October 2020 - To Show or Not To Show …
Written by by Nan Meek
Thursday, 01 October 2020 15:42
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dressage news

That is the question during fires, festivals, and championships.

by Nan Meek

Whoever said dressage is as exciting as watching paint dry clearly did not coin the phrase in 2020. Myriad monumental wildfires that began in mid-August created evacuation havoc throughout California, Oregon, and Washington, followed by choking smoke that blanketed much of the state. COVID-19 restrictions that began in mid-March evolved into uncertainty that kept riders on the edge of their saddles, waiting to hear if bucket-list competitions would be held or not.


Fires, Smoke, Championships

 

As we go to press, riders who traveled to Del Mar are competing in the 2020 Great American Insurance Group/ USDF Region 7 Dressage Championships and the 53rd California Dressage Society Championships, held concurrently at the Del Mar Show Park. That show is the ultimate bucket-list competition for hundreds of dressage riders in California.

Lily-Rose Bacon and Warm Night, FEI Junior Division, 2020 U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions. Photo: Susan J. Stickle Photography

It’s been a rocky road getting there, for those who are competing and for those who are organizing the show. In mid-July, the CDS board was faced with a quandary:  Move the championships from their original venue, the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, due to its continuing closure required by local government’s response to the pandemic? If so, where should it move? Or, should it be cancelled?

After taking in extensive suggestions and concerns from members, and evaluating the advantages and drawbacks of available facilities, the CDS board decided to move the championships to Del Mar Horse Park, keeping it in Southern California. This show alternates annually between north and south, to help make it evenly (or alternately) accessible for riders in our spread-out state.

Later, the CDS board faced another dilemma due to the wildfires that swept through so much of the state, as smoke created unhealthily high AQI (Air Quality Index) numbers almost everywhere that wasn’t actually on fire. The question became whether to hold the championships at all. Conversation on social media ranged from “We can’t hold the show with all this going on” to “We have to hold the championships” and everything in between.

Warm Night with Lily-Rose and Lucie Bacon. Photo: Jerry Yang

Judgment Calls

As the days counted down toward the September 24 start of the show, the CDS board decided the championships should take place as planned, with all due precautions such as masks required at all times except when riding, hand sanitization stations throughout the facility, and social distancing.

For those who were unaffected, or minimally affected, by high AQIs that prevented schooling and conditioning, it was a welcome decision. On the other hand, many horses spent weeks breathing unhealthy air and exercising only by hand- or tack-walking. For their riders, the decision to show or not to show became a personal choice: Was the show date too soon after horses’ respiratory systems had been assaulted by damaging particulates? Was it fair to expect a horse to compete when it had been effectively laid off for weeks?

For the decision-makers at CDS, there was no way to please all of their members. For CDS members, to show or not to show became a personal choice based on each member’s individual circumstances and each horse’s unique health situation.

Some competitors were reassured by Del Mar’s AQI numbers falling into the mid-40s to low-50s during the week heading into the show, especially competitors from locations where the AQI had not risen much above the 100 mark that seemed to divide “riding as usual” from “hand-walk or tack-walk.”

Others, whose horses had been breathing particulate-laden air well above 100, often for weeks, relied on the rule of thumb that, even after AQI numbers fell below 100, a two- to four-week recovery period was necessary before resuming competition-caliber training. Respiratory health is critical to horses’ general health, even more so for horses pushed to perform at maximum effort, and the horse’s respiratory system can be easily damaged, sometimes permanently.

Showing is always a judgment call: Is my horse truly ready to compete? Am I aiming too high (or too low) for my horse’s ability at the moment? Am I asking too much (or not enough) of my horse or myself? Now more than ever, those questions are more complicated and difficult to answer.

My hat’s off to CDS for making the decision to offer a championship show, despite the challenges of the pandemic and the air quality crisis. Leaving the decision of whether to show, or not, to each individual competitor places the responsibility for each horse’s health and safety squarely where it belongs: with their owner, trainer, coach, and rider.

