Reflections of a First Year Dressage Competitor

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By Lori LaFave

I have always loved horses.  Always. 

Growing up, my family couldn’t afford riding lessons, let alone an actual horse,  so I always did what horsey people do – tried to find ways to be around them, to smell them, to touch them, to watch them.

Fast forward, and once I had a job of my own and I had moved to Virginia, I started riding at the age of 22, and purchased my first horse at the age of 25.  I did all of the fun horsey stuff; trail rides, local hunter shows, lower level eventing – and just had a blast.  Then marriage, career, and two children,as you all know, that wrecks havoc on a riding schedule, so I just enjoyed my horses, rode when I could, and spent as much time with them as my schedule allowed.

Fast forward 30 years.  Here I am.  I finally have the time to devote to riding as more than just a hobby – I purchased a new horse in August of 2020 and decided I wanted to try this “dressage thing”.

Here is what I learned this past year:

  1. Buying a new horse is one part matchmaking, one part educated eye, and one part a leap of faith.
  2. The making of a dressage team (horse and rider)  takes a village – trainers, friends, family, veterinarians, farrier, feed store folks, mechanics (when the truck or trailer decides to go kaput), tack stores, riding organizations…. I could go on and on. 
  3. I have NEVER worked so hard, both physically and mentally.
  4. My 50-plus year old body  is NOT the same as my 20 plus year old body once was – but I ride smarter.
  5. Being new to the dressage world, I volunteered; I scribed, I was a ring steward, I set up and took down for shows. Why?  To learn.  I have met the most amazing judges, riders, volunteers, and “horse people”! 
  6. I have also witnessed the most touching moments while volunteering – the young girl that had trained her OTTB and was so proud to show him in an Intro class – with her parents looking on (all of us with tears in our eyes at her final salute at X).  Or, the para rider that a judge was so complimentary of after her test that she literally grew in stature in the saddle as she left the arena. My favorite though, might be the dad who came running up to the arena to watch his teenage daughter – and he said to me “I don’t understand any of this, but, gosh it’s beautiful – isn’t it?”  Yes sir, it is.
  7. Every show I have been at (whether as a competitor or as a volunteer), I have made it a point to meet the Technical Delegate.  Why?  Why not?  They are a wealth of knowledge, and I have so many questions.  Some of my questions are about tack, some are about proper show etiquette, I want to know it all!  At one show during a break, the TD and I sat in her golf cart and we showed each other pictures of our horses and kids, and we giggled like school girls – why?  Because if you are involved in this sport, you LOVE horses – and you always want to show pictures and tell horse stories!
  8. Above all – no matter how competitive you are – it is always ALL about your horse.  Always.  I have withdrawn in the middle of a test because my horse took a very bad step in horrible rainy conditions. Did I want to continue to get that much needed qualifying score?  Of course.  Did I? No.  My partner was giving his all, and he couldn’t give his best at that moment, so  we pulled up and waited for another day.
  9. Noticing and being kind to the people around you at shows, in the barn – matters.  This sport is hard.  I have told people I do not know what a lovely test they just rode, or that their horse is magical to watch, or that they are turned out like champions – and I have meant EVERY word.  To see them sparkle when I have made these comments, well, it is a special moment.  (AND I ALWAYS THANK THE VOLUNTEERS AT SHOWS WHEN I ENTER AND EXIT!!!)
  10. I have made new lifelong friends.  What an unexpected treasure this has been!  Dressage folks are intense, driven and loyal. I am so honored to be a part of this world and these people.
  11. Winning is nice – ok, heck, it’s wonderful – who doesn’t want a ribbon?  But we are ALL on our own path in this sport, and maybe today you just had to make it down that centerline, or control your horse in your canter circle to feel like an Olympic champion.  It’s the moments – and the biggest thing I have learned this year – is to cherish each and every moment I get to be on my horse, or around him.  These horses are absolute miracles, and I am amazed, always, that they allow us to be a part of their world.

Year one was fabulous……..I can’t wait to see where the journey takes us and I can’t wait for year two!  I look forward to seeing you all out there, thanks for making year one so memorable!

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