In a fit of optimism, I entered Madigan in last weekend’s dressage show, despite him having had June, July, and half of August off due to headshaking (June), travel (July), and heat (August). I signed us up for two Training Level tests, figuring that it would at least be a fun day and a learning experience. And it was! It was not, however, our best or highest scoring outing. (I think it might have been our lowest scoring outing?)
A couple of weeks ago, Madigan turned up with a small spur rub after our lesson. I didn’t want to make it worse, so I elected to ride without spurs last week while preparing for the show. He was surprisingly good, so I left my spurs at home on Saturday. This turned out to be a mistake! He plodded around T-2 at turtle speed while I kicked him every two strides to keep him going. It felt like the longest test of my life!
I had 45 minutes between my first and second tests, so I opted to stay on Madigan so he wouldn’t think we were finished for the day. (You may recall that he was not enthused about a second test way back in March at the Cowtown Classic.) One of the barn rats retrieved a pair of spurs for me while I looked over T-3.
We got off to a bad start with a crooked, above-the-bit halt and things didn’t improve much from there. We had some really nice moments (mostly at the canter) but had some very ugly ones, too (like missing our right lead twice before picking it up). The judge was fair but not generous- she rewarded us with several 7s and one 8, but dinged us heavily on movements that weren’t executed well.
While this certainly wasn’t our best show, I felt it had a lot of positive takeaways. Madigan was well behaved at a new venue and handled competing in an outdoor ring just fine. (All of his shows have been in indoors, though we do ride in an outdoor ring at home when weather permits.) He continues to be unfazed by anything anyone does in the warmup, doesn’t get upset when horses come or go, and eats and drinks well throughout the show. The things we struggled with at the show are some of the same things we struggle with at home- impulsion, keeping a lid on change attempts, reaching into the contact. Really, for a 5 year old who had the summer off, Madigan was pretty good.
There are no more rated shows on the calendar until 2024, so we have all winter to work on our problems!
It’s been a slow summer here at Hand Gallop. After a mediocre outing at the Oklahoma Dressage Society spring show in April, Madigan began headshaking. His trainer and I tried a variety of things to address it – nose net, fly mask, fly sheet, dental work, chiro work, changing pastures. It was ultimately resolved after about a month of feeding him Platinum Skin & Allergy at the suggestion of his vet.
Johnny and I spent what felt like half of July on vacation, first to Colorado for a family reunion, then to Iceland for general recreating and seeing Johnny’s favorite band Pavement in concert. When we returned at the end of the month, it rained for a week before becoming unbearably hot for the next two weeks. And now it’s the end of August!
I am taking lessons as regularly as the heat and my trainer’s schedule permit. My trainer participated in USDF’s L Education program this year and spent a lot of time sitting, scribing, and judging at shows, which meant she was often traveling on Fridays during our usual lesson time. Madigan is none the worse for wear for his summer off. He broadened through his chest and hindquarters, seemed to grow another quarter inch, and continues to approach work with his usual equanimity.
By far the most exciting thing to happen this summer was my purchase of another horse for trail riding and hunting. I felt that Madigan and I gave trail riding a fair shake- he’s been out about ten times to a variety of locations and seems to truly dislike it. Maybe he’ll enjoy it as a more mature horse, but in the meantime, falling off (and subsequently climbing back on) a 17-hand baby is not my idea of a good time. He’s happiest in an arena doing arena things, so why try to fit a round peg in a square hole?
Story is a 15 year old Hanoverian mare who I hope will be a suitable trail riding and hunt horse. She spent her life in the hunter ring on the East Coast before being purchased by an adult amateur here in Oklahoma. Her former owner clearly loved her and gave her excellent care, but recently expanded her family and no longer had time to dedicate to her own riding pursuits. Story is a sensible and easygoing horse. She and Madigan are now best friends (well, she’s Madigan’s best friend, at least) and Moe and Gina are enjoying a break from babysitting.
Now that the heat is beginning to recede, I’m excited to return to all of my favorite equestrian activities. Next month, Madigan and I head down centerline at another Oklahoma Dressage Society show and Story and I will get our feet wet (literally and figuratively) at Harvard Fox Hounds’ annual Swimming Hole Day trail ride and swim.
