Nautica’s First USDF Show

Last weekend, October 10th and 11th, Nautica participated in his first ever USDF horse show and first off-property outing as a dressage horse. We were excited to support our home state of Alabama in the Solo Flight I at Full Circle Horse Park in Pell City. The remnants of Hurricane Delta were expected to make a giant, wet sweep across central Alabama but we were undeterred.

It was a dark and drizzly morning, the start to The Weekend from Hell…

Okay, maybe that’s being a little dramatic. It was a rough weekend. It was also a fantastic weekend!

It began at 7 AM Friday morning when I hitched my truck up to my trailer and plugged in the electrical. I had running lights… that was about it. I did not have brake lights or turn signals. Somehow, in the weeks since having checked it last, the wiring got AFU. One panicked phone call later, my local trailer guy was, thankfully, able to get me in at 7:30 AM, an hour and a half earlier than official business hours.

Two hours and one-and-a-half working tail lights later, we were ready to load.

Those of you who have followed Nautica’s journey for the past two years know about his history with hauling. Despite a number of successful dry runs, I was still extremely apprehensive about taking him on the road for a two-hour trip. I had been anxious about this drive ever since I became aware of the show’s existence and made it my goal to get there this fall.

White-knuckled, I pulled out of the barn and onto the big, scary road to the horse show. Nautica was surprisingly quiet. Concerningly so. The whole trip, I was saying to myself, “He’s too quiet. Something must’ve happened. Is he okay back there?” Spending two hours with your own thoughts in a stressful situation, even with distractors, is rough. 

We got to the show grounds and Nautica unloaded just as calmly as I’ve ever seen him. He settles right into his stall, munching on his hay like he hadn’t just had the absolute most stressful trip of his life like I had. Probably because he didn’t. He was fine.

“What’s wrong, mom?”

After taking a few minutes to unpack Nautica’s things and breathe for the first time since 7 AM, it was time for my next challenge: riding Nautica in public for the first time ever as a dressage horse. I tacked Nautica for his ride and put on my boots and helmet, all too prepared for “2014 Saddle Seat Nautica” to suddenly make his grand appearance.

For the record, there is nothing wrong with “Saddle Seat Nautica”, however, at a dressage show, we prefer quiet and workmanlike to jiggy and show-boating. Typically, in Intro Level, the most boring horse wins. I swing a leg over at the mounting block, ready to quickly contain a jigging-giraffe situation.

Nothing happens. 

Nautica calmly stands for me to mount and walks off when prompted. I slowly release the death grip on my reins. We make our way into the arena on the buckle.

Our pre-show ride went without a hitch. Nautica was soft and responsive and even… round? There were no major spooks or “giraffe” moments. The things that would previously ruin Nautica’s whole day didn’t even phase him. Show management was literally setting the dressage arena down around us as we rode our twenty-meter circles and Nautica didn’t bat an eye. We rode through ankle-deep water… we hacked out in the field. I didn’t know what to do with myself. He was just so easy to ride.

On the buckle and feeling selfie vibes as we head back from our pre-show ride.

Saturday

Saturday morning came and we braided and prepared for our first test: Intro B. I was strangely not nervous, mostly in part due to the fantastic ride we had Friday afternoon. Regardless, I took time to lunge Nautica early in the morning to test how he was feeling on day two after having time to take the whole experience in. He was a complete doll.

It was a strangely calm show morning, something I was not very familiar with. I took comfort in having only signed up for a walk-trot test for our first day but I still opted for my instructor to call my test just to be extra sure that my nerves wouldn’t suddenly appear and get me lost in the show ring. 

The sky darkened and it began to pour. This was the beginning of five inches of rain over the course of two days. I thought back to when a young Nautica spun and dumped me over a puddle during our first week together and first public appearance in saddle-seat-land. Thankfully, dressage-Nautica put on his big-boy pants and braved the rain with me, albeit tail tucked and ears in “airplane mode”. Regardless of his feelings about the rain, Nautica did his job. I like dressage-Nautica.

Despite the rain, our test was fantastic! Honestly, I don’t remember the actual ride but I do remember smiling and taking a huge breath of relief upon the final salute. We did it! Our first “real” show as a dressage team!

Sunday

Now for the hard part: Sunday, Intro C and cantering in public.

Nautica’s canter leads can be iffy when he gets tight over his back. Similarly, when Nautica becomes tight, his canter can feel like riding an ostrich with the gait quality of a jackhammer. 

Sunday came and I was to ride at 8:06 AM, the second ride of the day. As I arrived I fed, mucked, and fixed Nautica’s braids. I was sick to my stomach. It was kind of ridiculous to be nervous about Intro C. We had, numerous times, done much harder tests in front of an audience but for some reason this was different. The entire weekend’s worth of stressors finally caught up with me all at once and I was completely panicked. For some reason, I chose the thirty minute window before my test to decide to freak out. It seemed like the logical thing to do.

Luckily, anxiety attacks can only last for about twenty minutes and I was tacked, dressed and ready in time for my test. Given the circumstances, it made sense that our Intro C test had a few more rider mistakes than our less-stress Intro B. I had a couple of dumb-rider moments such as incorrect posting diagonals (Really, Sheila? You’ve only known your diagonals for over a decade now.) and cantering a letter early on my circles. Nautica was a perfect angel and did everything that was asked of him promptly and with a great attitude despite an arena full of puddles and a rider clearly having personal issues. He knows his job as freelancing therapy horse well.

It was a rainy, miserable weekend. By our last test on Sunday—Intro B again—the arena was all but unrideable but Nautica never complained. Throughout the whole weekend, Nautica earned us a 71% and 70% in Intro B, both times a tie for first place, placing second in the collectives (no doubt the rider score), and a 64% in Intro C despite a rider-mistake-laden test. I couldn’t have possibly asked for more from Nautica. As a “stressy” person, it’s a huge relief to have such a calm, reliable and reassuring horse to have at shows. While I am already worrying over the next one, I know that Nautica is beyond ready to take on Training Level in November. Now it’s my turn to stop worrying about him. He’s 100% got this whole dressage show thing down.

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