why, when it mattered the most, would I clamp up like that? What was the trick to staying calm and relaxed when under stress, when the ante is upped, when there’s a lot at stake?

The next year at Second Level I actually didn’t think we were winning material for the championships. In fact, I debated whether we should go at all. The season itself had been fine. We had won some classes, and we had gotten some good scores in the high 60s, but never in the qualifying class, Second Level-4. We had just barely qualified, and I knew we weren’t solidly Second Level. Together with my trainer, we decided that if we qualified we should go. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The championship class went OK, not great, and we were seventh out of 14. A little lackluster, but that was no surprise. I went home, licked my wounds, and told myself that next year would be better.

My horse needed to get stronger, so that he could really engage and carry himself, and I needed to learn how to ride him that way. We had a good winter working on building muscle and confidence. We varied his work to keep him interested. In addition to his usual work, we did ground work. He learned how to longe, using two longe lines–one leading from the bridle on the off side and the other around his rump. I hacked him around the perimeter of fields, we worked over cavallettis and sometimes we jumped. He was going better and better. When my trainer would ride him, I would marvel at how wonderful he looked, carrying himself like an FEI horse in the making.

Then spring and summer came. We only went to a couple of shows but we did well. We won some classes with respectable scores in Second Level-4. He was feeling smooth, soft, round, powerful. People told me he looked great. Everything was lining up. Best of all, I could stay relaxed in the show ring.

Preparing for the championship test, there was only one movement that kept me awake at night. I had to be really careful of the medium canter left. If I wasn’t, if I didn’t keep him really honest on the outside rein and keep him coming with my inside leg, he could throw in a flying change. And the turn on the haunches could be a little dicey, too. Sometimes my trainer was amazed at how good they were, and other times she would yell about half halts and activity and just get beside herself with what was or wasn’t happening.

My favorite part of the test is the shoulder in to renvers. I used to think it was impossibly hard, but it began to feel easy and even graceful. The canter serpentine with the simple changes every time we crossed the centerline were “in the bag,” we nailed those. He floated down to the walk like a snowflake. My centerlines are good too, usually 8s. If only I could do the whole test in straight lines.

Well, there was one other tiny problem I was worried about: My medium trot needed to be better. It needed to cover more ground, and without a whip I was going to be at a real disadvantage. I’ve already told you about the medium canter left that I had to ride conservatively or else I’d get the change for sure, but the one to the right wasn’t bad because I can actually half halt on the left rein.

With all these problems, you may be saying it’s amazing she thought she could do well. But schooling at home and at the shows we went to, there were times when everything came together. If I could get him active and swinging up into my hand in the warm-up and then stay calm myself, we could put in a decent test.

The big day came, and somehow, in spite of all my promises to myself, tension crept into my ride, into my body, down my arms and into the horse. David Collins, who sees these things, told me later that the horse looked tense and as if he didn’t understand what was being asked of him.

You’ve probably guessed that the test went pretty much the way I’d feared, but with a few unforeseen things thrown in. I had wound my horse up so much in the warm-up that even though he still felt behind my leg, he threw in a few trot steps in the downward transition from canter to walk. Because I locked up in various parts of my body, I made him come behind the vertical in the shoulder in and renvers, and he lost tempo, so even my “in the bag” moves weren’t their normal selves. There was no flying change in the medium canter left, but no real medium canter either. Right was better.

Basically, when I dropped the whip at A, that was the beginning of the end. I managed to trot energetically down the centerline, halted square and grew roots, which I tried to shake for the rest of the test. We ended up with a 60 percent from all three judges and solidly in the middle of the pack. Disappointing doesn’t even begin to cover it. We can do so much better than that.

So we certainly did not come home covered in glory, as my British friend used to say. Now what? What am I to think? Have we really made no progress this last year? This sent me into a tailspin. Not about the horse–he’s fine, it’s all me. He only goes the way he’s ridden. He’s an extremely honest horse who responds to the aids the way they are given. I wondered if I was the right rider for him. I wanted to be realistic with myself. So it was time to pull the boat out of the water and take a good look at the bottom in broad daylight.

Dressage is a thinking sport to some degree, and I keep trying to analyze what went wrong. I know we made progress last year, and just because things weren’t at their best at one show, it doesn’t cancel out all the good. For instance, he still has all that good muscle we put on. I still have our blue ribbons and tests to prove it. I’ve decided that, for better or worse, I’m his rider. I love to ride him, and I want to learn how to ride him better. Even though dressage can be frustrating, I’m pretty much addicted. I feel lucky to have such a passion for something. This is the process. Do I enjoy it? Yes, I do.