Preparing for First Level

Earlier this week, I chatted with my trainer about next week’s schooling show. I wanted her opinion on what tests I should ride. She suggested I enter Madigan in First Level tests 1 and 2. When I expressed some skepticism about our ability to demonstrate canter lengthening, she asked, “What’s the reason you’re going to this show? To win? Or to get experience on your horse and push yourself a little?” This was a genuine question, not meant in a snarky or mean way. And when I thought about it, I decided I would rather test our limits than compete well within them with the express goal of winning. Of course, I don’t want to go and be terrible! “Terrible” seems unlikely, although who knows with a young horse. (Or any horse, really.)

I had to dig out the ancient dry erase practice arena to remember where R, S, V and P were.

That decided, the first order of business was to review the new tests. Test 1 introduces 10 meter half circles at the trot and 15 meter circles in the canter, as well as trot lengthening. For such a large horse, Madigan is surprisingly nimble. He’s also accustomed to working on small circles, as our trainer’s indoor arena is only about 50 feet wide. Circles shouldn’t be a problem. Test 2 introduces leg yield and canter lengthening. Madigan is a lateral movement machine: he can leg yield, shoulder-in, haunches-in, and is developing a respectable half pass. So leg yields shouldn’t be a problem. And truthfully, he does have a trot and canter lengthening in there-he does them with his trainer- it’s just not something I have practiced with him much. All of the First Level components are present. He knows how to perform these movements. I know how to perform these movements. We just need to perform them together.

It’s been five years since I did a First Level test. In 2018, I did a full season at that level with Moe. We were reasonably successful, consistently scoring in the mid-60s. I think our success was largely due to our long partnership and Moe’s irrepressible enthusiasm for horse shows. I knew exactly how to ride Moe because I’d been riding him for fifteen years.

I’ve been taking lessons on Madigan for less than a year, and I spent a few years before that exclusively trail riding and foxhunting, which demands a totally different skill set than dressage. So while First Level shouldn’t feel like a stretch, it does! I’m out of practice, I’m still getting to know my horse, and the horse himself is still growing and learning.

The warmup ring is never a problem, as baby school can be very busy!

My trainer suggested I have a private lesson yesterday instead of a training ride so we could run through both tests. I’m so glad I took her suggestion, because it was really helpful. Both tests had bobbles. During the left lead canter lengthening, Madigan did his best impression of a llama. Some of my 15 meter circles were too big. The leg yield to the left didn’t get underway quick enough. But overall, the tests were fine! Our second trot and canter lengthenings in test 2 were very good. Our 10 meter half circles were accurate. Our transitions between gaits felt great. I felt like Madigan was with me most of the time, and I felt like I knew what to do when he wasn’t.

I’m really looking forward to kicking off the show season next weekend. Whether we earn a good score or not, I think it’ll be good for us to get experience together. I hope it’s the beginning of a long and enjoyable partnership!

Plans for 2023

I’m not much of a goal-setter. I’m not good at setting them, or working toward them, or achieving them. But I am a planner. Thinking about the path ahead, developing a schedule and routine, lining up everything that needs to occur for something to go off without a hitch- those are things I can do.

Now that I have a saddle both Madigan and I find comfortable, I plan to compete on him this year. While Oklahoma is not a dressage mecca, it does have two very active GMOs that put on several schooling and rated shows every year. I’m not totally certain how many I’ll compete in this year; it will probably depend, in part, on how many my trainer attends. I have my own rig and am comfortable hauling and competing alone, but part of the fun of showing (for me, at least) is socializing. Catching up with friends, cheering on barnmates, and setting out a big tailgate spread is more enjoyable than hauling in, riding two tests, and leaving!

this year’s July schooling show is not on my calendar because it is too hot to trot

I did decide that our rated show debut will be in March at the Fort Worth Dressage Club’s Cowtown Classic. My in-laws live in Fort Worth, so I have a place to stay, and I don’t think it will be a bad haul from Tulsa. (Ask me again after I’ve driven a horse trailer through the Metroplex.) More importantly, the show offers the FEI Five Year Old Test. Madigan’s trainer will show him in that, while I tackle Training Level (or maybe First, if our upcoming Training Level schooling shows go well).

