Of all the things I love most about Dressage, one of my favorites is those delicate, heart beating out of your chest moments when you hear, “you’re on deck!” You shimmy into your jacket, have your team wipe down your boots, take off your horses wraps, and take a deep breath. If you’re me, you take a little walk, talking to your horse about how, no matter what happens, you’re thankful to share this opportunity with them.
Exactly two years ago, I had this conversation with Joy. The biggest difference is it was our first FEI centerline. I had shimmied into my shadbelly - something so sacred and foreign to me I felt like I was playing dress up - and I couldn’t get a single change to save my life. I was frustrated, having traveled the 5 hours to get to the show venue, having worked as hard as I could with a 2 month pregnant mare to get us both ready. We hadn’t even gotten to school in the show arena, which has mirrors, the day before for some godforsaken reason I can’t remember. I was frustrated for selfish reasons, but I was trying to set those aside to focus on the tremendous task at hand.
Never had any bell before a test been so nauseating. A completely unknown feeling prior to this test. Maybe that was the 70% humidity coupled with 90 degree heat. Maybe it was the fact, for no apparent reason, Joy and I couldn’t get on the same page for even a single flying change, much less 4x or 3x tempi changes. I knew the lateral work was solid. I knew we might be able to keep it together to see both halts. And after the our routine halt, pat, and “thank you, sweet girl,” before entering, we cantered down our first Pre St George centerline.
Underwhelming is a generous term to describe the mediocrity that happened during that test. It’s like my lower legs were no longer attached to my body, stiff and doing their best impression of rigor mortis. I didn’t prepare for each movement appropriately, I didn’t focus Joy enough to tune out the external factors (like a dog running into the arena??), and holy god, the changes were a sight to behold... if you like train wrecks. But we made it happen. And honestly, I didn’t know the small places we lost points until I watched back the video. We went for a long walk afterwards, to cool off and to regroup.
When I got my score back, a 58.9%, I was gutted. I’m not sure what I expected considered the average quality of the work we had shown and the mistakes that had happened. I excused myself from my Joy Team and found a quiet place, far away from other people and horses, and let myself cry like a little kid.
You see, when I was younger, I remember having a rough show with Apple. We had worked really hard. I knew my diagonals, I had practiced my sitting trot, was getting both canter leads, and Apple had been doing less bucking than usual. I was excited to go into our training level test. Well, let me tell you any shred of confidence I had wobbling down that centerline was shattered after Apple began screaming, kicking, and bucking. At one point, it was all I could do to keep him in the arena. There was this swell of embarrassment when I told the judge “thank you,” through hidden tears. I was embarrassed because I had felt his nerves kick in and him stiffen, but instead of trying to help him relax, I had chosen to ride the test. I spent some time with him after untacking, talking to him and telling him I was sorry. I hadn’t even bothered checking my score. Let’s keep in mind, I’m nine years old. That type of overwhelming genuine disappointment in yourself is hard to explain at such a young age, and showing any sign of weakness to my barn mates was like bleeding in shark infested waters.
One of my barn mates came up to me and asked what was wrong. I wiped my eyes and said nothing, of course. Then I remember her telling me something that was forever seared into my memory.
“You’re just crying because you didn’t get a ribbon.”
Setting aside the fact how terrible little girls an be to each other, that set a standard for the rest of my riding career. Ribbons or no ribbons, my disappointment in a ride would come from my own ability; from letting my horse down. Never because of a ribbon. And I would make that clear to everyone I encountered.
Flash back to 23 year old bailey having a cry behind a disused trailer at a show grounds. I told myself to get a grip. No one was disappointed in me but myself. My parents were proud. My best friends knew how I was feeling and did nothing but bolster me up. My then fiancé found me and told me exactly what I needed to hear. “You’re on the right path - you know that. Your horse needs you.” He was right. Despite my disappointment at not being able to present Joy at the potential we all know she had, it was one ride. One score. A first PSG test for me AND for her!
Five years before, I had started the process of backing the most ungainly, attitude riddles three year old I had ever met. I was 18, and I had never ridden past 2nd level. I didn’t have the financial means or previous knowledge to guarantee we would ever achieve anything more than becoming first level packers. I hoped Joy and I would make it to 2nd level some day! My dreams fit my budget, but they would shortly be outgrown by the heart of a good partner.
My fiancé and I held hands as we walked back to the barn, after he had fixed my tear filled mess of a face. I had realized why I was so upset. Just like with Apple so many years ago, I had let my horse down by not listening closely enough. While I couldn’t promise it wouldn’t happen ever again, I could promise that I would continue to try to be a better partner and let the disappointment I felt in myself fuel my desire to serve Joy better.
Joy and I schooled later that night. We rode like we would at home. Lots of stretchy happiness, listening to my favorite music, asking a little more reach and push with each step. It was better. We were happier. At the hotel, I rewatched my test from that day and took notes.
The next day of the show. Our warm up was different than the day before, only focusing on basics and accuracy. I heard, “Bailey Magee Nolte, Fair Joy, on deck!” Shimmied on the shadbelly that suddenly felt a little more mine. I laughed and smiled, making jokes with my dad who was so nervous for me he looked like he was in labor. Classic Tracy.
We jogged around the warmup while I tried to remember which way to turn after the first halt and I gave Joy a good ear rub. The bell rang, I took a deep breath, halted for our customary pat a little farther from A so afterwards, we could eat up that ground in a big canter, focusing on being in front of the aids. I rode each movement the best we could for the horse I had that day - one who was a little tired, a little bit pissy about the mirrors, and not 100% sure on her changes. Instead of trying to get any on the tempi lines, we just did a single clean change, for which I gave her a good rub for. She was softer. I was more accurate. We were ourselves like we are at home.
I left the arena with a smile on my face. I didn’t let Joy down with nerves and expectations that time. My Joy team whisked her away to be hand cooled while I peeled off my jacket and helmet. My dad, like he had for years, hovered around, asking about certain noticeable mistakes and improvements, and what my score predication was. I guessed a 60, and I was happy it would be the first score towards our Silver.
We ended up with a 62.7% which was a nice little boost, especially considering there were no tempi changes. Haha. Most importantly, I had a little reminder from my childhood that no matter what test or what horse I’m riding, my goal is to do my best for my horse. To give them the experience and exposure they deserve. At the end of the weekend, I had a little pregnant mare who was officially an FEI horse. I was officially an FEI rider. That shadbelly was mine. We belonged because of tactful, empathetic, and harmonious riding, even if it wasn’t a 70% by any means.
Baby Bailey would have been proud. Lord knows, adult Bailey is. I did Joy justice, something I’ll continue to try and do for the rest of our careers.