A year ago I attempted my first dressage show. A year ago I had a little bit of success. A year ago I couldn’t help but make comparisons to the world I was coming from. A lot can happen in a year.
There was no getting around scheduling this horse show back into my calendar. It is a Rosinburg Events LLC show held at the (now infamous) Commonwealth Park in Culpeper, Virginia, and last year I had an absolute blast at a VADA Event (different management) in the same location. My social media, at the time, blew up with pictures, treasure hunts, activities, score percentages, food, and ribbons. Despite the location, I couldn’t wait to get back. It seemed to be a hub for dressage queens, and now that I have thrown myself into First Level, I really needed a competition to give me an idea of where I am in my training with my dressage horse, Sandoro. I managed to get entered and paid for by the closing date, and thankfully not put on a waiting list. These Dressage shows are getting noticeably harder to get into lately. My bff Brooke was offering a stall for Sandy, and a room for me, adjacent to the show grounds, just a short walk away, so I packed everything up into my trailer and set out Friday morning for the three hour drive.
I made it twenty minutes before something went terribly wrong. As a light turned yellow in front of me, I tapped the brake pedal, heard a pop, and realized my foot was pushing the pedal all the way to the floor. However, my truck wasn’t slowing down. Oh shit, not good. I felt the trailer brakes kind of kick in, and pumped the pedal hoping this wasn’t actually happening. I shifted into neutral, then risked losing my transmission in the process, and put the truck into reverse as I closed in on the now red light, and was still in a precarious position. It worked. The truck stopped, albeit, kind in the middle of the intersection. I glanced around, thankfully in farm country where people won’t actually kill you with road rage, put my blinkers on, then edged off to the shoulder, the trailer brakes working just enough to get me into a slightly safer position on the side of the busy road. I was amazingly calm and calculating in my next moves, once I took a deep breath. I couldn’t simply scratch the horse show, entries were prepaid. That would be silly. I just needed a truck.
It worked out beautifully. I reached Nicole, who had the ability to come to me with her truck. I called the mechanic, who was able to send a tow truck for my broken child. I called Liz, who was out of town and asked to borrow her truck for the weekend, and I put Katie on standby in case none of these scenarios worked out. (She cleared her schedule just in case.) Then I called the local cops and asked if they had anyone on a lunch break who could hang out behind my trailer so no one would accidentally hit Sandoro, who was completely oblivious and munching hay inside the trailer. Shockingly, they sent a patrol car for exactly forty minutes, which is all we needed. As the tow truck loaded my broken child up and pulled away, Nicole was right behind him to pull in and hook up the trailer. I couldn’t believe the timing. She drove me another twenty minutes down the road to Liz’s farm, and within then hour, we swapped out vehicles again, and we were rolling. I ignored the teeny tiny little voice inside my head, whispering “maybe God doesn’t WANT you to go to Culpeper this weekend”….. ehhh, whatever. #gurlpower.
I finally arrived, with loads of time on the way to think about how lucky I was that a more serious incident had not happened with the loss of brake power while hauling a horse trailer. No matter my enemies, I will never bestow this fear upon anyone. It is not a good feeling. I was genuinely relieved to pull into Brooke’s driveway with Liz’s truck. Sandoro exited the trailer fine, a bit sweaty from the heat, but otherwise in good spirits. He rolled ten times in the fresh sawdust. Lovely. It didn’t take long to empty the trailer and get everything set up, hang a fan to cool him off, but when I was finishing up, I heard a distant rumble of thunder. Aaack, I still needed to get him in the rings. I biked to the show office to pick up my show packet, was greeted warmly, offered sponsor gifts, chocolate, water, and other amenities, and handed a thick program. Good grief, how many exhibitors were there? Apparently a lot. Enough to run 6 rings for two days. SIX RINGS. SIX. 1,2,3,4,5,6… ok you get the idea.
No wonder there was little choice to use this show grounds. Where else are you going to find a facility with six rings, plus warm up rings?
I pedaled back to Brooke’s barn to get the slightly sweaty beast out to take a tour, hoping to beat the storm. I hadn’t actually performed in a real dressage arena since Aiken in February, and was desperate to practice my tests. In the rush, I forgot two things. My number (a big no-no) and the note informing me which rings we were actually showing in….. Crap.
I took a wild guess and visited three of the arenas, took a quick tour around a scary judges tent, and made it back to the barn before Mother Nature unleashed an afternoon storm. (again, teeny, tiny little voice)
During my warm up I noticed an odd thing. There was a light pole a little off kilter. I couldn’t give it much attention, because I was really focused on remembering my tests, but it was bothering me.
