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.

Surviving and thriving at the Big Hot Show


Wow, mom, there are a lot of BIG horses here.

Region 7 Annual Championship Dressage Show! Sounds like fun, huh? If you remember attending a three ring circus – lions in one ring jumping through rings of fire! Dogs on bicycles in the next ring! Jugglers and acrobats in ring three! Tightrope walkers overhead! Your head spinning from the noise, sights, smells – exciting, but kind of overwhelming.

O.k., call me a country bumpkin, but that’s how I felt at least for the first day or so.

This show ran Five Competition Rings simultaneously for four days, as well as multiple warmup rings, a lunging ring, with over three hundred horses attending the show, people whizzing about in golf carts and on bicycles, multiple fancy tents set up with ribbons galore, champagne, and even a crystal chandelieryou get the picture.

More fun than a barrel of monkeys! Or maybe more fun than a boiling barrel of monkeys, because it all took place in the 100 degree weather of a heat wave. That slowed some of us down more than a little. People with excitable horses benefitted from the heat, while those of us with more relaxed horses had to work even harder…Dwan_Far Above Par_15CS9297_TerriMiller-(ZF-3600-62173-2-001)

All Finn was wanted a cool drink with a little umbrella in it, a chaise longue, and someone to fan him while stroking his brow murmering, “poor thing, poor thing.” Or maybe this was MY fantasy? Same difference. Neither of us wanted to perform under the broiling sun. Nevertheless, we soldiered on.

Maybe the heat separates the Men from the Boys, or in this case, the Women from the Girls, or perhaps the Super Serious Intense Athletes from, well, the rest of us. Those who would much rather show when the weather is more pleasant. Count me in with them.

But I digress. How was the show? I saw some beautiful rides and some amazing horses. Wow. Some not so beautiful rides. Finn and I had a couple of good rides but interestingly, the judges were quite spread out in their opinions (six points difference from the judge at C and E pretty much each time we rode, big differences in scores, a bit confusing for me as a rider). Why? Well, of course there is perspective, and there are also preferences, and there is some subjectivity, too. Sometimes it works for you, sometimes it works against you.

Shoulder-in Right

Shoulder-in Right

Our last test of the show we both just ran out of steam and got a deservedly low score. Lesson learned: if you think it is too hot and you and your horse are worn out and have already put in a test that morning, you probably should just scratch the second test at noon. What kind of crazy person would stay to ride in 100 degree heat? Duh.

Would someone PLEASE bring us some cool drinks? And iced towels?

Would someone PLEASE bring us some cool drinks? And iced towels?

All in all, it was an interesting learning experience, but I think not something we’ll do again next year.


Finn standing calmly at the Awards Ceremony, amidst all the Big, fidgeting horses. Bless his pony heart.

There are plenty of other more fun goals to shoot for. Prix St Georges, anyone? Fix up our Freestyle? You betcha! More trail rides before El Nino hits California? YES! A little more fun and a little less drivenness? An enthusiastic YES from Finn!IMG_0198

Strategies for horse show nerves

Finn and I are going to the BIG (as in hundreds of horses) Regional Championship show in a few weeks, and I must confess: I’m intimidated.


Warmup rings with big horses don’t bother us, but a big show…well, that’s another story.

So how do we handle horse show nerves so that we can do our best?

SET REALISTIC GOALS. I don’t go to these Regionals expecting to win. Instead, I am going to experience a Big Show and to improve my scores (hopefully). Finn and I have made good progress in our training this summer and I think we can put in some good tests if I keep my concentration.

Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 5.14.40 PMMAKE LISTS, lots of lists. We’ll be there four days so I have to pack a lot of things for both of us. Over-prepare! And then relax, knowing there are stores in the area (even a tack store at the show!) where I can buy anything I forgot. Pack/prepare things ahead of time so you are not rushing about last minute realizing you don’t have clean breeches.Screen Shot 2015-02-01 at 5.12.29 PM

PRACTICE but don’t over-train. A tired horse does not perform well. Horses, like us, need time to rest and recover. Now is not the time to introduce new things or build a lot more strength. Now is the time to finesse things we already know and work on precision in the test.

MEMORIZE the tests super, super well. I can go blank in the middle of a test (focusing so hard on my horse and all the things I’m doing in the moment), so I usually use a reader. At the Championships, no readers allowed. So I am memorizing the heck out of the tests.

VISUALIZE the tests going well. Ride them in your head, imagining things going well, but knowing you have the skills to deal with mistakes that happen and still carry on.

