Nautica’s Dressage Debut: Part I

It finally happened!

Last weekend, Nautica had his big dressage debut and it was a major success! On August 25th Nautica and I participated in our barn’s hosted ride-a-test with judge Jenni Hogan. We were signed up to ride in the intro B and C divisions.

For those unfamiliar with dressage, the introductory levels are just that, introductory, with intro A and B being walk-trot only and intro C introducing the canter. Scoring at the intro levels tends to be very forgiving for a horse or rider green to the sport, and geometry and rhythm take precedence over ideals such as throughness or collection, which come later.

For the past two months since our Linda Strine clinic, Nautica’s trot work has been coming along very nicely, progressing more and more each ride in a dressage sense, becoming much more relaxed, swinging and free through his topline. The canter was still very rough. The canter did by now have both leads and three distinct beats, but the gait itself still felt heavy, out of balance, and frantic, and his transitions still tended to fall in through the shoulder.

The idea for the August show was that our intro B would be our “good” class or the test in which we expected to score better than our other test, intro C, which would primarily be used for the clinic portion of the ride-a-test to gain tips on how to fix our canter. Intro C (with the canter) was scheduled to be our first class, followed by intro B for the show’s scoring and placing purposes. I was very lucky that Jenni offered to let me change the order of my tests last minute. It was this little change that allowed me to be better prepared for the canter work in intro C and also potentially aided in us improving our score in what could otherwise be a rough test.

We had a tense warm up. Nautica was spooky, unfocused and speedy in his gaits. We started our warmup 30 minutes early. Nautica, being 13 with an old injury generally starts out his rides a little stiff. I usually give him a long walk to warm up his joints slowly. On the day of the show, he wasn’t having any of it. To Nautica, obviously, all of these people at the barn meant something was up. We jigged our way around the warmup before I finally gave up and let him move forward into a trot. Oh yeah, for the past 13 years, “horse show” Nautica was rewarded for being alert and prancy. Surely all these people being here must mean this must be a horse show. We will need to work on our new and improved horse show expectations. Nautica is still figuring out this whole new world order.

“I can’t be calm—they’re all looking at me! I must dance!”

Our intro B was a little shaky. It was by no means bad at all, but definitely not our best test, and not quite at the level of quality Nautica had been working during our lessons. Nautica was tense through his back, reverting to his old, saddleseat trot, moving straight up and down rather than reaching forward and under himself with his hind end. He was a tad spooky about the spectators, which resulted in about half of our 20-meter circles being slightly inverted and counter bent. His free walk was a little jiggy. Despite it all, Jenni was kind with a score in the low 60s. For intro B, Nautica did all of his gaits, did them on cue and had relatively correct geometry. He was a good boy! The biggest highlight of our intro B was the short clinic that followed. Jenni was very honest. She pinpointed our major problems right away and gave us advice on how to improve them.

Being a saddlebred, Nautica’s conformation is nearly perfect for what he was bred to do: have extra fancy front-end motion. Nautica’s conformation is not perfect for literally anything related to dressage. That’s okay. He’s not the saddlebred I would specifically seek out for this sport (though there are plenty out there). I don’t expect Nautica to ever go PSG and he doesn’t expect me to know what the hell I’m doing half the time. It’s a great compromise.

He’s perfect to me!

In a short 20 minutes, Jenni gave us a couple of exercises for improving Nautica’s ability to engage his hind end and get one step closer to tracking up underneath himself. One of these exercises involved turns on the forehand. My beloved turns on the forehand! By the end of the lesson, Nautica was stretching down and forward with his neck, engaging his hind legs, and only about one-half of a hoof print away from a true, training-level tracking up. We’re getting there, slowly but surely. I say “slowly but surely”, but honestly, to have less than a year of dressage behind us, and over a decade of saddle-seat to contest with, this horse is making incredible progress every day. Conformation, injuries and all, there’s nothing this American Saddlebred can’t do!

To keep this blog post from becoming any more long-winded, I will post a “part two” about our intro C experience, clinic, and training breakthroughs next!

To be continued...

Part II

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