Are You Winning on the Warm Up?

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!

When competing, ride the horse, not the test. Charles de Kunffy.

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:

  1. To analyse it strategically – this is done weeks or even months before you ride it in competition.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

Christine xx

 

 

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Riding Renvers & Travers.

Renvers is an often neglected lateral movement. Travers by contrast is something most riders use a great deal. Why would this be? Well, I’m tempted to be a little cynical and say that Travers is easier (though not necessarily easier to do well). Done correctly these movements are identical; if you rode travers down a narrow corridor, just wide enough for your horse, travers relative to the left wall would be revers relative to the right wall.

So, if they are the same, why would some riders find Travers easier? It is often a perception problem. Naturally enough the rider often focuses on the one part of the horse they know must move off the line.

“One of the keys to dressage training is that the horse learns to move towards you weight and away from your leg.”

The two elements of this advice are blended together for best results but each  also works in isolation. The first element, drawing the horse towards the weight, is the really valuable one. It is always a great feeling when a newly trained horse begins to understand this concept. The second element is the easier one for many riders to grasp in the beginning. Though it continues to be important throughout the training of the horse, and is in no way an inferior type of aid, it is also the more dangerous and can lead us into difficulties. We are faced with the issue that the hindquarters of the horse are generally far easier to displace than it’s shoulders. It is temptingly easy just to push one part of the horse or other away with the leg.

A rider participating in a clinic with me put it this way: “When I am asked to ride a lateral movement I still feel under pressure to get it right, to make it obvious. I feel silly if I don’t get ‘enough’ of the movement when lots of people are watching. I’m not thinking about setting it up properly. If you say Travers I think leg back and push. So thats what I do and I hope for the best.” Whilst some riders tend to panic a bit, because they don’t feel totally at home with lateral exercises, there are also a lot of experienced riders who fall into this fault for the opposite reason; they become blasé and can become mentally disconnected from the movement because it is so familiar.

That susceptibility of the horse’s quarters to displacement leads to a number of problems. These are just a few, off the top of my head.

  • In pirouettes at canter a heavy outside leg can cause lateral steps. This looks like a little sideways stagger on the circle the hind legs are describing.
  • In the counter change of hand, when we change direction, the quarters can start to lead even if they were not doing so in the initial half pass. This happened to me a lot in canter! My outside leg was too heavy in the change.
  • Haunches flying all over the place in tempi changes – and in single changes for that matter. Again I speak from experience of committing the error and then patiently working to correct it.

So you get the picture! This a problem for a lot of riders at absolutely all levels.  The answer for everyone is relaxed, focused preparation.

Renvers challenges riders in part because they have to move the shoulder mass of the horse away from the wall whilst keeping the bend towards the wall. Bottom line is, you can’t just push one end of the horse away from the line and hope for the best. In Renvers, just like in the Pirouette and the Half Pass, it becomes necessary to draw the horse towards your weight in the direction of interior bend. Relying on the ‘push’ element of the aid in not sufficient. The gymnastic value to the horse is only part of the benefit; I have found that getting good quality Renvers helps riders to make better Pirouettes and Half Passes. We get habituated to motion in the direction of bend and get better at drawing the horse towards the direction of travel with our weight aid. 

There are two particular exercises I like to use in teaching this movement. One is to ride in shoulder in, then gradually change the flexion, change the bend, but keep the position relative to the wall. I certainly didn’t invent this one, its a classic! You can transition gently from Shoulder In to Renvers and back again; which is great for suppling. The second exercise is really a perception trick. Imagine that corridor, or create one with movable boards, a little wider than the length of your horse’s body. Ride Travers away from the boards. Now glance at the wall or fence of the school and you are in Renvers relative to that wall. Once you get used to the movement you can get rid of the boards but keep them in your mind if you ever feel confused or flustered by the exercise.

To create higher quality lateral work in general we need a whole body approach to the movements. Don’t think about one part of your horse. The positioning for the movement involves its entire body.

Here is a quick checklist to run through:

  • As you prepare for the movement, have you got inside flexion?
  • Check your body position and weight distribution.
  • As you begin to deliver the aid which will displace the haunches or the shoulders, is your outside rein gently monitoring the degree of bend in the neck. Most importantly is it preventing excessive bend at the base of the neck where it joins the shoulders?
  • Is your inside hip relaxed, your inside hand relaxed enough to let the horse step under with the inside hind, closing the stifle and enabling the quarters to sit around your softly relaxed inside leg?
  • Does the gait you are in continue to flow forward in the same tempo?

