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dressage competition

Adult Rider Camp, dressage, dressage competition, natalie perry dressage, pas de deux

More Than Twice the Fun

Our Whirlwind Pas de Deux

In a sport that is considered to be an individual effort, a pas de deux is a clearly collaborative achievement that brings its own rewards.

Here’s how I went from clueless to competing in just over a month.

“You two should do a pas de deux,” Natalie said. “Your horses would look great together.”

Mary and I had just returned from Adult Rider Dressage Camp with Dooley and Skipper and we were flush with excitement. The horses had exceeded our expectations, meeting new challenges while handling the stress of working away from home. It was a bonding experience for all of us — but until Natalie mentioned it, I’d never really noticed how similar our horses looked: two smaller chestnut geldings with a bit of chrome.

Mary had ridden quadrille and competed in an upper level freestyle with her horse, Dante, so she had experience. Plus she’s fun and easy to get along with. To learn from Mary was a chance I’d be foolish to walk away from.

So I said, “Sure!”, without knowing exactly what I was getting into. 

We set up a training session, to give it a whirl. We started with the basics: having our horses walk and trot within a few feet of each other, trying to match their tempo on straight lines, in circles, and across the diagonal. It wasn’t easy but we had a lot of fun.

Before we go further, I need to mention that Dooley is a rescue horse who’s come a long way in a short time under Mary’s kind hand. Dooley had done well at Intro Level at local shows and was schooling Training/First Level. He’s been under saddle less than a year. 

Skipper’s had the benefit of more training, competing at Third Level with professional Mari Valceschini — but he’s still relatively new to me, so I planned to take him out at First Level in an upcoming League Show. 

The bottom line? Dooley was the less-experienced horse but he had the benefit of Mary’s extra experience. It had the more seasoned horse but have less experience/skill as a rider. It made for a wacky kind of balance.

At first, the horses seemed a little confused by riding side-by-side, but they quickly caught on. In fact, when we went down center line together and parted ways at ‘C’, me going right, Mary going left, Dooley looked back at Skipper as if asking, “Where’d he go?”

At the walk and trot, Skipper’s faster pace meant Mary had to push Dooley on while I worked to collect Skipper back. At the canter, which we practiced in circles at opposite ends of the arena for safety’s sake, it was my turn to push Skipper forward. We laughed a lot as we made mistakes and learned from them. 

“They look adorable together,” Claudia said, as she watched us. 

“You guys should do a pas de deux at the show!” Laura said. The secretary for our upcoming League Show, she was serious.

I laughed, nervously. The show was only about three weeks out and I like to over-prepare. I’d never dreamed of competing in a pas de deux on such short notice.

Mary had a gleam in her eye, though, and I sensed there was no turning back.

That week, Mary took the music from her upper-level freestyle and modified the choreography to Training Level. She came back to me saying, “Want to give it a try?” 

Of course, I did! In our next session, we worked on choreography. We needed to decide what level we’d be riding so we could incorporate the required movements. First Level would definitely be flashier but it’d be a step up for Dooley. It was time to get Natalie, our trainer, involved.

In a series of semi-private lessons, we decided to develop a First Level routine and fine-tuned the choreography, accordingly. During practice sessions, Mary and I gradually brought the horses closer together at the walk and trot, until we had moments where we were so close, our stirrups clanked together. That’s exciting!

We tried to coordinate our posting at the rising trot when riding side by side — it looks great —but is a lot harder to do than you’d think. It was a challenge to keep one eye on Mary and Dooley to keep pace, while remembering to ride my own horse — but in the moments when the horses were synchronized, my heart sang. I swear the horses enjoyed it, too. 

The music Mary had chosen as perfect: light, joyful songs that were a pleasure to ride to. People say that dressage is dancing with horses … and when you add music, it really feels that way. 

Leading up to the show, I had a lot of insecurities — I went over the choreography in my head in the quiet hours of morning and as I fell asleep each night, fearing I’d forget our routine. I worried about forgetting my saddle pad. Lots of little concerns that reflected how important it was to me to pull my weight as a part of our team.

Mary and I did our homework, found matching saddle pads for our horses, and Mary loaned me some show attire to match hers. On the morning of the show, we braided the boys’ manes. We warmed up together in the indoor arena, and then it was Show Time. 

“How did it go?” you ask.

