The Art of Auditing
Now that the 2009 show season is behind us and the resulting public humiliation is fading from our minds, it’s time to turn our attention to the new year and all the fun the dressage gods are likely to dole out. Yes, just like an old cat that keeps hunting a gopher who’s long dead, we dressage riders continue to look ahead with renewed hope and undiminished expectations. And like that old cat, we seem to spend a lot of time staring at sandboxes…or in our case, attending clinics.
Winter is the perfect season for forgetting past failures and learning new skills. Why toil in the mud or cold, or heaven forbid, lie on a warm couch napping, when you can pay large sums of money to freeze your ass on a frosty metal bench and watch other people ride lovely horses all day. Much like the quest for the holy grail, we attend clinics with well known professionals, searching for the answers to our training dilemmas. Never mind the fact that you’ve never been able to pick up the right lead canter cleanly, that will all be cured after watching Dittmar Von Egomassive for a couple of days.
Yes, auditing clinics is great fun, and sometimes even educational. I admit it, part of the allure is seeing well known riders and trainers in person. Unlike we mere mortals, we imagine Dittmar must live on a different plane, a universe where the arena is always dragged, the horses are shiny and obedient, and food doesn’t immediately turn to fat on our hips. In other words, Europe. Combine that with the chance to see old friends and meet new, like minded individuals, and you’re got yourself a great day in Dressageland. But before you push through the turnstiles and get your E ticket stamped, I’d like to share a few tips that might make your day in the land of Dressage more fun and productive.
Don’t feed the locals.
Our sport seems to attract and foster an individual I like to call the “backseat rider”. The backseat rider likes to attend shows, clinics and any gathering where other riders tend to congregate. And why you ask, do they like crowds? Because gentle rider, these people are more than happy and willing to dispense their considerable knowledge to anyone within earshot, even if that considerable knowledge runs counter to Dittmar’s every utterance. If pressed to describe their horse or method of training, the backseat rider is often found to own an elderly equine of questionable lineage that tends to lurk at Training level or below. But this in no way impedes them from expressing a strong opinion on every aspect of what’s happening in the arena before them, up to the Grand Prix level. Since you can usually hear the backseat rider before you see them, it should be easy to find a seat on the freezing auditing bench that takes you out of earshot.
Luxury skybox for one?
You may have noticed my references to the plush accommodations you may find waiting in Dressageland. Since the real stars are the horses and riders, and more importantly, Herr Von Egomassive, auditors are often left to their own devices, scavenging for a dry perch amongst the abandoned chairs left lying by the arena, or more typically, roosting upon a freezing edifice known as the metal bleachers. Experienced auditors can be seen lugging in enough survival gear to outfit an Everest expedition, including seat cushions, lap robes, binoculars, a coleman stove and small generator. You can spot a seasoned pro by the pack ponies they have following behind them carrying their gear. Yes, dressage is not a sport for the faint of heart, and I’m not just talking about the white breeches.
Don’t try this at home, these people are trained professionals.
Auditors often return from clinics with a newfound incentive to practice the skills and tips they gleaned from watching Reitmaster Von Egomassive in action. Typically these are skills they have never really used before, such as riding on the bit, or getting PokeyMan BS to move beyond a comfortable, easy going trot. But now, armed with their newfound tools, it’s time to practice those FEI moves and completely skip the lower levels. Just keep in mind that PokeyMan BS did not attend the clinic, and may view your application of these skills as an affront to his sensibilities. That half pass zig zag that looked so easy in the clinic may come off more like a drunk staggering away from a curb. So it’s probably best to introduce new ideas slowly and let PokeyMan BS in on the plan. And maybe next time we’ll see you and Pokey strutting your stuff with Dittmar, I’ll be the one firing up the generator.
If you listen carefully at this time of year, you can hear the sound of grown women all across this great state of ours crying out in anguish and frustration as they are made to pull on white breeches and go out in public. Yes, the show season is upon us! I don’t know about you, but when I go out shopping for a new pair of flattering pants, I don’t usually come home with something that’s skintight, comes up to my armpits and ends in that oh-so-flattering length right between your knee and ankle, not to mention the snowy white color. If you want to gain 10 pounds fast, and who doesn’t, just put on a pair of show breeches. I think it’s probably a good thing that I’m usually staggering around in the early morning dark when I get ready for a show, so the reality of how I look doesn’t really sink in until much later, otherwise I would probably never leave the house. And don’t get me started on the black wool coat, it’s as if we’re competing in a sport for accountants or undertakers who live in a much colder climate, like Iceland. And even they don’t have to contend with a partner who’s covered with hair and tends to dispense green slime, usually to the aforementioned snowy white breeches moments before mounting.
