Does a bit of bling make you a dressage diva?

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My mare and I are on the cusp of Third Level. Flying changes come and go – occasionally she does a few easily clean and straight, and other days, it’s, “huh? I have no idea what you’re talking about.” All other third level moves feel fairly easy; the changes will come soon enough. Probably.

So I allowed myself the indulgence of buying a new (admittedly unneeded) show shirt at the Animo Black Friday Sale. 

Admittedly, the shirt above falls in the rather blingy (but oh so fabulous!) category. Does this make me a dressage diva? It is an interesting question.

Such a (negatively) loaded term. I immediately think of a small overweight woman bouncing along on an enormous horse, weighed down with bling everywhere. “NEVER!”quoth I.

Yet one most know oneself. The truth will set you free.

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Know Thyself

Diva definition: “a usually glamorous and successful female performer or personality.”

Having attained a certain age (well over 50), perhaps I’m entitled to enjoy a little glamour here and there. Well made, glittery shirt? Sure.

As for success, well, it comes and goes. Doing what we can to be successful AND have fun.

Dressage Diva: Yes, in the true sense of the word. Bring it. I’m old enough to enjoy the glitter if I want to. That said, let’s try to stay reasonably tasteful. One can go TOO far. As in this:

 

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Coming soon: Starlight embraces her inner dressage diva with her own glittery coronet (aka browband). Just wait until you see her Christmas Present.

 

 

Starlight at the horse show

Starlight made the jump to Second Level this weekend, and did it in style with some quite good scores. Below are a few nice pictures from test 2-3. What a truly lovely setting and we always enjoy showing at Osierlea in San Juan Bautista, CA, where everyone is helpful and friendly, the footing is excellent, and there are gardens all around you. No dust or flies, either, I don’t know how they do it!

It’s horse heaven. Star told me she’d like to live there, but unfortunately it would be too long a commute for us. We’ll just have to visit occasionally.

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Up the Centerline for the halt and salute

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Shoulder-in

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Medium trot across the diagonal

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Collected canter right

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More collected canter right!

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Counter canter serpentine, right

Getting better all the time…

Starlight is at a stage where progress happens fast. I know  plateaus will come soon enough, but I’m enjoying her willing attitude and aptitude for dressage.

What a dance partner she is!

A fellow blogging friend challenged us to a “before and after” post about our horse, so here we go: the first five months with Starlight

Starlight in March 2016 when I bought her:

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Talking to Starlight before the vet check. You’re going to be my girl now (assuming you pass the vet check)!

A few weeks later, under saddle as we got to know each other. Looks at those happy smiles.DSC02965

 

In April, at the Woodside HorsePark on a cold windy day, having a clinic with Miguel Tavora, Starlight gets a little TOO enthusiastic about the canter depart!

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Whoa there, girl! I don’t want to play Calamity Jane in this partnership!

Our first show, Training Level, six weeks after I bought her. She was very tense, but obedient and safe.

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Notice how shiny her coat is as she sheds out the bleached winter coat and grows in a nice shiny black summer coat. I feed her Platinum Performance and Chia Seed which helps with shine, too.

By our fourth and last show at Training Level (hooray!), she feels like an old campaigner. Works beautifully in a crowded warmup ring, has no problem with the judge’s booth or the flowers on the ring, knows her job and does it. A little tension in the first test but performs very well.

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See how much more grownup she looks now!

While we continue to struggle a bit with reaching over the top for a solid connection with the bit, Starlight improves weekly and always has a willing spirit. I can’t say enough good things about the Andalusian – when you find a good one.  For me they are the perfect combination of trainability, willingness, good sense, forwardness, comfortable gaits, and beauty. You can tell I’m besotted. This horse would follow me anywhere and do anything for me. It is a precious trust.

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Starlight in May 2016, finishing a Training Level test and feeling quite pleased with herself.

 

A lovely day at the show

Third show yesterday: Starlight and I have been together just 3.5 months and our partnership and enjoyment of each other is growing by leaps and bounds. I love this mare! and she seems to love me, too, bless her generous heart.

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Enter at A. See all the nice shady trees they have at Osierlea! So pretty there.

Yesterday we showed at Osierlea in San Juan Bautista, California, one of the nicest places to show in Northern California. Osierlea has been a dressage facility since the very early days of dressage in California. In fact, I think I may have showed there as a teenager many, many, many decades ago….

