Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Bar Has Been Raised: A Competitor Reflects on the US Dressage Finals

Jennifer Truett and Sunset N celebrate their seventh-place finish in the US Dressage Finals Second Level Open Championship. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Truett.

By Jennifer Truett

So sorry I didn't find time to post while at the US Dressage Finals Presented by Adequan, so I thought I'd write a final wrap-up post today.

I can't say enough about how impressed we all were with everything about this show. The USDF went beyond my wildest expectations in every aspect -- the incredibly smooth-running schedule, the real-time scoring, the exceptional footing, the decorations/advertising billboards, and the flowers...oh my, the flowers. Everyone I spoke with, including our international riders who were there, agreed that this show was far and away the highest-caliber and -pressure environment of any of our US competitions. As similar to European shows as we have ever had, with the exception of when we've hosted the WEG, World Cup, and Olympics.

Everyone I talked to felt honored to be there. The quality of the horses and riders was significantly higher than at any Great American/USDF Regional Championships I've ever been a part of. I believe that USDF accomplished everything it intended to, which is so gratifying after personally sitting through so many USDF Board of Governors meetings debating the various intricacies and possible success/failure scenarios over the past years. 

The big question was always, "Will the competitors come?" The answer was a resounding yes, since we had riders from every USDF region. We all left with excited anticipation for what next year's US Dressage Finals will bring.

Under Pressure: Finals Test Competitors' Mettle

On a personal level, the Finals experience taught me a lot about how my horses and I handle high-pressure situations. Very few horses at the show had experienced the kind of "electricity," sights, and sounds that this show produced, mine included.

Our competition started on Friday with Taffy's Third Level Open Championship. His warm-up was the best yet, and we were both ready to go rock that test, but unfortunately he spooked at something in the path leading to the show ring. The horse coming out also spooked, which in Taffy's mind confirmed that there might be a dragon behind that banner. He remained tense throughout the ride, even spooking away from the judge's box at B in the middle of our medium canter, turning it into a bit of a counter-canter loop! Unfortunately we ended up with the lowest score we've gotten all season and were out of the ribbons, but I felt the judging was very correct and fair considering our performance. 

I was originally scheduled to show Sunset in a 2-3 open class on Friday as a warm-up, but I decided to save his energy for his championship classes, given the difficult physical issues he was recovering from. I'm so glad I did, because at the end of Sunday he was done. He schooled more beautifully each day, and on Friday he felt better than he had three weeks ago prior to going to MSU for the diagnostic workup. (Read my previous post for an account of Sunset's pre-Finals difficulties.) We spent the rest of the afternoon watching rides in the Alltech Arena and taking my boys out for walks. 

Saturday morning was busy. Sunset's Second Level Freestyle was scheduled just over one hour before Taffy's Fourth Level Test 1 open class, and they were at opposite ends of the show grounds. Thanks to Suzy Fitzsimmons, all our grooming and pre-class prep were taken care of throughout the show. She took Taffy up to the top of the hill for his class while I got Sunset ready for the freestyle. 

Sunset was nervous in the warm-up. He whinnied several times, which is unlike him, despite having company in the warm-up arena. Unfortunately he never really settled in, and thus neither did I. When it was time to go compete, we were both not breathing well and sucked back. 

The pressure of the show actually got to me! I've never had that happen before. I've never really experienced show nerves, having shown horses since I was seven. Even at Regional Championships, I just go and ride my tests like it's no different than riding at any other show. But not here, apparently! Since I wasn't firing on all cylinders, neither was Sunset, as he is not a very confident horse and will find any hole in my strength to suck behind my leg and not "go for it." The bummer of it is that the freestyle is my favorite thing to do with my horses. I wound up not staying with my music very well and even had to improvise a bit on my choreography to make sure I got all the required movements in. I felt like I failed Sunset for not being there enough for him mentally to give him the confidence he needed. We ended up eighth in the class.