The next morning, it was bothering me more. I went for a closer look. It was directly above the show secretary building and aimed toward the Grand Prix ring. A narrow cable seemed to be holding it in place. It didn’t look good. I put it on my Snapchat Story. The teeny tiny voice suggested I steer clear of the broken light tower, because if it was destined to hit someone, it would probably be me.
I put a lot of pictures on my Snapchat story that day.
Duct Tape and baling twine seemed to be holding the place together, but again, where else can you accommodate over 200 dressage horses for the weekend? This group is just a renter of a facility, nothing else. I tried to put myself in the organizer’s shoes. Every hour I was impressed with how the show was running, and I continued to take mental notes all around me.
Sandbag was amazing. He performed beautifully, we received our baseline scores, and I was super excited to make improvements, based on the judges comments and scores. I borrowed Brooke’s working student Morgan to help me video, and she shared her observations. In between my ride times, I watched, found familiar faces from previous events, chatted with strangers, and started conversations. It was refreshing to be unknown. There were not huge crowds showing up just to spectate, but I managed to run into a few very willing conversationalists. I met a girl who was braiding for a couple of barns, she gave me tips on those big ole button braids I am working on.
When I asked if she was competing, she said no, she was going to bring her pony stallion for the breeding classes, but ended up too busy, and then carried on about breeding when she realized I was from the hunter world. Her frustrations were made quite clear, and I listened. She couldn’t show her pony stallion in the hunter breeding world, and the expenses were astronomical compared to the classes held at dressage shows. She held my attention. I have a problem with stallions not be allowed in breeding classes past a certain age, when I see the whole point of those classes being about actually breeding. She then brought up the score sheets, and how nice it was to know exactly how your young horse or pony scored with the judges, during the year. She is not wrong. Hunter breeding has big problems right now. The focus seems to be primarily on the handlers. Why is the focus not on the horses?
Last year at the USHJA convention, I wandered into a hunter breeding meeting, raised my hand for around twenty minutes, and finally asked some pointed questions. I wanted to know why there was absolutely no information given to the breeding of the horses being shown on the line. It made ZERO sense to me to show horse without knowing the SIRE and DAM of each horse. You would have thought I pushed the red button for a nuclear attack. My logic was not received all that well, and I knew it. Apparently the discussion continued for a while even after I left the group. Were handlers on that particular committee? Why yes. Yes they were. Sigh.
Do you thing the Germans give a rats butt as to who is handling their stallions for a presentation? Ummmmm, no. They do not. Because the focus is on the animal, not the human, for the purpose of breeding horses, not people.
In the dressage world, all horses entered in the breeding classes come with extensive details, Sire and Dam information is shared, and score cards are filled out and delivered to the exhibitor. Public Information. In a year, you enter enough shows, and can receive a pretty good indication as to whether or not your young horse will make it or break it.
I see this in the Young Horse Show Series as well, which is why I support it whole heartedly. It is called Transparency. I believe this transparency is why the Young Horse Show Series is dramatically growing in popularity. Well, maybe the lower cost has a role, too.
Hunter Breeding in America? Wake up, or put it to bed. “Overhaul the entire thing now, before it is too late” is what I want to scream from the rooftops….. Politics should have no role here in Hunter Breeding. If the horses and ponies are judged properly, it will not require a human name to declare the winner. Why does it all seem so backwards to me?
The program for this Virginia Summer Dressage Show is detailed. Sponsors listed on the front, exhibitor information, horse information, schedule, and ads. Horses for sale are noted! Names, addresses and phone numbers for each exhibitor are listed. The Officials’ BIOGRAPHIES are listed. Never heard of a certain judge? No problem, his/her achievements all listed inside the program.
So what about the Queens? Is the stereotype real? Well, yeah, Dressage Queens have a stereotype for a reason. However, open a bottle or two of wine, and you see a very different side of those same Queens.
The Exhibitors party.
Coordinating the show to finish in time for the exhibitors party is no easy feat. I actually have no idea how over 200 horses are scheduled at an event like this with multiple rings, multiple judges which you aren’t supposed to see twice, and multiple rides for a few people. There must be some sort of Harry Potter magic that goes into putting it all together.
As we were all making our way to the porch of the Showday Cafe, the rings were getting their badly needed maintenance, although still not enough water. Three water trucks dumping liquid would surely be better than one. I didn’t ask anyone about the relationship between the show organizer and Tom and his employees, because I am not really that dumb, but the questions were still floating around in my head. From what I could observe, half a dozen Spanish speaking guys were holed up in a dilapidated building together, and made appearances three times a day to water and drag the rings. Morning, noon during the lunch break, and night, after the show was over. The heavy heat and sun were taking a toll, however, and it was only an hour of rides before intense dust was swirling through everyones lungs all over the grounds.
