DRESSAGE DAILY

Preview of Courtney King Dye's Autobiography, Courtney's Quest

Tuesday, August 5, 2014
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Through all of these hectic, exciting, stressful times I often become suddenly and poignantly aware of how incredibly lucky I am. I must have the most amazing support group around me. My husband is truly astonishing… he gives up his weekends to schlep around with me, working in the barn, making DVD’s, returning phone calls, organizing hotels… whatever helps. And my assistant Jennifer and supergroom Elias make it so I never have to worry about my horses’ care at home; they’re so dedicated and after so long with me basically know what I want before I say it.  They NEVER cut corners, and I’m extremely particular about the details of care. My owners… the ones who stay behind hardly say a word of complaint that I have had to leave them so often, and the ones who send their horses with me pay those incredible bills without giving me the slightest angst (although I cringe to send them sometimes). Lendon who’s always there to offer great advice and is so creative and willing to be helpful in logistics. Steffen who basically arranges my entire trips to California and even opens up Hotel Peters for me. And then all of you! I remember writing about how great of a team Debbie McDonald has behind her. But she ain’t got nothin’ on me! I feel like the cell phone commercial with “the network” of a million people following them around making sure they have connection everywhere! I’ve been extremely touched by the support sent to me from all over the country… both financial and emotional. Thank you all so much for accompanying me on this amazing journey. Let’s hope it takes us far from home!

The afternoon of June 18th, Steffen and I move our horses to San Juan Capistrano. My assumption that this show will have a different vibe from any I’ve been to isn’t contradicted. A grandstand surrounds the single show ring and only riders I’ve idolized since Lendon was just a picture in a magazine populate the barn. They don’t act as if we’re competing against one another but as if we’ll compete to find the best Team to represent the U.S.

There’s a hunter/jumper show held simultaneously, so the million small ponies competing in it will add enthusiasm to counter the reduction in Idy’s energy due to the heat that’s supposed to blanket the weekend. The walk to the warm-up is a dirt path next to a road with plenty of interesting scenery, so his curiosity and need for adventure will also be sated.

This is the first time in a decade and a half that Olympic teams will consist of three members instead of four. Previously the fourth ride allowed the lowest score to be dropped from the Team total, but to reduce the time necessary, the IOC, or International Olympic Committee, has done away with drop scores.

The top twelve horses in the country will compete to earn one of these three spots and a reserve rider will also be taken. Each Grand Prix counts for 35%, the Special counts for 20% and the Freestyle for 10% of the total score.

My goal with each horse for the first Grand Prix is a solid, clean, perhaps unexceptional test. Idy’s fairly steady. He may be slightly better or worse than usual but I basically know what to expect. With Myth, I don’t. He’s capable of getting a 73 or 74% when he’s on my aids and I can go for it, but if I try to go for it when he’s trying to take over, we’ll make many mistakes and do poorly. It’s not worth the risk. At the rate he’s continuing to improve, I’ll have a better chance at success if I take chances next weekend.

The high on show day is ninety degrees. The heat has no effect on Myth but Idy finds it quite uncivilized to have to sweat like that, so I work him lightly in the morning and before we show, do twenty minutes of light warm-up, one piaffe and a lot of walk.

Entering the arena, it feels that conserving his energy helped. The first piaffe gets 8’s and 9’s and he even has a major spook at the beginning of the first half-pass. But then he begins to feel the heat. I don’t push him, ride more to avoid mistakes than to impress the judges because the heat is like a heavy cloth weighing down all his limbs, inhibiting his movement, and if I push I might instigate blatant rebellion. We do manage to avoid mistakes, but as we leave the arena he jigs and struts, spooks again. My hand ceases its patting and regret courses through my veins as I realize that he had energy, he’s racehorse fit. I rode like a pansy. His score is 69%. It could have been 72% but I was a wimp.