Madigan, Madigan’s trainer, and I spent the weekend in Fort Worth, Texas at the Fort Worth Dressage Club’s Cowtown Classic. Overall, it was a good weekend and a great first rated outing for Madigan and me.
We left Oklahoma on Friday around 9 AM. The drive took nearly 7 hours, mostly due to a missed exit that caused us to be re-routed on less direct route. (Stopping at Buc-ee’s probably didn’t help either; I don’t think it’s possible to get in and out of there in under 25 minutes.) I spent much of last week worrying about traffic in the metroplex, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected and we had no trouble other than a few slow construction zones.
The show was held south of the city at the Somervell County Expo Center in Glen Rose. The facility was fine and very similar to venues here in the Tulsa area. Madigan walked off the trailer calmly and was completely at ease when I took him for a short walk around the grounds while his trainer set up his stall. Both dressage rings were open for schooling, so his trainer rode him briefly in each ring. One was a covered outdoor and the other was an indoor surrounded by stadium seating. He was absolutely fine and schooled so well that I felt no need to ride him. We fed him dinner, grabbed some food for ourselves at the welcome party, and chatted with the incredibly nice show volunteers before driving back to the city to stay with my in-laws.
My rides on Saturday were at 11:30 AM and 2 PM, which meant we didn’t need to get to the show grounds very early. We arrived around 8:30 AM, fed Madigan breakfast, and took him for a walk. His trainer forgot her braiding kit, and neither of the show’s vendors had braiding supplies beyond a couple of packages of braiding bands. I was appalled; when I ran the mobile unit of the tack store where I worked, we never left for a show without yarn, seam rippers, needles, latch hooks, Quic Braid, bands, combs, or those little braiding belt kits! Luckily, I had a belt bag and some black yarn stashed in my trailer from braiding Gina for hunting. While his trainer braided him, I changed into my show clothes, and then hopped on to warm up for our first test.
The warmup arena was chaotic (as warmup arenas often are). There were probably a dozen people in there, and I’m not sure if any of them had heard about passing left-to-left when approaching someone going to the opposite direction. Highlights included a child on a pony gunning it at a canter between Madigan and another horse passing him in the opposite direction, someone nearly half-passing into us (as we trotted along the rail in the opposite direction of their travel), and several riders cutting us off as we attempted to circle. Fortunately, Madigan is well versed in this sort of chaos, as our training barn is frequently full of lesson kids of varying skill levels on horses of varying temperaments. He’s been cut off, run into, and had horses and ponies whizzing by at various speeds for years.
I gave up all hope of doing anything except walking, trotting, and cantering on the rail in both directions. Madigan felt good- forward and relaxed, and I walked to our ring- the covered outdoor- feeling confident. As we waited for the rider in front of us to finish, the ring steward looked at me apologetically and said, “We’re having some problems with the pigeons roosting in the rafters.” I looked into the ring just in time to see three pigeons circling the head of the rider before me as he trotted down centerline for his final salute.
Now, we have a lot of activity at our barn: horses, cows, dogs, cats, children, tractors, trucks, the wind. But we do not have birds. I didn’t know what Madigan would think if a bird swooped down upon us during our test, but I figured there was nothing I could do about it now. I entered the ring to await the bell and tried to not to think about pigeons or getting run away with or bucked off or otherwise embarrassing myself because a bird dive bombed me at E.
The wind picked up as we began our test, which was deeply unfortunate because it caused the oversized black tablecloth covering the table on the judge’s stand to begin flapping in the breeze. As a native Okie, Madigan is generally unfazed by the wind and he is used to seeing horse blankets hanging on the indoor arena rail moving in the wind. He didn’t spook at the flapping tablecloth as we moved off from our halt at X and tracked right at C, but he did turn his head slightly to the outside to keep an eye on it. He was otherwise perfectly fine. He occasionally got distracted by something going on outside the arena like a person walking in the vendor area or a dog barking, but every time I asked him to refocus his attention on me, he did so immediately and politely. I was extremely pleased with our test and thought it went very well. His trainer did too.
