Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Trying on First 3 for Size @ MDA

The Maryland Dressage Association hosted another lowkey schooling show at Charlie's home barn this past weekend, and obviously Charlie and I decided to enter! 

We don't have the greatest track record at these events (which I expounded upon at great length while recapping our June show)... but they're super cost effective chances to get in front of a judge in the hopes of constructive feedback. 

lol barely entered and already kickin' up a {dust} storm!
Plus, I've been musing whether Charlie's a "First Level Horse" since the fall of 2018, but only actually rode him in his first (and only) proper first level test in summer 2019. During which, the judge not-altogether-gently ripped my fucking heart out

So. Ahem. That gave me some serious cold feet about it all, lol... ugh... 

maybe blurry + out of focus is a good look for us?? don't worry, there are some nice HQ pro pics too ;) 
But ya know. We press on. My philosophy on doing things with horses is that.... Literally nobody will ever care more than I do about what I do with my horse. And that goes both ways -- nobody is sitting there disappointed or whatever if I don't reach out and take a shot at my dreams. And... Nobody will ever care more than I will** if we do poorly, make mistakes, or 'fail.' 

How I feel about what we do is legitimately ALL that matters. Therefore, if there's a thing that I want to do? We do it! And if I don't really want to do any given thing? We don't. And ya know. It really is that simple haha. 

(**Quick reminder to anybody who needs to hear it: judgement or snarky comments are NOT the same as actually caring. Turns out, we are actually the only ones who obsess over our mistakes. So.... Don't, lol. Or at least, don't let past mistakes become obstacles to future fun.)

not a bad effort at stretchy trot, buddy!! also omg, look at my right leg behaving itself sorta!!
So this summer, knowing that it's been somewhat of a 'season of discontent' vis-a-vis actual riding lessons, I've been using our roughly monthly competition outings as yardsticks to check in on progress. 

And, particularly, these MDA shows have been the perfect 'proof of concept' for me to finally try on all of First Level for size. We rode tests 1 and 2 back in June, to reasonably ok effect, and then took a stab at test 3 this past weekend. 

not typically a moment in trot that i grab for pictures, but idk, i kinda like this one! dust makes it feel ethereal lol
pc Amy Flemming Waters
This past weekend was also an important landmark in my mind bc.... Well, uh, not to put too fine a point on it, but I've *completely* changed how I ride the horse since our last lesson with Molly K. And, ahem, that left *two* practice sessions between that lesson and this show to actually adjust and adapt to the new style with Charlie. 

But, haha.... This probably won't surprise any of you who have likewise experienced one of those major positional 'Aha!' moments in riding, but.... Turns out, Charlie adapted right fucking quick to the new style, and is quite the happy little camper now! Gooooo figure, lol.

just canter the horse and ride a circle, amirite? judge's comment for this circle: "reins long."
pc Amy Flemming Waters
Basically, the big takeaway from Molly was finally feeling how to get my leg OFF the horse. Trainers have told me for YEARS to do this thing, but.... Ya know. For some reason, I couldn't actually do it with how my legs hang (plus, obvi our bodies lie to us constantly, and my right leg has always had a mind of its own). 

But now I have an actual physical feeling to work with: like I'm riding with my toes pointed directly into Charlie's armpits. Like I'm riding as extremely pigeon toed as possible. It feels that way, tho in reality my toes are only just barely sticking straight ahead vs winging outward. 

Especially when I'm trying to focus on 18 things at once, like my shitty upper body and hand/arm positions. Or, uh, not making my horse rein-lame in the 10m circles. Details details, ya know? 

love that charlie wore his ears up in canter!! that's actually... not super common!
pc Amy Flemming Waters
The feeling is great tho, esp for turning. When I turn Charlie, the outside leg rotates toe more toward horse's armpit, bringing my outside thigh into contact to catch that shoulder. Meanwhile my inside leg is this supportive pillar holding the horse upright in his turn. It feels good, and Charlie seems to like it. 

