Three years ago Darling Husband and I found ourselves traveling down a dirt road somewhere near West, TX to look at what was advertised as a sixteen hand, six year old, appaloosa gelding. Shopping for horses is a lot like online dating. The horse turned out to be considerably shorter than advertised, his age was questionable, but he was an appaloosa gelding. I had passed over this particular ad multiple times, but Darling Husband on the search for his perfect horse, took the bait. We arrived in front of an abandoned, collapsing single wide trailer, surrounded by farm implements and vehicles on blocks losing the fight against decades of rust. Hello tetanus! Contained within the chain link fence surrounding this scrap metal cemetery was the gelding we had come to see.
There wasn’t anything to recommend the gelding. Darling Husband had decided before we exited the vehicle, that this horse was not for him. He was three inches shorter than advertised, closer 15.2 than 16 plus hands, scrawny/ribs showing, ewe necked, and sporting a half roached mane. However, when the seller put him on a lunge line, the gelding stepped out as Darling Husband put it with “Moves like Jagger.” Three weeks later despite Darling Husband’s lack of interest we returned to pick him up as my eventing prospect. Fast forward after sitting a year out due to an injury. Thank you, Beau Pony! Skin cancer treatments, another year spent just trying to build topline and reverse the ewe neck, my not so impressive appaloosa gelding, Comanche and I finally found ourselves at our first event.
I originally thought 2020 would be a bust for advancing my eventing goals. Almost every show on my calendar had been cancelled or postponed due to Covid, and I suffered from a severe lack of training motivation without a deadline on a calendar. I was basically just playing around. Then Dressage Queen discovered her favorite show venue only a short drive away was hosting a fall event. Her recent prospect needed some show mileage and it was the perfect opportunity to see if Comanche and I were even remotely on the right track. There was one problem. The three weeks prior to the event, Comanche would be traveling 1900 miles round trip for a trail ride in the mountains of Tennessee. There wouldn’t be much opportunity to work on the one aspect of the event that concerned me the most, dressage.
Comanche and I have struggled since the beginning on softness and contact. Comanche loves, loves, loves to go fast. He has beautiful upward transitions, but downward transitions are pretty much a nightmare. Once you allow him to go up a gear, he has zero interest in coming back down. I’ve never ridden another animal with his enthusiasm for speed or his stamina. After a three hour trail ride scaling mountains in Tennessee, he was still rearing to gallop a quarter mile straight up a hill. I had zero concerns about the cross country or jumping phases of the event. We were riding GAG with a maximum jump height of two feet. Any horse over fourteen hands should be able to step over two feet from a stand still if required in my way of thinking. Plus Comanche regularly schools 3’6″. Comanche has turned into a nice point and shoot type of jumper as long as you like going over fences at warp speed. He just doesn’t rate.
Holding Comanche together during a dressage test is a different situation. So, I used every opportunity during the two week Tennessee trip to work on our transitions and dressage test albeit without an arena. There was also an unexpected benefit from the trail riding. Rain the night before our first trail ride created giant puddles up to twenty feet long that stretched the entire width of the trail in places, perfect water hazard preparation. The month and a half leading up to the event, I don’t think I popped Comanche over a single jump, not even a cavaletti or crossrail. We just drilled dressage relentlessly.
On Friday Dressage Queen and I arrived at the event for cross country schooling. Neither of us had the appetite to complete the full trial on our green as grass horses. We would be doing the combined test and giving them the taste of a full competition without devoting three days to it. From what I could tell, Dressage Queen’s horse, Rev, was doing beautifully for a horse with only 90 days of training under his belt. Comanche was a complete terror. He started out nicely in warm-up, but once I made the mistake of asking him to canter, we were game on, full go. I abandoned all hopes of dressage work after 45 minutes and headed out to the cross country course. Despite the fact that I was sitting on a real life fire breathing dragon, cross country was a success. Comanche is ready for Beginner Novice, probably Novice cross country and stadium. He didn’t pause at a single question, just charged down the line and soared over. Rev was unsure of the water hazard, but our TN trail ride had prepared Comanche for this question. He just plunged on in leading Rev through the water.
After about 2-3 hours of straight up galloping for Comanche, controlled trotting/cantering for Rev we called it a day even though I was still sitting on a fresh mount. Poor Rev probably had the hardest workout of his life and was visibly tired, not so for my dragon. He was literally still rearing to go. I prepared myself for the inevitable embarrassment I expected our dressage test to be. It turned out that a trainer both Dressage Queen and I knew had packed our division with her horses/riders. This gave us some insight on what to expect from our fellow competitors. On the ride to the event Saturday morning, I made the comment, “I know my horse is a dressage disaster, but I still really want to bring home a ribbon.” Dressage Queen’s mom/trainer, GT, informed me it was highly unlikely knowing the horses we would be competing against.
It wasn’t that we didn’t have any faith in our ability or our horses, but we knew the horses in our division. I had seen them at other competitions. They were mature campaigners, not truly GAG horses, even if their riders would be green. I had seen the current sale price on one of the horses in our class, and he was a good three times Rev’s current valuation and closer ten times Comanche’s. The riders in our class would not be struggling to keep a fire breathing dragon under control or riding a horse that was on his third outing off the farm. Their horses may even be forgiving enough to cover up any rider bobbles and continue on with the program like the good school horses they are. Comanche and Rev were basically laying all the responsibility of the ride on Dressage Queen and I. Our horses were guaranteed to make mistakes that we would need to anticipate and compensate for.
