We’re Back in the Sandbox

By Terry Golson

Dressage people call riding in the ring, “playing in the sandbox.” That’s just what we did on Sunday. For most of this year I didn’t think that Tonka was going well enough to compete, and the one show that we did go to confirmed that assessment. Recently, though, Tonka has been feeling super. Unfortunately, the recognized show season is over, but this past Sunday there was a local schooling show, so I signed us up to ride in First Level Test 1.

We were back in the sandbox, we did great (got a first place blue ribbon!) and had fun.

Each movement (there are 17, plus 5 collective marks ) is scored on a scale from 0 to 10, 10 being perfect. If you do what is asked, but only in a so-so way, you usually get a 6. I got 4 of those on Sunday. But we got 7.5 on both halts!


Even better, we scored 8s on both 10 meter half-circles.


Nowhere in the comments was a lack of energy mentioned (which in previous competitions has earned us the occasional 5.) We even had a couple of moments of suspension in our canter lengthening to score a 6.5.


One of the trot lengthenings scored a 7!


Our total score was a 67.8 which is very good. It was especially encouraging because for a big chunk of this past year any request for forward movement was met with balking and sometimes bucking. Having this willing athletic horse under me is not something that I take for granted. Riding the test in front of a judge who saw as much good as I felt validated all of the slow, hard work that Tonka and I have put in to get him back to this sound place.

Of course, I’ve obsessed over the video and have identified areas to improve. Every 6 and 6.5 that we got could have been higher if I had ridden more effectively. This winter I’ll find a barn with school horses that I can take position lessons on. However, Tonka also needs to continue to get stronger. Even when the overall picture is a rather nice lengthening, he’s still doing a quick drag of those hind toes at the trot. I’m hoping that gymnastics to strengthen those stifles will continue to reduce that drag. Also, the canter is a work in progress.  Tonka no longer peters out at this gait, and we’re getting some jump, but on the whole, it still tends to be labored and downhill.

I’m confident that if we continue to exercise outside on hills, and do poles indoors, that my little horse will continue to get lighter on his toes.

I’m also aiming to get his transitions more balanced and quicker on the aids. This is the canter to trot.


There’s a loss of defined rhythm there and couple of stiff strides.  We scored a 7, so it wasn’t awful. But I do dressage because I like how it refines the communication between my horse and I, and at this moment Tonka felt braced against me, not with me. If I improve my riding so that I can use my body more clearly to prep Tonka for the transition, and if he gets stronger so that he can set back on his quarters more as he slows down, It will flow better for both of us and we’ll be truly dancing in that sandbox.


Note that those gorgeous halts were taught with traditional tactile information (including leg pressure and closed hands on the reins), combined with positive reinforcement and use of a marker. In this way, Tonka has learned that once the halt is cued, that the criteria is to stand square and still. He does this without my micromanaging each hoof. Many sugar cubes have been consumed by him during this training process.

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