That was quite the weekend! Overall, I’m happy with how things went. It’s funny because, even when you try not to, you always have an expectation of how things will go in a competition. The reality of horses is that they never really allow for one to have expectations.
As a few of Yeager’s followers already know, I’ve had my own health issues this year. I was thinking about it and I think this year I have probably ridden less than any other year since I seriously started riding. I have been personally bummed about that because I felt like I was letting down the incredible support group around me, such as Yeager’s owner, my colleagues, and my fiancé, but most importantly, I was letting down Yeager. He is such a fantastic and talented horse and I wanted to give him the chance to shine. On a whim, just two weeks after getting back my first completely normal blood test, I signed Yeager up for a show at Spirit Equestrian in Somis, which is Shannon’s “home” facility. He had been feeling awesome trailering out for lessons and at home, so why not test ourselves a bit? He’s normally quite easy. And having handled and seen a few competing stallions now, I feel qualified to say he’s VERY easy in comparison.
Yeager relaxing before a lesson the week before the show.
So, our entries are sent in and, despite us being able to do a second level test without much worry, we went with just Training because (1) the question was how he would deal with atmosphere and not necessarily his training and (2) it is offered as an opportunity class, which means no expensive USEF/USDF/CDS/DASC membership fees for the very last show of 2014. It didn’t make sense to pay either $115 in nonmember fees or $180 for memberships that would last me two weeks. The competitive side of me scoffed at just Training level, but it was his first show of any kind so I’m sure I was probably the only one that would care.
We arrived late Friday morning; Yeager traveled great and seemed happy to go on another adventure. We unpacked and settled him in with him contently digging into a big flake of alfalfa once in his show stall. I have to mention how fabulous Spirt Equestrian’s show stabling is — permanent, airy 12×12 box stalls with auto waterers and the amazing Stable Comfort Mattress system, which means the footing is one solid mat with cushion underneath. Because it’s one piece, urine can’t seep through the edges and leaves the stalls smelling fantastic. Spirit also includes shavings with their stabling fees, and will clean the stalls once daily AND feed your hay twice per day. That eliminates a few of the many stresses of a big show! Yeager was booked into one of their reinforced stallion stalls, and Spirit makes sure not to stable mares directly next to stallions. It’s a nice change from the self-service 10×10 canvas portable stalls you get at most show locations. They put a lot of thought into every aspect of their shows, which made this a great venue for Yeager’s debut.
The show stabling at Spirit Equestrian.
We left him to settle in and came back later to find him fairly complacent with his his new situation. I had a lesson at 3:30pm with a trainer, who trains out of this facility, whom was recommended to me by multiple friends. I was tacking him up in his stall without event as a competitor arrived and put her young stallion into the stall next to us. She asked how Yeager was with other horses and stallions and saw that he was just dozing. She said, “ah, he’s quiet, this will be fine.”
So, I’m ready for my lesson and we head up to warm-up in the show arena for some ring familiarization. He’s a bit wired and green, but no big deal. There were lots of horses coming in and out of the arena with no place to just work through the tension for a few minutes to help him relax, so he was bracing against my hand quite a bit. I wanted the most out of my lesson, so the trainer and I decided to go to her arena for the actual lesson. Her arena was nice and quiet and far, far away from all the other horses. Apparently, that is not a good thing for a stallion.
Not long after relocating to the far arena, he became very, very worried about where everyone else was. The tension was quite bad and the last thing I wanted was an explosion. So I just pushed him forward and off we went. Poor dude was just calling and calling as we just cantered or trotted or whatever gait he wanted around this secluded arena. Unfortunately, he wasn’t really “there” anymore. If I put my legs on too strongly, he would overreact and, if I took them off, he would wonder why I wasn’t holding his hand anymore and get even more worried. I decided to just put him away and try to help him relax a bit back in his stall.
Yeager and I cuddling after the decision was made to scratch.
Of course, the whole time I’m thinking about all the people I’d be letting down if we don’t show. Plus, as a stallion available for breeding to outside mares, there is even more pressure for him to do – not just well – but spectacular. Every score should be a good score, NEEDS to be a good score. If there’s even one poor score mixed into his show record, people behind keyboards will speculate that maybe he’s rank or lame. There was quite a bit of hype for this buckskin stallion’s very first show and people were eager for updates. What would we say if we have to scratch? We couldn’t just make up a story and just say I was sick or he knocked himself. We couldn’t lie. While every stallion owner or manager likes to make it seem like their stallion is absolutely perfect in every way and they fart rainbows and sparkles, nothing involving horses is ever that way. Especially when testosterone is involved. So, we were honest with you all and just said he wasn’t mentally ready.
