I took two horses to a small A-rated dressage show this past weekend. Both horses have a long history of showing at higher levels than I had entered, and both were angels for Friday night schooling. Non-horse people would assume that the show would run smoothly and my horses would continue their angelic streak – right? Of course not.

Fredriksson, known around the barn as Dickie, was the problem child. He’s a 16 year-old Hanoverian with success showing through 4th level. I showed him at 2nd level, but naturally, he was acting foolish. As we stretched forwards and downwards and walked from S to P, Dickie started neighing to whoever he thought was listening – alright, not that big of a deal. As I gathered my reins and prepared to pick up my right lead canter at F, Dickie balked and spun. Without too much distress, I was able to push him forward and get my canter right at F – a real miracle, honestly. He was even worse as we prepared to cross the short diagonal to show our counter-canter. This time, he balked, spun, and crow-hopped. I landed on his neck, and thought ‘Dickie, I only brought one pair of white breeches, and I’m not washing them tonight. You’re not getting me out of this saddle.’ It seems like he lived up to his name.

When he started having his meltdown, the moment passed by in a blink of an eye. How did I get out of his spin? How did I stay on? Was my position decent? I don’t even know, I don’t even remember doing anything to fix it. This was a miracle of muscle memory and automatic riding, and I’m sure many other equestrians have been saved from scary spooks and upsets by this phenomenon.

I think we reach a real mile marker in our riding when it becomes nature. When you can get yourself out of a hairy situation without even thinking about it, you’ve learned to ride. It becomes less of a matter of ‘I have to stay on’ and more of a matter of ‘I have to finish this test or course.’ It’s like a sub conscience decision in a split second to buck up and handle it – and it’s awesome that it happens so quick, because I think fear or frustration would take over if we thought about the game plan for too long.

I really admire riders who ride one leaping lizard after another – especially if they aren’t a professional and they aren’t really doing for the money. It’s very frustrating to pay to show your horse and end up with an awful score, or worse, disqualified. I really do have a great deal of respect for riders who handle their horse’s foolish episodes calmly and kindly. I also wish we could ask our horses, ‘What on Earth were you thinking?’
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