A dressage trainer reflects on her fifth journey to the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®
By Angelia Bean
My fifth trip to the Kentucky Horse Park for the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® was no less special than my first. Like my first time, in 2017, I had a student also qualify. The 2022 event was Abigail Lipow’s first Finals, which gave me the double perspective of experiencing the competition both as a veteran and through the eyes of a first-timer again.
To make this year even more special, my family decided to come watch. The beauty of new-to-dressage spectators is that they think it is all gorgeous, elegant, and impressive. Seeing the wonder in their eyes reminded me that what we get our horses to do, especially in the craziest of conditions, really is pretty cool—a perspective that is so often lost while searching for the perfect half-halt.
The Finals are a far cry from most other dressage shows. My family got a skewed idea of what it’s like to be at a dressage competition. But the heated Alltech Arena is a much more spectator-friendly environment than the usual dusty arena next to a horse-trailer-packed pasture. Plus, shouldn’t every show include an afternoon bourbon-tasting trip?
Our trip from Pennsylvania to Kentucky this year had one moment of drama: We managed to tag a deer somewhere in Maryland. My truck luckily sustained only minor bumper damage, but the incident woke us all up. Once Abigail and I were sure the truck was still road-worthy, we continued our Westward-road-trip tradition of singing John Denver’s “Country Roads” as we crossed into West Virginia.
Although my championship class wasn’t until Saturday, we traveled on Tuesday. I wanted my mount, Capitano, Shelley Schuler’s wonderful German Riding Pony, to get as much time in the Alltech arena as possible before the crazy show traffic started. That arena can bring out all kinds of emotions in a prey animal, what with the stadium seating and the constant motion over their heads. I also wanted Abigail to have plenty of time to get comfortable in the environment before her First Level Adult Amateur Championship class.
“Capi” is a 100% good boy, so his version of “scared and overwhelmed” is to back off. He shows his tension by blowing his nose a lot. I wanted to show the judges the best version of my wonderful mount, so Wednesday we spent a lot of time in the Alltech, hoping to diffuse as much of his tension as I could. We walked; we schooled; we walked some more. Once that was no big deal, we practiced walking through the tunnel that connects the indoor warmup ring to the competition arena. Once that was also no big deal, I took him back to his stall. A few hours later, we did it all again. Thankfully, we found relaxation much faster the second time.
Between Capi’s trips to the big ring, Abigail and her horse, Heitrak’s Yari, toured the show grounds. They spent time in each of their competition arenas, getting comfortable in each space. The gorgeous 70-degree weather made for a really pleasant, if uncharacteristic, Finals day.
Thursday morning, the day of my Intermediate I Freestyle open class, I decided to skip the early-morning schooling time in the Alltech, as I didn’t want Capi to get intimidated by the crowd. I planned my morning to the minute. Show nerves skew my sense of time, and I always want to get on too soon. The more anxious I am, the earlier I want to get on. I didn’t want to leave Capi’s best moments in warmup, so I set two alarms on my watch. The first was my “don’t get on before this alarm goes off” alarm. The second was my “do not start your trot work until this alarm goes off” notification.
When the first alarm sounded, I tucked my music into a fanny pack and headed to the Alltech.
My carefully planned warmup went well, except that I felt as if I’d given myself a bit too much time. When the horse before us finished, I headed to the tunnel, only to be stopped by the ring steward. Since last year’s Finals, I had forgotten that competitors are allowed into the Alltech only three minutes before their scheduled ride time. I had to decide between going back to the warmup or holding in the tunnel. I decided to hold in the tunnel so that Capi could get a good look at the arena.
With exactly one minute to spare, I realized that this had not been the best choice. Capi started to get anxious and play with his tongue.
Do not panic, Ange…do not panic…do not….
Deep breath, here we go….
For Capi, the scariest aspect of being in the Alltech is the judges at C and M. I circled near B, sneaked up to M and gave them my number, then did my best to “inspire” my mount to boldly go where he really didn’t want to go.
Then our music started, and we did our thing.
It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t overly amazing, either. I managed to do about 70% of my planned half-halts at semi-appropriate times. I even remembered to give after some of the half-halts and to lighten my seat in the half-passes. Capi only blew his nose during one of his tempi lines. The pirouettes, which were spot-on in warmup, became quite large in the ring. By the final center line, my horse actually felt a bit tired.
My family, of course, thought it was the most amazing thing they had ever seen. I will admit, doing flying changes to “The Bear Necessities” from The Jungle Book is a pretty sweet way to spend my time. They decided to celebrate by buying Finals swag to take home as souvenirs of the experience, and I of course bought a few things myself. Having this many dressage vendors in one place is a rare shopping opportunity in our spread-out nation.