Talking to a few people with more stallion experience than me, the general consensus was that stallions are different. They don’t miss anything and, sometimes “naughty” behavior is just them being a normal, perceptive stallion. Anne, Yeager’s owner, told me a story about a fantastic young eventing stallion that just couldn’t get past the first three fences for cross country. At first, they figured he was just a bad horse that “didn’t want to play” on cross country. But, with time and patience, they figured out he just didn’t want to leave what he perceived as *his* herd. A stallion naturally wants to keep track of his herd and galloping away from those horses certainly isn’t conducive to that. I’m pretty confident that something similar was going through Yeager’s mind. The lovely trainer with the stallion “next door” had some great input, and through her years of bringing stallions along to the FEI levels, she’s always acquired them while still young. We agreed that the fact that Yeager is a 13 year old stallion who’s lived a very peaceful, quiet, uneventful life up until now will pose some additional challenges, but we are lucky to have the natural foundation of a wonderful mind, unbeatable work ethic, and an amazing desire to please. With more experience and some careful management, I’m confident this will soon be just another obstacle this talented horse was faced with and overcame like the champ he is.
Our ride times were at 8:30 and 8:55am, and the plan was to ride Yeager bright and early just to see where he’s at. After a handwalk around the barn, I hopped on and we headed to warm-up arena at 6:30am. He was still pretty tense and worried, unfortunately. Whenever I go to farms for different lessons, I feel the tension in Yeager as he assesses the situation– he’s a “thinking” horse. I usually start with the walk work and just check my “buttons” as I manipulate his shoulders, haunches and neck into different positions so he knows I need access to his whole body. He knows this routine and he will normally give me a big sigh after a few minutes, at which point I’ll start my warm-up. This didn’t happen this morning. Bummer. So, I just work him for about 45 minutes and he is actually quite rideable, but just so tense and looking. If the ride was in the afternoon, maybe we’d give it a shot, but my first ride time was instead in little over an hour.
Tobi & my fiancé being good sports about my 6:30am ride.
I called Anne and she was extremely supportive of my decision to scratch. I headed to the office and both checked in for my classes and then scratched today as well. I was second guessing whether I truly wanted to scratch as I was doing it, but I really wanted to give this horse every opportunity for success and I felt wouldn’t be doing him any favors if we moved forward as originally planned.
I went back to Yeager’s stall and took out his braids that I had put in at 5:00am by headlamp. Bummer. I took him on a handwalk again just so he can see more of the sights and sounds of a horse show. I was pleased to find that his mood was that everything was no big deal and just like everywhere else we’ve gone. I think the cookies helped, too.
I rode him again that afternoon and he felt much, much better. More like the superstar Yeager that he usually is. I finally got my big sigh! It took time and patience, but it happened. He wasn’t calling anymore, but he would drop his back if I tried to bring him up more into a competition frame instead of his working frame. I had about 80% of the horse I normally have and I knew I can easily do a Training test of walk-trot-canter with a few circles thrown in with only 80% of Yeager.
Our ride time was a little after 1pm in the afternoon on Sunday. When I arrived, I quickly recognized that Yeager seemed like he was figuring everything out. Even so, I still wanted to ride him in the morning to allow him to stretch his legs. At home, he gets between 3-8 hours of turnout nearly every day, so it would be best to give him some semblance of that here at Spirit as well. By this point, we started getting into a habit of hand walking him around the facility before every ride, which he seemed to appreciate. I tacked him up and off we went to the warm-up arena. Around 10:30am was when many of the Intermediare horses were warming up. If you haven’t ridden with upper level riders, it’s quite the experience. Often times they are so focused on their horses that they will nearly run into you and then get mad at you for being in their way. I get it and, maybe on a different day, I would be one of them. But today, I was just weaving in and out of these I-1 and 1-A/B mares, stallions, and geldings trying to stay out of their way as we just did some good stretchy work at the walk, trot, and canter. I actually think the constant changes of directions and transitions helped keep his mind focused and challenged. He felt awesome, relaxed, and ready to go. We cooled off and Yeager got to chill in his stall for a few hours.