I used to have to compromise with him—if I said you will or you must or got after him in any way offensively, he’d say you know what, I’m just not interested. But now he does allow me to get after him when he deserves it. His willingness to take corrections has grown but my carefulness has remained.

After I take his bridle off, Steffen pokes his head in the stall and says, He’s feeling the heat, isn’t he?

He is, but, Steffen, I could have pushed him through it. I would never have accepted deflation from any other horse. It’s a serious problem; I’m often too easy on him simply because I love him so much.

Sometimes you just have to love them the other twenty-three hours of the day, he replies.

Debbie McDonald, an Olympian I’ve always admired, stands beside Steffen and says, Don’t be so hard on yourself. It was still good and it’s only 35% of the final score.

As Allana takes Idy, he gets excited by a horse passing by, screams and dances around, tries to drag her out of the stall. I feel like a fool, like a man who finds his wallet is gone after being seduced.

Debbie follows me under the portable canopy Steffen brought, sits beside me and doesn’t say anything. I tell her I’m so mad at myself, more for not doing my best after all the immense support that’s been given to get me here than for how it affects my Olympic chances. I know it was by no means horrendous, but the least I can do for the people who’ve made it possible for me to come here is my very best. I didn’t ride well.

Courtney, we’ve all had enormous help to get where we are. No one can do it by themselves. And none of us does everything perfectly, there’s always something we wish we’d done. But everyone knows that. They support a human being.

She waits for me to look at her, takes my hands and says, Now you can show your best on Myth.

 

Although the disappointment in myself remains, she’s right; I can show my best on Mythy, and I don’t let it alter my plan to go for a conservative and mistake-free test. We achieve just that and although there are many comments on the short neck, I’m sure if I’d tried to let it out more, we would have had many mistakes. He gets a 70%, which isn’t much better than Idy but I feel I rode him the best I could so I’m happy.

The end results of the first day are: first Steffen on Ravel with 75.7%, second Debbie on Brentina with 72.6%, third Steffen on Lombardi with 70.6%, fourth Myth with 70.2%, fifth Idy with 69.0%, sixth Michael Barisone on Neruda with 67.3%, seventh Leslie Morse on Kingston with 65.4%.

Idy’s the very first horse to go in the Special the next day. I forego my love for him for the hour and when he complains about the heat in the warm-up, we have words. Then he puts in a solid clean test for 70.2%. It’s a great credit to him that now I can get after him and he rises to the occasion. He’s been doing Grand Prix for nearly eight years and still (or perhaps I should say again) gets inspired and does a great job.

Myth feels more on my seat than he did in the Grand Prix and I’m able to put my hands very forward on the short sides so at least the judges can see that he’s in self-carriage. One section of the test is very similar to the pattern of the Grand Prix: down the centerline, pirouette right, pirouette left, trot at H and extend. Only in the Grand Prix, the extension is on the diagonal and in the Special it’s down the long side. I gear up and prepare to go for it, to take a chance. And I do—straight across the diagonal. Off course, two point deduction from each of the five judges.

Somehow this blatant mistake is less disappointing than yesterday’s with Idy. I had a brain-fart, made a human mistake, but I didn’t choose to ride badly. It’s embarrassing but Jason points out that I’ve done worse: the triple pirouette.

When the final results are in for the class, I’m grateful that my mistake didn’t affect the placings. Steffen and Ravel win again with a 75.7%, Debbie is second with 74.1%, Myth is third with 73.1%, Idy’s fourth with 70.2%, Steffen and Lombardi are fifth with 67.2%, Leslie is sixth with 66.9% and Sue Blinks and Michael both get 66.4% for seventh and eighth.

I really think I need to go and dye my hair brown for some artificial intelligence; this blonde thing just isn’t working out. What in the #@!* (heck).

The next day, both horses have a well-deserved day off and Jason and I lounge by the pool. For the four days before we show again, Idy mainly hacks. I do a bit of work and demand quality, but rest will improve his performance.