In all lateral work the quality of the gaits is paramount – once you have got to grips with a movement, forget it and focus on the walk, trot or canter that you are riding it in.”

If the gait is really deteriorating through the movement it is worth riding straight out of it and getting the quality movement back. When you try again go for a little less angle and/or a little less bend. Make it easier and let it flow. As you get more proficient and the horse gets stronger and more supple you can ask for a bit more.

This really isn’t designed to be a ‘how to’ guide; it is just a few reflections on the subject. If you have very little experience with lateral movements and want to do them I would recommend finding a good teacher, ideally one with a schoolmaster horse. In my opinion, riding regularly with a coach is the very best way to understand all of this. Books and articles are only really designed to support that practical learning.

Successful Lateral Work

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If you are finding that you lose impulsion, balance and cadence as soon as you start riding a lateral movement it might be because your focus is on how to ride the movement and not on the gait that you are riding it in. Internalising the movement means practicing it on as many horses as possible, maybe going for a schoolmaster lesson with a good coach, and getting to the point where you can ride that movement in your sleep. You might already be there and not realise it. Many riders keep focusing on the how to, or the how to not go wrong, for far longer than they really need to.

Getting your mind off of the movement, trusting yourself to know what to do, is really important to riding it really well. What makes all the difference to the quality of the movement and therefore the score that you are likely to get is the horse’s way of going. It is the quality of the walk, trot or canter that reflects success in both the competition arena and daily training.

Key Stages of Learning

A key factor for success is to recognise where you are on the scale from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence. For anyone unfamiliar with this, there are four stages:

  1. unconscious incompetence – eg: when I knew what a Half Pass was but did not really know that I lacked the skills to ride Half Pass. A lovely pupil of mine told me that when she began learning to ride she anticipated learning all of the dressage movements in around six months. I met her three years after that and eleven years after that she could ride Grand Prix!
  2. conscious incompetence – eg: when I realised that I did not have those skills but wanted to acquire them. When it looks easy but you discover it isn’t!
  3. conscious competence – eg: when I could ride a Half Pass if I focused consciously on what aids to give the horse.
  4. unconscious Competence – eg: when I could breeze into a Half Pass and focus on keeping the trot expressive, the tempo regular and the horse loose over his back.

Which stage are you at?

If you are at the first or second stage with a particular movement then this is a wonderful phase of learning too. In discovering dressage as a sport what you have really discovered is a process, a whole load of valuable things to learn and to teach your horse. Approach each at the right time, with the help of a good coach. You will be able to establish the skills you need to ride the movement, practice them and move in turn from riding them competently to riding them beautifully.

When you are learning a new movement you will be at the third stage and holding there for a while. That is valid and necessary; don’t be in too much of a hurry to move on from competent to spectacular just yet. Get it fluent, become familiar with how the movement feels at all training levels by riding different horses. The Shoulder In of a young horse will feel very different to that of a fully schooled horse. That of a pony will feel different to that of a Thoroughbred or Iberian horse. Gain lots of diverse experience and hone your skills.

It can be difficult to know when you have become unconsciously competent, because you remain always consciously competent too. I know innately that I can ride a Pirouette but naturally I know it consciously too. One key shift can be determined in the way you describe how to do something. If asked how to ride some movement that I have a level of unconscious competence in I will have a sensory memory pop up, which I then have to put into words. When I was at the stage of conscious competence I would have been more likely to think in words rather than in memories. If someone asks you how you ride Shoulder In and your mind supplies a strong memory, a muscular memory then you are almost certainly already there.

If you suspect that you are one of those many riders who might be getting stuck at the third stage then the message in this post is most of all aimed at helping you. Sometimes we stick at that stage out of sheer habit or because we are too self -critical. Can a dressage rider be too self-critical? Yes, I think they can in this case. If you are getting a sub-optimal result it could be the result of over thinking the movement itself. So trust yourself, let go of analysing the aids you are giving because your body already knows what to do. Success will follow when you get your focus onto the beautiful walk, trot or canter that you could be in.

When you know that you know, you can relax into the movement and really set your horse up to shine!

If you would like more help with your lateral work then check out these articles in the #BetterDressage series:

Riding Renvers & Travers.

Better Dressage – Shoulder In

Better Dressage – Exercises for improving lateral work.

Better Dressage – Key Skills for Lateral Work

Keep the balance, don’t burst the bubble!

 

Balance2

Imagine that there is a bubble around you and your horse. It moves along with you as you ride. At any time we could hit a pause button and ask the following questions about everything within that bubble:

  • Have I got enough engagement?
  • Do I have the full attention of my horse?
  • Are we correctly aligned?
  • How is our balance?