Fantastic. Beyond expectations. During the ride, I let go of everything else and embraced the sense of performance that a pas de deux can bring. It was time to show off to the best of our abilities. I took heart, knowing our boys would look great together — and they did, dancing their way down center line. We had moments of beauty, with our horses graciously doing everything we asked. It was truly a team effort of horses and humans. The sense of accomplishment was more than twice as big as any of my individual efforts.

The judge was kind in her comments and her scores, giving us a total of 73 percent …far better than we expected …and truly a highlight in my riding ‘career’.

Perhaps best of all, our ride retained a sense of play, even in competition. So many people commented, “That looked like fun.” It was.

While developing a pas de deux takes time, work, and the flexibility to coordinate with another rider, I highly recommend it. It takes the work beyond the self. What a joy to see our horses trusting us in this quirky activity … for humoring us in this crazy sport we call dressage. They truly were team players.

Credit goes to Mary Cuevas for pulling our pas de deux together, taking the lead in the choreography and stepping me through the process. We are both grateful to Natalie Perry for starting us on our way — and for her help in tailoring the routine to maximize the strengths of our horses. We’ll be working together through the winter to do even better next year.

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Rodeo Dressage, First Level Test 1

Pfifer and I had been training together for just over four months and things were going great. I loved her laid-back temperament — she was fun to ride and I was really happy with how things were going.

Feeling confident, I signed up for First Level, Tests, One and Two when the Central Oregon Chapter of the Oregon Dressage Society offered their Swing Into Spring league show. Both tests were well within Pfifer’s capabilities, as she’s schooling Third Level with trainer Natalie Perry.

Six days before the show, Pfifer came into heat in a big way. She was flirting and showing her stuff to anyone and everyone. Oh, dear.

She gave a big kick at the first canter depart I asked for in our Tuesday lesson, but otherwise settled in. No big deal.

Likewise, on Thursday, just days from the show, she was a bit grumpy and didn’t really want to bend, but no big deal.

The weekend of the show arrived and the weather was predicted to be great. What could be better? I had visions of respectable scores and a couple of nice ribbons.

We arrived at the show grounds early enough for me to walk Pfifer around and let her take in the sights. She’d been to the venue the previous summer, so I was a surprised when she got nervous and spooked a couple of times on our walkabout. Oh, well. She’ll settle in, right?

Natalie coached our warm up, and while it wasn’t fantastic, it was respectable. Pfifer still felt resistant to bending and while it wasn’t as apparent that she was in heat, she was still a bit edgy.

Our time to ride came up and we entered the ring, ready to show our stuff. Pfifer balked a little at the judge’s stand, but without conviction. The bell rang, and off we went!

First Level, Test One rides nicely. I felt good about our trot work and got a fairly prompt canter depart. We started down the long side for an extended canter and, without warning, Pfifer started to buck. And buck. And buck some more.

My survival skills kicked in and I sat back, held tight to the reins so she couldn’t get her head down any further, and rode it out. My head was spinning, wondering “What????”

“If this gets any worse, I’m coming off,” went through my mind.

But the big issue was this: “Wait! I can’t fall off in front of mom!!”

Yes, of all the shows I’ve competed in, this was the first one my mom came to watch. My husband and two friends from out of town also stopped by. (Undoubtedly the cause of the bucking.)

Here’s the thing: Mom is terrified of horses, even when they are on best behavior. This was supposed to be a fun outing for her.

Fortunately, I’d asked Pfifer’s owner, Claudia, to sit with mom and explain to her what our dressage test was all about. I’d imagined a conversation along the lines of, “That was a nice trot lengthening.” Instead, mom was gripping Claudia’s arm, asking, “Is Lauren ok?!”

Claudia is a retired medical professional, skilled at remaining calm in stressful situations.

“Of course she is,” Claudia said in her most soothing voice.

“Is the horse trying to buck her off?” Mom asked. A reasonable question, applicable to other equestrian sports in addition to dressage.

“Of course not,” Claudia said, bending the truth.

Mom gasped a few times and Claudia patted her arm.

Pfifer bucked down the long side, settled into a trot, and kicked up a few more bucks as I asked for the canter again to make a circle at ‘P’. She actually cantered enough of the circle that the judge remarked: Good recovery.

Alas, there was more canter yet to come and more bucking. Our score reflected this but it was a small enough class that I got the most hard-earned fifth place of my life.

I ended the test with our highest score of the test — an 8 on our halt! I saluted the judge, relieved it was over, and raised an imaginary cowboy hat to the onlookers. I got applause for courage.

