Having been out of competing for the past eight months, I was not a little concerned about how my nerves – and Thunder’s – would behave for this show. I was glad to discover a training show at a friendly, local venue for our first trip back down the centreline. This is the longest break I’ve ever taken from dressage since starting to compete in 2014, and so I did take a few precautions in anticipation of struggling mentally.
Physically, I know I’ve never been as strong as I am right now, but I was worried about my mental game. So I entered him for the two lowest Elementary tests, asked a helpful kid to read my tests to me instead of trying to ride them from memory like I normally do, and then set my goal for the show to be singular and simple: just chill out. Nothing more. Not a certain score, not succeeding in a certain movement, just trying to relax and enjoy my incredible horse rather than sweating the small stuff.
And it worked. This may have been one of Thunder’s best shows yet in terms of his behaviour, even in challenging circumstances. Thunny does best if he’s shown by himself, and this show we arrived at with four of his girlfriends, all of whom stayed back by the horsebox while I was riding him. He did neigh for them a little, but instead of getting frustrated with him about it, I just let him call. It’s understandable, it’s acceptable, it’s a normal, equine response to a situation that causes some stress. He wants a herd, so it’s up to me to become the herd. That’ll take a little time and he’ll call during his tests until he gets over it. I kept warming him up with no fuss. It’s a strange one – he’s not really tense, he’s just sort of distracted. It’s not separation anxiety, more a stallion-esque tendency to want his girlfriends (which is weird considering he was cut at the grand age of 18 months, but whatever).
By the time we went in, he was looking a bit and still distracted but obedient to all my cues and fairly connected. I knew we were in for “tight neck” comments, as usual, but when he came down the centreline he was dead straight, halted perfectly at X, and trotted back off for a 7.5. “Straight entry, very balanced halt, direct move-off.” That was a good feeling considering that our halts have long been a weak point.
The turns at C, E and B were a 7.0, “more bend through corners and turn; fairly active.” I feel like that could have been my fault though because I tend to be kind of ham-fisted through those turns and allow his bum to wander off. I felt like his serpentine was pretty good so I was a little surprised to see a 6.5 with comment “fairly active, more suppleness”. The serpentine is normally an easy movement for him but I think the neck tightness that he has at shows didn’t help at all.
I was super proud of the halt – immobility five seconds at X. While it only scored a 6 for being above the bit during the halt and lacking some bend once again on the turns, he was absolutely obedient, and I know it’s a lot to ask of an energetic and distracted horse to stand immobile for five seconds. The lengthened trot was a predictable 6.0 asking for more push from behind – like I kept my butt in the saddle and at this point that was wonderful – and his free walk would have been absolutely perfect if he hadn’t taken exactly two trot steps at H. The trot-walk transition was perfect and the judge commented “fairly relaxed, stretching well”, but those walk steps got us another 6.0.
Things improved as he gave me a super obedient walk-canter transition at A, albeit slightly above the bit, for a 7; then 6.5s for a slightly crooked canter lengthening and for a hollow, but obedient, simple change. 6.5 is probably the best mark I’ve ever had for a simple change – and that out of canter right, usually his harder side – so I’ll take it. The second loop through X was a well-earned 7.5. Our next simple change was crooked because I overthought it and turned the slight shoulder-fore that I always use for canter-walk transitions into a hot mess, so we had a 6.0 there. Our transition down to trot – albeit “against hand” – centreline and final halt were our best mark of the test with 8.0.
I rode out of Elementary 1 expecting a low-60s score, knowing the changes had been a bit rough and there had been moments when he was tight and coming above my hand. I was also really, really happy with how he was going. He was absolutely listening to my every cue, really present and focused and trying so hard. And I was fine. A little distractable and not as focused as I can be, but totally fine – not even a twinge of nerves. It was good enough for my best score yet at Elementary at 66.78%. Not the greatest score ever, but still worth a few grading points once we have the money for proper shows again, and a mighty improvement over my last personal best on the Dragon.
We got 7.5 again for our first centreline in Elementary 2 even though he whinnied and was “slightly inattentive”, following it with 6.5 for the half 10m circles asking for more bend and suppleness. His 10m circle at V was a 7.0 for being “fairly supple”, followed by a six for the shoulder-in. I have this thing in the show ring during lateral work where I’m convinced that I won’t get any lateral work at all – like I’ll put my leg on and the horse will just keep going straight and everyone will die. I think this was messing with my head quite a bit here, which was a pity, because he was really obedient and into the bridle, but I botched it by asking for way too much angle. Shoulder-in is deceptively hard to ride correctly because I don’t have mirrors and I also don’t have any clue of how it feels when the angle is correct, so that’s going to have to be a lesson.
A string of sixes followed: another for the medium trot with comment “more push from behind”, then for the circle at P where he got really weird with his butt and wandered off completely for no apparent reason, and then another for the next shoulder-in, once again having way too much angle. We redeemed ourselves with an 8 for the extended walk and a seven for the counter-canter serpentine even though he felt a little unbalanced because he saw a horse he thought might be his girlfriend. The medium canter was a “conservative” 6, and then the changes fell apart a bit. He was getting a bit brain-tired and distracted at this point, so he trotted down into the first change for a five and we were crooked down again in the next one for another five. These were his worst marks, but they’re okay. It was more show-ring rustiness than any real issues. His changes do need to be established a bit more firmly.
On the bright side, our circle at C with break of contact was a seven; he was fabulous but I had to do it twice because the first time I kind of didn’t let go of my inside rein at all (I have no idea why). Our last centreline was another glorious 8.0, giving us a final score of 66.47%. The judge commented “Well done, work on suppleness and position in shoulder-in” and “Fluent test, very willing horse showing promising work, just at times a little tight over the back and in the neck”. It was certainly the first time a judge has ever told me well done after an Elementary test.
Although the scores weren’t quite what he was getting at Prelim, I actually could not be happier with my majestic dance partner. I also just love the way that it felt. As absolutely wonderful as Arwen was for even reaching that level without guidance, and as perfectly willing as she always is, Elementary was a struggle on her. Everything was just really, really hard and I was always super happy just to see a six. But on Thunder, it’s all sort of… easy. It comes naturally and flows. It’s not a struggle, it’s a dance.
Our relationship also feels really different compared to the last few shows. He’s always tried his heart out, but often it’s felt a little fractured – I was never really sure what horse I was going to get on the day and sometimes it was one that spent the whole test hollow and calling. This time our connection felt a lot more solid, our bond much more impenetrable. I was far more present for him and it made a massive difference.
This was really my favourite show to date. It was as God intended for it to be – a dance, a celebration. It wasn’t worry, it was worship. It wasn’t pressure, it was praise. And every moment of it beat with love.
We went home on such a high only to hit a bit of a wobble when poor Thunny came in from the field on Monday night with a temperature of 40.5C. He’s been a bit up and down ever since with a diagnosis of biliary, spiking some pretty scary fevers, but much as I’ve been open to sending him to hospital, the vets have been happy for him to be treated at home. Today was the first day that his temperature stayed under 39C, so hopefully we’ve turned a corner now. He has been really good and stoic about the whole thing and kept eating all the way through, so at least he hasn’t suffered too much. Your prayers for his healing are always appreciated. ❤
I look forward to many more invitations onto the floor from this particular dance partner. Glory to the King.