The judge…did not think it went very well. My best guess is we made a poor first impression by looking at the flapping tablecloth at the beginning of the test. None of the comments on any movements were useful (nor were the remarks at the end of the test)- every movement simply said “tense” except for one movement that said “tempo???”. I was genuinely surprised. I am still surprised; I watched the video of our test, and while it wasn’t lighting the world on fire, I thought it was perfectly appropriate and not tense at all.
Since I had a couple of hours between tests, I put Madigan back in his stall and untacked him. When I re-saddled him and got back on, he was clearly annoyed. I didn’t spend a lot of time warming up, but I got him moving and went down to the indoor for our second test. It started off very well, and then sort of devolved into what you might normally expect from a green young horse. He tossed his head during some of the canter work, picked up the wrong lead once and was crabby about fixing it, had a couple of late transitions, and was just kind of a fussy baby. It wasn’t so much that the hamsters came off the wheel, more like the hamsters took themselves off the wheel after the first test, put on their pajamas, turned on the TV, and were unhappy about being told to get back on the wheel. I was certain we’d scored very poorly and was disappointed it hadn’t gone better.
However, this judge liked Madigan and gave a fair score for each movement, complete with useful feedback. She thought he was a nice horse who was having a bad test with good moments and that I rode him appropriately. We even earned an 8 on our final centerline and salute! Our score was better than the first test, so that took the sting out of the disappointment.
I took Madigan out to graze and walk, then we fed him dinner and headed back to Fort Worth for dinner with my in-laws. They’d dropped by the show to watch both of my rides and spent part of dinner asking enthusiastic questions about a musical freestyle they watched before my ride. I’m very grateful to have so many supportive people in my life, from my spouse to his family to my parents to the many friends who cheer me on from wherever they are!
We went to bed early since Madigan and his trainer were scheduled for the FEI Five Year Old test at 8:15 AM on Sunday. We arrived around 6 AM, fed Madigan, and took him for a walk around the perimeter of the indoor. On the way back to his stall, his trainer mentioned she thought he might benefit from a brief longe to stretch his legs. We stuck him in his rope halter and long line and went to the warmup around 6:30 AM only to discover it was past the longeing hour, which was between 5 AM and 6 AM. (I thought it was from 5 AM to 7 AM, but I was thinking of Saturday’s longeing hours.)
Madigan was fine when his trainer eventually got on him about an hour later. He wasn’t wound up or especially tired, although he was a little jumpier than he was the day before. The warmup ring wasn’t very busy, so his trainer had plenty of space to run him through a couple of the more complex sequences of the test. The test requires some counter canter work; here is an excerpt for the first sequence that occurs about halfway through the test. The horse is on the right lead.
Between S & H
Half circle 10 m, returning to the track at E
Half circle 20 m, counter canter
Simple change of leg
Madigan is beginning to learn about flying changes, and sometimes attempts a flying change at R instead of the simple change through the walk. He can become frustrated when his rider tries to prevent the attempt, and he expresses this frustration by wringing his tail, bouncing his back legs up in a kind of tiny buck, and shortening his canter stride to be about seven feet long. (I’m sure a judge would find it terribly unpleasant to see; I think it’s sort of funny because he’s a 17 hand horse trying to canter in place. He looks ridiculous.) He usually attempts to change when he’s already done the sequence a few times or if he’s done several walk-canter-walk transitions. His trainer did exactly one walk-canter in the warmup and said to me, “He’s right on the verge of trying to change, so I’m just going to walk him around and NOT think about changes!”
I held my breath throughout the canter work, but I shouldn’t have worried. His trainer is an excellent rider who has a good feel for Madigan. (She’s ridden him for 99% of his training rides since he was first backed at 3.) He was on his best behavior, his trainer rode him very skillfully, and there were no angsty change attempts made. During the second counter canter sequence, he broke to the trot once but picked the counter canter back up right away with no fuss. Other than that, their test was perfect.
