I went and completely re-wrote the epilogue to my book because of this event. It only made sense, as the title — Many Brave Fools — happened because of the mnemonic that one my instructors used, and it applies so perfectly to the themes involved. Just one of those things maybe, or what happens when you’re paying attention. The experience is teased out in the manuscript (I am happily inviting literary representation, btw), but the essence of it is below: that good marks are good, but knowing why we got them is even better.

***

You Gotta Start Somewhere: My Very First Dressage Test Ever

Ever done correctly, that is, with the white things down on the ground, and the silence.

There have been any number of times in which instructors have tried to incorporate a dressage test into a lesson. Sure, we do loads of flat work in the warm up, but the flat work never gets its own time to shine, unless we try to do a test. ‘Try’, because what happens is, we get the test, we go away, we come back the next week and all get a chance to do it with the instructor correcting us as we go along… except one or two haven’t shown up that week. So we resolve to do it all over again the next week — and those one or two show up, but the weather is dreadful, so it has to be put off.

And then one or two others don’t show up the next week, or all the arenas are booked for something else, so the white things can’t be laid out properly — and then the week after that, there’s a course still set up from pony camp and we’d all rather do that

So it never gets done.

We had a test, a simple pre-novice sheet, and we did the thing where we all did it in the lesson, and the ones that hadn’t gotten it, got it, and we were all meant to do it the next week; cue all of the above, and after IDK, six weeks, we forgot about it. I had the sheet folded up into eighths in my pocket, and then gave up and left it home. That very Wednesday, as we all mounted for our evening lesson, our instructor said, “Head on out to the upper arena, we’re doing the test.”

Ah, seriously? Everyone looked at me, because I always had the sheet, and I said, “I don’t have the sheet!” and we moaned, communally. As we warmed up, we asked each other if we remembered what happened after the walk from F to H on the loose rein? Or: what happened after that last canter, did we just head straight up from A to C for the final halt or did we have to go around and change the rein and then halt?

Gahhhhhhhhhhh.

The test was simple, and I had spent a lot of time during my commute drawing it on my palm: enter at A, track left at C, 20 metre circle at B, etc. There was always a bit where it felt like my brain went on hold, after the canter — when do I walk? — and the picture in my head went all fuzzy the way TVs used to do when the signal went out. And then I’d somehow pick up the signal again, which luckily I did on the night.

It was exactly the way I imagine a proper competition to be. We didn’t warm up as a ride, we had to cope with the nerves, we had to line up outside the 20×40 metre area and trot around before we entered… I was going second and I was glad I was getting it over with. The night was warm, Connell is ‘black’, the sun was glarey — oh, the excuses were mounting!

Honestly, though, I felt confident. Connell had been surprisingly good when we practiced, even though he tried to hare off every now and again when he felt like it. His circles were nice and round, even in the canter, and that was quite a feat, since I remembered the very first circle I’d tried to get him to canter, which was more in the shape of a fried egg. I also found that his transitions were really spot on. I was raring to go, in fact, because I thought we’d do pretty well.

The first rider did her test and left the boundary, and I moved Connell away from the other horses and asked for the trot. Off we went, which proved to be too early because I had no idea that it would take that much time to mark up the previous rider’s test. Was he going to tire? I brought him back down to walk, but then thought, Am I confusing him? so I asked for trot again — if he wasn’t confused before, he certainly was now — and soon enough we were trotting in at A.

All I could hear was my breath and the beat of Connell’s hooves. The space felt super-extra-small, since we’ve never ridden within the proper dimensions before. For all I knew, he could have spooked at the white things and just walked all over them; this inspired some if the best outside leg I’ve ever applied. I had to do all the thinking since no one was hollering advice or correction from the ground, and I think we both liked that. There were a couple of times I felt like we’d messed up — at once stage, he did almost step on the white things [from the brain to the rein, Sue!] and I wasn’t crazy about the way we got into the canter on the left rein between A-F, but otherwise: delighted with the circles, especially the ones in canter, we both kept those going smoothly, and that halt at X was a combination of precision and relief.

And then we got our sheets at the end, and it was all I could to wait to add up my marks. When I saw those 10s, though: OMG.

MY FIRST TEST
The perfectionist in me is always going to respond to a good score [177], but the rider in me was purely ecstatic about the progress Connell and I have made. I’ve been riding him for the guts of four years now, and I remember a time when he wouldn’t even canter past the ride, much less in a 20 metre circle, much less halt square. I know that my riding is improving when he does what I ask, because I am finally asking properly. Added to this, I can feel my legs back from last year’s injury, maybe at 90% at this stage, and that physical strength informs my mental toughness.

Connell was getting one anyway, but that night’s Pink Lady apple was very well earned.

I want to do a Prix Caprilli next…

***

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