Then There Was the Time We Tried Dressage


Early yesterday morning, Mark and I, along with my friend Candace and her horse Winter, set off in my trailer for a dressage show. It was pouring rain, but Candace and I had spent all week memorizing our dressage tests, practicing our dressage tests, pretending we were riding our horses in the show doing the tests, pretending we were riding our horses in the Olympics doing the tests, pretending we and our horses were in parades doing dressage, that we were in the movies doing dressage, etc.  We had videotaped each other practicing the tests, and while we reviewed the videos we first heaped praise upon each other, then heaped more praise upon our horses and then proceeded to skip all the polite praising of others and focused all our energies on praising ourselves.  As each day brought us closer to the show, we really were finding it hard to grapple with our own fabulousness. We came to believe that we probably really belonged at a nationally recognized show of some sort, based on our videos, and we decided not to pay too much attention to our trainer Katja’s bothersome concerns about our riding positions and our horses’ responses to our riding aids. We’d sort all that stuff out at the show!

According to Wikipedia, the fundamental purpose of dressage ”is to develop, through standardized progressive training methods, a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform, thereby maximizing its potential as a riding horse.  At the peak of a dressage horse’s gymnastic development, the horse will smoothly respond to a skilled rider’s minimal aids. The rider will appear relaxed and effort-free while the horse performs the requested movement. Dressage is occasionally referred to as ‘Horse Ballet’. 

While neither Mark nor I would be considered at the “peak” of our development in the sport of dressage, we had been practicing for a good three weeks and were feeling pretty confident that we had this whole “horse ballet” thing down pat.  Candace has actually been competing in dressage shows all summer.   She bought her very beautiful and talented horse Winter several months ago and received first and second place ribbons at her first couple of shows, which really inspired me.  Sure, Winter has competed all his adult life and Candace has been working with Katja daily for months, but I didn’t see any reason why Mark and I couldn’t do just as well.  Mark’s obesity weight problem is almost under c0ntrol and my nervous disorder has sort of leveled off to a notch below full-blown mania, so I figured we were fit to go.

Finally Sunday arrived and though it was pouring rain, we loaded Mark and Winter into the trailer and set off.  The weather had turned into a sort of tropical storm/hurricane by the time we arrived at the show grounds, but after all the practicing and preparation, all the polishing of tack and grooming and preening,  if a cyclone appeared and the barns and houses around us were suddenly spinning in the air, I believe that Candace and I  would have found some way to cajole the judge into letting us ride our horses in the horse show arena.  We needed the practice. For the Olympics.

My ride was first.  I was riding Training Level, Test One.  It may sound like it’s a lower-level dressage test and that’s because it is. It’s the lowest.  The easiest.  I had memorized it, but because when I’m nervous in social situations, I sometimes forget things, Katja had agreed to read the movements of the test out to me, which is allowed. So basically, after Mark and I trotted into the ring, all I needed to do was to smile politely at the judge and then listen to Katja’s commands to trot a circle at ‘A’, canter at ‘E’, etc.  What I did was trot into the ring, smile politely at the judge and then proceed to lose, simultaneously, my memory and my ability to understand the English language.  We trotted and cantered around the ring, my mind racing, my horse careening this way and that and at some point I came to understand that there was a bell ringing.  We had gone off-course.  We were not riding the patterns that were on the test, but were instead trotting and cantering around the ring in some kind of haphazard fashion that made no sense to anyone but to Mark and me.  I thought we were doing the test. Mark thought we were in some kind of race.  Katja was wondering why she was telling me to go in one direction and I was going in another.

Going the wrong way

Going the wrong way

I don’t have to wonder what the judge thought.  She provided comments with our scores.  ”Energetic horse!” “Running” “Hollow” “Crooked” were some of the comments about our “horse ballet.”  We decided to do a second test and in that one, at least, I stayed on course.  We got a 4th and a 6th.  In classes with 4 and 6 riders.

Candace got a big red ribbon for her second place win.  Candace’s comments? “Nice pair.” “Lovely transitions” “Nice!”

One of us is deeply disturbed. The other, happy as a clam

One of us is deeply disturbed. The other, happy as a clam

But here’s the important thing –  Mark had the time of his life.  He’s been on a strict diet for weeks and yesterday there was a hay bag in front of him on the trailer all day so it was basically a delightful moveable feast for him. When he was removed from his pleasure dome trailer, and allowed to finish smacking his lips and sighing and flatulating, he was ridden into a ring where all eyes were on him.  He was quite delighted with himself, as usual, and on the way back to the trailer, while my face was scarlet with shame, Mark was swaggering past the fancy imported European show horses as if to say, “I  know, I know. I’m great. Y’all look like foreigners. Me? Born right here in the good ol’ U.S of A!”

In the end, he always made me smile

In the end, he always made me smile




  1. and in the end,, he always made me smile…..

  2. Thank you for reposting this, Ann. The wonderful stories about your animals has made me fall in love with all of them, and I am still a bit sad this morning after reading about Mark last night.

  3. Ryder Ziebarth says:

    GREAT post-My God. So funny. What fun memories. I always thought it was sort of sad /not fair when I beat an eight year old in my beginnger hunter -jumper classes. But not really. The ribbons hung out the car window all day, while Elliot and I secretly gloated.

  4. i laughed again! so bittersweet, reading it, knowing that you just had to say goodbye to sweet mark.

  5. Kristin from Mpls says:

    I loved that article then, and now I love it even more. That’s Mark in a nutshell from what we have always read about over the years. Still, I know there is tremendous amount of pain and grieving in your hearts. He couldn’t have had a fuller life or more beautiful place to live than at your farm, and at the boarding place. He may not have been a “champion”, but in the real world he was as close to perfection that he could be. Many hugs and prayers to all of you, including the staff at the stable who must be so distraught themselves. XXOO

  6. Ann, I cried reading the previous post about Mark’s passing. This post had me smiling. I hope you find comfort in all your wonderful memories of a truly special guy.

  7. Christine says:

    Quite a handsome pair! You are just beaming!!!

  8. Marsha from Massachusetts says:

    Thanks for re-running this great & funny story.

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