Preparing to Show


Last week I took a lesson which was 100% show preparation. We trailered to a nearby farm to use a different indoor, I began my warmup on my own like I would at a busy show, and when we were properly warmed up I went straight into a run-through of 1-3, after which each of the spectators offered their thoughts on my test – what was good, where we can make improvements, where I screwed up and relied on the trust bank (hey, it still happens!).

Because – oh, yes – there were spectators. Two years ago a trip off the farm would have turned into a drama-filled hour of bucking and wheeling – maybe that’s why my barnmates and a few of my trainer’s other students turned up? Really, I think it was an excuse for a group of friends to get off the farm together – but for me, it turned into a test of my show preparedness.

Because the hardest part of a show isn’t the test, or the horse (thank goodness), or the tack or the trainer or the arena or the movements.

It’s the people.

The people who watch us.

The people who judge us.

I have no idea why being watched/judged/spectated bothers me so much. I know I shouldn’t have gone into dressage with this hangup (Should I switch to jumpers? I should switch to jumpers). It’s gotten a bit better since I started competing in cosplay competitions, but I still lock up when anyone other than my trainer is watching me. It’s probably obvious, but – locking up is not good for dressage.


Our practice test was adequate. It felt like a decent presentation of our skills – which, since we were at a new venue and in front of a small crowd, I was very proud of “decent”.

And the feedback from “the crowd” was nothing but uplifting – everyone gave perfect compliment sandwiches, for which I was relieved and grateful. I got so much good feedback!

  • The turn into a trot extension must be straight through the body and straight up and down. Otherwise, it’s difficult for the horse to lift their shoulders (especially if said horse is half draft and full carriage horse and has shoulders that weight 10,000 pounds).
  • The initial turn down centerline has to be bombin’, for the sake of my score and of my confidence. This is our first impression and our opportunity to say “look how awesome we are”. Plus, if I nail it, I’m going to be more likely to ride the heck out of the rest of the test.
  • I need to sit back, look where I’m going, and allow space to move into my rein during the leg yields. I’m too dang anxious about this movement and I’m letting it completely sabotage my test.
  • Speaking of which…if I mess up a movement (*cough* leg yield *cough*) I need to let it go and move on. I let little failures literally collapse me. When I collapse, Robbye takes the two inches my weakened core gives her and proceeds to dive onto her forehand, causing even worse work. That right there is a vicious cycle.
  • Canter loops must go all the way to the centerline.
  • 15m canter circles need to be larger and more centered. Don’t turn right off of the centerline!
  • 10m trot circles need to be larger and more correctly bent. (What a nice problem to have – that our 15m and 10m circles are too small!)
  • I can ask for a quicker simple change, and Robbye is perfectly capable of providing nice ones. I’m just too conservative and scared.
  • I need to remain thinking throughout the test. I must ride actively – constantly asking for more, preparing for the next movement, thinking thinking thinking. (It is incredible how much thinking goes into a first level test; I can’t imagine what a Grand Prix one is like.)

This looks like a whole lot of things to work on, but truly we’re at a perfecting stage. Which frankly is incredible to me – that I could be perfecting the toughest test in first level, and preparing to move up someday soon.

Now, to find a show!


An homage to the trust bank

Don’t tell my trainer. Don’t tell my barn owner. Don’t tell the local DQs – I may get ostracized.


Robbye and I have been jumping!

Granted, the jumps are crossrails and cavalettis. And yes, we’ve been using the dressage saddle, with full-length stirrups.

But some of them were good jumps – and all of them were fun jumps.

I think I first heard of the trust bank from Nicole at Zen and the Art of Baby Horse Management. The basic concept is that trust is not binary – it’s not something a relationship inherently has or doesn’t have. Instead, it’s a constantly flowing resource from which and to which both the horse and the rider can withdraw and deposit. I completely biff a transition, hang on the reins, or give a too-long correction? I’m withdrawing from the trust bank, and therefore Rob has less of a reason to give me the benefit of the doubt. I give a fair correction, hand out a timely cookie, or ride a movement particularly well? I’m putting a deposit in the trust bank, and our relationship grows.

