My first competition with Leah is in the books, and along with that accomplishment comes my very first competition recap post on The Blonde & The Bay! I would totally be deceiving you, my fellow readers, if I said I haven’t been waiting forever and a day to write a piece like this. As most of you already know, this past weekend marked my first time back in the competition ring since 2012 Region 9 Championships. In addition, it was my first time competing in the Adult Amateur division, and again, my first show with my mare since she became part of our family in 2013.
Basically, it was a weekend packed with first time experiences that oddly produced the feeling that I was a total rookie at this whole “dressage competition” thing. At least, that’s how I felt in the days leading up to riding down centerline for a judge at C. Mentally, I held onto the fact that Leah and I had produced some fantastic training rides at home, clicking and connecting in ways that we’ve been working tirelessly for months to achieve. But in the back of my mind, I knew I would have to face my version of a sleeping giant upon arrival to the show grounds: the darn fear issue.
All settled in! PS: zero gravity chairs are legit.
Getting back on track here, my mom and I were the first to arrive to the Great Southwest Equestrian Center located in Katy, Texas on Thursday morning. She and I scurried up and down our isle of stalls, bedding them down and filling water buckets before Chloe and the four-legged gang made their entrance. Side note, we prefer to travel to competitions the day before schooling day as it gives the horses an extra chance to settle in and become accustomed to their surroundings. To each their own, but I’d like to think our group of ponies appreciate it. We also used Thursday afternoon to set up our barn curtains, tack stall, grooming stall, and everything in between while the horses munched on hay… and got spoiled with treats, of course.
So as you can see, that’s how our Thursday played out. Plus, a pear martini for me at dinner that evening... Treat yo’self!
By the time Friday morning rolled around, I had a decision to make with my inner self. I could feel the knot in my stomach begin to churn as I put the finishing touches on Leah before our schooling ride. The fear bug was attempting to suck the joy right out of this situation, but come hell or high water, I was determined to squash it in its tracks. I climbed aboard Leah with Chloe standing at my side, and we meandered over to my designated arena for the weekend. Naturally, the fear bug chirped, making it known that we were the only horse and rider in this sandbox at the moment, that people were buzzing by with trailers, the far gate was open to the parking lot, it was eerily quiet, and something bad was surely going to happen… Until Chloe’s voice interrupted my thoughts through the headset in my ear, reminding me that I could do this and to ride with the same determination I do at home.
Meanwhile, Leah calmly walked around the warm up portion of the arena, flicking her ears back and forth as she listened to me take deep breaths. I should have known she’d handle everything better than me. After all, she is my rock.
Fifteen minutes later, I had finally found our rhythm, settling into my saddle and focusing on our work rather than any other unimportant influences. We schooled each portion of Third Level Test 3, focusing on the outside rein connection and riding accurately from point to point, letter to letter. And before I knew it, we were strolling back to our stalls on a loose rein. A loose rein! Can you believe it? In my mind, I had conquered the most difficult part of the weekend, pushing aside the fear and just riding my horse. It felt a whole lot like redemption; a theoretical weight that I had been carrying around for years had finally lifted off of my shoulders. If I could overcome this obstacle, I could go into our tests with the same attitude.
After our schooling ride on Friday. Leah rocks her matching set from Centerline Style, and I rock Goode Rider.
And, well, I did.
That’s not disputing the fact that our Saturday Third Level Test 3 was sprinkled with bits of tension. Leah and I had a fantastic warm up, but I lost that cohesive energy going around the perimeter of the white competition ring before the judge rang the bell. Why? Well, you could say that the moment of “oh my God, I’m about to do this” hit me like a freight train. Leah totally picked up on my loss of focus, too. However, we proudly rode down centerline and executed a relatively clean test. After the final salute, a stream of steady, happy tears rolled down my flushed cheeks as I praised Leah vigorously. This had been a long time coming, an ever-changing journey with many moments where I thought I would never compete again.
Our biggest markdown stemmed from inconsistent thoroughness and connection, which I am to blame for that because I stopped riding every stride. We picked up points in areas I knew we would, such as our flying changes, extensions, gaits and rider position. With a 63.8% written across the front of my test, I couldn’t complain one bit. First time out in four years and earning one regional championship qualifying score, along with a second place out of seven riders, right off the bat? I’ll take it! The judge was incredibly fair; giving me positive critiques in areas I knew we needed to improve in order to raise our score.
Going into Sunday, I had set the goal in my mind that I wanted to be in the 65 to 67-percentage range. Having faith in our partnership, I knew Leah and I were more than capable of achieving this. I would just have to get a darn hold of myself!
I love this moment from our test on Saturday.
Our warm up routine commenced, but Leah was giving me a totally different feeling than Saturday. She was soft, listening, breathing in unison with her strides, willing, and focused through our trot and canter work. When I brought her down to the walk, she let out a tremendous sigh, as if she were saying, “okay mom, I’m really ready now, I promise.”
We entered the competition arena, circling the judge’s booth once to say hello and recite my bridle number, something I always have done throughout my dressage career. During this test, I focused on the preparation for each movement rather than the movements themselves. All too often, I find that we ride the movement and forget to ride the horse or all the necessary steps it takes to achieve the particular movement. I must have been onto something, because I could feel Leah respond much better to my aids. She stayed with me for the majority of the test, listening to my half halts and respecting the outside rein. We had a few bobbles, like scoring a 5 in the second turn on the haunches due to sticking one step, but the positives outweighed the negatives. Things we had struggled with at home were turning into highlights, such as earning an 8 on our canter half-ten-meter-circle to left lead flying change.
When Chloe read me my score, I literally jumped into the air as I unbraided Leah’s mane. We had received a 66.9%, finishing second again out of seven riders and earning our final qualifying score for regionals. I had not only achieved my small goal, but everything that I was feeling with Leah in the ring proved to be true. Maybe I wasn’t as much as a rookie as I had previously thought… Just had to knock a few inches of metaphorical rust off of the two of us.
I found myself leading Leah to a nearby patch of green grass after the commotion had slowed down for us on Sunday. She was un-braided; I was in my gym shorts and t-shirt. This quiet moment was something I had been craving; it was my chance to thank her for what she had done for me throughout the weekend. Once again, Leah restored my confidence in the unique way she has done throughout our three plus year partnership. She never ceases to amaze me with her own kinds of courage, confidence, faith and elegance. Leah is my heart horse. I couldn’t ask for anything better.
Of course, I have to say a huge, huge, huge thank you to my awesome trainer, and most importantly, dear friend, Chloe. She is the reason Leah and I finally made it down centerline. If it weren’t for her confidence in our partnership, I would still be a spectator from the sidelines. Everyday, she pushes us to be and ride our best, providing instruction like I’ve never received before. Training with her is the most wonderful experience, and I jokingly say that she’s stuck with me forever. But, I’m actually serious.
Just writing this, I get all sorts of emotional again. Gosh.
Thank you, Leah bean.
Before I turn into a blubbering mess, Leah and I are off to our next competition on September 8th at the San Antonio Rose Palace. We’ll be showing Third Level Test 3 again on both days just for more experience in the ring before we compete at Regional Championships in October. I’m optimistic, excited, and looking forward to the weekend with my very best girl.