When A Low Score Is A Win

By Terry Golson

On Sunday, Tonka and I went to a dressage schooling show. There will be no photos of us with a ribbon. Our score was one of the lowest that we’ve ever gotten – a 61.25 % I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care. I like those blue ribbons. But the disappointment was fleeting because I took Tonka to the show for other reasons.

It’s good for both Tonka and I to go to new places. As I wrote about before, the more you do, the more you do. Our world shrinks to the barn and indoor in the winter, and this spring the wet conditions and mosquitos have kept us out of the trails in the woods. A schooling show would give us a place to explore. To be bold.


Tonka has recovered from his sacroiliac issues, but with such things, it’s always the proverbial layers of the onion. Peel off one and another is revealed. Now it’s become clear that his right stifle is weak. (The stifle is sort of the equivalent of the human knee.) Ask Tonka for too much, the wrong way, and he lets me know with a grimace.


The solution isn’t to stop riding. He needs to get stronger, and that will come with gymnastic exercises, work on hills, etc. But I don’t want to push him through pain. This is one reason I don’t use a drop noseband. I want him to be able to open his mouth – it’s one way that he communicates to me how he feels. When he does chomp the bit, I change up how I ride and what I ask for. The photo below was taken two strides after a tense moment. He’s back to trying his heart out and figuring out how to move strongly and comfortably. (The tail is swishing a fly, it’s not out of annoyance at me.)

This brings me back to why I rode Tonka in First Level Test 3 at a schooling show. It’s not fun to do the physio with Tonka. I hate putting him in discomfort, even if it’s fleeting. If I didn’t have a goal to work towards, I’d just ride around on the buckle and Tonka would get less and less fit and be able to do less and less in his life.

I signed up for a small-venue show with low stakes. I could scratch the class if the warm-up didn’t feel right. Or I could ease up and not push him for a stellar performance.

The warm-up felt great.


When we entered the ring, I could feel Tonka go differently because the footing was hard sand, which isn’t as kind to his joints as grass. Tonka was willing, but there was no spring to his steps.

I asked for more, but Tonka didn’t have that next gear.

Then, in the free walk, which is where we have scored eights, he did this step. Watch for it. His right hind leg can’t keep up with the others. That’s the weak stifle.


In dressage, after the test, you get your score card with the judge’s comments. This was scored a 5. “Losing action, stretch, then balance.” All true. The 5 was deserved. But riding it, I knew there was an underlying physical issue.

The next half of the test was mostly canter, a gait that has never been Tonka’s strong suit. With the added stifle weakness he’s been having difficulty doing the trot-to-canter transition because it requires him to push off one hind leg to start. I was thrilled that in the test he did the transition willingly and with a relaxed, closed mouth. But after that iffy walk step, I let Tonka canter slowly and in a downhill frame – not what one should see in First 3! But with that low criteria, Tonka went soft in the hand, with rhythm and ease. When, near the the end of the pattern, his hind hoof dragged. I was glad that I hadn’t asked him for more. That can wait for when we’re home and I can choose how many strides of what to work on.


After the final salute, the judge asked me if I was going to be in a second class that day, as this test looked like a warmup. I said that I knew that Tonka wasn’t moving forward enough, but that it was a decision I made while we do our rehab. She beamed and said I tell my students to ride for the horse, not the judge. Good for you! And then she apologized for not being able to give me higher scores, because the overall picture was so willing.

Not a ribbon, but exactly what I went to accomplish. We challenged ourselves to see what we were capable of, but not so much that we didn’t have fun.

8 thoughts on “When A Low Score Is A Win

  • Lizzie in Cornwall

    Well done, terry and Tonka!
    What an amazing judge! Wish all examiners (of animals and humans) could be like that!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      The nice thing about schooling shows is the judge is allowed to talk to you after your ride. I’ve had nothing but kind and thoughtful input from them.

  • Michelle McMillen

    Oh my; Lance does that same thing in the back end occasionally!!! We know he has some arthritis in his neck which causes front end stumbles; I’ll have to run this by my vet husband to see if he thinks we should check Lance’s stifle.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Let me know what he says. I have noticed that the day after I do pole work or similar loosening gymnastics, that Tonka’s dressage work is more “sparkly.” And, since I’ve been doing this on a regular basis, his canter is less labored.

  • Noche

    I loved your joy in the judges comments and a good ride if not a winning ride.
    I was telling my daughter the other day how proud I was of a ride on a horse that hadn’t won the show and she couldn’t understand why. It gave us a chance to talk about how winning isn’t everything and putting in the best ride you and your horse are capable of is so much more important.
    Always enjoy the blog!

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