My hat’s also off to everyone who makes the right decision for their horses’ health and wellbeing, whether that’s to show, or not to show. If there’s one thing every DQ can agree on, it’s that every horse is a unique individual. What’s right for one can be wrong for the next.

Here’s hoping that every decision to show is made with the horse’s health and wellbeing in mind – come pandemic, wildfire, or whatever challenge comes our way.

Team HCM Dressage, left to right: Lily-Rose Bacon, Lola (dog), Hillary Martin, Woldhoeves Silco (pony), Carmen Stephens, Caroline Mader, and Lucie Bacon.

U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions

When Lily-Rose Bacon, a junior member of my CDS chapter, returned from competing at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions, I asked her to contribute an account of her experience to this column. I knew her perspective as a serious student of dressage and as a junior rider would provide a fresh viewpoint on high-level competition in these trying times. Here is Lily-Rose’s report:

For six years I have dreamed about riding down the centerline at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions. In April of 2019 I met my current equine partner, Warm Night, and our goal for the 2020 season became to qualify and compete in the FEI Junior Division. Alongside fellow teammates from HCM Dressage, I began the year with a hectic competition schedule and a great deal of excitement surrounding the possibility of earning an invitation to the championships.

When the pandemic and shelter-in-place orders brought competitions to a halt in early March, our plans became tangled in the disarray that plagued the equestrian community across the country. Our seasonal goals were put on hold, but we continued training with hope that competitions would resume. By June, competitions restarted under the US Equestrian Federation’s newly adopted regulations. While the North American Junior and Young Rider

Championships were cancelled, we remained hopeful that the opportunity to compete at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions in August would remain a possibility.

Carmen Stephens’ Woldhoeves Silco shows a little love to Team HCM Dressage.

Perseverance

Thanks to careful planning on the part of the USEF, our wish came true. With great excitement, on August 15th I, my twin sister and designated groom Lucie Bacon, trainer Hillary Martin, and fellow teammates boarded the plane to Illinois to attend the Festival. Our horses, who had flown out earlier that morning, met us in Chicago.

Understandably, the atmosphere was quite different than years prior, due to health regulations. However, having attended several post-quarantine qualifying competitions, I was familiar with the new policies. It is an understatement to say that USEF did an incredible job maintaining health protocols and addressing the concerns related to COVID-19 policies. Mask wearing and temperature checks were required in order to enter the grounds, and social distancing policies were enforced throughout the week. Because of careful planning, and the incredible enthusiasm of the community of participants, the atmosphere remained lively and supportive, and I was able to immerse myself in the experience of competing among some of the top riders in the country.

The week began by adjusting the horses to the Lamplight facility, and making our final preparations for the tests during our training sessions. Dressed in customized team shirts, we attended the jog Wednesday evening, and my horse Night and all of our team horses were officially accepted to compete in their respective divisions.

Despite an explosive ride in our first test, Night and I were able to conclude the competition with a positive experience in the Junior Individual test.

Although our tests were not as I had hoped, we brought home 15th place in the nation. After such a chaotic ride Friday, this truly reiterated to me the importance of perseverance.

Through the successes as well as the challenges, having the opportunity to compete alongside my trainer and teammates made the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions a remarkable experience that I will forever cherish. While dressage tests are ridden alone in the arena, behind every competitor there is a team, and I am beyond thankful to have endless support from my trainer, Hillary Martin, and the foundation of my team, my parents, who have made all of my dreams a reality.

A lifelong horse owner, Nan Meek lives on the scenic San Mateo County coast where dressage courts and riding trails overlook the Pacific Ocean. She competed in dressage to the Prix St. Georges level with her late beloved Lipizzan Andy (Maestoso II Athena II-1), and now practices the discipline of dressage with her handsome Spanish warmblood Helio Jerez 2000 and dotes on the newest family member Mischa (Neapolitano Angelica II-1).