Robbye can withdraw and deposit as well, and she has always taken full advantage of that privilege…to the point of putting our trust bank balance way in the negative. Every time she ran out, every time she bucked across the arena, every time she “spooked” (this horse is not spooky – she’s “spooky”) – she was taking out of the trust bank. I could no longer rely on her.

Smelly saddle pads, yummm.

Two and half years ago our trust bank hit an all-time low when we crashed into a fence at a show. I had withdrawn from the trust bank by entering a class we weren’t 100% ready for. She had been withdrawing from the trust bank for months through dirty stops and run-outs and bucking tirades.

For the next year she and I continued to withdraw from the bank without ever replenishing it. I continued paying for lessons from someone who didn’t build us up (one of my most egregious withdrawals – and I made it for two years). Rob continued bucking, bracing, and generally being a nasty snot. We didn’t like each other and certainly didn’t trust each other.

And then we switched trainers, and things got a bit better. I got fairer and she understood her job better. She still ran out and I still made stupid mistakes, and overall we were still withdrawing more than we were depositing – but at least the completely reckless pace of decline had slowed.

I got tired of the fighting. I put her in training for the first time, with the trainer who had already helped stanch the flow of trust. Rob’s boot camp started on the ground – something, it turns out, my mare and I both desperately needed. I needed to learn how to treat her like a horse, and she needed to learn how to respect me as a leader.

Ever since that training we’ve been adding to the trust bank. Of course we still make withdrawals – and really, recently, it’s been 90% me making those withdrawals. Robbye knows her job and understands her place, now. For years I was treating her as my partner, when horses…can’t really be partners. That’s not how horses work. Robbye needed to either be the leader or have a leader.

“I also need that candy cane.”

Slowly, slowly, we refilled the trust bank. If we hit rock bottom at negative a thousand, then by last summer we were finally approaching negative 100. I was starting to see the results.

Can we ride bareback again? Yes!

Can I stop longeing before every ride? Yes!

Can I ask for a canter extension without fearing for my life? Yes!

Can she trust me to use the whip in a fair, clear manner? Yes!

Then the summer was over, and we hadn’t spent trust on any shows, and we had continued taking lesson from our amazing trainer, and I was very careful to maintain both fairness and dominance, and finally, finally, I felt our trust bank hit zero for the first time in years. Suddenly our progress in dressage launched forward. Suddenly Rob wanted kisses and snuggles before riding time. Suddenly bucking and bolting just wasn’t a thing that we did.

The past six months have been spent filling our trust bank to overflowing.

In a dressage lesson a few weeks ago, Rob made an extremely dirty move and ducked out of the arena. I’m sure I had “left the door open” so to speak; we had been working on controlling her shoulders and I probably over-corrected. Either way, it was a turd move and she knew it.

I disciplined her fairly, I corrected the shoulder bulge the next time around, and we moved on. Small withdrawal from the trust bank on both our parts.

But we have trust to spare, and a small issue like that doesn’t affect us anymore. In fact, it turned out to be confidence building. My dominance was reestablished, my need to control her shoulders was reinforced, and she saw yet another fair and timely correction. Our ride the next day was better because of the withdrawal.

So proud of himself.

Our trust bank balance has been so healthy, in fact, that jumping has actually sounded…fun. I’ve been missing it. I thought jumping was out of the picture forever, and a couple years ago I was happy to see it go. Now, I’m wondering if eventing is a legitimate option again, after we’ve topped out with dressage.

Our trust bank is overflowing, so I can withdraw a little bit to point Rob at a jump when it’s been 2 years since I rode over fences without fear.

She pops over it with no drama and with happy ears – and now we’re back to overflowing. I’m beaming, she’s happy, and we’re cantering around to approach it again, long stirrups and dressage position and all.

Thank you Robbye, thank you trainer, thank you hard work, and thank you trust bank.