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Practicing in the arena the day before…

Nowadays it is a jewel of a place, a quiet retreat of many trees, flowers,  nice arenas, with friendly and helpful show personnel and volunteers. Some of the lovely touches (let show organizers take note of how much this matters):

  • A check-in packet containing a schedule of riders (“day sheet”), information about the facility (a map!),  some free sample size horse products, and some cookies for your horse.
  • A cool cup of water offered to hot, sweaty competitors as we exited the competition arena. Oh, thank you, thank you!
  • A big bowl of carrots for the horses sitting on the show secretary’s table all day. Take as many as you want, it was renewed all day long…
  • Free (good) coffee, nice fresh muffins, and fresh fruit in the morning.
  • Delicious and very reasonably priced fresh grilled hamburgers for lunch. My show
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    Coats were waived, it was HOT

    helper husband can’t stop talking about the hamburgers and what a deal they were (especially compared to the lunch offerings we’ve seen at other shows).

  • Pleasant and helpful staff and volunteers, well dragged arenas, and NO FLIES! Plenty of room to warm up, with a large separate area for lunging. Immaculate facility.
  • Reasonably priced overnight accommodations for the horses in well maintained stalls.
  • Fresh flowers and a softly tinkling water fountain on the show secretary’s desk gave an atmosphere of calm.
  • Lots of shade and many places to sit down and relax. Shady seats to watch the rides.

The little things matter and they make a big difference in a show experience that feels relaxed and pleasant, or unpleasantly struggling.

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Like air travel, we have a choice in show venues (sometimes)...I will always choose a pleasant and helpful show management over one that is surly and/or unorganized, both of which I’ve run into occasionally, although many shows are well run. Just few are as lovely as Osierlea.

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With an inexperienced horse, the chance to go a day early and school in the arena: is priceless.

Starlight showed very well and we had a lovely time together. She is starting to be able to focus on me at shows rather than everything outside the ring, and so the feeling of relaxation and harmony is coming together as you can see in some of these photos. I apologize for the quality, most of them are screen shots taken from the video, and it was almost noon, so the camera had trouble with the lighting as we went in and out of shadow.

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Across the diagonal at training level

Starlight goes to her first big show

With a new horse, you’re never quite sure what you have until you’ve tried a few things and gone a few places. I am happy to announce that Starlight passed the test of her First Really Big Show with flying colors!

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What a clever and good girl! You survived the test! Carrots shall be yours!

In spite of unseasonably chilly temperatures, winds whipping the tents, decorative ringside plants falling over, and horses bolting, Starlight was practically perfect in every way. Well, other than being rather tense. We’ll allow that, since she’s not quite six.

Bless her horsey heart! Extra carrots for her!

Although she was certainly tense in the dressage tests (still working on relaxation and suppleness), she did five Training Level tests over three days, earning scores from 63-69%.

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The judge commented kindly on my “beautiful horse and lovely turnout!” Yes, you can braid with rubber bands (match the mane, of course), and yes, you can wear colored coats (see the rule book). Star’s abalone browband goes beautifully with my green coat.

We have plenty of things to practice (relaxation! bending! transitions!) before our next show, but she’s handling the crowded warm up ring with aplomb, ate and rested well in her stall, and generally was pretty relaxed at the very busy show grounds.

We moved into the show grounds the day before the 3-day show started, so we had the chance to practice in the dressage court. Very helpful, since Star is a bit worried about the judges booth, as in “Heck no, I am not going near that thing!” At least not right at first, which makes for an awkward centerline entry. My husband had the brilliant idea of sitting in the judges booth the day before while we practiced our test, and offering her a piece of carrot. Aha! That did the trick. She immediately got over her fear and was able to approach the booth. No problem the next day in trotting down Centerline toward the judge.Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 9.27.44 PM

Three days of showing are exhausting for horse and rider, and we were both more than ready to be done by the end of it. Star leapt into the trailer at loading time with the “Please take me home now, I want to sleep in my own bed” look of someone who has been on a ten-countries-in-ten-days trip. Now we take a little break, and focus on training, with a little trail riding thrown in for cross training. Fun!

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A bit of over exuberance at the canter circle. Yeehaw!

First Show with a New horse? Try this

This wasn’t my first rodeo: I’ve shown some at dressage shows for the last three years. But Starlight, my new Andalusian mare is not quite six and is new to it all: the Judge’s booth, the announcer, the crowds of fans (well, make that five fans), the applause, heck even the whistle that starts the test was new to her. IMG_1973.jpg

The whole purpose of our first show together – and indeed, our first few shows – had to be

“This is FUN, Starlight! You will receive praise, cookies, and admiration. You will not work very hard, and everyone will tell you how beautiful you are. Soon, shows will be your favorite place to go!”

With this in mind, and knowing that Starlight has a good mind but she is horse that needs a little time to look at new things and get used them – and she has a lot of energy and is young – I planned my show accordingly. Some of these tips might be useful to you if you have a new, young, or inexperienced horse.