Yes, the possibility for public embarrassment is huge. But we dressage riders are made of sterner stuff and trudge forward, white breeches blazing, all in the name of that one elusive wondrous ride. You know the one I’m talking about, where everything goes just right, and you and your horse glide through the test as if you were sharing one mind, or channeling Reiner Klimke. Unfortunately this rarely happens and most of the time I feel as if I’m channeling Dom DeLuise in a remake of The Gumball Rally. “Yipes, is that C, I need to do something there…how did my reins get so long…urf, my underwear is right up my butt… go forward you stuffed sofa!”, while a cartoon track seems to be playing in the background.
I remember as a child being so excited by riding in a show, an actual HORSE SHOW(!!) that I would dance around in anticipation. Days before the big event, I would put on my fancy white shirt and huntcap and pose in front of the mirror, or better yet, gallop around the yard while I imagined skillfully riding my trusty school horse and winning all my classes. Now I lie in bed before the big day and ponder, “What the hell was I thinking, entering yet another show??” It always seems like a good idea when I send in the entry, then as the actual date creeps nearer, it starts to take on all the attraction of cleaning out the garage on a hot day, while wearing a business suit. At least in that scenario I don’t have to deal with a slime dispensing furball.
I think we need to put some of the fun back into showing. How about a gamblers choice class, like they do with the jumpers? There could be a set number of movements that you had to do, but the actual order would be up to the rider, and some movements could be repeated for extra points. Or even a tag team version of the same class, with two horses trading back and forth for maximum points? Cartoon music could be optional. And what has happened to the costume class? Who doesn’t like to dress up and scare their horse, not me. Although I doubt my horse Naughty Boy would be terribly impressed with whatever I could dream up, he tends to view my shenanigans as something that has to be endured until he gets his grain. “Hmm, I don’t remember her riding in a giant puffy red dress and tiara, oh well, let’s just get this over with”.
So pull on those white breeches, and slap on that tiara and let’s get this show on the road!
The Simplicity of Dressage
Dear gentle rider, I would like to talk about one of the dark secrets of the dressage world. No, I’m not talking about fluffy tail extensions, I’m talking about trying to learn dressage by reading those lovely, glossy books that I know everyone has. Personally I have shelves and shelves filled with books about dressage, and almost every other topic known to horse owners. Many of them have large, lovely photos, demonstrating the various movements and correct rider positions. I like to page through them, imagining how splendid it would be to prance about as smoothly on such a polished steed, while looking like I stepped from a day spa. Instead, my glossy photos seem to be inhabited by someone attempting farm labor while trapped in a business suit, atop a horse who seems equally baffled.
I think back painfully to my early days, dutifully reading Reiner Klimke’s book on training the young horse. Each night I would read a new section, vowing to exactly follow his instructions the next day when I went out to ride. Unfortunately Dr. Klimke did not allow for a Trakehner who’s idea of being “On the bit” was touching his chin to his chest and ignoring the all important back to front connection, which I had no idea about anyway. Where were the sections titled, “So, Your Horse Thinks Dressage is a Big Joke” or “Let’s Face it Chump, You Need Help”. Instead I kept slogging along, unaware of what a correct leg yield or should-in should actually feel like. In fact, forget those advanced movements, we had trouble maintaining an accurate 20 meter circle, something that’s hard to discern when your arena is used mainly for gymkhana practice or natural horsemanship blunders, and is shaped like a giant egg, which strangely enough, my circles seemed to approximate.
Where are all the books for the dressage newbie, someone who has a half Percheron, half Arabian named Om El Chumly, who moves like a dairy cow on Valium? A horse who was leading a pleasant life as a trail pony, but is now facing a career change he didn’t get to vote on. This book would have chapters no one wants to talk about, like, The Three Types of Forward Aids: 1)Soft and subtle, 2)Strong and insistent, and 3)Open a can of whoop ass. We all know about the last setting, it’s usually accompanied by words no dressage queen would utter, yelled with lusty abandon. Or a whole chapter on not using your hands, but your legs and seat instead, something that seems as natural as waving at someone with your feet. Let’s face it, we’re humans and using our hands is a basic part of our upbringing. But heavens no, not when you’re riding dressage, now it’s all about that steady connection, not a wrestling match with a giant head and neck that you’ll never win, even if you use setting #3.
So sure, there are some built in obstacles, in fact, you might even consider taking up an easier sport, like cliff diving or Olympic luge, but where’s the challenge in that? We just need a realistic book that gasp, shows photos where everything isn’t perfect, so people can see that everyone, yes even Isabell Werth (remember the Olympics!), have the same problems we do. Perfection is a worthy goal, but don’t let it stop you from entering that Training level test at your local show, Om El Chumly needs company.