A Very Horsey Weekend

It started on Friday.  Alexandrine was taking her young horse, Valentine, to a PROPER dressage competition in Aix-en-Provence, a three-day show.  Her mum (my riding buddy MC) was going along as groom.  Would I like to go too? they asked.  Hell yeah!  And I could do Valentine’s plaits for her – MC hasn’t plaited before.

So 7.30am saw me leaving the house and heading to Reillanne were I waited at MC’s house for Alex to arrive with the truck.  I was looking forward to the day.  Valentine was entered in a young horse class.  I’ve seen the Dressage Ireland version of these; now I would get to see how the French do it.  And maybe some other classes too…

Valentine was very stressed when we arrived.  Not in a ‘leaping around hysterically’ way.  No, she internalised her stress.  The worst behaviour she displayed was pawing at the ground, but you could see the tension throughout her body and, every so often, she groaned with the effort of behaving herself while I plaited.  I wouldn’t have fancied getting up on her myself, but Alex is a cool customer and she hopped up and rode her away easily.

The first thing that struck me about the warm-up arena was the lack of de Gogues.  If you remember this post, when I went to a Club level competition last year, I was horrified at the devices they were using to strap their horses’ heads down.  No, for this PROPER dressage, there were no gadgets, just people working-in their baby horses.

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This is Aros, one of Alexandrine’s breakers from least year. This was his first day out. Deuxième prime, unfortunately.

MC & I left Alex & VaVa warming up in the tender care of the third groom who had turned up (Alexandrine’s sister, Nini, who lives in Aix) and we went to watch a few tests.  The first one we saw was really good – in fact, this horse went on to be placed joint first that day.

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Yes, I know I chopped the rider’s head off. Oops.

What surprised me (and I’m pretty sure this is different to Dressage Ireland, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) was that when the test was finished, the rider remained in the arena and the judges discussed their performance over the PA system, pointing out where marks had been lost or gained.  I found this really interesting.  Perhaps it was a bit public, but the judges were kind, using the ubiquitous phrase “but perhaps today was not the best day” when things didn’t go well for one or two competitors.  This only happened in the Young Horse classes – the following day, when there were other ‘normal’ tests going on, there was no discussion with the riders.

The Young Horse tests were not marked on a movement-by-movement basis, but with a set of overall criteria –

the paces : walk, trot and canter were each marked separately

submission, relaxation : marked together

overall impression : marked separately

Horses scoring over 70% are awarded the classification of “Première Prime” – First Class.  If you have two Première Prime marks throughout the year, you qualify for the National Championships.

Horses scoring over 65% are awarded the classification of “Deuxième Prime” – Second Class, but doesn’t count for qualifying for Nationals.

Lower than 65% doesn’t seem to count for anything… sigh…

Finally, it was Alexandrine’s turn to go.  It wasn’t the best test I’ve ever seen her do and, unfortunately, the judges agreed; they felt Valentine was too much against the hand.  They earned a score of just over 67% – Deuxième Prime, a good score, but not good enough.

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Tant pis... we ate our picnic, waited for the prize giving (Valentine was joint 4th) and made our way home, laughing & joking all the way.  In French.  I have come a long way 😀

I intended to go home, have a bite to eat, get changed and go up to the farm to ride Aero.  Then MC suggested that we bring safe little Flurry down to her house in the truck and ride from there.  Well, I really wanted to ride Aero – it was the best part of a week since I had ridden him.  And I really wanted to go for a hack, too.  And not going home to get changed made a lot of sense.  So I borrowed a pair of jodhs and a pair of boots and we brought Aero down to her house in the truck… It was the first time I’ve taken Aero somewhere and ridden him myself – ever!  Not a big deal in the great scheme of things, but another step in my journey with Aero.  And he was PERFECT.  Dare I say it, as good as Flurry.

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By the time we had finished riding and brought Aero back up to the farm, I had been out doing horsey stuff for nearly twelve hours.