  1. Go the day before and school in the facility. It cost me extra time, effort, and money, but WOW was it worth it. Starlight would not approach the judges booth at first, but stopped DEAD as we practiced trotting down the center line. If that had been our first time in the ring, it would have been disaster. Fortunately, I could work that pattern multiple times until she realized there wasn’t really a monster there. The next day, we had only a mild spook at the booth (instead, we spooked at the side gate at K where some people lurked just around the corner. Oh well, couldn’t anticipate that)Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 5.14.40 PM
  2. Plan your warm up carefully. You know your horse and know how much time they need. Give a little extra warmup for the show environment, but don’t wear them out. In this case, my first test was at 8:13 a.m. and it was chilly, so yes, I did need to wear her out a bit. We did more cantering in the warm up (and a bit of leaping) than I would usually plan on, but it was necessary in order to have controlled cantering in the test. It worked. Make sure you have plenty of time before your class so that you and the horse do not feel rushed.IMG_1957.jpg
  3. Have a friend or friends to help you. Someone to call your test (if dressage), give you water, help lead your horse through the spooky tunnel into the ring (in our case), and just generally tell you how great you and your horse are, even when you aren’t. We all need encouragement!  Even if you have to pay someone to do this, do it. Let them know what you need, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It takes a village to show an inexperienced horse. My former horse was “point and shoot” easy to show. It’s not like that with a green horse and I need more help right now. It will get easier but now is not the time to do it alone.
  4. Celebrate every victory. Your horse stood still so you could get on? Yahoo! The horse behaved in the warm up ring? Well done. You managed to ride the test without major errors and did not jump out of the ring? WOW, that’s fantastic! Remember the point of a young horse’s first few shows is to give the horse a positive and happy experience. You may get a good score – or not – but most importantly, make sure your horse has a good time (and you stay safe).

Starlight and I rode Training Level tests 2 and 3 at our first show, and I laughed at the Judge’s comment:

“Capable pair but too conservatively ridden so that horse doesn’t think forward…”

You bet I rode her conservatively! It was her first show and I wanted to keep everything very calm and relaxed. Point taken, though, and next time I will let the fire breathing dragon out a bit and ask for more. Looking at the video, he’s absolutely right. I’m learning, too, what will Starlight do at a show? How will she behave? How can I help her succeed and be happy?

This “capable pair” are falling in love with each other and learning to become a team who understand and trust each other. The years ahead hold so much of fun and interest for us, I hope and pray.

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Disruption: what if dressage tests had THIS score included?

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 4.29.14 PMMy husband is a horse person only by marriage, but he has, under duress, observed a fair number of dressage tests over the past few years. Today he suddenly suggested:

“Maybe they should have a score for “How Much Did This Horse Cost? And How Much Is Your Monthly Training Bill?”

Those horses usually win everything anyway.”

Well, yeah, usually. There is something compelling about those horses who cost Six Figures. They just do move differently. I find it a bit unfortunate that Dressage competition has become somewhat of a breed show. In other words, the most spectacular horse may win over a better trained (and ridden) horse. Although that’s a subjective statement, isn’t it? I call this “Breed Show Dressage.”

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In Breed Show Dressage, natural gaits and ability are heavily weighted, often much more so than correct training. The judge is so taken by that amazing walk, that showy trot, that he throws out 8s and 9s with abandon, waving off theDSC01944 “little problems” of being behind the vertical, jammed in the neck, rushed, with the hind legs trailing. The next horse, a more ordinary citizen, elicits a yawn and a bunch of 5s and 6s. She just doesn’t have the razzmatazz that Spectacular Gaits had, although her tempo is good, her figures correct, she’s steady on the aids and using her back correctly. Who wins the class? Leg flicking Spectacular Gaits, by a long shot. Spectacular Gaits beats Correct Training, in other words.

Proponents of breed show dressage say that we should reward good gaits. Indeed we should, WHEN they are the result of correct training and riding.

Should we reward them simply because they are natural to this athletic being? Not if this is truly Dressage. Regard the web definition for Dressage:

  1. Haute école (“high school”)
  2. the art or method of training a horse in obedience and in precision of movement.
  3. From the USDF site:Dressage is a French term meaning “training” and its purpose is to develop the horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to work making him calm, supple and attentive to his rider.

Perhaps our judges are being trained to interpret this as meaning that the more naturally talented horses should be rewarded more highly: start with the gait and add on from there. But to me, Dressage means training: to improving a horse’s natural movement, suppleness, obedience, etc. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my horse is not inexpensive (although not six figures), and I do get help from a trainer and clinicians. I’m not doing this on a super tight budget (although I have in the past). I’m just noting that maybe dressage is losing its way as it becomes more about Super Athletes and less about correct training.

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 4.32.45 PMPerhaps my husband is right: let’s add on estimated PRICE under “collective marks,” just for jollies.