Dressage is a world of striving toward an ideal (as are many pursuits in this crazy life of ours) – whether it be that perfect 20 meter circle, bringing your horse to Grand Prix or keeping those damned heels down. Because of this there can be a tendency to be looking forward, or sideways, leaping from goal to goal and comparing your progress with your peers. We, as students of dressage, are stuck in the realm of conscious incompetence, and sometimes that does not a happy rider make.
When I judge schooling shows, I see another side of the sport, a side which refuels my ‘dressage soul’. For many, schooling shows are the first experience they have with our white box and all those strange letters. There are children riding ancient Arabians at walk and trot and there are terrified beginners who are shaky on the whole ‘salute’ concept and might give the judge a big ol’ wave. I see maniacal young horses being ridden by grim-faced trainers, pony clubbers doing their due diligence on the boring dressage portion and so many other breeds! Paints! Morgans! Quarter horses!
Schooling shows are a testing ground, a place of basic learning, a workshop before the big exam. As the judge I have the privilege and responsibility to usher these people into the world of dressage. I have taught more than one competitor how to salute, have run to the warm up to grab the next rider, have given cookies to a horse afraid of the judging booth and have encouraged, educated and occasionally eliminated.
On the other side of things is the seasoned schooling show attendee. We all know dressage is expensive. Even the word sounds expensive. Schooling show circuits allow those on a meager budget to get out there, to compete, to learn and improve. They can haul in their anglo-arabian, braid as their husband holds the lead rope, put on a nice polo and ride their test for a tenth of the cost of registered shows, which for many are prohibitively expensive.
I know what it is like to wake up early in the morning, put in an enormous amount of time and effort to attend a show, only to have my bum handed to me by the judge. That is the nature of the sport and a gauntlet we all must pass through, time and again. For many, the schooling show is their first time down this gauntlet, poor dears. There is a freshness, a love of the experience that can be lost by going down centerline time and again in the pursuit of first place. Competition can eclipse the sport itself and at schooling shows, there is a softer, more interactive experience.
It is the variety, the scrappiness and back to basics love of dressage that truly appeals to me at schooling shows. I love the 32 year old quarter horse guiding his young rider through their first Intro A. I love the teenage son reading for his mom’s second level test and pronouncing everything wrong. I love the beautiful riding on alternative breeds. I love the exhausted show manager surrounded by children holding ribbons. Most of all, I love being a part of these people’s lives for the six minutes that they are in the ring and having a chance to share that experience.