From Sea To Shining Sea

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As a dressage judge, I visit the four corners of the U.S. (literally) yearly, including California, Florida and New England. This summer, I judged a combined training event and a dressage show on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound, where I’ve been several times before. To get there, I flew to Seattle, rented a car and drove three more hours north and west, including a ferry ride.

These weren’t tiny local shows. There were five dressage rings on Friday with 350 horses, plus 100 more wait-listed and huge divisions up to intermediate. Then I moved five minutes south and judged a two-ring straight dressage show for two more days, at an equestrian center that provides monthly recognized dressage shows. All of this was held in sight of Canada on a spit of land that can be crossed in five minutes.

I’ve been thinking about those eventers at Whidbey as I fill out my own entry forms. Some of them came from as far away as Montana — that’s two snow-capped mountain ranges to cross. And I recall when I once judged near Denver and then two weeks later near Chicago (a thousand miles apart) and saw some of the same horses and riders at each of the shows.

I live north of New York City, and I often gripe about driving my trailer three whole hours in order to show my horse. Of course, I deal with NY-area traffic and bridges, so I’m allowed some minor petulance. I yearn for the lush opportunities I had when I lived in New Jersey, where if a show was more than an hour away I didn’t bother.

We all get complacent in our own little sand boxes, and it’s hard to maintain a sense of perspective. You’d expect the dressage on an island in the middle of Puget Sound to be, well, so-so, but it was a better weekend for me as a judge than I often have in the Middle Atlantic region. The reason is that the level of competition is consistently fairly high, and riders there expect to have to raise their level of skill to do well. I don’t find that attitude everywhere I judge, when sometimes people seem to feel they deserve a ribbon if they just show up.

Dressage is riding’s ultimate example of delayed gratification, taking five to nine years or longer to get a horse from training level to Grand Prix, if you get there at all. But dressage riders don’t face the challenges of timed jump-offs or galloping across fixed obstacles at speed or staying put on a reiner doing a rollback at full tilt. Everyone at some point feels the other guy has it easier.

The next time you start to whine because you have so far to drive to a show or so long or so hard to train, stop for a moment to consider the person who has even further to drive or longer to train. Then enjoy the journey.

-Margaret Freeman