There are only seven shows in a 400-mile radius that offer the Young Horse tests, so we’re hitting the road to see if Madigan can qualify for Young Horse Championships. This is obviously a big, huge if. The Young Horse tests evaluate if the horse corresponds to the general idea of a dressage horse, if it’s on the correct training path and following the training scale, and if it has the ability to perform dressage at a high level. Horses are evaluated on all three gaits, submission, and “general impression”. Madigan is not an extravagant mover, but his gaits are clear and above-average, and his training is moving right along the scale. When he did the Four Year Old Test (at his second show ever), he was mostly dinged for tension. Now that he’s got an entire year of show experience, I think he’ll score better on submission and general impression.

The other plan I have for the year is more trail riding. The only way out on this is through- Madigan isn’t going to get any better at it if he never goes. I’m fortunate to have many friends with experienced horses to babysit us, and there are plenty of nearby public lands with nice trails for us to ride on. I can’t say I’m looking forward to miles of spooky baby antics, but maybe I’ll have a nice trail horse by the end of the year!

A Brief Recap of 2022

While I did not have a terribly interesting or busy 2022, Madigan certainly did. I didn’t do much with him, as it took until November for me to sort out a saddle we both liked, but he had a terrific year showing with his trainer.

In February, he made his under saddle show debut. He’d already been to several shows to compete in-hand since I got him in 2019, so this was sort of an underwhelming achievement. He behaved himself in two Training Level tests and scored respectably in the mid-60s at a local GMO schooling show.

Sometime in March, he became much more confident in what order his legs should move at the canter. This seemed like a good sign, so I went ahead and entered him in a rated dressage show in April, where he did the USEF Four-Year-Old dressage test and a Training Level test. He was fine, again scoring in the 60s on both tests. I was especially proud of him for obediently going around the cavernous show arena alone since the other ring was on a break for one test and finished for the day for the other.

Rated dressage debut!

He went to another schooling show in June. It was hotter than hell, but he was only a little cranky for two more mid-60s Training Level tests.

Since I live in Oklahoma, there are very few local opportunities to get young horses out and about to big shows with lots of atmosphere unless you’re showing Arabians, Morgans, pintos, miniature horses, reiners, or stock-type horses. Or western dressage.

Almost every year, my trainer competes and coaches at the WDAA Western Dressage World Championship Show. It’s held near Oklahoma City at Lazy E Arena, the world’s largest indoor rodeo arena. The show is a week long. Over 200 horse and rider pairs compete, and over a thousand dressage tests are ridden during the show. There are four dressage rings running simultaneously from early in the morning to early in the evening. So, of course, I thought this would be the perfect show to send Madigan to.

World’s tallest western dressage horse

He first had to qualify to compete at the World Show, which he did by earning qualifying scores (60% +) at a USEF western dressage show over Labor Day weekend. Then I packed up his things, told him to be good, and sent him off to Lazy E. I made it out there for the first and last days of the competition; in between, I helped my mom move from Tennessee to Oklahoma.

Madigan stood out like a fly on a wedding cake. He was at least a hand taller than every other horse there and was clearly not bred with western disciplines in mind. At the lower levels, there isn’t much difference between western and classical dressage, so I can’t imagine he thought he was doing anything unusual.

After being a turkey on the first day, he cleaned up at the show! He scored over 70% on one test, and finished in the top ten of three of his four tests. He was even reserve champion in his final test. You can watch it here– he enters the ring right around 8:59:42. I was incredibly proud of him! Madigan placed 8th overall in the Basic Open division and earned his WDDA Register of Merit award at the World Show.

Later in October, he finished out the show year by competing at our local GMO’s western dressage championship, where he took home top honors in the Basic Open division.

In between all that showing, I started taking lessons on him and hauled him out for several trail rides. He is a dreadful trail mount right now- he refuses to cross water (but does enjoy swimming in the lake??), spooks at logs, spooks at other horses, and jigs more than he walks. I have fallen off him twice on trail rides. At least all those months of mounting block work at baby school have really paid off. I can park him next to nearly anything to climb back on.

Four was a very good year for Madigan, and I’m so excited to see what he does at five!