The GHLHF hit the road three weeks ago for a horse show. We were wildly….wildly optimistic about how awesome our first horse trial/derby of 2021 would go only to see the illusions shatter. We trailered down Friday, explored the new to us show venue, tucked our ponies into their stalls, gave them a kiss good night, and slept peacefully knowing the next day would be fabulous. You can call me Daenerys Targaryen, because little did I know that those beauties I tucked in the night before would hatch into fire breathing monsters the next day. It was horrifying. They threatened to eat small children and the other competitors. They flew around snorting fire from their nostrils, bugling their dragon roars, barely able to keep their feet on the ground which generally during the stadium and cross country phases is a good thing, but on this day it was really just embarrassing. For two campaigners that have more miles on them than any horses I have previously owned it was pathetic. We left the show placing surprisingly well despite their behavioral issues, and vowed to return better.
For the proceeding three weeks we worked not only on our dressage and jumping efforts, but also on ground manners. That was difficult, because the behaviors exhibited at the show never happen at home. However, I separated my two horses and left them tied alone for long periods of time, hoping that this would translate to good behavior when standing tied alone in a stall for one hour tops at a show. I did my best to create more challenging jump obstacles from 55 gallon drums and haybales since my horses had an aversion to jumping haybales at the show, but not to eating them. The haybale obstacles lasted a whole six hours before the hoard showed up to pilfer the jump, but at least both horses had sailed over them several times without hesitation barely flicking an ear.
So on Friday, once again I loaded my show ponies into the trailer, and headed over to pick up Dressage Queen and her two horses. Dressage Queen was on a high. She had several awesome jump schools throughout the week, and The Reverend’s dressage work was coming along nicely. I was just praying that I could keep my monsters under control and not maim any spectators having learned my lesson about optimism three weeks before. Our pre-show hack of the grounds and cross country course was amazing, and we had double the fun since Dressage Queen and I had brought two horses each to this event. Of course that could always spell double the trouble the next day.
When we arrived I discovered we had made a name for ourselves during the last show. Politely no one mentioned how awful our horses behaved, but we were known as the “cool girls” with the lipstick. I had to apologize to Dressage Queen for earning us this recognition. Having spent the past four years taking my horses to breed shows where full make-up following the 20 ft rule is a thing, meaning your make-up should be noticeable from 20 ft away because the judge and spectators will be at least that far away from you, I just can’t help myself. Plus red lipstick definitely looks better than bare lips in photos. Even though I’ve never run a barrel race in my life, I have an affinity for barrel racer style, bold bright colors with lots of bling. I even ordered custom bell boots in my signature colors (purple & turquoise) that say “Hold my Beer” on the right hoof, and “And Watch This.” on the left hoof in glitter writing. So while many disciplines encourage make-up and sparkles, eventing riders typically don’t wear make-up or put anything as frivolous on their horses as custom glitter bell boots.
Anticipating that my horses, who are not really that close when at home, become neurotic herd bound messes when taken to the same show event began formulating a game plan. The morning of the show, I fed and hand walked each horse around the grounds separately. When it became apparent neurosis was taking over, I decided instead of letting them stand in the same stall while I used the extra stall for a tack/dressing room, like last time, maybe keeping them separated as much as possible would be a better game plan. After all repeating the same behavior over and over expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Both of them were standing in their stalls hugging the wall that separated them, so I took them in the corner of the stall farthest from the other and tied them.
Odessa began her frustration behavior of pawing when distanced from Comanche. Deciding I would not let that continue, I packed my pocket with tiny pea gravel, and chucked one her way anytime she started pawing. I gave Dressage Queen permission to do the same. For you bleeding hearts out there, no I’m not pelting my horse with rocks. In fact half the time, I didn’t hit my target at all, and when I did actually make contact it just lightly tapped her. The idea was to startle her out of the behavior, not hurt/punish her in anyway. She caught on quick not to paw when she could see me, but then started up when I disappeared into Comanche’s stall. So I simply chucked pebbles over the stall wall. After about twenty minutes she resigned herself to the fact that “the hand of god” was effectively reaching out to flick her every time she acted like a brat and stopped altogether. Small success for the day. The pebble idea worked for Comanche as well anytime he paced, pawed, or called out for Odessa in the next stall. Soon both of my horses were taking their frustration our on their hay nets, which is exactly what I wanted.
Having learned from my last horse trial, when you have two horses in the same division, you will not have time for a tack change. I’m glad I hung onto my jump saddle from high school and never got around to selling one of the two dressage saddles I purchased as trial saddles last year. I tacked both of my horses up for dressage and went to watch and call Dressage Queen’s tests for her. She was riding three different dressage tests, two on 3 Sox and one on The Reverend. The potential for confusing the movements of the three were too great to attempt to do all three from memory. I was calling the two tests for 3 Sox, and she had The Reverend’s test memorized. This was my first time calling a dressage test for someone, and the high winds made it difficult for my voice to carry. She had some very lovely movements through them both despite me not being the best at calling tests.