I thought I had arrived at the show with more than an hour to warm-up for my dressage test. Turns out the event was running ahead, and by the time I checked in with the gate attendant, I was lucky to get fifteen minutes. After yesterday’s performance, I decided it would be best if Comanche’s first opportunity to canter would be in the arena during the test. In fact I barely did any trot work. If I postponed going up a gear, I figured that would give me half of a controlled test, and with any luck maybe I could hold the dragon at bay during the second half. In the end it shook out like this. We definitely had more giraffe moments than I would have liked, but we had moments of contact and softness. Through brute strength alone, I was able to hold him in the correct gaits with a semblance of rhythm and consistency during the first half of the test. By the second half of the test, he was beginning to soften and settle down. Yes, he pulled like a freight train. Yes, there were moments that I rode way too forward (it’s a nasty habit I’m trying to kick), but we caught the correct leads, and performed the correct gaits in the correct locations. Transitions were so-so depending on the movement, but all in all a thousand times better than I expected after yesterday’s performance.
Rev had some very good moments, and there were times I caught glimpses of the dressage horse he would be. His naturally short back and suspension already give him a leg up, but Rev is super green with not that many rides. He’s lacking the muscle to sustain serious work for long periods, and he doesn’t possess the stamina that my freak of nature Comanche does. My horse was every bit as wired on day two as he had been on day one. The difference on day two, I was actively trying to anticipate and ward off any energy surges by pushing him into a long and low serpentine walk to keep his overactive toddler brain busy. Rev on the other hand was exhausted from day one. He put on a valiant effort, but he just wasn’t in full competition fitness yet.
With dressage over, the rest of the event felt like a holiday. Dressage Queen and I were both surprisingly in the running for a ribbon despite the inexperience of our mounts. All we had to do was go clear in stadium, and let’s be honest I could go clear on that course riding a stick horse. I just needed to make sure my horse didn’t refuse any jumps. At a max height of two feet if I gave into Comanche’s natural tendency to freight train around the course, he would choose to go over rather than slow down, run out, or stop. Stadium is the portion of the event where one of Comanche’s weaknesses became his strength. The only thing that matters in stadium is that you make it over the jump without knocking down any rails, and as you move up the levels the faster the better. It doesn’t matter how you look, just get over the fence.
Stadium is also where it helps to be a strong, consistent rider. This is where Dressage Queen and I had a leg up on the competition. We were on Green as Grass horses but we aren’t green riders. In Dressage an experienced horse and green rider can still excel. That combination doesn’t work as well over fences where the rider needs to have confidence enough for themselves and the horse. An experienced horse lacking a confident rider in stadium, may decide they really don’t feel like jumping after all, and that is exactly what happened to several riders in our division. I started toward the first fence at a trot because our division wasn’t being timed and I knew that all hell would break loose once Comanche’s front hooves hit the backside of the jump. Once we touched down, I just let him go. If I felt the slightest deceleration, I put more leg on and held him on the line toward the next fence. At the speed we went around, he didn’t have time to think about what he was jumping, he just knew he wanted to go faster. In just around a minute we had cleared eight jumps and were solidly in fourth place.
Rev was tired. He also only had about ninety total rides in his life time. He had made some big jumping efforts the day before. Rev hasn’t been over hundreds of jumps, but Dressage Queen has and she piloted him steadily around the course. She didn’t let him run out or stop, and they finished with a clear round. Several of the other riders were not so lucky. The horse above me in third place refused, making my total score better than hers. The first place competitor in dressage was obviously not an experienced jumper, but her horse was a saint saving her more than a few times. It wasn’t the beautiful ride they had in dressage, but it was at least clear with no refusals or knocked down rails. The second placed dressage competitor took the jumps with the same consistency as their dressage test meaning they would hold onto their current placing. Another horse with more experience than it’s rider decided to refuse a jump three times and was ultimately disqualified.
Dressage Queen and I ended the event better than expected. We both brought home ribbons, and placed in the top half of our division which isn’t too shabby for a first time event on very green horses. This show was also a nice validation that my time on Comanche has not been wasted. I’ve competed with Comanche at breed shows where he is seriously out classed by expensive horses bred for a certain type of movement. Nothing is questionable about their pedigrees, age, or former training. Hunter under saddle isn’t exactly what we train for, but until this event it was the only class I had as a barometer of our training progress. It was refreshing to be at a competition where trainers weren’t warming up, riding, and prepping horses for their riders. Despite our weak dressage performance, we still ended up in the top half of our division.
I have the full video of both my dressage test and stadium round. My own worst critic, the dressage test looked much worse than it felt when I rode it, but I have video evidence of exactly what I need to improve. My stadium round looked exactly how it felt, but I don’t really have any complaints on that round. Dressage Queen and I ended the event giving our Offspring pony rides and a much needed stop at Dairy Queen. Dressage Queen is already on the hunt for more events, and planning my 2021 calendar for me. We’re also kicking around the idea of adding more horses to the event string. Odessa the cow pony may find her self plowing around a cross-country course. Johnny Cash hopefully returns to the farm around the middle of December with a solid foundation to begin preparing for his first dressage test. Dressage Queen has a few horses on her farm that may find themselves in the sandbox as well!