At the party I made new friends. Queens have this air of politeness about them I wasn’t used to, and waited to be told the gorgeous food buffet was open. When it seemed to me pretty obvious no one was going to give us an invitation, and it looked like all the food had been set up, guess who stepped up to break the nervous tension? Yup, I was hangry, and willing to risk a scolding for my dinner, which of course, no one did. Similar to last year, the food was beyond outstanding, and relatively healthy. The dozen or so extra large wine bottles were being depleted rapidly, as well, you could visibly see the shoulders dropping on women all around me, and the volume of conversation rising.
I met Penny. I could tell Penny was a firecracker right from the start. When I learned she was the volunteer coordinator not only for this show, but Dressage at Devon too? I wanted to put a crown on her. Volunteerism is a huge financial savings for horse shows. Many dressage organizations incorporate volunteer requirements right into their memberships in order to offset high costs of labor, so you may think you have qualified for a championship final, but without those minimum volunteer hours met, you don’t get the honor of competing in those championships. I had a feeling this was also the ticket to getting into big events. Penny admitted to having to coordinate 125-175 volunteers just for Devon. That is an impressive number of people hoping to catch a glimpse of the rides of Olympians.
Do hunter organizations have the tolerance for volunteerism? We certainly hear a lot of bitching about rising costs and inability to compete at the highest level anymore. Another simple solution right here in front of us, and no one willing to crack open that can of worms. Sigh.
Penny’s knowledge about Dressage was astounding. We spoke freely on all sorts of topics and spent a great deal of time throwing ideas and stories back and forth through the evening. She answered a lot of my questions, and I was grateful for it. Throughout the weekend, everyone I met and talked to actually defied the stereo type of a dressage queen. In the rings I stupidly grinned and said hello to every rider I passed, which got me a cooler response and loads of weird looks, but, granted, the level of concentration was significantly higher. I didn’t hold it against anyone, just thought it was funny. If I caught anyone in conversation while riding around, guess what the topic immediately turned to? The surface below our feet.
Beating the dead horse.
In general, not a single person riding on the grounds knew who I was, or knew about the issues I address. The anonymity was fantastic, because it invited real conversation about real concerns. I didn’t have to say a word past asking how their day was going, to unleash the high level of frustration riders were feeling about the footing. It was beyond treacherous in certain places. The ruts, the sudden transition from too shallow to too deep, the difference of surface from warm up to show ring, all of it was exasperating riders left and right. And we weren’t even jumping on it. One warm up ring was ignored by most competitors, which clogged the only other area to prepare, and I marveled at the way there were no accidents. Lateral movements are pretty common in dressage, so for all of these people not to run into each other with all the tiny circles, side passes, transitions and zig zagging across the ring was remarkable, but I don’t think too many people had the warm up they intended or desired, which, in my eyes, probably left another 200 people disappointed in the Hits venue. What a shame. For all of the intense hard work which Lisa Gorretta, Rosinberg Events, Janine Malone, Penny Hawes, and countless others did to put on this amazing show, at the end of the day it was once again Tom’s apathy which reverberated throughout the community. I just don’t get it.
I love dressage. People ask me all the time what it is like. It is hard. It is challenging. It requires more leg than I am used to. It is satisfying when you get it right, and depressing when the wheels fall off, but there is ALWAYS room for improvement. You go back, read your scores, look at the comments, and dig deeper. I was able to raise my scores from Saturday to Sunday and finally earn some coveted 8’s in movements which had previously only deserved a 6.5. I listened earnestly to complete strangers willing to offer advice and encouragement.
I video taped every ride and will go back and watch again and again to look for areas to improve, until I can be the highest scorer in my division. Yes, you mostly compete against yourself, but at a large, high caliber event, it is incredibly rewarding to be handed a top prize among your peers. It is also a far cry from the hunter world, and I can visibly understand why people come to the dark side and never return. It is still too soon for me to really find all of the faults of Dressage competitions, I have no doubt the Queens have other things I haven’t even thought of which keep them awake at night, but at the moment, I am getting a serious kick out of this weird and still relatively new world.
3 thoughts on “Compare if you dare. #drunter”
Although I have never been involved with the breeder classes (divisions?), I cannot fathom how they are even a little complete without stallions (even young ones) being present to be judged. Like I said though, though I am a h/j gal from forever, I never had horses in breeding, so what do I know?
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I have not enjoyed (and learned) so much by reading your blog since reading Cooky McClung in the COTH when I was a teenager…back in the 70s. I am a returning rider after a mostly 40 year hiatus now age 56 (I started again at 54). I own a wonderful show mare but have been shocked by what hunters have become, doped up sports equipment. Keep it all up – the world of horses needs advocates like you greatly!! Thanks.
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Cooky McClung wrote some great pieces! Thanks for reading, xo