I wasn’t going to go back to Aix for the second day.  Really, I wasn’t.  I felt guilty about neglecting the poor Long Suffering Husband.  And the dogs.  But he assured me that he was really busy and wouldn’t be much fun even if I did stay at home, so next morning saw me dragging my sorry butt out of bed at 6am to repeat the process.

This time, Valentine came out of the truck and recognised where she was.  There was no fidgeting, no pawing at the ground and no groans of frustration coming from her.  MC did her plaits while I supervised and we were almost ready to go… when we got a message from the warm-up arena that the judges hadn’t arrived yet and the young horse arena would be running half an hour late.

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A Spanish mare in the young horse class. Note the clipped mane and tail – standard for mares

No problem… I sauntered off to watch a few horses and keep an eye on the young horse arena.  They were allowing eight minutes per horse, so when the horse two before Valentine went in, I went to the warm-up arena and told Alexandrine she had fifteen minutes to go.  She’s not as tuned into me as the Youngest Daughter used to be…

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Army guy and a horse who was hit hard with the ugly stick… yes his nose really looks like that!

The horse before her finished, and the judges started to go through their marks and comments.  At this stage, Alex and VaVa should have been walking around the outside of the arena… MC ran off to get her and I stayed to listen and hoped that Alexandrine wouldn’t be ruffled by being rushed…

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I needn’t have worried.  She went around the outside of the arena, saluted the judge and off they went.

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Brilliant test.  VaVa was marked down for her walk, but got high marks for submission and relaxation, leaving her in second place with just over 70% – Premier Prime!  And half-way towards qualifying for the National Championships!  Hooray!

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Lather, rinse, repeat… picnic lunch, wait for the prize-giving, home again in the truck, laughing and joking even more this time.  Then I took Aero out and worked on our travail sur sol stuff.  There’s an Equifeel competition next week and I wanted to practise with him.  Home again around 6pm, and in bed by nine – I was wrecked.

But the weekend wasn’t over.  We had arranged to ride down to Reillanne and back the next day – a distance of about 10km, a 2.5 hour ride.  There were four of us – MC and Quieto, Nini on Shadiya (a livery mare), Alex on Pepi (the latest breaker, a gorgeous paint gelding) and me on Flurry.

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Left to right, Quieto, Pepi and Shadiya

In hindsight, we could have chosen a better day.

There was a strong Mistral blowing and Pepi was really excited, both by the wind and by being out in a large group.  Alex is a brave girl…

Worse than the wind, though, was the fact that it was Rando Reillanne day – a day when cyclists and hikers are invited to come and follow the well-marked trails through the woods near Reillanne.  We had a rough idea of where they were going, and we thought we’d avoid them.  We were wrong.  We could see the cyclists passing on a nearby section of trail as we rode through the lavender fields (the fields of restful slumber!).  We decided that it would be safest to put Flurry at the back as we joined the trail.  He’s pretty good with bikes, having met loads of them when we did the Big Trek two years ago but, even so, he was still a bit bothered when cyclists appeared behind us on the narrow trail.  We stood aside several times to allow groups of cyclists to pass.  Pepi the baby horse was amazing – not in the least bothered by the bikes as they skidded and bounced down a slope right in front of us.  Safe, Sensible Flurry was more upset by them than Pepi was!

We altered our route to take us away from the cyclists and were soon riding into the village, to find the third reason why it wasn’t the best day to do this trek.  Being a Sunday, it was market day, and the village was mobbed with people (as well as stray cyclists).  Pepi’s future career is to be the mode of transportation for a Gardienne Forestière – a forest ranger, I suppose.  He will encounter a lot of hikers and cyclists in his future.  He will probably also encounter some very busy environments.  Never one to miss an opportunity, Alexandrine decided that she needed to buy a roast chicken – it would be good experience for him!  So all four of us dismounted and led our horses right through the middle of the busy market.  I’d love to say I took photos, but I’m afraid I didn’t.  I was too busy watching out for stray kiddies going under Flurry’s big hairy feet.