You are answering only for that moment – it comprises of:

  1. The last stride, which is fading fast from the mind of you and your horse but has a residual bearing on the stride you are in.
  2. The stride you are currently in with your horse, which it is not too late to influence. This is why we build the speed of reaction in a dressage horse and why riders value a ‘quick’ hind leg. What they mean by that is a quick brain to leg reaction.
  3. The stride you are moving in to, which is the most important one of all.

It is impossible to store up impulsion for the future. The body of the horse is not a battery. You cannot create impulsion in one moment in case you need it half an arena later, or even 30 seconds later. If you give in to that temptation you risk ruining the tempo or takt of your horse. If we drive on with our legs, or even our seat, too fast we will end up supporting an unbalanced horse in our hands. This is something that riders can get away with at certain levels. For the horse that moves too quickly, the work of high school that is the basis of FEI levels will never come easily or well without a total re-think in training.

So what might tempt us to ride too quickly? Usually it is a fear of lacking impulsion. My advice is this:

Do not panic about impulsion. You do not create impulsion, that is the job of the horse.

Impulsion is a product of training, not an ingredient. It is second to last on the training scale for a very good reason. rhythm comes almost at the beginning, also for a very good reason. Not everybody loves the training scale, but I do. I have kept to it faithfully and it has been the bedrock of success in even the most challenging remedial training cases.

When you ride only in the moment you will not run the risk of making the horse move too fast. The horse will have good tempo and therefore will be rhythmical, relaxed and balanced. That is when the horse will offer you all of the impulsion it can. Many of us are familiar with the advice not to confuse speed and impulsion. That is great advice but doesn’t really explain the difference. Of course we can legitimately exert a forward driving influence over our horse. It is simply a matter of knowing when and how much is right for that moment. Years ago I watched Lucinda Green give a clinic. The riders were amateurs with various levels of experience. One of the key skills that she outlined was knowing when to use the leg. She said we must identify the moment that the horse questions us and be swift with the leg then, we must not be using the preventative leg half a field away. The context is different but the advice is the same. Riding cross-country, out hacking, schooling dressage, it is all the same deal. Ride the stride you are in and let the future take care of itself, because if you do then it will!

There is more detail about how to use our contacts to communicate with the horse here:Better Dressage – Contact

and more detail about the importance of takt and balance here: Better Dressage – Developing your horse’s trot.

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Successful Test Riding.

The Challenges of Competitive Dressage

I believe that test riding is an art in itself. Good dressage exists quite separately to it and equally good dressage can exist within it; though perhaps, because of it’s origins, slightly against the odds. There is Dressage the sport and dressage the process; the two are indivisible of course because the sport could not exist without the process. The process can, and for millennia did, exist perfectly well without the sport; the sport is a new development and needs to be seen in context. This is not a negative perspective at all; I believe that riders need to know where dressage competition originated in order to understand it’s particular nature. Only when we understand something can we be good at it.

The dressage test is derived from late 19th and early 20th century military equitation. It has mutated and adapted over the decades to a sports format and is under pretty constant review by the FEI. If we choose to engage with dressage as a sport it is worth understanding what a test is designed to do and what it cannot do. A dressage test is exactly what it says on the can. It tests the training of your horse. It was not created to allow you to showcase the training of your horse, in the way a freestyle test or display riding can do. They are not easier than test riding by any means, as those who have done them will know very well; the challenges are simply  different.

The way in which a standard dressage test functions is very like a course of show jumps. The designer is asking you a set of questions.

The biggest mistake I see riders make is to imagine that the question they are being asked is “can you execute this list of movements required for the level.”

The need to be proficient in the movements for the level is a given, but that is far from the heart of the matter.

The real questions are around the horse’s way of going and the order in which the movements are required to happen.

The way in which one test movement flows into the next is where you must focus your analysis. It is analysis which makes for good test riding.

My horse might be able to perform all of the movements for a given level and yet to perform them in a test format might seriously reduce the overall quality of the work. Why would that be? In day to day training we can use one movement to perfectly set a horse up for the next. We might take shoulder in to assist in setting the green horse up for a canter transition or we might wind a travers circle down into a working pirouette. Tests are not set up like that. Often a movement is preceded by the very last thing that you would want to use in order to set that movement up in training; that is the whole point of it being a test. To compete successfully we need to treat the dressage test as though it were a course of jumps and work out exactly what question we are being asked.

How to Break Down Your Dressage Test.