My poor mother had lost all color in her face and looked very unhappy. 

“I didn’t like that,” she said.

“Neither did I,” I replied, but I was laughing now, because it was over and I’d stayed on.

Mom stuck around for my second ride, which was better but included a buck at the end of our second canter, right in front of mom. I doubt we’ll see mom at dressage shows in the future.

My horsey friends will be wondering if I had Pfifer checked out by a chiropractor. Yes, and she’s fine. I can only assume she wanted me to practice my staying on skills. Clearly she wasn’t out to get a ribbon.

Once again, I am humbled by a horse. Disappointed? Yes, dammit, we’d worked hard. 

And, of course, in our next lesson she showed none of weekend’s predilection for drama … so there was really not much to school other than some minor resistance.

I did get some nice photos of Pfifer looking innocent at the show!

Horses!

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Anything Can Happen at a Horse Show

Pfifer rose to the occasion, ignoring blustery weather, making her mother oh so proud. Photo by Kaitlyn Young Photography


They say anything can happen at a horse show — and it usually does.
At the Central Oregon Dressage Classics a dramatic shift in the weather inspired the horses to bring their most spirited selves to the party.
After weeks of summer-like weather with temps in the 70’s, June-uary, June’s evil cousin arrived to gleefully drop morning temperatures into the 40’s. A bitter wind blew in squalls of rain and tossed in a bit of hail just for fun. When the horses reacted with extra impulsion, the riders rose to the occasion with Serious Positive Attitude.
Volunteering as a groom that weekend, I found my favorite spot beside the warm-up ring. Here, I witnessed a lot of Rider Brain Freeze, a symptom I, myself, have experienced.. The trainers encouragingly called out simple instructions such as “Ride a circle” and the rider would boldly continue on their merry way down the long side of the ring, certain they were following instructions to a ‘T’. We’ve all been there: show nerves can turn the simplest of tasks into major challenges. I was impressed with the good humor the trainers showed, as their riders struggled to shorten their reins, change direction, and — most importantly — breathe. Learning to ride is one thing; learning to show is another skill, altogether.
The highlight of the show, for me, was helping my friend Claudia as her groom. I’ve seen a lot of progress in her riding and her horse responded accordingly despite the challenging weather.
On Saturday afternoon we walked over to the show’s West Ring for Claudia’s second ride of the day. The wind whipped dark clouds over the Cascade Range, where the peaks (when you could see them) sported new coats of snow. The horses felt the excitement of spring and summer fighting for dominance.
As Claudia waited for her turn in the show ring, the horse in the arena in front of us acted up, ungraciously unloading his young rider in the footing. Fortunately, the rider wasn’t badly hurt but it’s always troubling to see a rider fall. She was able to stand but not support her weight well enough to walk. Show management responded immediately and the on-site EMT was on his way.
A recently retired nurse anesthetist, Claudia called me over.
“Lauren, hold my horse,” she said. “I’ll go help that girl.”
I was about to obey, but then said, “Wait. This is your day and your time to ride. Help for that rider is on the way.”
I knew exactly how hard Claudia had worked to get to that moment.
Claudia considered my words and then nodded her head and said, “Thank you.”
The young rider was given a lift by the EMT and, happily, was able to return to ride the following day.
So, when Claudia went in and rode her test with complete focus, I was more than proud. Her generous nature and desire to help another could have stolen that moment from her. Her qualifying score and the judge’s comments rewarded her hard work … topped off by a beautiful ribbon.
As I said, anything can happen at a horse show. I’m so glad I got to be there.

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All the Pretty Horses


For reasons I’ll never understand, I was born with a fascination for horses.
I was the kid hanging her head out of the car window, admiring horses in pasture, dreaming of owning one. I remember the sense of longing and my pure adoration for them. I read horse stories, drew pictures, collected Breyer models, and convinced my mother to get me riding lessons as often as she could tolerate.
Where did this come from? I doubt we’ll ever know.
Some people speculate that those of us who are ‘horse crazy’ have a primal sense of connection to these animals, due to our ancestors’ early dependence on them. If this theory is correct, we have an innate understanding of how important horses have been to our species.
Bullshit? Or not? Who cares — it’s fun to ponder.
As I’ve started prepping for this year’s show season, I’ve noticed how much more critical I’ve become of horses and their way of going. Call it education if you will, but I’ve lost that innocent admiration for each and every horse.
As I watch YouTube videos of riders competing, as a way to learn my tests, I find myself ‘judging’ each horse’s gaits, conformation, and temperament.
Still, I find myself fall in love from afar quite frequently, thinking, “I’d love to own that one.” (I have a strong preference for those honest, forgiving, yet forward horses who look more like lovers than fighters.)
I also spot the ones I’d prefer not to own. “That one’s gorgeous but looks like a fire-breathing dragon!” (Death by dressage still doesn’t appeal to me.)
As I look at my history with horses, I admit that I still don’t understand it but I’m grateful to have them in my life. I struggle, I learn, and I love. My life is so much the richer for it.