Finally, it was time for our class. I get on in time for about a 20 minute warm-up banking on Yeager still being the horse I had earlier, and he was. Everything felt great with him totally on the aides. The Spirit facility was a bit tricky for our situation, with their show arena being quite secluded from the rest of the horses with a road, a parking lot, the office, and quite a few trees acting as a barrier between the busy warm-up and the atmospheric show arena. In other words, it was a very similar scenario to what caused his mental shut down on Friday.
I tried my best to keep him relaxed and supple, though he did start to get worried as he saw the horse & rider before us leave the arena. As we’re trotting around I feel him getting a bit edgey under me. His ears are flicking at the sprinkler that just surged on and was so considerately splashing on the signage around the ring and the people bustling and filling in the stands. (Shannon knows everyone and did quite the job getting people excited for Yeager’s debut!) No worries, no big deal. He’s not a spooky or reactive horse. The bell rings and I still have him in my hands as we go down the outside of the arena. I test the halt, which he obediently does, and then immediately looks up and bellows. Oops. I make a mental note not to halt facing toward “home” before going into the arena for next time and proceed with the test.
Yeager’s first test!
And, honestly, he was good. He was nervous, a bit tense, and called here and there, but he was very obedient. When he did call, he stayed decently in my hand, although he would hollow a bit. I tried my best to reward him by riding light and forward when he felt good and then hold and bend him a bit more with my legs and hand when he felt a bit unsure. He was awesome. At the end of my test, I took a risk and just dropped my reins on this tense, green horse to give him some big, hearty, two-handed pats on the neck. I wanted to be clear to him that THIS was why we were here. This test is the goal. This is all I’m asking of him. He didn’t call once after that final halt and just looked around at the cheering crowd and calmly walked out. I have to say that was the biggest applause I’ve ever experienced for a dressage test and I’m so grateful.
While he was tense in the test, that doesn’t worry me. That tension will eventually become brilliance in the show arena if it is fostered properly. I have to thank my long term partner Edward, or “Mazaire,” for that lesson. Edward LOVED to show. But, if you misread him and got tense and brace-y against him in the show arena, he would score in the mid-50s. If you weren’t afraid of the tension, kept your leg on and your arms forward, and trusted him to stay in the contact, you would get in the high 60’s and low 70’s easily.
Edward & I doing our last FEI test together.
After our debut, Yeager and I walked back to his stall after a successful debut. I was so proud of him, but knew the score wouldn’t reflect on what we accomplished. He was tense, so that probably would take down everything. Shannon asked what I expected the score to be, and I said figured I would be lucky to get a 60%. Everyone else is saying that it didn’t look as I thought it felt, and Shannon said she guessed closer to 66%. While I’m about to hose off Yeager, she comes over excitedly with the dressage test in hand. We received a 67.4% with no single score lower than a 6.0. That’s not bad. That’s actually pretty darn good. And the 6’s were for the movements when he would call and brace against me.
Even came home with a blue ribbon!
I’m most proud of the collective scores, which reflects the judge’s overall impression of us. A 7.5 for Gaits and another 7.5 Rider’s Position. While I’m sure those could be higher in the future, it’s nice to know that this horse’s quality it something the judge, Trenna Adkins, can see as well. Where we scored low, I expected to score low, particularly for Harmony. Ms. Adkins’ comments, as you can see above, reflected our thoughts exactly: “lovely horse, needs more confidence and experience.” She’s right on the money.
I’m so thankful and proud of this horse. And I definitely couldn’t of done this without the support of everyone behind me. Thank you Anne so much for your guidance and understanding as well as trusting me with this fantastic horse. Thank you Shannon for all your help on social media, advise, and moral support. Thank you Jaclyn for helping me really figure out how to best manage a breeding and riding stallion. Thank you Karen for being an awesome coach and mentor as Yeager and I figure out each other. Of course, a thank you to my awesome parents for their endless support and encouragement over the years. And probably the biggest thank you to my amazing fiancé Jeff. You were everything thing weekend including trailer organizer, boot polisher, stallion handler, sounding board, and the best groom anyone could ask for without a single grumble about a 4:00am wake up call. I love you so much and thank you for putting up with this crazy horse lifestyle.