I will always help a pupil prepare for a test with equal seriousness regardless of the level they are riding at. There is no such thing as an easy test, no matter how experienced a rider you are or how basic it’s elements.

From the start of the test to the end ask yourself this “when I ride from movement X to movement Y what is it that could go wrong, why is is difficult to do that?” Because it will be difficult, it is designed to be so. Knowing what could go wrong tells you what you must do, because that is the inverse of what you must not do.

Understand the possible negative outcome, acknowledging it is perfectly healthy and necessary.  If you know that it is realistically within your power to ride the movement really well then work out how you can best ride from movement X to movement Y. It can be useful to talk someone through it, as you might walk a course of jumps with a pupil, explaining your thinking as you go.

We want to end up in a place where we can focus our mind purely on the positive, on the desired outcomes. In order to get to that place however we need to look closely at the potential pitfalls which the test designer has put in place for us. Once we have examined them and we know how to avoid them we can create our positive visualisation. Then, having visualised how, we can ride from movement to movement calmly, happily and in the best possible way.

The Process

My process is something like this. I will use one set of movements from from a mid level test as an example. If the test is asking me to make extended trot over a diagonal and then to turn onto the centre line and make half pass back to the wall there are three main elements to consider.

Let us suppose that the diagonal was set up well and the horse began the extension in good form. It was attentive, engaged and supple throughout. But many a diagonal in extension begins well and ends not quite so well.

  1. I could lose balance (mine and/or the horse’s) towards the end of the diagonal. My horse could be wide behind, disengaged and relatively tense through the back. Therefore if I want to make the best of the overall test performance  I must not ask for greater length of stride than my horse can comfortably handle in good balance. If I err on the side of caution I will keep the horse soft through the back and light in the hand. I might have slightly understated the scope of the extension but the balance will be good and we will flow softly into the corner. Instead of going all out to maximise marks on one movement I have ridden more conservatively in order to maximise marks over several movements. This can prove the superior strategy.
  2. As I ride into the corner I must ensure that I don’t allow the bend to lose its uniformity. Those of you who have read my earlier articles will know that I am a stickler for controlled bending, you might say the straightness within the bending. If the horse breaks at the wither it will fall onto the outside shoulder to some degree. If it does that you will compromise your turn onto the centre line. This goes for every centre line, at every level.
  3. As I ride onto the centre line I have the shoulder mass exactly where I want it and I can focus on placing the shoulders ahead of the quarters. I was taught to begin every half pass with a step or two of shoulder in. Because the turn was well set up and well executed I know that both hind legs are softly engaging, the back is relaxed and the bend is uniform through the body of the horse. No half pass could have a better set up than that.

With every test I look at the link between the first movement and the second, the second and the third, and so on in this way. I recognise the potential pitfalls and I think about how I can strategically avoid them. That is one aspect of the process. The second is to look at the composition of the test in more general terms.

In early levels there is more use of a mirror image format. Something is done on one rein in one gait, then often you return to a lower gait for a while, and then on returning to the higher gait you repeat the earlier movement to the other side. This provides respite for the horse’s cardio system and the transitions allow you to rebalance. In more demanding tests there is less and less respite as you go up the levels. The canter work is often more of a block and it requires a higher level of cardio fitness if the movements nearer the end of the test are going to be executed well. You need to be realistic about the level of fitness your horse has relative to the test and build that up if necessary. Your own fitness needs to be far greater too, if you want to get the very best performance from your horse. In Rider Fitness I wrote about how your performance as a dressage rider can be greatly improved through physical fitness.

The final, and the most important, thing I want to talk about is the horse’s way of going, relative to the test. It is no coincidence that many good riders compete a level or two below the training level of the horse. They have not fallen into the vanity trap of competing outside of their comfort zone in order to say that they are at this level or that. It is far better for your confidence and that of the horse to know you are competing well within your training limits. It is a huge advantage to work with a coach, one who will be kind but honest with you! It also helps to go watch a range of horses at your chosen level; it is wise to pay most attention to elite combinations. See how well the movements are performed but also pay attention to the way of going, the level of fitness and most of all the muscular development of the horse. To succeed at competitive dressage it really is a case of ‘its not what you do, its the way that you do it’.

Pre Competition Checklist

  1. You need to analyse how well you execute the test elements, then how the performance level stands up to your linking those elements together in a test format. Finally work through the test in it’s entirety and see how it feels.
  2. You need to know if your horse is fit enough for the level. The best horses at every level are cardio fit and correctly muscled.
  3. Lastly you should watch a range of combinations at your level and honestly compare video of your horse with what you have seen. If your horse is as relaxed through it’s body, as steady in the contact and as light in the forehand as the better combinations then you will feel confident in the results you are likely to get. Most important of all find a good coach and listen to their advice.