If you are unfamiliar with the young horse tests, the 4, 5, and 6 year old tests are judged a bit differently than regular dressage tests. Instead of evaluating each movement individually, horses are scored on their walk, trot, and canter and given a score for submission and perspective (which is “potential as a dressage horse, ability to collect and take weight”). After the test is completed, the judges (of which there are two) speak with the rider and give feedback about what they saw. The test with written comments is also provided. USEF has a guide for judges that I found very insightful.
The judges were very impressed with Madigan’s confidence and attentiveness. They remarked that his foundational training is very good and he appears to be progressing on the correct path. Their only criticism was of his gaits- while they are clear and correct, they are not very expressive. They encouraged his trainer to work on his strength and continue to develop the gaits. He ended up with a 70.4% on the test, which isn’t quite enough to earn a qualifying score for the Festival of Champions, but is a good score nonetheless.
We packed up quickly after picking up the test and headed home. The drive was uneventful and we got in around 3:30 PM. Madigan seemed glad to be home and ran around a little and rolled before parking himself in front of the hay feeder until dinner time.
I am incredibly pleased with the results of the weekend! Madigan was a perfect angel who behaved like a seasoned show horse about every single thing. I had fun riding him even if our scores were nothing to write home about. He was extremely good for the 5 year old test and received positive feedback from the judges. I am unconcerned about his gaits being a little lackluster; they will improve as he gains strength. And the best part of the weekend was that no one died hauling a horse trailer through the metroplex!
I am very pleased to report that Madigan and I successfully completed our first show together without incident and with moderate success!
I spent most of Friday cleaning my tack and packing my trailer so I would have as little as possible to do before leaving at 7:00 AM for the show on Saturday morning. Since my trainer wasn’t going to this show, I roped my mom into coming and serving as my runner and extra set of hands. We pulled out more or less on time, had an uneventful drive, and got to the venue around 8:35 AM. I got hung up at the show office discussing the new show management software with the secretary, so I tacked Madigan up a little later than I wanted to. He was (for the first time in his life) an absolute twit about standing at the mounting block, so I started my warmup approximately ten minutes before my ride time.
Fortunately, he is an easy horse who doesn’t require a lot of prep. We were both a bit flustered by the 20 mile an hour wind gusts sweeping down the outdoor warmup, but I did my best to sit quietly through his silly leaps and other nonsense and managed to do some trotting before we went in for our test. The main piece of advice I received from his trainer (who is my trainer’s assistant trainer) was to be sure to walk, trot, and canter him in the dressage arena before turning down centerline. For whatever reason, his first canter in the ring is always full of head flipping and wiggling. Then he settles down and behaves civilly. I managed a 20 meter canter circle at C before the judge rang the bell, and then we were off on our First Level Test 1 adventure.
The test had some good pieces and some less good pieces, as all tests do. He was very behind the leg and crooked in the left lead canter, attempted a flying change on the diagonal, and shuffled around in the halt for what felt like five minutes. His trot work was all generally pretty good, though. We ended up with a 59%- a fair score, given how terrible the left lead was, and how behind the vertical he got at times. Ducking behind the bit is Madigan’s go-to evasion, and I am still learning how best to get him out of it. All of my other horses have been above the bit evaders, so this is a new experience for me!
We had about 45 minutes between tests, so I returned to the windy warmup to walk for a while. I chatted with about a dozen people I recognized; I think my mom is now convinced I know every horse person in the state. (Which is not true at all- I only know the english riders!)
First Level Test 2 felt much better. Madigan was still a little crooked and wiggly, but the test rode smoothly. Our leg yields were good, the canter lengthening existed, and the 15 meter circles weren’t too big (and only slightly egg-shaped). Madigan again felt the need to attempt a flying change across the diagonal (which I think he actually achieved in this test), but was overall much steadier and straighter than in Test 1. Our score improved to a 62%, which was good enough for a close second place (of five!) in the class.
Despite our relatively low scores, I feel good about the day! Madigan was pretty much the same at the show as he is at home. The problems we had at the show are the same problems we work on in our lessons (crookedness, especially on the left lead) and the same problems he has in training rides (making assumptions about when flying changes are appropriate). He was a good boy! I can’t ask much more from a five year old than to pack me safely around a couple of First Level tests.
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.)
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!