No more stressage! Here we will explore the art of making show days fun and productive.
It is often said that competitions are won or lost in the warm up arena. There is a perfect point at which to leave the warm up and go ride your test. The trouble is that, even when you have learnt to identify that moment, you realise it will be different with every single horse. Not only that but, even with the same horse, it may be quite different from one competition to the next. There are variables outside of your control. Day shows and stay over shows both have advantages and challenges built-in. On the whole I would say that the longer you spend in a particular environment, the more relaxed you and your horse will be.
Relaxation is key because it is the foundation of good dressage; which is why good dressage is harder to produce in an unfamiliar place. Relaxation for your horse starts with you. There is a learning curve with competitions that is quite unique; no matter how experienced a rider you are when you begin competing there are pitfalls to avoid and best practices which will make your life easier. Chatting to other riders, to professional grooms, reading blogs and watching the Vlogs of competitive riders could yield really good ideas and advice. Take on board a lot of ideas, filter it all to work out what suits you and your horse.
For my part I think you can distill the raft of important things down to two main elements:
- Time – you will need more of it than you think. Take your class time and work back from it. Allow time for each necessary activity and add an extra ten minutes to each. I have arrived with less than two hours to spare before a test, but I don’t like to. Two and a half hours for a day show suits me best. The Forty Five mins for warming up is absolutely sacred. You might not need it with every horse but allowing for less is unwise.
- Organisation – make lists and don’t check anything off of them unless it is already in the lorry. If you delegate anything to anybody make sure they know exactly what they need to do or pack and when. Only delegate to people you know will be efficient and timely.
Your state of mind at the competition is going to help define that of your horse
Some horses don’t care if the humans around them flap like budgies but the majority will. Generally speaking a flight animal is not going to be a steadying influence. Your horse will look to you for the leadership and reassurance that it needs. Be there for your horse and be calm at all costs. Organisation and timing are the things which will allow you to do this more easily. You might know that your heart rate is up and your voice has turned shrill because you forgot thread and a plait has come out; your horse will possibly suspect that imminent death is looming because you’ve spotted a mountain lion on the edges of the lorry park.
One familiar sight at day shows is a bunch of horses getting into social mode because they are in the presence of horses they have never met before. It is a bit like walking into a full bar or nightclub. You have fairly formidable competition for your horse’s attention. The stronger your leadership / friendship bond is on a day-to-day basis, the more of a chance you stand of keeping your horse’s mind on you.
Your test depends on the warm up and your warm up depends heavily on the kind of day your having. So plan well, be calm and happy. You’re well on your way to a good warm up and a successful test!
Take a moment to connect with your horse
Get the horse tacked up in the stable or on the lorry. Get yourself ready to go, down to the last detail, and then wait a moment. Take a moment with your horse and send everyone else away. Look your horse in the eye and have a quick friendly chat. Remind yourself that you are there with your beloved animal who does not understand what winning or losing even means. You are just going out there to do what you do everyday in training. It is no big deal, even and perhaps especially when it is a big deal. Ground yourself and take a few deep breaths.
Now you are ready to go warm up for your dressage test
I’m going to quote the wonderful Charles de Kunffy again!
Your test, however accurately you ride it, can only reflect the quality of your horse’s way of going. We will assume that the test is at a level that is quite easy for you and for your horse to do. We will assume you know that test inside out and backwards. There are three times to think about a test prior to riding it:
- To analyse it strategically – this is done weeks or even months before you ride it in competition.
- In positive visualisations – in the days and hours running up to the competition you can ensure that your sub conscious mind has built-in ‘memories’ of you riding the test optimally.
- When your horse is warmed up and ready to go through you will factor in five to ten minutes to walk around on a long rein. Use this time to make the final mental preparation to ride the best test you can.
From the moment you enter the warm up until the moment described in point 3 above there is one rule – you will not think about your test at all.
You will think only of riding your horse as well as you can. Ride as though the test were cancelled, or as though it had never existed in the first place. Horses live in the moment and you need to be in the moment 100% with your horse, not thinking about something that is about to happen in half an hour’s time.
This advice is probably going to be superfluous for the more experienced competitors but for anyone who feels that they are not yet warming up in an optimal way then here is a quick checklist of things to include:
- A relaxing walk on a long rein – to start, to rest occasionally and then for a few minutes at least before you go in to ride your test.
- School figures – they will help you get your horse to the best degree of straightness and suppleness that you can on that day in that place. Although the best result comes from responsive, adaptive riding you could simply work through a list of movements if you suffer from nerves and or find that your mind goes blank.
- Lateral work – stay away from anything your horse is just learning but use whatever is already established to your advantage. It can be combined with the school figures to help not only with suppleness and throughness but most importantly with balance.
- Transitions – between the gaits, within the gaits, progressive and then direct, your transitions should be many and carefully ridden. They are there to help get your horse on the aids to the degree that you will need for the test to go well.
You need to feel that you have control of the shoulder mass, that the horse is able to bend both ways as well as possible and that the longitudinal balance is good enough to navigate the test movements at your chosen level. At the most basic level you need brakes and steering; everything else is a progression from that! Hopefully with your focus off of the test and onto the horse instead you will have a much better way of going by the end of your warm up. Knowing when to stop warming up is very important too.
If you are going to give your horse a little while to relax before going through to the test arena, deciding when to do that really matters. There are some horses who you couldn’t let down at all once you get them to the right pitch but they are rare. There are no rules to this business, only generalised guidelines. Identify the point in daily training that you think would be optimal if you were going in to ride a test. Memorise the way your horse’s body feels, how the contacts feel. There is always that sweet spot where the horse is tuned in mentally, physically supple, balanced and pinging off the floor. Now work out what you did to reach that point; there is the blueprint for your warm up. It will need some adaptation for sure, but there you have the basis. So many people say that the horse they ride at home is not the one they ride at competition. That is true, the horse has challenges there that don’t exist at home, but we are often not the same rider or even the same person to our horse that he or she has at home. It cuts two ways. We can understand this and work on it, the horse cannot and so the ultimate responsibility lies with us.
Nobody knows your horse as well as you do, with your coach probably a close second! Every horse warms up differently and changes over time as well. That is why they say it takes a year to really get to know a horse. Talk through your ideas with your coach or even consider paying them to go along and help you warm up a few times. Ultimately success is down to thought, to honing your show day strategies, and careful experimentation until you find what works.
Listen to your horse, keep an open mind and be responsive to its needs.
Good luck and most importantly, have fun!