After Abigail schooled “Yari,” we headed to Lexington Brewing & Distilling to taste the wares that had helped to fund the Alltech Arena. We polished off the night with ice cream before tucking the horses in and calling it a day.
Since Capi had felt tired at the end of his ride, I decided to scratch his FEI Test of Choice class on Friday and school instead. After watching video of Thursday’s ride, I wanted time to address the ways my nerves rearranged my riding position (I have no idea what happens to my left shoulder when I start a test; it is clearly controlled by my evil twin). I also wanted to school the setup to the pirouettes. In my freestyle, they come eight strides after a half-pass and flying change. Since the pirouettes worked in warmup but not in the test, one factor might have been the way I rode those eight strides—or it might have been the oh-so-scary Alltech, which I couldn’t control, so I decided to focus on the thing I could control.
In our training session, I tried several different approaches, some focusing on the bend, some on the balance, some on the energy. I left the schooling arena unsure of whether I’d found the ideal plan for our championship class, but I definitely had a plan.
I met my family for Japanese food before heading back to the Alltech to give them a play-by-play while rooting for friends in the open Grand Prix class. One aunt was completely enchanted by the tempi changes. My uncle, who had barrel-raced growing up, was amazed at the strength required of the horses to piaffe and passage. We had a fun discussion about the gender disparity in dressage as compared to eventing or racing. He noted that the willingness to be critiqued in the minute detail that we dressage riders eagerly submit ourselves to isn’t a personality trait he possesses.
Watching classes over the weekend, I was struck by the much higher quality of rides as compared to my first trip to Kentucky, in 2014. The winning Grand Prix Open Championship score that year, 68.500%, would have been tenth in 2022. The first year I attended, Shelley, Capi’s owner, commented that it was rewarding to see “normal” dressage horses competing at the FEI levels. But this year, competition seemed to have shifted more toward CDI riders who were prepared to hold their own at the upcoming Adequan® Global Dressage Festival in Florida this winter.
Saturday, the day of my Intermediate I Freestyle Open Championship class, dawned cold and rainy. After the days of beautiful weather, the dramatic change was shocking. The night before, Abigail, who had an early class in an outdoor arena, and I discussed how the highest scorers would not necessarily be the top horses, but rather the ones that best handled the abrupt weather shift.
Well bundled up, Abigail warmed up Yari according to plan. Then she took off the layers and headed into the arena. About then, the wind and rain picked up, coming directly from H. Yari backed off in the pelting rain. Their score was not their best, but it was Abigail’s personal best while showing in the rain. The class ran well into the afternoon, by which time the rain had ended and scores crept up. Despite finishing out of the ribbons, she was happy with how she and Yari performed in the weather and the big environment.
Capi and I weren’t up until afternoon. I divided my time between worrying about the changes I had decided to make to my warmup and to one part of my freestyle pattern, and chatting with trainer friends. In a business in which so much time is spent in our own sandboxes, visiting with peers is a luxury.
Then it was time. I set both alarms on my phone, tucked my phone in my pack, and headed to warmup. This time, my warmup plan focused on getting quick reactions to my leg, in the hope that I would be able to quickly and invisibly push Capi up and forward if he got behind me in the show ring again. I had used this plan at the Great American/USDF Region 8 Championships, where we’d had to perform in another stadium-style arena, and it had worked well.
This time, I waited until the ring steward called before I headed into the tunnel.
Capi was much more “up” than in our previous test in the Alltech, but there was a lot of nose-blowing. We had some uncharacteristic mistakes in places that had not been problem areas for us this year. My pirouette plan worked pretty well in one direction but made him too hot in the other, and he almost spun around. He nailed all of the tempis, but the tension made him quick in the extended trots. The result was Capi’s best score ever in the Alltech, but it wasn’t high enough to earn him a neck sash.
The next morning, Abigail and I loaded up for a thankfully uneventful trip home. We agreed that both of our horses did their best in the scary environment, and we were both very proud of them, despite not finishing in the ribbons.
At a rest stop on the way home, I noticed that my uncle had changed his Facebook profile photo to an image of himself with Capi and his dog. The caption he’d written summed up my own feelings:
“In an event for champions, Capi is our favorite champion.”
Angelia “Ange” Bean is a USDF gold medalist and a USEF “r” dressage judge who operates her Straight Forward Dressage business out of Black Swan Farm in West Chester, Pennsylvania.