August is Youth Month on YourDressage! From stories about remarkable young dressage enthusiasts across the country, to articles about some of the opportunities USDF offers to youth riders, join us all month long as we celebrate equestrians aged 25 and under. They are the future of our sport!
Here, a youth rider in Region 8 shares about her sometimes mischievous pony Budweiser, and the progress the two have made after an intensive year of dressage training.
By Lucy Sheldon
If someone told the Lucy of 2021, as she was stewing in frustration and tears at the end of a long show day, that a year from then she would be competitive in First Level Test 3 and schooling Second Level with Budweiser, she would have said something to the effect of “in my dreams”.
Considering a year ago, Budweiser (aka Buddy) and I were barely breaking into the 60s at First Level because the leg-yields looked like a diagonal line and the change of lead seemed rather optional, it would be comical to think so much had changed in a year.
Buddy entered my life in the fall of 2016 at Blue Ribbon Farm, but prior to living with us, he was a trail horse (who had never seen the inside of an arena). He had a terrible habit of running off with his riders in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, so he was offered to our farm as a lesson horse. While we had some reservations about his history, he was insanely cute and very affordable, so we bought him after a month of riding him. He has always been incredibly sweet tempered and safe with our novice friends, my mom, my brother, and me, as we have all ridden him. Before introducing him to the dressage world, he carried his riders through several fairs and Future Farmers of America (FFA) shows, running around barrels, and going around the ring for Sit-A-Buck. While he may have enjoyed those years of sheer fun, I had other ideas.
In 2020, I began riding Budweiser more and decided to begin more intensive dressage training with Molly Maloney. We moved to MMDressage, in Clinton Corners, New York in March of 2021. Buddy does not possess many natural “competitive-dressage” qualities, but with Molly’s help, and through rigorous training, we have competed through Second Level. The last nearly two years with Buddy and dressage have been a rollercoaster of blood, sweat, and tears. A moment I look back at with chagrin, that really encapsulates Buddy as a whole, took place at our second recognized show together. We attended Windy Hollow Hunt’s annual June dressage show, where I performed one of the worst tests to date, ending in a fit of tears. Later that day, I spent about twenty minutes chasing Buddy around after he made a grand escape. It took four trainers and me to capture him; definitely not one of our proudest moments. It has now become an anecdote about Buddy and the mischief that often ensues when he’s around, but it was once a sore spot.
After a few more shows, some of which were not any more successful, we managed to qualify for the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Region 8 Championships in Training Level, First Level, and Dressage Seat Medal Semi-Finals. Qualifying for the championships was my one goal of the season, given we were just getting exposed to competing at recognized shows, and anything beyond that would simply be brownies on top. While we did not place in the top 8, which was foreseeable, I was proud that we put in solid tests. Surprisingly, we earned 2021 Training Level Reserve Champion in the New England Dressage Association (NEDA) Year-End Awards.
Over the winter though, we went into boot camp, training frequently with Betsey Steiner, Ben Franklin, Heather Mason, and Lendon Gray, in addition to our regularly scheduled program with Molly. Since we had the entire winter to really work on ways to improve our riding, we spent that time identifying our weaknesses. Buddy sometimes does not believe he can execute a movement with his body, and feeling anxious, he refuses to do it and instead grabs the bit and takes off. To better his understanding, and prevent a fit, we took our hiatus of showing as an opportunity to break things down. We worked on addressing movements in the walk, practicing it a lot, emphasizing accuracy, and completing things in moderation so it doesn’t overwhelm him. Sometimes when we were trying something new, it did not look particularly good because he was not strong enough to maintain it, but we had to go there in order to build that strength. For instance, to aid our change of lead, we did a ton of changes of lead at different letters or over the centerline on a circle. It did not always look as balanced as it could, but we did our best, and he has become increasingly reliable in them.
The difference in my riding on Buddy has been reflected in our scores. In our first season together, we were barely getting 60s at First Level and earning mid-60s at Training Level. Now, we are consistently earning mid-to-high-60s and low-70s at First Level.
At the end of the day, scores are not always reflective of the work and growth that goes on behind the scenes between a horse and rider. Lately, the goals I try to keep in mind whenever I enter the ring are to really ride throughout the test, to ride the geometry as accurately as possible, and to feel like there was nothing I could have done differently. What I mean by that is while a horse may spook or have a bad day, part of what makes a harmonious partnership so special is being able to help him through those difficult rides.