About a week ago, Val posted on her blog about an awful experience she had at a show - her horse had a meltdown in the rain and although Val rode with tact and patience, the judge made less-than-supportive comments. It's an honest post and I recommend reading it if you haven't already. Click here to go to the post on Memoirs of a Horse Girl.
Ever since reading that post, I've been thinking about a similar experience I had with Jackson. I was lucky enough to have an excellent judge so my experience, while frustrating, was also positive. The judge gave me a lot to think about and I learned to listen to my horse.
A few years ago, in March of 2010, I took Jackson to a schooling show. Jackson is a pleaser but he isn't very brave. In fact, he ended up with ulcers in the short time that I competed him. He just could not handle the stress of being in a strange place, with strange horses. I feel very guilty about that, still. Even if he were sound to ride, I wouldn't show him or take him to competitive trail rides. We would stick to familiar trails with familiar horses.
When I took Jackson to the show, he was schooling at training level. He was not naturally straight or balanced and he has average gaits but he was doing well in our lessons. Jackson is a registered Paint with a fair amount of TB in his pedigree. He had a lanky athletic build and a forward brain. He was a blast to ride. At the show, I expected we would score in the 60s -- maybe even the upper 60s -- in the Intro and Training Level tests in which we were entered.
Show day dawned after a night of heavy rain. The show grounds were wet and the warm up arena was a mass of puddles. Jackson was nervous and high headed in the warm-up and we didn't get anything accomplished other than dodging puddles and other horses. Jackson stood quietly while we waited our turn to go into the court.
When we entered the court for our test, Jackson proceeded to have a melt down. He called constantly, he cantered off when we were supposed to trot, and he went sideways instead of straight.
I could feel his heart beating and the fear through the reins. I sat deep, took deep breaths, and tried to convince him that there was nothing to fear. We scored a 52. We got 5s for impulsion, submission and gaits. But I got a 6 for my position and the effect of my aids. The judge wrote "Much to worry about for him!! Patient riding. Make sure that moving forward comes before a round frame."
A good friend, who also rides dressage and has an excellent eye, was at the show to support me. She saw it a bit differently. She thought Jackson was being disobedient and that I should have been firmer with him. We found a deserted sandy area away from the crowd and I worked Jackson there before my next test. He settled down in the quiet surroundings with Flash nearby for support. I took a deep breath and rode over to the arena for my next test.
Jackson reacted exactly the same but this time I was firmer with him. When he called, I gave him a swift kick. I'm cringing as I write that. We got a few strides of decent trot but overall.... a 55.
We scored higher on gaits and impulsion (6s) but lower on the effectiveness of my aids - 5. The judge wrote "Some better work but also some big issues. (major disobedience on first 20m circle) Canter is a bit out of control."
Two years later, when I think of that test I still cringe. I learned that riding with tact, patience and understanding is more important to me than anything. I want harmony. I don't care about showing for the sake of showing, I want a happy partner. I'm not saying obedience isn't important because it is and an obedient horse is a happy horse. But looking back, I don't think Jackson was being disobedient to be a brat. He was scared. When he called out in fear, I kicked him -- no doubt confirming his fear.
I learned a lot from that show and from that judge. I learned to ride with compassion and I learned to trust my gut. Winston is a completely different personality -- very brave, very confident -- so when we start showing I think he'll be fine. He'll probably stick his tongue out at the judge and eat the flowers.