dressage, dressage showing, schooling shows, warmup strategy

Butterfly Brain: The Enemy of Dressage

Sunday was my second schooling show of the season. Those of you who show every weekend probably can’t relate to the experience of re-entering the show ring after 7 years off. But perhaps you have some wisdom you can impart. I am sorely in need of wisdom.

Happily, Micah is a Show Master. He understands that (at our level), he’ll need to work hard for five minutes, then receive lots of praise. He’s not too worried about the judge’s box, decorative floral arrangements, or horses falling to pieces in warm-up. Thank goodness.

My previous horses have needed show warm-ups focused on relaxation and staying in the arena. If Micah relaxes any further, he’ll be dozing. My new warm-up strategy needs to be about waking him up and asking him to respond promptly.

Of course, that’s Part B of the strategy. Part A is me embracing the new strategy and rising to the occasion. Easier said than done, given that showing is exhausting, physically and mentally. Just running  from trailer to show office to warm up to show ring wears me out. And, while I’m not actively freaking out, there’s an app running in the background of my brain, wondering if I’ll be able to rise to the occasion mentally.

My mind flits like a butterfly, from thought to though.

In the arena, my mind flits like a butterfly, from thought to thought.

Lest you think I’m a slacker, I try to stay fit. I ride a horse, a mountain bike, hike, lift small weights, and do abdominal crunches to keep something of a core. Come show day, you’d think I was a complete couch potato the way my stamina stutters and fades. Mentally, I’m equally flaccid. My focus comes and goes like a butterfly in a poppy field. My mind flits from moment to moment. Focus/fade. Focus/fade.

To sum it up, I am frustrated with myself. Micah did everything I asked him to do in the show ring, giving it just as much precision and energy as I asked for. I take full responsibility for our first, half-hearted test.

Granted, a downpour prior to our ride made me suspicious of the footing. When Micah’s hind-end slipped at our salute at X … our trot to C was accurately described by the judge as ‘Tentative.’ Micah noted my caution and we sluggishly made our way around the arena, completing the test. I did make small improvements on a few things, but came out of the ring knowing it wasn’t a great ride.

Our next test was just minutes later, so we hung out by the arena watching the next riders. Then Natalie gave me the best possible advice, “As you go around the outside, wake him up. Mix it up. Throw in some trot/halts and do some cantering.”

Micah and I woke up together and put in a better test. I’d gained confidence in the footing (or his ability to work with it) and pushed him forward. Everything was better, most notably  my focus and determination. As with last month’s show, my second ride scored five points higher than my first. This proves that I can focus when I put my mind to it. But how to get that to happen more quickly and consistently?

Everyone will tell you that it takes practice, but there’s a shortage of schooling shows here in Central Oregon … we are a bit like an island, cut off from the mainland by the Cascade Range. Traveling to ‘the valley’ is an epic adventure. And, with what I need to learn, schooling shows are a much more affordable option than recognized shows.

So, how to improve my practice at home? I asked Natalie to increase the pressure on me in lessons. Push me harder. Make me think and respond more quickly. Push my physical stamina. Like the horse who schools 2nd level at home and shows at 1st level, I need to up my game at home, giving me more skills and strengths to fall back on in the stress of the show environment.

We discussed this plan and Natalie said, “Let’s do it!” She sounded almost gleeful, like the time I asked her to take away my stirrups.

My favorite moment came when Natalie asked me to do a three-loop serpentine in the canter, with a simple change as we crossed the centerline. I haven’t done this exercise in years! On autopilot, I said, “Got it!” … then, as I  thought through what this would entail, I nearly choked. “Really??”

Before I could overthink it, we were off and it was fun! Micah did great and the exercise really made me keep my seat in contact with the saddle. I loved the bending to change direction.

My butterfly brain became more engaged and focused, more like a hawk. OK, maybe like a crow … but certainly better than a sparrow.

Regardless, it was fun and helped me to shake off that sense of disappointment I’d carried home with me. Dressage is about trying again (and again) while engaging the most important aid of all: the brain.