I have a tough choice with Myth. His muscles are tired so they need rest but he’s a horse who must stay working or he gets extremely strong. The compromise I make is a dangerous one with a horse you’re not sure is a hundred percent confirmed but it’s the only option I have: I only work on throughness and basics—won’t do any movements until the final day.  

On Thursday at two in the morning, we’re woken by a horrendous screeching. An announcement tells everyone there’s a fire, to take the stairs and proceed to the parking lot, which we do more to escape the noise than because we believe there’s truly a fire.

Jason, Debbie and I sit on the sidewalk and discuss how cruel it is for them to have a drill during the Olympic Trials. Then Jason points out that who cares about dressage anyway. Debbie replies that at least it wasn’t Saturday morning.

We sit outside in our PJs for an hour, and as we make our way back to our rooms, we find out there was a real fire.

Idy’s the second horse to go in the Grand Prix and as soon as I get on, he’s cranky—tight and snippety. I can’t figure out why, but he mans up and does his job to put in a solid, clean test. He only gets a 69.9% and I’m surprised by the low score. All the judges had him at 70-72% except Uwe Mechlem, the German judge, gave him 66%. Mechlem is a good judge and Idy was a bit cranky in the contact, so perhaps he saw there was a little tilt in his head, which should be vertical, or some inconsistency so everything got marked down a point or two. The score is barely better than for the first Grand Prix but I’m happy with Idy as well as myself.

As I rehearse Mythy’s test in my mind a final time before getting on, a deep calm settles over me. When we enter the warm-up ring, everything but the horse beneath me fades away. It feels as if the last week’s work, the last month’s work, the last decade’s work, culminate. The good that I so wanted to be, worked over twenty years to become, is at my fingertips. My body and his are connected. It’s not like a centaur after all. I don’t think and he does, the synapses in our bodies connect. Right before I go into the competition arena, Lendon says, Are you going to go for it? I affirm with a monotone, Uh huh, and trot in.

He takes over a little bit outside the arena and I do major haunches-in right, both because I want to get the right half-pass sharp as it’s been difficult, and to reiterate the half-halt. Then we enter. He’s perfectly steady and waiting for me every step. I’m able to let his neck out completely; I barely need the reins at all.

 

As I do the final salute, tears sting my eyes. I cannot thank my horse enough for his amazing heart and spirit, and as we leave the arena, I have the courage to give a photographer two thumbs up. I’ve never before been so proud. When tests are good, I’m normally happy with the horse but I don’t think of how I did unless it’s bad. Now pride in myself—the hard work, self-discipline, patience, constant striving—to accomplish what we just did joins the gratitude to my horse. Then my score is announced: 75.208. Steffen went right before me and got a 75.25. He comes up while my tears are still threatening and says, You had the winning ride. That was amazing. Every step, amazing.

The results of the class are: first Steffen and Ravel with 75.25%, second Myth with 75.208%, third Debbie with 73.0%, fourth Steffen and Lombardi with 70.0%, fifth Leslie with 70.3%, sixth Sue Blinks and Mark with 70.4%, seventh Idy with 69.9%.

As we’re waiting for the awards ceremony, Guenter Seidel comes up and places a hand on my knee. Says, That was the most beautiful Grand Prix I’ve ever seen.

He’s been in three Olympics, has seen the best in the world, and I don’t know him well so there’s no reason for him to come up to me at all. I don’t know what to say. This should feel like a dream but nothing could feel more real. The sweaty horse beneath me who has no idea what he just gave me. The bustle of excited people. Reaching the pinnacle that countless people have allowed me to achieve like an oxygen tank on a climb up Everest.

Klaus says, That was the ride of your life.

I reply, So far.

He loves this because he takes it as attitude, but I’m utterly serious. I know there’s even more in this incredible animal. When I can convince him to simply not try too hard, his suppleness and power will shine. Right now there’s a cloak of control subduing that power. I strive to remove that cloak.