When the way of going is right for the level, when the horse is fit and strong and when you learn to strip down the test, look at it’s components and then put it back together you will be well equipped for success. Most importantly of all you will feel confident and enjoy the experience of competing!

It is you versus the test, not you versus the other competitors!

If you would like to find out more about riding better lateral work have a look at these earlier articles –

Better Dressage – Key Skills for Lateral Work

Better Dressage – Shoulder In

Better Dressage – Exercises for Improving Lateral Work

Rider Fitness

Today was my first day back in the gym after a fairly long period of illness. Although not a very serious illness it was certainly debilitating and I was at a very low ebb physically for months. The first stage of recovery was to be out of bed for increasingly long periods, getting back to my normal household routines. When I felt strong enough to go out for walks I felt that my recovery had truly begun. Now that I am able to start training I am truly happy! It is a great boost for my state of mind and level of motivation. I am riding again, but only to do quiet suppling work in walk. I have been helping warm up and cool down horses but that is really all I plan to do for the next few weeks. I cannot wait to start riding more actively, but I know the impact that this level of unfitness can have on me as a rider; I have been here before a couple of times over the years.

A rider’s seat is not a thing which, once acquired, never changes. It would be so nice if that were true! The knowledge and habit of how to sit correctly is always with us but how well our body functions on horseback is a totally different matter. I believe that physical fitness plays a big part in the functional quality of our seat. A horse in motion exerts a lot of power; when it’s hooves hit the ground impact comes up through the horse’s body and ours. Learning how best to quietly absorb these forces is a huge part of becoming a good rider. Recently I watched Charles de Kunnfy teaching and he made the point that abdominal tone in the rider is vital to good riding. He mentioned the old cavalry exercise of raising our heels and touching them together above the neck of the horse. Ironically, the day before I became ill I decided to demonstrate that move to some students. We put the pad saddle on a quiet horse and devoted a session to good old fashioned seat and balance exercises. It was really a lot of fun!

When I look back over my life as a rider there is definitely a correlation between how fit I was and how well I rode; for me there have been several peak periods of fitness and ability. The times when I was physically fit and strong coincide perfectly with the times when my riding was most elegant and effective. I know that I can take a short break from riding, so long as I stay fit, and it is quite easy to come back into form. If I lose fitness to a significant level it is a much longer and mentally tougher process. The memories of those peaks are simultaneously encouraging and torturous. There was a time when my coach used to routinely run me through FEI level tests with no stirrups on the saddle. I can close my eyes and replay the sensations of movement after movement on the various different horses we worked with. It really motivates me to get fit enough to experience those things again.

Whatever level you ride, and in whichever discipline, there is so much to gain from thinking of yourself as an athlete. When you think that way you take better care of yourself in many ways. Most event riders I have known, particularly those at elite level, do a lot of training to keep themselves at a high level of fitness. The extra stability and stamina provided by fitness actually helps keep the rider safer. Dressage riders are increasingly getting onboard with the idea too. Here are some of the ways in which I have found that fitness or the lack of it affects me as a rider:

Strength is balance and balance is essential to a good seat. I also trained to a moderately high level in ballet and I know very well how losing muscle tone impacts body balance. That is true for dressage horses and for dressage riders as well.

Stamina is needed to ride well because we have to make hundreds of thousands of micro adjustments to remain with the horse in motion. The higher level we ride, the more frequent and dramatic those little body adjustments will be. That is under normal circumstances! When faced with volatile or violent behaviour from a horse our ability to sit it out and stay calm is much greater if we are fit. Those people I know who specialise in backing and producing young horses are usually pretty fit individuals!

Suppleness must go hand in hand with strength for us, as much as for our horses. As I discussed in Better Dressage – Suppling Exercises, there is always an optimal balance to strike between strength and flexibility for our horses and this is very true for us as riders. Tension in us is tension in the horse.

Co-ordination is better when we are not overly exerted. It suffers greatly when we tire and the precision of our aid application can deteriorate. Balance impacts this too. If you are a balanced rider because you are physically strong then your aid application will be refined, your training messages will be clear and your test riding will be of a higher standard.

Decision making is much better when we are not tired. I find that if tiredness is combined with heightened adrenaline levels my decision making can become very bad indeed. If you have stamina then you will be clear minded and patient. It also means you will be less likely to give in to emotional impulses when you ride and that has to be a good thing for the horse.

How to become a fitter rider.