Keeping my legs off also makes Charlie happy bc he finally has freedom to actually go forward. And when I *do* use a leg, whether it's asking for more activity, or a leg yield, he is more responsive than I'm used to, like, "Ooh, incoming message received!

The leg yields in particular are just... There now. Well. Ok, that's a lie. The leg yield left is "there" now, bc that's our stronger direction (since, ya know, the left side of my body is a myth and I've trained the horse using almost exclusively my right side), so the leg yield right is plain harder for us both. But -- bc my legs are off, when I put them on, Charlie just... tunes in and tries. Yessss!

might actually be having an ok time in front of the judge, for once!
Another feeling from the Molly lesson has "worn off" more quickly -- the feeling from that rubber tube looped from my fingers going behind my back. When I can remember it, tho, and access that feeling, combined with the new leg position, Charlie can finally pull me down into the saddle, deeper into my position -- vs pulling my upper body forward and seat out of the saddle. 

I can also feel these moments of position where like, "Ooh, yes, this is how I will actually sit the trot." Since.... sitting the trot is not really currently a thing I can do, let's be honest. 

d'aww buddy <3 he has such a lovely canter, one day we'll get scores to match! 
So this test was all about putting these pieces together. Trying it out and finding the limits, so to speak. I honestly was worried that it would be way above our paygrade, and contemplated dropping to test 1 or 2... But, our two solo practice sessions between lesson and show went really well, so we carried on. 

And once in the ring, I really focused on helping Charlie relax. He was tense AF during the June shows, bc he honestly doesn't really like dressage very much. We've spent so much time booting and chasing him forward, and then asking him to bring that big body of his into more precise smaller movements. It stresses him out, ya know? Esp considering, whoops, I've been steering him wrong all along. 

sweet pony <3
pc Amy Flemming Waters
So idk if this test 3 just flows well for him (which, I think it does) or if this new style of riding helps him feel more comfortable and trusting of the pattern, but he actually felt really good the whole way around! 

The test opens with a trot lengthening (which I did conservatively to preserve relaxation), then goes into a neat leg yield pattern. Leg yield rail to center line, then 10m circle, change direction and repeat. It's a simple pattern that Charlie picked up quickly. Only sadness is it starts with the right leg yield and left 10m circle -- Charlie's two weakest movements. 

True story, that left 10m circle (or it's half circle cousin we've seen in other tests) is the #1 place you'll see Charlie take uneven steps, since it's a difficult configuration for his own physical limitations. And it's always one of the first things in these tests, and therefore part of a judge's first impression of the horse. So... If the first thing a judge sees are irregular steps, they'll be on the lookout the rest of the ride. Which is what happened in that 2019 disaster. 

On this day, tho?? Charlie got a SIX (6!!!!) on that movement, with a comment saying "stiff in bend"! Way to go, buddy -- we'll take it! 

goofy candid shots will always be my favorite lol
pc Amy Flemming Waters
We then got our only 7 (aside from Charlie's gait scores omg) in the leg yield left, then the test carries on with the stretchy trot then walk and free walk. 

After that, you move into canter. I really like the canter patterns in this test, tho we didn't score particularly well since I biffed the one loop serpentine geometry (whoops) and don't ride Charlie very round in canter. 

Basically, tho, you pick up canter, go immediately into one loop of counter canter, then a 15m circle in the end of the arena, followed by a lengthening down the other long side. Change rein across the diagonal with simple change thru trot L to R (obvi Charlie aced this, tho the judge didn't like his frame), and repeat the whole thing in the other direction. 

The test finishes with a trot lengthening on the diagonal, then immediately turn up CL to halt, salute. This was *my* weakest movement, since we got strung out after the canter and I didn't fully prep for the turn and let myself get pulled out of the new position rather than holding strong. That will take time and practice tho, I'm just happy to know we can fix it. 