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A Personal Best, for Many Reasons

Micah & I after a rewarding show day. Photo by Barbara Dudley Photography


Yesterday I overcame adversity.
Today the memory dances in my head, strengthening my resolve and helping to heal my battered heart. I came home with a blue ribbon and a score that was a personal best — reaffirming that pushing on through pain is not just possible, but necessary.
I owe this win to my trainer, Natalie Perry, and my friend, Aimee Witherspoon. Both taught me much.
To say that the past few months have been challenging is an understatement. August brought bad news; September the loss of my dog; and just weeks later Aimee was thrown from a horse and died.
Aimee’s death was both terribly sad and a harsh reminder of the inherent dangers of equestrian sports. Her death rattled me emotionally and shook my confidence on my horse. I asked my trainer for help.
“I need you to help me keep my riding positive,” I said, explaining what had happened. “Please help me keep my confidence up.”
Natalie, who is always positive, was on it.
“We can do that!,” she said.
Her support meant the world to me. I made the decision to ride only with her supervision until I regained my sense of self. We had a show coming up quickly and I couldn’t afford to un-train my horse. Micah’s a great guy but, like most horses, will take charge if he senses a lack of commitment.
And so Natalie helped me keep my mind in the present moment — on my horse and the job of riding. Her comments were positive and supportive, even when I faltered.
Come the morning of the show, I knew I was better prepared than I’d ever been. And yet, I wasn’t sure I could do it. I wanted to scratch out of our two classes — even hoped Micah would throw a shoe to give me an easy way out.
As my determination waivered, I knew that to quit would be an insult to Aimee. She’d be furious if I used her death as an excuse. One of the bravest riders I’ve known, Aimee loved competition.
I also felt I’d be letting Natalie down. She’d worked hard with me and was telling me “You can do this.” I needed to believe her.
And so, I tacked Micah up for our class despite my doubts, trying to maintain focus. He felt fresh, energetic, and willing to listen.
“Let’s do this,” I told him.
I even remembered to smile at our show photographer as I went by.
When my efforts were rewarded with my best-ever score, I was elated. I truly needed to be reminded that I can and should carry on, even when it hurts.
This weekend I’ll be attending Aimee’s Celebration of Life along with many of the Northwest’s finest equestrians. As we share stories, laughter, and tears, I’ll thank Aimee for helping me push on past fear and discouragement.
My sense of gratitude toward my trainer remains tightly wrapped around me. While non-horsepeople will never understand it, it’s always more than ‘just’ about the horses.

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Ride Like You Mean It

This morning’s ride was a bit of a rough go.
I swear my horse reads my every mood and he knew I wasn’t totally present. Indeed, I was feeling a bit down and lacking in physical and mental fortitude.

Horses find dressage more challenging than grazing in pasture.


Micah finds the collected work to be much more difficult than grazing in the pasture and has started to complain a bit. He also hates marching at the walk — he was certain he owned that gait.
Today we did a run through of Second Level, Test One and Micah knew an imaginary judge was looking over my shoulder, critiquing the ride. When he balked in his canter transitions, rather than school him for it, I tried to ride on hoping the judge wouldn’t notice. I could feel the points slipping through my fingers. It was a miserable test.
Natalie gave me a pep talk about the Go button and Riding with Determination. After a brief break, we had at it again. This time I rode it like a cross-country course. We had to go or die.
Clever boy that he is, Micah sensed this and off he went. It was perhaps one of our best rides.
When show day rolls around, I’ll need to set aside hopes of high marks and, instead, focus on riding really, really well. (That’s supposed to be our focus, anyway, but let’s face it — we’re all hoping for blue ribbons.) I also need to be prepared to school any naughtiness without regard for the judge’s opinion. I’m sure she’s been there herself.
Next time I ride, I’ll put an ounce of determination in my pocket before I get in the saddle. My horse always knows when I’m carrying it.

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