The USEF rulebook says: "The levels of dressage are offered as a means of evaluating a horse that is changing." I think about this a lot, as someone who makes my own Grand Prix horses. But lately I've been thinking a lot about how much a horse changes within any given level, particularly the top one.
Midge the 3-year-old was a wild man. Then he grew up and became a trained horse. But even as recently as two years ago, we still sometimes used our athleticism for evil. Last year, Midge came into his own. At the end of the year, he wasn't Mr. Spooky-And-Snorty anymore. He could still be tight and strong but not in a rebellious way. He was Mr. Eye-On-The-Prize.
As the Grand Prix work has come together, he's matured even more. And now, I'm finding that I have to warm him up very differently than I did even just a few months ago. I used to just walk-trot-canter with a stretchy neck, maybe make some half steps and calm, cool lines of changes.
Today, I tested a much longer warm-up with much higher intensity work, and it worked brilliantly. I found that there were places I actually had to turn up the heat. The longer I worked him at full throttle, the better he got.
I've made other changes. As Midge has matured, he's gone from an easy keeper to pretty normal. I've changed the way I feed him, switching from Pennfield's ration balancer, All Phase, to a more high-performance grain, Fibregized Omega, with some Grand Prix Granola for oomph at the shows. He sees my chiropractor and acupuncture specialist vet, Dr. Casey, and gets regular massages from Tina up north and from Sal in Florida. And he gets preventative icing after every hard ride.
Ella's on a similar program in the barn. Her ride has also changed, even since starting to compete Grand Prix. She also benefits from a long warm-up, which is how she's always been, but I don't warm her up long and stretchy anymore; instead, we get right to business, doing some boring but very helpful laps of uphill and packaged trot and canter to get her moving, and doing our stretching at the end.
Both of their weeks have changed, partly out of necessity - in the last 18 months my business has soared, hoorah!, but now I'm almost always away on weekends - but also because they've changed. Midge used to go best a little unfit, only doing real work 3-4 days a week and hacking the other 2-3. Now, he does arena work every day, though sometimes it's fluffy work, and hacks out a little after every ride. Ella's gone the other direction: She used to need to really WORK six days a week. Now I find she's better with a day or two of lighter work in the middle. And now they work twice a day, for fitness. They both spend an hour in my exerciser walking in the afternoons; Ella's going to start adding trot sets to her evening session.
Fender, as a point of contrast, has barely changed at all in the last six months. He's stronger, for sure. His topline is better. I think things are improving, slowly. But mostly we are hanging out in the same little plateau, which is fine. I keep thinking back to how Midge learned the half-steps, something he's just absurdly gifted for. Even with all that natural talent, the first few times I asked for them (at about 4, 4 1/2, and 5), he looked at me like I had three heads and didn't offer me anything. Then, at about 5 1/2, he said, "Oh, piaffe? Sure, I can do that." And never looked back. When they're ready they're ready, and when they're not, they're not. So onward we plod.
Whether we show or not, I'm at peace with the fact that none of my horses are the same as they were six months ago, even the more finished ones. It means I have to be adaptable and constantly changing, too. And that's the real challenge!