The scores are predictably low overall, with a whole slew of 5.5s sprinkled throughout. Esp the 5.5's on coefficient movements really hurt the score. But realistically, we were only 0.5pts away from 60%, and the comments are all very detailed and on-point. (And we should have gotten a -2.0pt error since I free-walked to the wrong letter, so, eh, we'll take it!) (And also, IMHO our canter-trot transition was quite nice and could have done better than 6.0 too....)

Especially watching the video with the comments captioned right there while it's happening is helpful to connect what I felt in that moment to what the judge sees. 

A lot of it tbh won't be something I immediately address. Esp re: getting Charlie more round + on the bit. Rather, my focus will continue to be my position and how I ride the horse, with the expectation that Charlie's connection to the bridle will naturally improve as a result.  

but here's the test itself for all y'all non video watchers
my inner mathematician would like to observe that 59.86% is baaaasically 60% haha, literally 0.5pts off....
Bc.... The reality is.... Charlie is my jumping horse, and he takes damn good care of me in that regard, even when I make pretty epic mistakes. Without careful oversight by a coach invested in our progress and goals, I'm wholly resistant to risking making him backward in the bridle, or making my bad hands too influential in the wrong ways. 

I'm not willing to risk sacrificing how Charlie takes care of me over fences for what would likely be only marginal gains in the dressage ring. And we already know from experience that it's not too hard to imagine Charlie getting backed off and behind the leg and bridle while jumping. So.... Yea. Thanks, but no thanks LOL. 

ribbons based on Danish method. <60% = 3rd place.
Obvi everyone prioritizes different things, so ymmv. For me, I'm finally feeling good about the path Charlie and I are on with our flatwork. It's not perfect or classically beautiful (lol), but it feels like progress that even Charlie himself can recognize. 

At the end of the day, I want the horse to know when he's a good boy. I want the work to be self-evident to him. Jumping is already like that -- I don't have to explain to the horse whether he had a good jump or not, he can figure that out for himself lol. But dressage... has always been trickier. I've always kinda felt like I'm picking on him. 

Here's hoping this new style and approach will really help in that regard, and give Charlie more space and freedom to actually enjoy playing with movements! This test, at least, felt like a good effort in that direction! 


  1. Very cool, I love the happy ears at the canter!!

  2. Sounds like you really had a break through in that lesson! You guys are looking great. I LOVE that photo of you petting him. You can see Charlie thinking, "I'm a good boy. I did all the things, and mom loves me."

    1. he is just so stinkin good haha, so long as he believes he's the champion at all this, i'm happy lol!

  3. Your approach is absolutely correct, it's amazing (like truly, truly) how the horse will change their way of going just based on where our bodies are in their space. Now and again I'll engage some seemingly random part of my right ab and magically Dante feels even and engaged underneath me and I'm like 'wtf black magic...'

    I commend you for going out and just doing the thing, you are absolutely right it's a good check in barometer, not to mention, a great bonding experience with your buddy.

    1. ha thanks and yea the experience is basically what we're all about here, let's be real. none of it really matters for anything else.... i'm not qualifying for anything, won't get year end points for this, not getting named to any teams, don't have a record etc lol.... just experiences and memories <3

  4. You guys look great!! I would have been super happy with that test, too!

    1. thanks! it honestly felt great. like obvi we can always nitpick areas to improve, but overall i think we got what we wanted from it

  5. It’s like we’re on parallel paths these days. I quite like 1-3. You guys look very harmonious.

  6. It is incredibly cool -- and clearly a testament to your hard work and your relationship with Charlie -- that a couple of rides after a major change can make such a big difference. And also that you can both find success with that change in a show environment.

    Also this point -- "judgement or snarky comments are NOT the same as actually caring" -- SOOOO TRUEEEE. I enjoy a shittalk with my friends as much as the next person, but it took me until adulthood to realize that just because there was lots of shit to be talked didn't mean there were any legitimate shits given. Some people seem to use "because I caareeee!!!!" to do a good bit of punching down and meddling, not recognizing how untrue that is.

  7. I love everything about this but especially the candid photo <3


Thanks for leaving a comment! You may need to enable third party cookies in your browser settings if you have trouble using this form.