By Karen Sweaney
With my purebred Arabian gelding, G Ima Starr FA, known around the barn as Speedy G, this June we finally earned the last score needed to qualify for a USDF Bronze Medal. That’s not an uncommon achievement, many riders have done it. I don’t think many ex-endurance horse and rider teams have done it though.
A Bronze Medal is awarded once a rider has met certain score requirements. There are six scores required: two scores of 60% or higher from two different judges from two different shows from First, Second, and Third Levels. It sounds ridiculously easy, and for many, it is. Not for us; it took Speedy and I nearly a decade. Part of our slow journey was because of Speedy’s numerous injuries. Just about the time we were ready to move up a level, something would happen that forced a layup of months which meant we often repeated that level. We spent three years at Training Level and another three years at First.
There were the deep hoof bruises caused by wearing shoes; we went barefoot. He developed tendonitis after an exuberant turnout. He sliced open his coronary band; on what we never found. He knocked out a tooth. He sliced open both front legs requiring sutures. Then he developed PPID, commonly referred to as Cushing’s Disease, which caused repeated hoof abscesses. Speedy always recovered well, but the “time outs” took their toll on our training.
Our slow journey wasn’t all Speedy’s fault though. Most of our snail’s pace was because we were never intended to be a dressage team in the first place. I bought him as a three-year-old to be my backup endurance horse where he completed several endurance seasons. When my superstar endurance mare died in 2010, I realized I was ready for a change. After nearly two decades competing in the sport, I looked around for something else to try.
Dressage looked like fun, but while Speedy could trot for the better part of 50 miles, neither of us knew much about contact, collection, or halting squarely. What we did know was trotting forward freely with a rider who stayed up and off his back. Because I had never taken riding lessons, we started at Introductory Level and then moved ever so slowly through Training Level before we even thought about earning the necessary scores from First Level. And the truth is, it never even occurred to me that we might actually make it to First Level, and certainly not Second and then Third! Obviously, we did.
Along the way we struggled – we have lots of scores in the high 50s, but we also made consistent and steady progress. We’ve either won or been reserve at every California Dressage Society (CDS) Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC) from Introductory through Second Level. In 2012, we were the Novice Introductory Level winner with a 67.000%. In 2014, we won the Training Level Novice division with a 72.600%. A few years later, in 2017, we were reserve in the First Level Elite division with a 66.029%. We won the Second Level Elite division in 2018 with a score of 64.268%. In August 2019, just days before the RAAC where we were slated to show at Third Level, Speedy developed an abscess. We were forced to withdraw.
We’ve also earned USDF Rider Performance Awards at Training, First, and Second Levels. From CDS, we’ve earned a Second Level Horse Performance Award and the Ruby Rider Award (two scores of 60% or better from Training, First, and Second Levels). And of course, with our most recent scores at Third Level, we’re now eligible for a Third Level Horse Performance Award from CDS.
In 2019, Speedy was diagnosed with PPID, otherwise known as Cushing’s Disease. Even with medication (we have a Therapeutic Use Exemption from US Equestrian) it has taken some time to get his symptoms under control. Knowing that horses with PPID frequently become insulin resistant and are more likely to suffer laminitic episodes, I began to recognize that our time competing together wasn’t guaranteed, and each day’s ride might be the last. While finally controlled, Speedy’s PPID is likely to shorten his showing career. I didn’t want to earn a Bronze Medal on a different horse though. Speedy and I had started this journey together, so I wanted him to have the honor of getting us all the way there. Knowing that time might be short only added another layer of pressure to get those Third Level scores.
Over the years, we’ve had plenty of help from our trainer, Chemaine Hurtado, owner and trainer at Symphony Dressage Stables. While Chemaine is now based closer to me than before – she’s still an hour away, getting weekly lessons has been impossible. For many years, I was lucky to ride with her at most once a month. Even without being able to ride in a steady program, Chemaine has been a tremendous support, frequently coaching me through problems over the phone or by text. As a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medalist, along with holding all three Freestyle Bars, Chemaine has a vast reservoir of knowledge. It was that expertise and vision that enabled our progression through the dressage levels. With her guidance, she has taken an endurance pair from Introductory Level to the Bronze Medal. We would never have been able to earn the needed scores without her instruction and vision.
After I finished my first ride on Saturday, I felt pretty confident that we had eked out at least a 60%. Hearing that we had indeed earned a qualifying score left me feeling more relieved than happy. After working so diligently for the past several years, I expected to feel elated at finally having achieved my goal. Instead, I just felt utter relief. Earning a USDF Bronze Medal was a lot like earning my first 1,000-mile Medallion from the American Endurance Ride Conference or finishing my first 100-mile endurance race. Those two milestones left me feeling like I could truly call myself an endurance rider. The Bronze Medal has given me a similar feeling. Now I feel a bit more confident in identifying myself as a dressage rider.
As I lay in bed that night, I felt both happy and unburdened. By Sunday, I felt pressure. As a USDF Bronze Medalist, I now feel like I had better start performing like one. It feels as though the bar is now higher, that more should be expected. Even though we’ve earned the necessary scores from Third Level, we’re not done with it yet. That left to right flying change still gets stuck and our half passes need more bend and a lot more forward.
Now that I am not putting so much pressure on myself to earn that Bronze Medal – you do not know how frustrating it is to be one score away, I think I’ll be able to really focus on improving those movements where we’re weak and building on our strengths. And besides, I can’t move on to Fourth Level until we’ve had our opportunity to compete at the CDS Regional Adult Amateur Competition at Third Level in August.
But knowing Chemaine like I do, I know she’s already been sneaking in some Fourth Level stuff. I don’t mind; endurance riders are always looking down the trail to see what’s around the next bend. I may not know what’s next, but gratefully, Chemaine does, and I have every confidence in her ability to get us there.
About the writer and her horse: Karen Sweaney is a 49-year-old adult amateur who teaches fifth grade when she’s not teaching or writing. She also publishes a daily blog on her website www.bakersfielddressage.com. G Ima Starr FA is her 16-year-old Arabian, bred by Feather Arabians.