For a year and a half, my farrier and I worked on finding the right shoes for my FEI-level mare, Maronda. Finally, we chucked the shoes and let her go barefoot. It took about three months for her feet to toughen. Until then, work was sporadic. Once she was comfortable and moving normally, I had a happy, though rusty, horse.
In October, desperate to march down the centerline, I entered a virtual show offered by Dressage Today. The show was virtual, meaning that my ride consisted of a video made in my arena and sent off by e-mail. The video was judged and scored, then the score sheet with comments was e-mailed to me. The final step was an opportunity to speak with the judge by phone, while we watched the video of my ride. It took about a week to arrange a time to watch and talk.
I had low expectations and did not even bother to look up the judge, Margaret Freeman, who happens to be a FEI-level rider and USEF senior dressage judge. She covered seven Olympics for the Associated Press.
As expected, my ride was lackluster, but I submitted it anyway. With such a mediocre performance, what could anyone say that would be worth hearing? Despite my misgivings, I arranged a time to view the video and talk with Margaret.
‘Oh ye of little faith!’
Margaret was generous with her time. We watched and talked for about an hour. She pointed out what worked and what did not and offered remedies. Comments on dressage tests have never been of much help, but listening to a knowledgeable judge, one committed to improving a rider’s performance, turned out to be just what I needed. Here is an illustration.
The fifth movement in the Grand Prix test calls for a halt, rein back five steps, then immediately trot off. Maronda did her usual. She failed to square up, leaving her left hind foot behind her when she halted. Margaret suggested that I do a shoulder-in on the short side before arriving at C. A good instructor will suggest patterns aimed at producing correct movement. A shoulder-in before a halt is a pattern. It is a simple pattern to increase collection, and Grand Prix is all about collection. Name a movement where collection is not primary. Extended trot? Just before and after extended trot, what happens? Collection! Sometimes the pattern needed is just a hint of shoulder-in.
Margaret’s suggestion not only improved my halt at C, but it also inspired me to think of other patterns. Again, let me illustrate. The fourteenth movement in the test calls for starting passage at M, continuing to R, then I. Maronda struggles to maintain a passage on the arc from R to I. Starting passage before a corner of the arena and maintaining it through the short side and onto the long side is one way to practice passage on an arc. A corner provides the correct arc and the railing act as guides. Though not an ingenious pattern, it is useful, and I wouldn’t have looked for patterns to improve a movement had Margaret not reminded me.
I have had three knowledgeable dressage instructors. Each relied on patterns, although they did not say, “Hey Susan, this is a pattern.” These instructors are no longer available to me, so I have to create my own patterns. One drawback of good instruction is that one may rely so heavily on the direction of another that she does not think for herself. Margaret reminded me to think for myself.
Margaret changed my approach to schooling. Instead of doing the various test movements repeatedly, I look for patterns to help me improve. Ideas seem to pop into my head. Often, something an instructor said to me years before or something I read or something I experienced will come to me. For example, I once rode a talented mare that was starting second level. When asked for a walk pirouette, she offered piaffe as she turned. I almost fell off! She was so talented. When Margaret talked about piaffe in relation to pirouette, my experience on this mare came to mind. Now, when doing a walk pirouette on Maronda, the activity I felt that day years ago bubbles within me. Just maybe that dancing rhythm will come back, only this time on Maronda.
Talking with Margaret nudged me along in my belief that riding Grand Prix deepens one’s understanding of the basics. Grand Prix reveals one’s failure or success in grasping the essence of various basics and elements of the Training Scale, a concept Margaret mentioned several times.
Christoph Hess, a former head of the Education section at the Warendorf Centre for Education and training in Germany, compares training to levels beyond Prix St. Georges to climbing the Rocky Mountains. This analogy suggests that he has first- hand experience with the feelings that come with hitting a plateau in training a horse to the FEI level. Maronda is the second horse I have trained and shown at Grand Prix. After a while, I concluded that my first horse could not “sit and carry,” and, therefore, was not Grand Prix material. On reaching the first plateau with Maronda, my first thought was, “Oh no, not again!” My second thought, after a few miserable days was, “Wait a minute.” Margaret did not tell me that we were hopeless. She reminded me of how to use patterns and the importance of the Training Scale when working on the movements of Grand Prix. She did not say, “Go back to Prix St. Georges where you belong.” There was hope.
At the FEI level, a plateau can feel like a ravine with no bridge. In my experience, plateaus at lower levels do not have hopelessness attached. When progress is blocked at any level, the solution should begin with a review of the Training Scale. When working on Grand Prix, it is easy to overlook the importance of the first few elements in the Training Scale. The final stage, Collection, can overshadow the other stages. Of course, if Suppleness or Rhythm is missing, Collection will be flawed, perhaps fatally so.
I took a chance, entered a Virtual Horse Show, and got to chat with a judge as intrigued by dressage as I am. She changed my thinking, thus changed my riding. Two more scores of 60% or more, and the USDF Gold Medal will be mine. If my goal is achieved, Margaret will deserve a big virtual hug from me.