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Riding Dressage Tests On Grass ~ Good Idea or One To Be Avoided?

Back in the early '80's when hubbie and I competed in the NE USA the use of grass rings for anything but the FEI classes was common. The rings were quickly set up on any available flat spot and it was up to the competitor to negotiate any issues that such footing provided. This was true back then of recognized events, that thankfully are now more carefully monitored when it comes to the footing in the arenas including the warm up.

At Willowview Hill Farm we often school outside on grass

One particular event that did not go so well on a grass footed ring comes to mind, a show at King Oak in Springfield, MA.  

Our entourage that included our twins under two years old, five year old, show horse and ourselves arrived late at the event in pouring rain. Delayed by traffic on I84 in Hartford, we had minutes to unload our horse and tack up, hit the office for our number and ring info.

The assigned ring was down a relatively steep incline, a track already well worn by our lunch time arrival on day one of the show. Not wishing to delay the class hubbie gamely cantered down the grass at the side of the track and headed to the ring for his 3rd level test. The judge kindly suggested that he could hold the bell a few more minutes to allow the horse to recover its breath. Undoubtedly he was witness hubbie's fast pace to the ring as the hill was in full view from the judge's position in the ring. The test went along and all was reasonably OK. The footing was slippery and X was a mess of puddles but the footing was at least sand. The footing caused a hesitation in some of the extended work, but the horse was game and fit and gave it his best effort. All part of the fun of competition right?

As the day ran on the rain poured, and as I had three kids in tow with two in a stroller I had no option but to unfold my umbrella and use it to shelter us alongside the ring. A far enough distance not to disturb the other riders, but a close enough distance to see the rides. This much to the chagrin of some competitors, who took no care of the presence of the children and rode up and around our spot without regard. Some commented about "putting down the umbrella" etc. " Did I know this was a horse show." I ignored them all and focused on the ring.

The judge, Bill Woods in the next class, greeted hubbie's salute shy of X with a grimace. As the rain had persisted and this new ring was a grass ring that had been running all day, the track, center line and diagonals were a muddy mayhem. Hubbie continued to ride the test, but the horse was very hesitant across X and would not go forward on extensions to any degree. On the second required diagonal, hubbie deliberately rode slightly to the side of the diagonal mudstream as he feared for the horse staying vertical. The horse had already slipped out badly behind twice. 

The test concluded and of course, the judge heavily penalized the rider for 'error in test' mistakes notably stating 'off course.' Well it was a qualifying score ride so you could expect a tough stance. Not much you could do so off we went home with a missing test score for the qualifiers. 

Naturally, once home and the adrenalin rush over, the horse was unwrapped from his shipping bandages and started to show swelling and a hindleg suspensory tear was diagnosed. We should have scratched, as so many others riders had done. It could possibly have been caused by the canter down the slope but we doubted it. The slips and slides all afternoon on those ring surfaces were a much more likely reason.

During other shows the summer heat dried the grass ring surfaces out to concrete-like footing, which of course presented another set of problems. It almost seemed as if a grass ring would never be right - always either too hard or too slippery. Lendon Gray commented to us at some event or other, that it was simple enough to solve the issue of slippery grass, just add studs. Not too convenient for us as our horses were not eventers or jumpers and were shod with regular shoes. The other problem with studs in shoes on dressage horses is that unlike their jumping counterparts, dressage tests do not allow the horse to wear any leg or hoof protection. Studs in a hind show could easily cause significant damage to the bulb/heel of a front hoof with an overreach or misstep.

Recent studies have shown that hard ground can certainly damage a horse's soundness. Obviously the longer the period of percussive force and the faster the speed the greater part the hard surface plays in the damage equation, Indeed even eventers are now realizing that joint and soft tissue damage, especially to tendons and ligaments are a real risk when galloping a horse on hard surfaces.

When if you head out to the increasingly popular schooling shows, perhaps to avoid the expense of today's recognized competition, be aware that the lack of regulation regarding the footing could significantly impact your horse's soundness. Don't learn the hard way that both ultra soft and ultra hard surfaces may be detrimental to your horse's well-being. Extra deep footing such as those used at barrel racing facilities is another example of an arena to avoid. You don't have to be riding at the Olympic level like the German team at Tryon WEG last year, to know that deep footing arenas are to be avoided and scratch from an event.

We were hosting at a particular barn some years ago and the major discipline of the barn was barrel racing, so the footing was deep. As clinicians hubbie and I take the welfare of the horses in front of us very seriously, and it was plain for me to see the difficulty that one particular horse was having working in the deep footing with his hind end development. It was so apparent that I actually suggested to the somewhat regular student that she not attend this clinic venue.
A well-conditioned and watered footing is appreciated by riders at all levels of competition

I'm not suggesting that you never ride your horse on grass. Quite the opposite. When you school your horse outside it is a fantastic opportunity to freshen both you and your horse from the boredom of the ring and to work of different ground. Hubbie and I regularly school our horses outside, regardless of their level. But that is schooling, and muddy spots and deep footing can be avoided during an extension or canter pirouette. 

For most of us we do most of our schooling work on a well-footed arena that is suitable for our discipline of riding. So taking your horse off one kind of footing and then asking him to work on quite another, is something he has not been conditioned to handle. It's ironic that the footing found at most boarding barn arenas is now often better than that at a schooling show. 

Be your horse's advocate. After all, what's more important than that.


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