This is really individual to each of us but there are two things which I think are very important. One is to check with your doctor that you are in the right state of health to begin a fitness program. The second is to seriously consider having at least a few sessions of personal training to start off with.  If you do then you can be more confident that –

  • You are exercising correctly and constructively – and in my case the key word is progressively!
  • You will benefit from greater variety in your training and work your body more evenly.
  • Personal training helps you to avoid getting stuck on a plateau and staying there because it feels comfortable. I always work harder if I am working with a trainer and the result is always better.

Aside from that, how we set out to improve our fitness level is mainly a question of personal preference. What we enjoy, we tend to do more consistently.

It is worth bearing in mind that dressage calls for whole body fitness with a particular emphasis on core strength. Swimming and rowing are my preferred ‘whole body’ exercises. I never used to work out with weights, but a couple of years ago I booked a personal training session to learn about using free weights. I found they had a quick and positive impact on my physique. I also discovered that I really enjoy training with them, perhaps in part because I could see and feel changes right from the start; I am sadly not a patient person! With free weights I would definitely recommend getting professional help to ensure that your form is correct.

There are plenty of things you can do around the stable yard to build strength and stamina. Working in the stables and grooming helps. When I was training as a working student in a very cold climate I found that strapping horses properly not only forced me to get rid of my cocoon layers but usually caused me to break a sweat too!

Cross training between equestrian disciplines can really help as well. Roads and tracks with work in a light seat can be the ultimate ‘leg day’! Show jumping builds leg strength and core strength. Grid jumping (even if the fences are really small) is very beneficial for dressage horses because it builds the muscles that increase lifting power and elevation, as well as strengthening the hind quarters. Grid jumping is just as good for the rider’s fitness as the horses’.

However you decide to approach fitness, in or out of the saddle, you stand to gain from every effort you make. For me it about getting back to my best. I know that, at my best, I can be a quiet, elegant, and powerful rider. I also know that from the depths of a trough to the peak it can be a matter of many months, but that is O.K. I know that there is no skipping to the end of that process. I will put in the time in the gym, the time in a light seat out on the roads and tracks, I will strap the horses till they shine and I’ll take the stirrups off my saddle more often.

If this situation resonates with you on any level remember you are still the rider that you were at your best, even if you are not quite there right now. Your mind remembers and your muscles remember; all you need to do is strengthen them both!

Develop your Horse’s Trot.

There is an old horseman’s saying that you must buy a good walk and canter (and if a horse has one it will tend to have the other) but you can make a trot. I used to ride sales horses for a gentleman who told me exactly this. He claimed that he always knew if he would buy a horse from seeing it walk across the yard. Many years later I find exactly the same thing. I see a horse walk and I know more or less all I need to about it’s movement and quite a lot about it’s character too. Incidentally my old employer’s advice is also the reason I always buy horses from breeders, usually ones who are friends, and never from auctions. I have no interest in a lit up sales ring trot. I want to see the horse walk calmly from it’s own box to the school.

The ideal is to find a horse with three good gaits but if you are wise you will prioritise the walk over all others. A horse with a truly beautiful walk is a treasure. In the young or less trained horse the true quality of the trot and canter might be temporarily obscured by poor balance. If the walk is good then the other gaits will come right in time. The idea that we can make a good trot is all very well but it is necessary to know how.

The advice in this article is applicable to two scenarios:

  1. You have just bought a horse with a trot that is less spectacular than you might like.
  2. You have just bought a horse with a breathtakingly spectacular trot and you want to preserve and improve further upon it.

The importance of balance in training the dressage horse.

It is balance that makes all gaits beautiful and brilliant. In cultivating balance you will do the horse the greatest favour of all.

“Dressage can be distilled into two basic tasks – balance your horse and straighten your horse.”

Many dressage horses are seriously out of balance and still successful up to a point. These horses usually hit a ceiling and progress little, or badly, when they enter the realms of high school. In competition terms they peak below fifth level and struggle with the movements beyond it. Lack of talent is often cited as an explanation where lack of balance is a big part of the actual problem. This explains why a rider who comprehends balance can teach most movements to most horses, even horses with limited athletic ability.

Balance is always relative and it can always be improved upon. No rider is ever truly 100% satisfied with either the balance or the degree of straightness; we are perfectionists and detail oriented. We have to make a start somewhere though and each time you lunge, work in hand, hack out or train in the arena you have a chance to make a positive difference. The following activities are part of creating balance, treat them as a ‘pick and mix’ to keep you and the horse amused!

