Our Fourth Level debut is in the books. I wish I could say that it was stellar, amazing and that I earned both my Fourth level Silver Medal scores, but I can’t. Now I’m also not going to tell you that it was an unmitigated disaster, either. Mostly, we had some rust from not showing since last October, and I forgot that as charming, delightful, and fun as Cardoon is at horse shows, he’s not exactly the same as he is at home, either.
In a nutshell, he’s itchy at shows. Itchy to move off my leg (which is great!), but also itchy to move his hindquarters all around, and super itchy to do changes. Dearest Cardoon, one-tempis are STILL not required at this level, although I know you’ve been throwing them into tests at First, Second, Third and now Fourth level. Once I settle into show season a little more, I’ll be less likely to be held hostage by his itchiness and more able to push out the fancier gaits, while containing the exuberant changes.
At the end of the day, we did get one of our Silver Medal scores, and there were a lot of high points about our rides. On Saturday especially, our half passes were snappy, and at least two changes were really clean and straight. Sadly, the third was a one-tempi, so that score was a little shot! On Sunday, we lacked any sparkle, but I thought I rode better but we lost points with a few mistakes, netting a 59.33, just off the needed score of a 60%.
Despite the fact that my weekend was far from a disaster, and had more than a few high points, I came home on Sunday afternoon feeling deflated, defeated, and questioning whether Cardoon and I really can make it to the Prix St. Georges with any level of confidence. At home, we’re so capable of doing so many of the movements. The trot tour is solid – shoulder in, volte, half pass, medium and extended gaits, we got that! But the canter tour falls apart, even at home. We can pretty reliably execute our four tempis, but the threes are a little shaky, and the canter pirouettes have still been a struggle. My trainer has told me that pirouettes might be his Waterloo.
I get it. Cardoon is a tremendous horse who has given more than we ever expected. His medium and extended trot are a highlight, and he’s a savant when it comes to the changes. But bending and sitting aren’t his strong suit. We get just enough bend in the half passes to be taken seriously, but the articulation of his hocks and stifles in sitting for pirouettes is just conformationally challenging for him. I have for months despaired of ever getting even close to a pirouette that could earn me a 5 or 6 in the show ring, and this sense of hopelessness wasn’t helped by our performance over the weekend.
This got me thinking about the role that faith plays in training the dressage horse. A few years ago, when I was struggling with walk-canter transitions, I would throw my upper body, hands and head at the transition, which created a pretty ugly picture and didn’t produce a solid transition. Lauren’s advice was to sit up, put my leg on nicely, and have faith that the transition would be there. Sure enough, believing made it happen. I needed to take a deep breath, and really think about what I was asking for and how I was asking. I needed to whisper and have faith that he would hear me.
Faith is also what makes me go out to the barn every day and try again. When I plug away at movements day in, and day out for what seems like months on end, sometimes it feels futile. We started working on pirouette canter late last year, and have been picking at it for months now. Most days, I don’t feel like we’ve made any progress. Maybe this will be our waterloo, and this is as far as we’ll make it. The subversive negative thoughts eat at me, and were very present in my mind on Sunday night after the show.
But faith is a funny thing. If you just believe, it keeps you coming back.
While I’ve never ridden a real pirouette on a trained horse before, I have some inkling of what I think it should feel like. The rhythm of the canter slows, the horse rocks back on its hocks as the shoulders come up, and the front legs turn in that moment of uphill carriage, setting themselves down a foot or two to the side of where they’d been a moment before. The funny thing is that for all his physical challenges, I believe that Cardoon can do it. I’ve felt the small, nascent glimmer of hope in that moment where the shoulders come up and the possibility is there. Its just been a spark for the past year, but its been enough to keep faith alive and keep me coming back.
This is why I got out there tonight, and went back to work. Lo and behold, in that moment of possibility, Cardoon’s shoulders came up, he actually sat down, and we were able to turn two steps of pirouette. Proof positive that faith has a role in training the dressage horse.