HAVE A SUPPORT TEAM, both during your prep time leading up to the show, and at the show. Someone who says, “you can do this!” when you think you can’t.

RELAX, it’s just a horse show! And maybe we need a little dressage show attitude. Check this out and see if you have dressage skillz: http://www.horsecollaborative.com/dressage-skillz-2/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=dressage-skillz

Does this pony make my butt look big?

People have asked me “how big is too big” to ride a pony? Well…it depends.


The tres amigas: Carol on Teake, a 14.3 hd Haflinger; Edie on Ellie, a 14.1 hd Haflinger, and Amy on Puca, a 14.2 hd Haflinger. Puca has evented very successfully with a 160 lb adult (not the rider in the picture).

There are several questions to consider:

1) Is it safe for the pony? Is the pony strong enough to carry your weight without being stressed or damaged? 

2) How do you look and feel on the pony? 

1) Can the pony carry your weight?


Winterlake Juliet, a Welsh Cob mare, about 14.1 hds. Note the strong, solid legs. You can’t see her feet, but they are excellent, and she has great breadth of loin for good weight bearing capacity. She occasionally carried my 185 lb husband on short trail rides, but would have been too small for an every day horse for someone of his size/weight.

Ponies come in all shapes and sizes, just like us. A pony with sturdy conformation, good solid bone (strong cannon bones and feet), a short strong back and good breadth of loin has good carrying capacity. It should, of course, be well muscled and conditioned for the task you ask it to do. Like any horse, you should monitor its fatigue and not over work it. That said, ponies are pretty strong relative to their size.


Phyllis and Champagne, a Welsh Cob/quarter cross pony. Phyllis is about 5’6″ and Champagne is about 14.1 hds.

Many have postulated  “20% of the horse’s weight” as a reasonable guideline for carrying capacity. That’s 20% of his HEALTHY (ideal, not obese) weight, a good thing to keep in mind especially since so many people allow ponies to be overweight (don’t! it’s bad for them). And the 20% includes the tack, which can weight up to 20 lbs if you have a heavy western saddle and pad. Estimate the weight of your tack, add your own weight, and using the excellent chart below, see what size pony you could ride:

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As you can see, the size depends on your own expertise and the task at hand. If you want to just go on an easy trail ride, well, you can ride a small pony because you’re not asking much. If you want to jump, that pony needs to be comparatively larger because the stress is greater. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Ellie loves to jump!

Ellie loves to jump! And at 14.1 hds with a short strong back and excellent bone, she has easily carried my 5’6″ body over fences 3′ and higher (fence in picture is only 2’6″).

Overloading and/or overworking your pony will cause damage over time and your pony cannot remain sound if you do so. However, if you remain within reasonable guidelines, ponies tend to be very sound and healthy animals who can live long lives and give years of fun!

2) How do you look and feel on the pony?

Many people stay away from ponies because they expect them to have short, choppy gaits, or they think they are not competitive against big horses.

Keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Far Above Par keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Yet today’s sport ponies are bred to move like warmbloods and they win against warmbloods, often winning even at a national level (read https://horsesage.com/2014/12/11/three-famous-ponies-and-small-horses-you-should-know/). There are a number of ponies here in California who are winning Regionally and doing very well. My own pony, Far Above Par (“Finn”), very quickly qualified for the Regionals at Fourth Level this season.

Personally, I find riding ponies feels like driving a sports car. Easy handling, quick and responsive steering, starting, and stopping, and you don’t have all that weight to move around the ring! Some of the big horses feel like a tank or a super tanker, like you have to plan so far ahead how you’re going to make that turn…

Admittedly, it’s takes a little mental adjustment to get used to seeing yourself on a pony. I rode big horses for a long time and you have a mental picture of yourself on a big horse. Then you see yourself on a pony and you think, “my legs are too far down the side.” But give it time, you can get used to it, just like fashion. Remember, we used to think this looked really good:

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or this:

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In the end, wear what feels comfortable and fits and flatters you NOW. Just as we wouldn’t be caught dead in those fashions any more, we might not want to ride the same kind of horses we rode 20 or 30 years ago. We’ve changed and our needs, riding disciplines, interests, and bodies may have changed.

Ride what feels comfortable and fits you and your lifestyle NOW. Have fun, and hug your horse (or pony).

Finn is trustworthy under saddle. What a good boy!

Ideally, Inspiration and motivation are what we feel

Picture this: a stunning horse and rider pair moving in harmony. Clearly, the horse cost more than a year’s salary, moves like a dream, and is trained impeccably. This horse makes you sit up and pay attention, yes, drool a bit, and think a bit wistfully,

“what would it be like to ride a horse like THAT?”

