Preston and I have not been able to show for about 2 years now. We have had a lot of issues moving to a new state. I had issues finding a good farrier (who trims their feet), and since Preston has a clubby foot, this is really important. We have also had saddle fitting issues. I had a saddle custom made for him when I bought him, but I had used it on so many horses that it became too wide and pressed down on his withers. It was a custom made saddle, so no saddle fitter in the area would touch it. It took me close to a year to find that the master saddle fitter who made the saddle actually does come to the area from time to time. During this period, he had at least 6 months off from work, which resulted in a weak stifle, which is a joint like the human knee, and needs fitness to maintain it.
Needless to say, during show season we were not up to par. At one point I was optimistic, and did register us for one show, but he immediately went lame and I had to substitute another horse, a Lusitano at Don E Mor, at the last minute so that I would not lose all the money I spent registering for the show. It was a disappointment, as this was not a horse I regularly rode, it was his first show, and I was trying to show him at a level that was a bit of a stretch for him. We did not do very well.
Since getting the farrier, saddle fit, and fitness issues addressed, Preston and I have been working away. Even that has been a challenge, since I changed jobs and moved to a barn where I did not have access to instruction, or even an arena. I just rode in the field, but I managed to work him and Tattle 4-5 days per week. A couple months ago, Preston and I rode in a clinic with Axel Steiner, who is an international dressage judge, and has written some of the tests that we currently ride in competition. If you are not familiar with competitive dressage, read about it here. I had been schooling just basics at home, but Axel had us working at a much, much higher level than I anticipated. It was encouraging to me to know that I was on the right track, and my horse was capable.
About a month ago, I moved barns, and began working with Briana Atwell. It has been a great move, because now I have access to instruction daily if I want, and am encouraged to show. My goal with Preston is to show him 2nd and 3rd level this year, get my bronze medal, and then potentially sell him. We did well at 1st level a couple years ago, and he is more than ready to show second level. It is a good rule of thumb to show one level below the level you are schooling at home, and we are comfortably schooling 3rd level, as half passes are easy for him, and flying changes are there, they just need polishing. Though, schooling flying changes at home make it harder to show 2nd level, since you want the horse to NOT do a flying change!
There are many difficult maneuvers in 2nd level, including simple changes, counter canter, and turn on the haunches. Some say that 2nd level is more difficult than 3rd level, because of the technical aspect and the level of collection. Collection means that the horse takes more weight on the hind end, which is the goal of training dressage. The horse's hind legs are built like a spring, therefore he is better able to move under a rider by being taught to shift his center of gravity over the hind end, which is not how the horse naturally moves, he naturally moves by carrying most of his weight over the front end. By teaching and strengthening the horse to use his hind end, we free up the front end to be more expressive and beautiful, and maintain the soundness of the horse. This is why I love dressage, because it makes the horse more beautiful!
Simple changes require the horse to canter on one lead, take a few clear steps of walk, and then canter on the other lead. The collection needed to make this successful is a huge leap from the collection needed in 1st level, and some argue that it is closer to the collection needed at 4th level than it is to even 3rd level. It is common to see horses take a few steps of trot before walking, which indicates the horse is not collected enough, and this does not score very well. The horse needs to nearly canter on the spot before taking a walk step, which is the preparation needed for the canter pirouette, which is introduced in 4th level.
The counter canter is difficult for many horses, because it requires the horse to canter on the opposite lead that is natural to him. It requires a degree of collection, and straightness. It is only shown at 2nd level, and though it is useful as a straightening exercise, it is dangerous to let the horse get too comfortable in the counter canter, because then he will never do a flying change! For example, Preston could do a 10 meter circle in counter canter without even thinking about doing a flying change. I could not use the difficulty of the counter canter to teach him the flying change. However, now that he has the flying change, it is much more difficult to keep him in counter canter! This is why 2nd level is hard to show. You must be schooling at a much higher level at home, which stabs you in the foot, because your horse has "moved on" and the higher level exercises are usually physically easier, and the horse will always want to do what is easier.
Finally, the turn on the haunches is a very technical maneuver, even if it takes place in slow motion - at the walk. The judge looks for the horse to maintain the rhythm of the walk, show a clear bend, and do a turn about the haunches, with the hind legs describing a small circle. This movement is in preparation for the walk pirouette, and the canter pirouette, where the forehand of the horse moves around the hind end, with the hind legs marching nearly in the same spot.
Of course, horses always try to foil even your best laid plans. If they can spend your money for you also, they will. I am sure this is not uncommon among horse people, but the day after I registered him for the show (Finally!) he comes into the barn with 4 swollen legs. It is pretty normal for an active horse to once in awhile stand in his stall overnight and come out with "stocked up" legs, but for a horse to come into the barn after being outside all day, is pretty uncommon. I still don't know what caused it, but Preston sure liked the special treatment! He got wraps on his legs to get the swelling down, ice on his legs, light work, ice again, wraps again...rinse and repeat. Finally he was being treated like the king he is, he thought. He was never lame, thank God, but nonetheless, it is pretty scary when your horse's legs swell up like that!
We had our first lesson with Briana today. I was a little nervous that I signed up for the show without getting any feedback first. I was pretty confident that we were ready, but of course, there is always room for improvement. Our lesson went very well! We are definitely ready to show 2nd level, we may even do well, but we will definitely have fun!