it's show time, baby
expecting a new, pudgy, Fell Pony to be suiting up for the dressage ring. Even at a schooling show in a rural part of upstate New York there are some fancy horses in that show. Warmbloods, high-stepping agile beasts who cost more than what I owe on my Dodge Dakota. Who would think the new girl who showed up with a bossy pony 13 weeks ago would be entered in the Dressage Show? I walked out into the pasture and placed his halter over his head. Both his feathered feet and my previously scrubbed paddock boots and half-chaps were covered in mud. That'll teach me not to pack my muck boots...
The morning was a frenzy. It started out slow, washing feet and combing out dry mud. I picked out pieces of pine shavings from his stall piece by piece from his long mane and tail. When he was suitably groomed, passing for clean, I decided not to braid his mane. Who was I kidding, really? He's a Fell and will remain one in his truest form for the judge. She could take us or leave us. With Merlin in his stall I walked over to where the trailers were parked and Patty and Steele were working to braid his long mane. Patty was on a stepladder as Steele munched from a bag of hay. He looked beautiful, cleaner than I have ever seen him. I was almost in shock at the site of him. I adore my Merlin, would not want any other riding horse in the world, but by Epona herself Steele looked like a giant marble statue of a horse. A life-sized Breyer in perfectly molded contours. Makes a woman weep, that kind of beauty on the hoof.
Percherons and Fell Ponies are not the usual dressage breeds, but we weren't the only outcasts. Haflingers, Spotted Drafts, Paints—all sorts of horse flesh was about. We fit in just as much as anyone else trying their hands at the USDF tests. It works like this: You enter the ring with your horse and trot around the outside of the arena. Then, when a bell rings you have 45 seconds to start your test. The "test" is really a memorized routine. I would be expected to trot into the ring with Merlin, a straight line at the judge. Then I'd hustle and jive through walks, circles, crossing the arena on diagonals, free walks, and so on. Whatever the test pattern is, you do it, and you do it the best you can. When it is done you halt your horse and bow your head in salute to the sport, the judge, the whole damn event. Then you exit the arena and wait to see how you did on your score sheet. The only person you are competing against is yourself, you create your score. The placement is simply high to low scores. Amazing how simple something so gut-wrenchingly nerve racking can be, huh? Merlin, Steele, Patty and I were warming up by 9 in the indoor arena. We walked, trotted, and circled in practice. By the time my name was called I walked down to the area where we were supposed to enter. A young boy, around 6, saw me on my mount and whispered to his mother "Mom, what is THAT? Identity issues from children aside, I thought everything was going well. I mean, the horse was clean, right? I was dressed properly, right? We had our number on his brow band, the right time....So what could go wrong?
Merlin remembered the outdoor arena. He remembered how fun it was to be in there and have the girth spin the saddle under him. He remembered the panic and the stress of it, and started backing up. Hollie, my guardian angel, saw this and told me to "get that pony in there!" and as if she could read horses the way pilots land a plane explained exactly what to do to get him inside the arena. "Pressure from your outside leg, loosen the reins, crop!" and so on. I just did what she said, gave some heel, and he entered at a fast walk. Okay, so we were in the dressage ring. We walked around the outside of the arena (we were not allowed inside until the judge rang the bell) and then I realized how much Merlin hates being trailered. The judge was sitting inside a trailer, a house from sun and rain. Merlin trotted by it and bucked a little kick, right in front of the judge... "He's got some spirit, huh?" I heard in a murmur.
He kept acting up, trotting in place, not wanting to go forward. The judge could see it all but until we started our test she couldn't start marking that score sheet. I got him down to where the official arena started and waited for the bell. The bell rang and the test started. here we go... Merlin and I entered the arena at a trot, right at the judges. We spent the next five minutes going through the routine I had lasered into my brain. We slowed to walks, made tight corners, picked up trots again at specific points. We did fairly-round 20-meter circles. And when it was all over we stopped on a dime and I saluted to the judge. People clapped and I finally let out the breath I was holding the whole time. The judge left me with some kind remarks and I exited the arena.
We did it. Merlin and I passed, if not placed. We didn't get one objection or correction announcement. It means that even if it wasn't pretty, it was competent. And to even enter a dressage show with a horse I had once only dreamed of, had only known a few months...was magical to me. If I got a big fat green ribbon that said 'Participant' I would frame it. It wasn't about winning, it was about showing up and trying. An event and day that marked a right of passage. I trained, I signed up, I tested, and I survived. Turns out I got third place. A ten-year-old on a white welsh pony beat us. Steele and Patty were right behind us in fourth place, by LESS THAN a point! Amazing when you know she entered her first dressage show with her cart horse after THREE LESSONS! Amazing, those two.
When you walk in my home the ribbon is hanging right on a mounted photo of Merlin. There is nothing humble about it and in this case, that is fine by me. That horse is a blessing, a lesson, and a teacher. He's coming home to the farm in a few weeks and I can't wait to wake up to that shaggy face every day, ride him around the farm and across neighbors' fields. We have plenty of adventures ahead and by Antlerstock I hope those of you coming out will get to meet him, feed him a carrot, and tussle those locks. Just don't mention anything about girths or trailers, he doesn't like to talk about them.