We left a very busy Reillanne with no incidents, just one poop in the middle of the market (it wasn’t Flurry.  That’s all I’m saying).  Soon we were back in the woods again.  And Pepi, after ninety minutes of being the perfect baby horse, threw a huge tantrum.  He didn’t want to go forward, he didn’t want to stand still, he just wanted to dance on the spot, lash out at whichever misfortunate horse was behind him (Flurry, unfortunately) and even tried a couple of rears for good measure.  What was all that about?  It seems he wanted to be in front.  Alex rode in front the rest of the way home and he was almost perfect, apart from another kicking incident when I lined them up for a photo and apart from another melt-down when Quieto took the lead again.

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Flurry & I, Pepi is in disgrace in the background after trying to kick Shadiya

Flurry was barefoot throughout, on some horrifically stony trails, and was foot-perfect, even trotting to catch up with the others when we were on some of the worst surfaces.  He did a great job of paring his feet on this ride, so much so that the farrier wouldn’t touch his feet today, especially when he heard we are planning another long one tomorrow.  He told me to make sure I touch up the ‘mustang roll’ after tomorrow’s ride, but otherwise his feet are A+ and I’m a happy barefooter.

And that, folks, was how I spent my weekend.  I’m off to read a few blogs and catch up on what the rest of you have been doing.

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4 thoughts on “A Very Horsey Weekend

  1. You have some serious staying power to have done all that horsey stuff this past weekend!I love dressage, but the downside is the way many people crank on their horses and get them behind the vertical. Even at the Olympic level the judges are too accepting of this.

    Yes, we have had some up and down weather in Brockport. It was a very long and cold winter here and spring has had a few very hot days. As of now, the flowers and gardens are beautiful..This area has been hit with a lot of rain that started last evening…then the temperature is going to stay in the 60s for most of the week. Agree….extremes all over this country. The planet is roaring out a message.

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  2. I’m not sure how the dressage scoring is done in France…I’m rather amazed that the judges discuss one’s score over a PA so that everyone can hear. I wouldn’t want that. Here in the US, one picks up one’s scored sheet after one’s test, with the judges remarks written. Sometimes one gets to talk to the judge before leaving the ring, but there’s often a lot of folks waiting to test, and a time schedule to keep, so you don’t want to chat forever with the judge.

    And forgive me, for I cannot be considered an ‘expert’ in dressage, but in virtually all your pictures of horses testing, they all seem to be ‘behind the vertical’. Is that what you mean by ‘too much against the hand”? If they’re all doing it, then it would seem as if the judge would need to point it out for every one…or no one should be ‘dinged’ for it, as they were all doing it.

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    • First point first – the public ‘baring of the soul’ was just for the young horse classes – the rest of the classes were just as you describe. I’m going to amend my text accordingly to make that clearer! They allow 8 minutes per test instead of the usual 6 to give the judges time to go through their marks and remarks with each competitor. Sheets are handed out at the prize giving, but again the YH classes are judged differently, with no marks going for the riding of the test and all of the marks being given as collectives instead.
      Secondly, behind the vertical… yes, most of them are, from time to time, although it’s hard to tell with that poor ugly chestnut horse and his big Roman nose! The first horse, the dark bay, wasn’t, but you can’t see that in the photo. The Spanish mare was very tight and overbent and was marked down accordingly – 62% I think. Having done judge’s training and spent many hours scribing, in my experience, a judge would be quite forgiving with a young horse who is slightly behind the vertical so long as everything else is correct. In Valentine’s case on day one, she was tight and running through the bit, causing Alex to use much stronger aids than usual. In the case of the Roman nose, the rider (from one of the French military schools) was holding him forced in a tight outline and the judges publicly tore into him for this – fair play!

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