  • Riding over varied terrain – start slowly because some horses may not have encountered these challenges before. Hills are useful and so are forest tracks where the horse has to pick up its feet and look where it is going. Tall grass and shallow water are valuable training aids too!
  • Gymnastic jumping – cavaletti and grid jumping helps to perfect the balance of the horse. It will also build stamina (which the advanced horse needs in bucket loads) and will build muscle too.
  • Hangbahn training – this is rather more specific than just riding over varied terrain. Find an area of grass or woodland that has a gentle slope and school over it as you would in the arena. The footing must be good and the slope must not be steep. Here is a link to an excellent video made by  Pferdia TV featuring Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner teaching riders how to use the Hangbahn to good advantage. Note the engagement achieved in the transitions. The benefit of the hangbahn is that the horse works over an area repeatedly and can learn for itself, by repetition, the way to better balance.

    Hangbahntraining, Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner, pferdia tv

The link between tempo and good balance

Working on balance to optimise the trot involves one cardinal rule – do not ride too fast! There is a trot which is not talked about enough and it is called the ‘Ordinary Trot’. This does not necessarily track up in the way a Working Trot would and it does not have the elevation of the Collected Trot either. It is exactly what it says on the tin – a very ordinary trot! It is the trot of warming up, the easy trot which will begin to get the blood flowing and the muscles loose. A dancer at barre does not begin with large movements, much less with jumps, they begin with tiny movements to warm the legs and they progress from there. I once heard the ordinary trot described as the ‘cheap trot’ as in ‘I would not pay much for that horse’ kind of trot, but as that coach went on to say – spectacular, expensive looking trots are what we build out of it!

To find the tempo of the ordinary trot, which is unique to each horse, watch the horse loose or on the lunge line. When it has lost any excitement and is not yet tired the horse will fall into a pleasant, easy trot that is rhythmical.  The tempo will settle to something regular, if you neither speed it up nor slow it artificially. Watch the trot and learn the tempo; that is your horse’s personal baseline trot. Every day, when you begin to trot, work in that tempo. This is where balance is easy for the horse. Think of this as the middle point of a spectrum. It is where we start at the beginning of training the horse and it is also our day to day starting point.

 Piaffe and extended trot – the two ends of the spectrum.

These are the extremes at either end of our spectrum. Our Ordinary Trot sits right in the middle. Gradually, day by day, we take the horse a little towards one end and a little towards the other and we keep it in good balance with light, steady contact. At any given time we might feel that the progress is better in one direction, towards the collection or the extension, but the work will develop more or less equally out from the middle towards the extremes if our training is correct. By nature horses are gifted equally in this regard too. A young horse or pony (of even the most indifferent breeding) will show both natural Passage and floating extensions until it has to carry a rider. Good training works outward from the middle of the spectrum and reaches both extremes more or less at the same time and to a very similar standard.

The trot of a horse that moves too fast and out of balance will show extension that is big but not extension that is good. It will be tight through the back, wide behind and sometimes crooked. The diagonals will be un co-ordinated. When it comes time for the extended trot to collect again the rider will struggle. When it comes to collection the rider will have to rely upon induced tension to achieve high steps.

Much has been said of the need for co-ordinated diagonals, where the cannon bone angles match. This is often an accurate indication of the quality of the work but it should not be taken out of general context. One other way to evaluate your trot work is to to watch the exact timing of the steps. The hooves of the diagonal pair must either be lifting or descending. There should not be a break or pause at the highest point of the step. Neither the Passage nor the extended trot is supposed to be a staccato movement. Think of the horse as a ball of pizza dough; it should be stretchable, whilst retaining elasticity, and then come back easily into a ball. Much of this elasticity is in the horse’s state of mind, for it’s body state will always mirror that.

How to develop cadence and range within the trot

What matters most is not so much what we do but what we do not do. When we think of the horse being in front of our aids, as it should be, we remember that it should be an inch in front of our aids not half a mile. When the horse connects to the hand it should only feel the need to connect lightly, though securely. In earlier articles “Better Dressage – Creating Good contact with Your Horse”  we looked in more detail at the issue of contact and balance.

If we accept that we must not ride too fast and we have found the ‘sweet spot’ of the ordinary trot in good balance, what then? How do we create the cadence for collection and the scope for extension? How do we keep all of that in balance? Like many riders of my generation I have developed a great deal of respect for the training scale and the interplay of the concepts contained within it. One of the best detailed explanations of it I have found is in Johan Hinnemann’s book “The Simplicity of Dressage” published in English  by J.A.Allen & Co Ltd (30 Sept. 2003)

Relaxation means that the horse is no longer speeding up or slowing down because of tension or inattention; thus it has settled into a tempo, with which we are not interfering. Just those two elements of the training scale give us the opportunity to improve the balance and thus the trot. Keeping the horse relaxed, and respecting the rhythm, we make many transitions between and within gaits. We also ride school figures of increasing complexity and we combine these with the transitions.

