I have a confession to make: I am a cry baby.
I act tough, I’m pretty good in a crisis, and I can handle a lot of sh*t, but when things get emotional, I cry at the drop of a hat. I cry over bad rides, and I cry over good ones. I cry at Budweiser commercials, when I think of my dog forgetting who I am, and when I don’t know why my horse Murray is acting out and I can’t fix it. But more than anything, I cry over dressage.
I don’t know why dressage makes me cry so much. I really like dressage. More than just as a means to an end; I love the philosophy of dressage: schooling your way to a stronger, better moving, more correct horse (and rider!). There’s just something about entering a dressage court that guarantees I will cry at least a little after I leave.
Murray and I recently had a truly disastrous dressage test, through no small fault of my own. Warm up was phenomenal. Alana, my trainer, and I had been working on the transitions and suppleness in both directions and the Murray that showed up in warm up was the pinnacle of everything we had practiced in our lessons. I allowed time for a generous warm up because our last test was a little tense, and we walked a lot on a long rein before the test.
I trotted down the centerline with a smile on my face and a song in my heart: Murray was soft and through his back, and while our entrance wasn’t perfectly straight, who could expect such a supple noodle to ride a straight line anyway?! It wasn’t until we turned left at C that I realized the reality of my situation: I wasn’t the one driving. In all my practice, I had carelessly let Murray memorize the Beginner Novice A dressage test**. Sure, I thought about the trot circle at E, but I couldn’t control the size or shape, nor Murray’s haunches from falling out. At K Murray tensed and before I even asked broke to the canter. Our free walk included a free jig, and the walk-trot transition was completely inverted. I tried to regain control after the direction change and bump-bumped with my outside leg during the right trot circle to control Murray’s haunches. This, apparently, was the last straw. He threw on the brakes, cast his head in the air, and shot me a death glare with his inside eye. Our canter-trot transition was so late we nearly leapt out of the dressage court, and I didn’t even ask for the halt at X. I stared stunned at the judge and waited to be dismissed for a good 15 seconds before I remembered to salute.
I was not sportsmanlike leaving the dressage court; I did not pat my horse or thank him for the ride. Alana could tell immediately that something was wrong, and followed me back to the warm-up where I was determined to at least school the transitions a little, as they had truly been the worst part of our test. At that point, things devolved even more. Murray heard my request to canter as a suggestion to buck all the way across the warm up, nearly crashing into at least two other horses. This continued through five or six transitions, and as soon as I got a quiet one I called it quits.
I had just simultaneously ridden both the best and worst tests I had ever put in; I was stunned, reeling from the difference between warm up and the actual test. So I did what any rational, sane human being would do at this juncture.
I started to cry.
It wasn’t just a few tears that seeped out in the privacy of the trailer dressing room, or as I untacked my horse. They weren’t tears that could be wiped away under the façade that they were caused by the wind sting on cross country. Not even the loud but brief sobs I let out after being eliminated in stadium for the first time years ago.
I was straight up bawling. I was walking around, cooling out my horse, sobbing openly and wiping snot on my show coat. My hysterics were enough that a coach stabling next to us who had seen me, oh maybe five times as I cared for my horse that morning, asked “Uh-oh, what’s happened now?”
I took Murray’s tack off and the waterworks subsided. I was so angry I cut the knots on his braids out (yes, even the forelock one, effectively giving my Fabio bangs), because I couldn’t find my seam ripper. Who needs a neat and tidy mane after quitting dressage forever anyway?! When Murray was put away, cleaned, and fed, and I got myself together a bit, I responded to the summons that no fewer than three of my teammates had delivered and went to talk to my trainer.
(I was pretty nervous at that point, as I’d behaved fairly poorly before I wandered the show grounds wailing, so I was expecting at least a small lecture about sportsmanship and team reputation. Instead, Alana was kind, comforting, and tactful; thank goodness for her.)
“So what was it that was so bad about that test?” Alana asked.
“It was the difference between the warm up and the test. I had next to no control in the test, and he was just so perfect in the warm up and the test was just so different.” The crying resumed.
“You know, it was a good test!” Alana gently reminded me.
“I knoo-oooo-ooow!” I blubbered. We were at the warm up, and I was starting to attract attention. “That’s the worst part! It was a good test, and yet it was so shitty compared to the warm up!”
Then Alana delivered the kicker: the judge had seen our post-test antics in the warm-up and (probably considering my poor behavior during and immediately after the test) wanted to eliminate me for horse abuse.
I’m pretty sure my wails could be heard all the way over in the judge’s booth at that point.
I didn’t get eliminated. The facility owner and Alana stood up for me, and convinced the judge of Murray’s true calling in theatre. The rest of the show was fantastic; Murray thoroughly redeemed himself by galloping around XC and stadium double clear, and we finished on our unremarkable dressage score.
Fast forward a few weeks, and Murray and I are consistently putting in our best dressage rides ever. I haven’t backed off the work load; I ask Murray to carry himself and use his back more and more, and for consistent and committed bend and lateral work. And somehow, both mentally and physically, the kid is rising to the challenge. I have ridden some of the most beautiful walk-trot and trot-canter transitions I’ve ever felt. For a long time, I babied Murray through the transitions, hovering carefully above the saddle at the trot and kissing at him diligently. Well, I hover no longer: I can now sit the transition, and feel Murray lifting his back ask he picks up the canter.
I’m honestly not sure what changed. I stand by my riding choices at that show, though I will try to salute the judge without my whip next time (ooops!). Maybe I’ve just checked in with the reality of a five-and-a-half-year-old, though I’ve always thought of myself as fairly sympathetic to Murray’s quirks and age. Maybe Murray has finally checked into school, after a year of asking, begging, and pleading for him to do so. Maybe we’ve somehow met one another in the middle, making a whole greater than the sum of our parts, a symbiotic relationship mutually beneficial to both of us, the lines blurred where horse ends and rider begins, the beginning of true centaurism…. Ok, so probably not a centaur. Whatever it is, though, I’ll take it. I’m going to run with this happy, compliant, productive place and see where it takes me.
So, fellow equestrian cry babies (and non-cry babies!): Cry away! Cry at shows, cry openly if you need to, cry whenever you need to! It’s going to make you feel a whole heck of a lot better than keeping it in and, bonus!, nobody will question your actions when you crack open a beer at 11 AM. And maybe, just maybe, your horse will hear your sobs, take pity on you, and turn himself into a dressage pony when you’re not looking.
** I should also point out that he memorized the entire intro cross country course as well, and I wasn’t driving there either. Fortunately, 18” logs aren’t really a match for a 16 hand thoroughbred, and I did manage to renegotiate the one place where he lost his way.