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Sep. 25, 2021 | Saturday
Editorials and Opinions
Opinion: Butterflies and first-time jitters for horse show competition
Author Jill Troyer with her horse Oat at her first Dressage Niagara show. (Don Reynolds/Supplied)

For Dressage Niagara, it was the first show of the season, but for me, it was the first dressage show of my life. 

I slept restlessly the night before, rehearsing the patterns I would need to ride in my mind whenever I surfaced from my light sleep. Six a.m. came early and I forced myself out of bed to get ready. 

Why, I wondered, as knots began tightening in my gut, was I doing this? I never competed in any sport growing up. Now, at 61, I was gathering up my helmet and boots, loading my saddle into the car, and heading out to Effingham Stables in Pelham to compete in an officially sanctioned dressage show. 

Dressage Niagara is the only dressage club in Niagara and this was the first of three shows it holds over the summer season. There were 20 competitors trotting into the ring that day, to ride tests from beginner to very advanced. 

Butterflies were not reserved for beginners like me, even the more experienced riders had an air of nervous anticipation as they prepared for their turn in the ring. Riders and horses alike were  turned out in their Sunday best. 

Whether gray, bay, paint or chestnut, all the horses had manes neatly braided, tails brushed and gleaming, and tack clean and oiled. Their human partners were dressed for the show ring, too, in their best breeches, show shirts, and dark jackets. I had bought my first show jacket just the week before, from the consignment loft at a local tack shop.  

Dressage tests consist of riding a series of precise movements such as circles and straight lines, transitioning between different gaits. The judge assesses how well the horse moves, and the interaction between horse and rider. The movements become increasingly difficult and sophisticated as the levels progress. 

Even though everyone there took the competition seriously, I discovered the atmosphere is more fun than formal. Show co-ordinator Jennifer Moore told me that everyone at Dressage Niagara works to make the environment “friendly and welcoming for all, from competitors riding their first ever dressage test to more experienced riders being judged at an advanced level.” 

Not only do levels vary, ages range widely, from 10 years old to 60-plus. Moore added, these shows provide an opportunity to succeed and progress, and also “a place to take risks, make mistakes, and feel supported.” 

When the time came for my turn to ride into the arena, defined by small white fences with letters marking distances, knowing I was being scored at every step by an official judge, I took a deep breath and patted my lovely school horse, Oat. 

Some friends had come to give me moral support, my coach Jenny Jelen was there beaming at me, and the judge smiled at me when Oat spooked as we walked by her. All of that helped make me feel more comfortable and less like an imposter trying something she shouldn’t. Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Oat and I did our best, and my scores, while less than triumphant, were entirely respectable for a first-time effort. The judge’s comments were both constructive and encouraging.

One of the other riders in my division, Joan Bellair, said for her the shows “are a great way to showcase all your hard work, and keep your emotions and stress in check.” 

This show had a lovely twist for her. After many years supporting her daughter’s horse competitions, this time it was her daughter grooming for her, in a sweet role reversal.

Bellair was happy with her rides, saying, “I’m glad to know what to work on now and so happy my horse was calm even with all the commotion.” She won the high point prize in her division, leaving with several ribbons in hand and a happy smile on her face. 

Many hours after that early alarm, I had an answer to my question of why I was doing this. Even if it’s scary, or maybe especially because it’s a bit scary, doing something new is as exhilarating as it is nerve-wracking. It’s a good feeling at the end of the day to take a chance, put yourself “out there,” and successfully finish what you started.  

There are two more shows in the Dressage Niagara summer season, Sunday, July 28, and  Sunday, Aug. 25. And yes, I’ll be back, knowing everything will feel at least a little more familiar this time, and hoping those pterodactyls in my tummy at my first show are just butterflies for my second one.


* For those who aren’t quite ready yet for formal competitions, there’s a new event called Dressage Days at Effingham Stables.

It’s held on the Saturday before the official show. My coach, Jenny Jelen, who is also an advanced competitor and barn manager, explains that “it can be fairly intimidating to memorize a test, go into the arena alone, and be scored by an official judge. Dressage Days allows riders to learn in a friendly, inviting and simple way.” 

Jelen runs the friendly competitions at Dressage Day like a hunter class, where all the riders are in the ring at the same time. The riders are judged on the same concepts as in a formal test, but it’s a more relaxed experience. 

She said she’s looking forward to having even more participants at the next Dressage Day, to discover for themselves that “little white fences don’t bite.”

– Jill Troyer