Comanche was up first for dressage so we headed out to work over all three gaits and then focus on relaxation. Unfortunately, the relaxation worked so well, I struggled for the first time ever to bring out his lovely suspension. It was a solid test with fewer mistakes than usual. I was happy and rushed back to swap for Odessa to begin the same process. Relaxation isn’t really Odessa’s thing. Even though she doesn’t have Comanche’s freight train tendencies, keeping her in the gait you want without being “extra” is an artform. Apparently, I was semi-successful because Odessa only popped into the canter once for a single stride when she was supposed to be going at the working trot, and despite a little jig at the free walk scored higher than Comanche. Both horses earned comments of “talented pair” and Comanche earned a “Nice mover could go high level” comment. I didn’t have a single “rider forward or bracing” comment which means my work at home is paying off. Dressage Queen reported that The Reverend also performed his dressage test beautifully!
With that finished, I removed everyone’s tack, taking dressage tack back to the trailer and staging jump tack by the stalls. By this point, an old Pony Club friend of Dressage Queen arrived with DQ’s mom to watch the rest of the event and play photographer. I left my beauties to eat hay and nap while we all went out to walk stadium and cross country. So far the day had gone wonderfully. Thanks to preparation and bringing along enough tack to outfit two horses, I wasn’t stressed in the least making my ride times since there were more competitors in our division than the last show giving us some cushion room.
Thirty minutes before our division started stadium, I saddled both horses and booted them both up. I’m not a fan of letting a horse stand in boots, but with tight ride times it couldn’t be helped. Neither of my horses require long warm-ups and in some cases a long warm-up does the opposite of what I need. So I put Odessa through all three gaits took her over each of the two warm-up jumps exactly once in each direction and then proceeded to walk her long, low, and slow until we went in. It paid off! She was a little amped but consistent, and didn’t hesitate at a single jump standard. If it wasn’t for me getting excited about going clear, and glancing down as we hit the second jump in the line on the tenth and final jump of the course we wouldn’t have had a single fault, but instead we pulled a rail.
It couldn’t be helped or dwelled on. We rushed back to the barn where I removed her bridle, loosened her girth, fed her a treat, and ran off to grab Comanche. Now up until this point in the day Comanche had been a model citizen, but with no one watching the barn during Odessa’s stadium round he had been pacing, pawing, and screaming. I had heard a horse misbehaving right before I started my stadium on Odessa, but just didn’t think it could be my horse. This is where the prep of having a second saddle was priceless. Even though he had worked himself up, let’s call that warm-up, I didn’t have to worry about tacking up a bouncing horse or worry about saddle fit. All I had to do was throw on a bridle, yank the girth up a few holes, and mount. The fact that I didn’t feel rushed or nervous made a world of difference between this show and last. I didn’t add to Comanche’s stress. Instead I could be the leader he needed and bring his emotions down a few levels.
I repeated the same warm-up process with Comanche that I had with Odessa. I kept him long and low on serpentines and small circles after our warm-up jumps. When I entered the arena he was actually pretty soft on the bit. Stadium was amazing on Comanche. His strides were good. We didn’t have any hesitations or bad distances. I was actually able to bring him down to a low walk to exit the arena before hitting the cross country course. Cross country was lovely. There isn’t any feeling quite like galloping a well conditioned horse through a wide open field with well designed obstacles. Comanche took two long spots when I just couldn’t get him to collect on the approach, but we went clear. It was all over too soon and extremely anticlimactic. Since I had two horses in competition, one still standing tacked in her stall, I didn’t have time to revel in our ride, but Comanche’s earlier shenanigans were forgiven after laying down a ride like that. I had a horse to cool out, two to untack, and then a trailer full of equipment to pack up.
Several people complimented me on the jump rounds my two Appaloosas put in. The ones that had witnessed their previous show antics were impressed by their improved behavior. While the day had been a great one by my standards, I just didn’t think either of my horses’ dressage performances were competitive enough to place us above the riders I didn’t know in our division. I felt sure the girls riding pedigreed animals in tack ten times more expensive than mine, that ride full time with trainers likely had better scores than mine. No one was more surprised than me when the show steward handed me three blue ribbons and dressage scores that exceeded my expectations by a lot. DQ and I packed everything up and hit the road looking forward to some hard earned margaritas and Mexican food. I decided Odessa and Comanche earned a two day break from training for good behavior, plus Johnny Cash hadn’t been ridden in three days which meant he was a bigger work priority.
I feel like my crazy Appaloosas, a breed that doesn’t get a lot of good press in eventing circles thoroughly redeemed themselves. I’m hopeful that our next horse trial the weekend of my birthday will be successful. We have a dressage lesson with a USDF Bronze/Silver medalist and a strictly stadium event a week before the next trial as a tune-up show to expose them to a bit more variety. I’m anxious for our scores to post with the Greater Houston Combined Training Association to see where we are currently ranked, two shows down, seven and a half to go!