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And off we go into fantasies of ourselves floating around the ring on this gorgeous horse, doing everything effortlessly. Of course, the rider on top has (usually) earned this horse. She’s in shape, she knows what she’s doing, and although she makes it look easy, guess what? It’s not. Sitting that big, expressive trot with ease and flair? Ha! Most of us would bounce right off. Going from extended canter to collected canter with invisible aids and then into a canter pirouette, all while remaining in beautiful balance, no tugging, no grimacing or grunting, no leaning forward/backwards/sidewards? Brava, rider! I’m impressed. I know how hard this stuff is, because I’m just beginning to learn it.

It’s tempting to think, “if I only had THAT horse, I could ride that elegantly, effortlessly, effectively!”

While it certainly is very true that some horses are much easier to ride than others (no kidding!), all horses require an educated rider to bring out their best.  In our second year together, I have finally caught up to Far Above Par (“Finn) and we showed Fourth Level earlier this season. In a few weeks, we’re going to take a step of faith and go for Prix St. Georges, something new for both of us! Plus a new and updated Freestyle. Yes, yes, two new things at a show (stress meter edging toward red now). I’m crazy, but as my husband tells me, I’m never happy unless I’m pushing myself.


Far Above Par and Edie in Medium Canter

Meanwhile, I appreciate deeply the opportunity I have to learn from my patient, humorous, educated schoolmaster pony. We’re growing together and having fun! 

If it’s not fun, why are we doing this? If you’re not having fun: change the equation.

Keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Keeping up with the big horses in the warm up ring

Finn makes me laugh. When I see that BIG FANCY HORSE floating across the diagonal in six strides (and it takes us 14 strides), and all of us gasp in amazement, I’ll just think to myself: I have the perfect pony for ME. And then I’ll go out and see if we can get just a little more elegance and reach into our trot extension, a little more jump in our canter, and a whole lot more sit in our canter pirouette. Working on it, working on it…

Attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Attempting a canter pirouette during warmup at a recent show

Perfection is the Enemy of the Good

Dressage riders are particularly prone to over analysis, perfectionism, paralysis, self-loathing (brought on by the aforementioned activities), and DESPAIR.


Far Above Par (Finn) in the warm up arena, doing a working half-pirouette left.

I will NEVER achieve my goal! we cry in despair, whether that goal is to sit the trot without bouncing hideously, do tempi-changes or a decent pirouette, or simply ride a dressage test without going off course.


Far Above Par (Finn) warming up. Yes, a little on the forehand, maybe some tail tension (did I just tap him with the whip?), and I’m looking down. And those white breeches are not flattering. How’s the inner voice, eh?

Eventers seem to be so much more laid back – perhaps it’s all that galloping, it just blows the cobwebs away and gives a nice shot of endorphins. Maybe seeing your life flash before your eyes when you almost wipe out on the cross country course helps keep little worries like whether you look fat in your white breeches in perspective. Who the heck really cares?

People are all thinking about their OWN thighs, not yours. Seriously.

As for hunter/jumper people, well, they are two different types, aren’t they? Hunter riders are a bit like dressage riders: everything has to be perfect: turnout, horse, rhythm, form, etc. Jumpers just want to get over the course clean and fast. The really good ones do it with good form, of course, but some pretty wild stuff happens on the jump course. Looks like fun…if I had more guts.

Last weekend Finn and I competed in a dressage show held over three long, long, long days. Grueling is how I would best describe it: hot, windy, tiring. Finn was a trooper (he’s a professional); I was a whiner.DSC02134

Things started out poorly, with me going off course in my first test in spite of having a reader. Kind of amazing, isn’t that? The judge gave me a disappointingly low score for the test, and it was a discouraging way to start the long show weekend.

However, I got back on the horse (or pony in this case), and kept trying, looking at the show as a chance to learn and to practice my tests, worst case. Things got better and I’m glad I didn’t take my toys and go home, much as I wanted to after that first day!

DSC02063My husband gave me the following encouraging quote from Theodore Roosevelt. Perhaps it might help you if you are feeling discouraged right now…

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Meanwhile, for those of us take chances, whether it is donning white breeches and submitting ourselves to the written comments of a judge and the imagined observations of spectators, or going over a course of jumps, riding a green horse out on the trail, or just pushing ourselves to keep trying, I say, “well done, you. Keep growing, and remember: this is all about having fun!”

Don’t let perfectionism destroy the Good that is within your grasp. Take chances and enjoy what comes your way!

Who could resist Finn's cute face?

Keep it fun for me!