Amateur Hour: Ease Is Only An Illusion
Recently, I took the eighteen year old Grand Prix schoolmaster that I lease to our first show together where we competed at 2-3 and 3-3. One might presume that these tests would be a cake walk for such a trained horse. I certainly did. Before I started leasing 'Stoney' I had the preconceived notion that a horse with as much training as him would offer up a third level test even if the rider was half asleep. These tests were so far beneath his potential I even asked my trainer if earning my final bronze medal scores on him was a form of cheating. You see, Stoney is the first schoolmaster that I've ridden with any regularity, let alone showed. In the past, my lease horses and I were always generally on the same page - neither one of us knowing much more than the other, instead learning together as we progressed. With Stoney it's been very different. I've learned in leaps and bounds in the few short months that I've been riding him, and at the same time I've been brutally humbled when he turns his nose up at simple requests like a walk-canter transition.
(Me, pictured on the right holding Stoney. His other lessor mom, Madison, is in the saddle)
I don't know what other FEI schoolmasters are like, but Stoney is constantly campaigning to be a training level horse. That's only because he doesn't know that being a lawn ornament is an option. He'll be so thrilled when he's fully retired at his owner's property with only the grassy pasture to occupy him that his little heart might explode. As you might guess, Stoney is a minimalist. He's hot, but he's not. He worries incessantly about puddles on the ground and monsters in the corner, but it's too taxing to flee so he will snort instead and watch it play out. His energy saving tactics mean that our rides are a constant exercise in negotiation. He'll trade extended trot for canter, and he likes to offer up his favorite "party trick" piaffe, which he performs quite well and with ease, in exchange for less favored work. He's quick to assess what he can get away with in each ride and he's happy to let you carry him around the ring if you feel like building your biceps. That is as long as you don't mind when he plows down the longside like an ox. If not, then you need to learn how to ride back to front. I guess that's why they call them schoolmasters.
When we arrived at the show grounds earlier this month though, Stoney was not the laid back creature that I'd come to know at the barn. Upon setting hoof on the show grounds he was infused once again with the show horse "spirit". This meant dramatically calling to his trailermate unless I kept his mouth occupied with hay or grass, and eagerly trying to escape his stall whenever I slipped in to clean up manure that was destined to dapple his white coat. Stoney was undoubtedly on high alert, his senses sharpened by the competition atmosphere, as his brain registered just exactly what was going on - he was at a horse show.
Over the next three days it became very clear to me exactly how much Stoney "knew" about what was going on. As I found in our tests an FEI schoolmaster does not like to wait patiently throughout the ride for the rider to aide instructions, but rather they are proactive partners, offering suggestions along the way. Stoney was quick to make assumptions about what should come next, and showed pure annoyance when I burdened him with a simple change, even though I could feel he had tempis ready in his back pocket. When I mis-aided him for the right flying change he spared no sympathy and came through late behind, a moment that would later inspire the judge to comment "horse shows talent for flying changes". Unfortunately though for this animal that can perform one tempis, one can only conclude that his rider does not possess equal talent.
(Pacifying Stoney the only way I know how after being separated from his trailermate - with food)
In our last trip down centerline that weekend, we trotted around the outside of the court as a torrential downpour pelted the roof. My fellow barnmates gathered near the edge of the arena in plastic ponchos and raincoats that inspired impulsion when they shuddered in the wind. This was my third test on Stoney and by now I had learned that he liked to take the front seat on these rides, but this time I was prepared. We started off strong, literally and figuratively. In the first medium across the diagonal he soared, making it across in what felt like five strides. Much thanks to the ponchos! As we rounded a corner I shifted my seat for shoulder in. Stoney begged for an extension instead. He tossed his head. The absurdity of it all! We soldiered on. Our canter half passes had great bend but unfortunately were a little TOO steep. Tell that to a horse who can zig zag like he's going down Lombard Street. Unfortunately, in dressage though there's no extra credit for making it to the centerline before X. Again, the left flying change was beautiful and the right lead change was late behind. At least one of us has talent.
Aside from these hiccups about halfway through the test I felt like we fell into sync. Stoney started to listen, at least pausing to consult me before performing the movements. It's at this moment that I realized that I was having FUN, and I knew I wasn't the only one. Stoney was showing off. We approached the corner before the final canter extension and I rocked Stoney back, and he answered me by blasting off into what must have looked like an extension (we ended up getting a 7) but what felt like a runaway train. We surged forward and I could feel Stoney's enthusiasm spilling over, my eighteen year old horse getting younger with each hoofbeat. As we neared the end of the longside I asked Stoney to come back to me. No response. My half halts a mere whisper in the wind. By the corner I managed to bring him back to some semblance of a collected canter and at H he relinquished himself to a collected, albeit spirited trot. We hit centerline and powered down to G where we stopped on a dime, with Stoney demonstrating his exceptional ability to halt with military precision in a perfect square. Despite the roar of the wind and the pouring rain, he kept his head down, resting confidently on the bit. Stoney was so pleased with himself he could practically piaffe.
As it turned out my "autopilot" Grand Prix horse was anything but, instead too smart for his own good and needing a decisive rider that set the boundaries and took charge. It's one of the many things I've figured out since I started riding Stoney. It means that even some of the simplest exercises are infinitely harder than the advanced ones. It means that regardless of a horse's level of training I still have to spend time establishing the partnership, tuning our communication to the same frequency so that the wires don't cross. It means that when Stoney fishtails at the walk because he doesn't want to canter, I've got my fingers on too many of his buttons and he's had enough of my ignorance. It also means that there's dinner waiting in his stall. Regardless, as a rider I must always work to speak more clearly. The cake walk will come after.