So I apologize in advance if this post is rambling, but I'm still completely in a cloud nine haze. I would rate this weekend as one of the two biggest highlights of my entire equestrian career (along with coming 4th with Dually at the Galway long format CCI* and winning the junior national team championship in 2008), and I can honestly say that it came completely out of left field.
Before I go diving off I'm going to jump briefly to the end. Here is a video of our test (in case you don't make it to the bottom of this doozy of a post, for which I would not blame you):
What an amazing horse!!!
But, back to the show. Driving onto the show grounds on Thursday afternoon, I had just one quantitative goal: I'd like to ribbon in both of my classes. (I had plenty of other qualitative goals along the lines of 'don't ride like a sod,' but those are pretty standard for any horse show.) Since there were only five entrants in my warm up class on Thursday evening, I was fairly certain I was going to get some silk there, but I was honestly unsure of whether I could sneak into the top 8 in my PSG championship class. I knew that I was going to be up against some mega fancy horses and much more experienced riders, the judging was going to be difficult, and that the standard of competition was going to be very high. I was just hoping I could hang on to the tail end of the crowd.
But then, the pieces started falling into place.
I was glad to have gone to Saugerties in August, because even though the grounds were as massive and bustling as ever, I was already confident that Ringo and I could navigate this three-ring-circus of a show without getting tense. Sure enough, Ringo was completely unfazed by the activity swirling around him, and if anything seemed even calmer this time around than he had in August. He got a little wound up on one hand walk when a stallion came trotting right up behind him, and that was it. Other than that, he was as calm and happy as I've ever seen him at a show.
(All settled in, with Dually's Galway junior national team championship blanket decorating Ringo's door)
After a few hours of rest after settling in, I hopped on for my warm up test: a 4-3 open class. I'd never ridden 4-3 in a competition before but had run through it with Kim on Tuesday and actually really liked it. It's a complicated little test with a lot of bend changes and sort of non-intuitive choreography, but for a horse like Ringo it was perfect as it kept him from anticipating and all the bending gave me tons of opportunities to keep him supple over his topline.
I was really pleased with our test, apart from completely blowing the 4s when Ringo anticipated, did the first change without me, and then I scrambled somewhat ineffectively to keep up. We ended up with a 61.7% which wasn't a huge score, but the judge was obviously being conservative as we managed 2nd place and 1st AA against a group of competitors who I learned later were all in the 4th level championship class later that weekend. So no slouch of a crowd!
That night Kim and I went out for dinner, and I had a really good time getting to talk with her about non-horsey things. I've been so lucky to have found a mentor like Kim (pretty much by accident, as I started riding with her pretty much on a whim because she held weekly lessons so close to my house). Between her and my Stanford Dressage Team coach Rachel, I've learned more in the past few years than I ever would have thought imaginable. Let's not forget that before I met Rachel I absolutely despised dressage!! And, more crucially, thought that I was doomed to suck at it.
When I first started riding with Rachel I was 21 years old and didn't know how to sit the trot. I had survived through a childhood of eventing by repeating a mantra of 'just think about cross-country, just think about cross-country...' to myself every time I was forced into a dressage arena, and I had the mediocre scores to show for it. I had just come from a string of abusive trainers, the last of whom ended our time together by locking me in a tack room and spending a half hour going through point by point what a rubbish awful rider I was, and how I ruined horses and was doomed to fail. I had Ringo, who at the time I could barely control, let alone ride properly. I was neurotic, depressed, and undeniably a pretty awful person to be around a good deal of the time. I was completely crushed in my self confidence and seriously considered giving up competing ever again.
But Rachel, in that magic way of hers, slowly brought me back from the brink. She showed me that I had abilities I'd never even dreamed of possessing, and gave me confidence that I never thought I'd see again. Suddenly, showing was actually fun. Through IDA, Rachel, and my favorite clinician Brian Sabo I slowly realized that in fact I was NOT a doomed-to-fail horse-ruiner (which I had heard often enough to really start to believe), but that I could often make horses go really well, even with very little prep time. And that, wouldn't you know it, dressage--the discipline that was always the boring afterthought of my youth--was actually a discipline for which I was naturally disposed to and enjoyed. It was cosmic.
(Struttin' with Stanley, something I never thought I'd be able to do)
But I needn't have worried. Kim has always been so positive and helpful, and with her guidance I was able to take the building blocks Rachel gave me and use them to build and actual competitive partnership between me and Ringo. I still have to pinch myself that two years ago we were just moving up to 2nd level. I would never have dreamed it possible. It's an amazing testament to these trainers' abilities, and of course to the abilities and talents of my incredible horse.
So with all those thankful thoughts bouncing around my head, I settled down for my last night at a horse show for what might be a long time. The next morning came early, as I had to be on by 8am, and I was treated to the most amazing moonfall/sunrise that I've seen in a long time. I took Ringo on a long hand walk, and spent some time reflecting on what an amazing, singular animal he is, and how lucky I've been to have him in my life. I can't believe that the journey is over after four wonderful years.
(Needless to say, there were a lot of tears on this hand walk.)
Morning cry complete, I worked really hard to put my emotions aside for the rest of the morning so I could get down to the business of riding. I was really pleased with myself because I actually managed to do it; I maintained a level of clam focus that I've rarely been able to achieve, where I was in touch with the outside world juuuuuust enough not to run anyone down in warm up, but otherwise was completely dedicated in mind and body to riding the absolute best that I could. Ringo was amazing and completely stepped up to the plate, being as soft, supple, and powerful as he's ever been.
We had the best test I've ever had at this level. Save for one buck in the 4s (that movement strikes again!), it was easily the cleanest PSG test I've ever done, and I was able to bring a level of balance, confidence, and power to it that I've never been brave enough to try for in the past. Leaving the ring I knew I'd done as well as I could do, and was just hoping that it would be good enough for the top eight.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I went up to see the initial scores and saw this:
That's my name at the top!!! And it stayed at the top all the way until the second to last rider in the class, who nipped me by less than a point. Unbelievable. It's a pretty rare moment for me to think a test goes well and then actually get it rewarded as such, especially on such a big stage. It was a numb, overwhelming feeling.
We got a pretty neck ribbon, a saddle pad, and cash (in dressage??! a miracle!!), and got to take a hair-raising tour of honor kitted out in our finest. I don't really have words to describe what I was feeling besides an avalanche of thankfulness and joy. I'm so sad that my time with Ringo is drawing to a close, but couldn't think of a better note to end on. What a horse. What an amazing, amazing horse.
(Oof. Being this amazing is exhausting.)
(Me, looking a little psychotic. classic.)
My only slight twinge of sadness was that the weird non-weekend nature of the show meant that my parents weren't able to come out and watch. They have always been absolutely above and beyond in their support from the very beginning of my riding career, and this incredible journey would have never even started if not for them.
When I got home my dad met me out in the driveway and hugged me (a big deal in my low-physical-contact family), and then I turned Ringo out for the night with his goon buddies and took a moment to reflect on the journey on more time.
Thank you. You all know who you are.