I came out of the arena very unhappy about my performance, but right away I had to ride my test on Taffy. It was probably very good that I was forced to go show right away, to break the "I screwed up" tape playing in my head. I love riding Taffy, and he always gives me energy -- unlike Sunset, who requires me to give him energy. So it worked out perfectly.

When Taffy saw me coming up the hill, he turned his head, pricked his ears, and suddenly grew three feet taller. He melted my heart and reminded me why we were here. We earned our spots at this show, and we were here to learn from the experience and grow together. He was ready to help me move on to a new level of understanding about how important it is to have the horse's complete trust and respect, especially in such an overwhelming environment.  The winds were howling, fallen leaves were blowing, and the road just beyond our competition arena was bustling with traffic. 

My often-spooky Taffy was solid as a rock, despite all the craziness. At one point my eyes teared up from the wind so much I could hardly see! The test went smoothly, but with understandable tension in his neck from the intimidating environment, and we ended up in second place after Heather Mason and ahead of several other very accomplished riders. I felt this test was confirmation that I do have the fortitude to compete under this amount of pressure and against the best in the country. Thankfully, afterward, I was able to get myself back into my competition "zone."

Sunday was Sunset's Second Level Open Championship in the Alltech Arena. I spent time mentally preparing for the test and trying to anticipate what might happen and develop strategies to deal with those surprises in the show ring. I've never done mental practice like this before because I've never had to; I've only heard and read about it. I also allowed more warm-up time and stayed completely focused on Sunset's mental state. If his thoughts started to stray from me or the task at hand, I quickly gave him something else to focus on. He settled in much better and sooner than in the previous day's warm-up. 

Fortunately, the relaxation and confidence we built together in the warm-up continued into the show ring this time. When Sunset tried to suck back in our warm-up around the outside of the ring, I changed his focus by asking for something different. We even trotted all the way around the scary judge's stand at C, coming uncomfortably close to brushing into one of the USEF Network videographers

I couldn't expect anything better than how the test went. Sunset allowed me to guide him through the scary places in the arena. I was struggling to breathe at a couple of points in the test because of my asthma, and he actually had to carry me! I even got double vision a couple of times and worried that I might pass out. He literally carried me down the final center line. The only aids I was able to give him were the canter to trot and then trot to halt. He's never been there for me like that before!

I am elated that we ended up seventh in that large Second Level Open Championship class. Our placing is perfect, since we are ranked eighth in the Adequan/USDF Horse of the Year standings. It's also amazing since less than one week prior, I wasn't sure Sunset should make the trip at all. 

Looking Forward

Now my boys get a well-deserved rest. When it's time for them to come back into work, Sunset gets to start working on flying changes in earnest and Taffy gets to pick up his work to perfect his series changes and pirouettes in preparation for next year. I am thrilled with the lessons I learned about myself and my boys from this amazing show, and I am grateful to have had a show like this early in my career to teach me what I need to work on in my own mental preparation for the really big shows that I believe are in our future. Thanks for reading about our journey, and I hope to see you at the US Dressage Finals next year!

PS. In one of my previous posts, I mentioned that I was stabled next to Akiko Yamazaki, owner of Legolas 92 and Ravel. Akiko was an amazing stablemate -- so kind and sweet to her horse and everyone around her. She and her helper, Tom, were an absolute joy to be around, and I was able to find a quiet moment to thank her for all that's she's done to improve US dressage and help us in accomplishing our mission to get onto the international podium. She was genuinely grateful as I explained how honored I was to be stabled next to her. Wow! I was very fortunate to have such a wonderful experience at our inaugural National Championships. 

Jennifer Truett, our guest blogger for the inaugural US Dressage Finals Presented by Adequan, is the owner and head trainer of Dancing Horse Farm in Lebanon, OH. She is a USDF-certified instructor/trainer through Second Level, a graduate with distinction of the USDF "L" Education Program, and a USDF bronze medalist. She is also a USDF Region 2 participating-member delegate to the USDF Board of Governors and the Region 2 Education Chair.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post Jennifer I was there all three days, and it was a great competition! Congratulations!