I’m gonna be honest y’all, I think I was dreading dressage more than any other phase, for a multitude of reasons. First and foremost, it was Prelim Test B, which we had never ridden before, and it’s a lot different from Prelim Test A. The biggest change is that it’s in the long court, which… I haven’t even BEEN in a long court in over a year. I sat there forever trying to remember where all the letters were and wrapping my brain around where the boundaries of all my figures would be in the larger space. Am I a redneck eventer that does 99% of her dressage in a field? YES.
Second, this test has a lot of canter work and it all comes quite early in the test. Henry is one that tends to get more tense and ultra-sensitive after he canters, and thinks that pretty much any leg aid after that means he should canter again. His canter work also is not generally as good as his trot work, so having half of the movements involving canter was going to be a disadvantage, score-wise. I knew I would have my work cut out for me when it came to keeping his brain in, I was just hoping the test would err more towards the side of tense rather than complete meltdown.
Third, they moved the location of the ring at the last minute. Considering it took me 4 days of riding him in the first location for him to finally relax, I was not particularly pumped about that. Originally all of the arenas were on the racetrack, and I took him out there every day usually twice a day, walking and trotting quietly and getting him to stretch and chill. It worked great, and eventually he gave me some stellar work out there. But… it took me days to get there, so I was sad that the ring moved. It’s always fun trying to dressage an OTTB at Coconino. Great way to gauge just how much post-racing PTSD they really have, if you’re into that kind of thing.
I also found out that our judge was Peter Gray, who is one of my favorites, but he’s also not one to just throw pity points at you. Peter has an eagle eye, being an FEI judge, and he scores appropriately. He’s very proper and correct and professional and by-the-book. Given all of this, I was mostly just hoping that I could remember my test, not mess up the geometry too badly, keep the lid on my horse, and maaaaaaybe score under a 40. That seemed like a big enough ask, all things considered.
My test wasn’t until 10:30 on Thursday, which gave me plenty of time to do a pre-ride that morning. This is a strategy we discovered last summer at Chatt, but I wasn’t able to use at any of our Prelims so far since I’ve had crack-of-dawn dressage rides. This time I was on Henry early and headed down to the track, which is when I discovered that they had moved our dressage arena from the place we’d finally become well-acquainted with, to where they’d previously had showjumping warmup. Naturally, this turned my horse (who will jump some really gnarly shit without batting an eye, I would like to point out) into a snorting idiot again. When I got down there they had just finished dragging, and the gate was open, so we went in and walked and trotted around, figuring out all my letters and geometry until Henry decided he was okay. He wasn’t quite as chill as he’d been in the old location, but he did eventually take a deep breath and relax.
I did a relatively short warm-up before the test itself, mostly just trying to get his brain as firmly attached as I could. Lots of changes of direction and leg yields at the trot, and going back and forth from stretching to working. He felt pretty good, and I went down to the ring hoping I could keep him together.
They honked the horn right when I was completely opposite of where I wanted to enter from, so I ended up doing a half-loop back around the end of the arena to get the approach I wanted off of the right. Remember this, it’ll matter later.
We went up centerline nice and straight and forward, garnering an 8 to start us off. This is something I practice a lot (along with the final halt) because I feel like it’s one of those movements that you can always get a good score on, no matter what else is happening. The rest of our test may vary in quality, but our entry is usually good, and this one was no different even though C seemed approximately 15 miles away. From there we went straight to the lengthening, which I got a little greedy about and Henry almost broke (Peter politely said it was “losing rhythm”) so I had to dial it back down. Oh well, I went for it.
After that it was up centerline to the leg yield right (our weaker direction, but still good enough for an 8), then straight into the canter work. Our first medium circle was… not much of a medium. His tail started spinning and the hind end felt a little bit light, so I backed off. Sometimes I can push for it, sometimes I can’t, and this time was a can’t. After that we went into the first counter canter loop, where my main focus was keeping him from doing a flying change. That’s his favorite “not called for” (as one judge put it) maneuver to throw into his dressage tests… which he may or may not have done three times in the past year. Anyway, my geometry was a little bit off, but we did the loop and kept the lead, so I’ll take it. From there it was on to the movement I dreaded the most, the simple change across the diagonal.
To know why I dreaded it the most, you need to know a little about Henry. He’s a horse that tries really hard… almost too hard. Despite his bad boy persona, he wants very badly to be the goodest boy, and he can get pretty upset if he thinks he’s made a mistake. And what’s one of the things that makes him think he’s made a mistake? Rapid fire transitions. Especially to and from canter. He tends to LEAP back into canter and stiffen his back completely, overreacting to any bit of leg. Despite spending years working on this, they can still make him have a complete and total come-apart quicker than just about anything else. So we came across the diagonal, I sent up a silent prayer to the horse gods, and…
he was fantastic. 7.5! I wanted to chuck the reins at him and give him a huge pat right there, but… ya know… middle of dressage test decorum… so I settled with reaching down and scratching his neck with my inside hand. He immediately took a deep breath, and we went on to the next movement.
The medium canter this direction was about the same as the first. Not much of a medium, but a little effort. The counter canter loop was about the same too – not the most correct geometry, but we kept the lead and he didn’t get stuck. Then we came across the diagonal again and went back to trot at X, and as I expected, he kind of spent the rest of the test thinking we were going to canter again. We lost some of the relaxation and flow that we’d had before. The movements all happened like they were supposed to – we halted, did our reinback, free walked, etc – but it was all just a bit “on edge”. He really wanted to go back to canter, but tried so hard to be obedient. I kept reaching down and quickly touching his neck to reassure him that he was good, and he stayed with me.
We did have a bigger bobble when we went back to trot from the walk and turned up centerline to leg yield the other way. He took one canter step right before we turned, which is unfortunate because that turn is tied together with the leg yield (see box 17 on the test). The leg yield itself was quite good, better than the first one, but the canter step in the turn meant that the whole movement got knocked down to a 4. Womp womp.
After that we just had the stretchy trot serpentine (which about blew my brain trying to figure out THAT geometry on the fly) and up centerline to our final halt, which got another 8. So we started and ended with 8’s, and had a range of scores in between. I completely agreed with all of the comments (god, you really cannot get anything past Peter), and the scores were fair. He had some brilliant moments, and some less brilliant moments, so it was a just a bit inconsistent. We ended with a 32.9, which I was really quite pleased with. Considering I thought there was a lot of room for improvement, I can’t complain about that score. It was right there with other horses who are more experienced and much fancier than we are.
One minor detail… remember how I said I had to meander around a bit to get the approach I wanted into the ring? Well, that put me a few seconds late entering the arena. And you know who really watches that clock? Peter. So I got an error for entering late, which brought the final score to 33.8. Whoops.
I was proud of Henry though, he tried his little heart out and was really good, definitely exceeding any expectations I had for dressage. I know how hard this test was for him mentally and I was thrilled that I was able to keep him with me and keep his brain intact from start to finish. He showed a lot of maturity.
And the best part? The next phase was CROSS COUNTRY, something we were both a lot more excited about!