Your aids and the trot.

It is very difficult to effect much change in the trot with only our hands and legs. In the early stages of training we play around the middle of the trot spectrum and, with care, we can do this in rising or posting trot. In this case it is the tempo of our rise and sit that helps to hold the horse in tempo and our legs must be tactfully applied in order to avoid making the horse run. The spur has no place at all in this and routine use of it will result very quickly in poor balance.

The simplest formula for success in the rising trot is to think of your hips keeping time like a metronome; mark the tempo that you have and, as you sit, your calves ask for more energy. As you rise, do not let the tempo of the hips speed up. You are the metronome!  Do not ask too much with the leg at first and reward the horse when it gives you more power in the same tempo. Repeat this often and the result will be an increase in cadence. With this it is easy to slightly open the stride. Take the horse into a slightly smaller trot and build cadence within it. Then open the trot up for a few steps to the length it originally was and reward the horse. At the very beginning I usually transition back to walk at this point. Later on you can bring the trot back, rebuild the cadence and repeat. Keep thinking of the pizza dough idea!

Keep coming back to the baseline trot to rest and only take the trot higher or longer for a few strides at a time.

When you are able to open the stride considerably and you are able to make a short cadenced trot easily then it should be no trouble to play around between the two. If it ever feels difficult then go back a little towards the middle ground, rebuild the horse’s confidence and try again. Once it is consistently easy, and the horse is stronger through the back, you will want to create bigger differences within the trot spectrum. For this you will need a good sitting trot. If you don’t feel you have this and you want to ride anything above elementary dressage then there is nothing for it but lunge lessons and a long time with no stirrups. The reason that Passage and fully extended trot are very uncomfortable to rise to is that the moment of suspension elongates considerably in both of them. I have tried riding to both in rising trot and it is not a good feeling. You also miss out on using the one part of your body that can create better aid distinctions than any other.

Movements that lend themselves well to this phase of work are, among many others, short diagonal lines, demi- voltes with long and short returns to the wall and large circles with smaller circles nested within them. Let the tighter curved lines encourage the horse to collect and use the more open lines to encourage the horse to open the stride. If the horse feels too full of power use a more complex floor pattern to ‘mop up’ the energy.  It is better to let the movement gather the horse than to use your body for this.

The use of the seat and leg to create collection and extension.

The role of the seat in mutating the horse’s trot.

The basis of this system is what I call neutral seat. In this you have good core balance upon the three points of your seat. For a detailed description of this (including X-rays) I would recommend “Dressage Formula” by Erik Herbermann.

When I want to have a generally animating effect upon the horse I bring a slight anterior tilt into my pelvis. Think of tucking the the cocxyx underneath you to emphasise the back of the seat. Do not lean back into this otherwise it will put you behind the movement and out of balance. There are times that all riders will get a little left behind if the horse extends with a vigour they didn’t anticipate but there is no point setting yourself up to fail by leaning back to begin with. Keep your centre of balance over that of the horse and remember that this is going to be travelling forward in big bounding steps; anticipate the forward movement and stay over it.

When I want to have a collecting influence I make the back of the seat lighter. I think of this as I would lightening my foot on the accelerator of a car. When doing this it is very important not to lean forward. As with the driving aid it is only the angle of the pelvis which changes, our shoulders stay above our feet and our core balance stays correct. This is the theory anyway! In reality it takes quite a bit of practice.

So we sit in neutral seat, we can apply less seat or more seat depending on whether we wish to animate or soothe the horse. This in itself is not what tells the horse to collect or extend; it is an influence not an aid. The ability to lay off the accelerator (to limit the driving effect of my seat) is what has made riding some particularly hot horses possible. With such horses I think of sitting softly on a little air cushion under the back of my seat. The weight of my body is diffused over the muscular surface of my seat and thighs. This diffusion of weight is what seems to have a calming effect – simply by avoiding the driving effect. To ride extension on such horses is a matter of extreme tact; the driving seat comes into play so lightly, so carefully, that (most of the time at least) explosions are avoided.

Equally I have found that with the less sharp horse it is helpful to get it acclimatised to a light seat. Perhaps this is simply because it has been made impervious  to the driving aids throughout it’s life by their over use. They say if you want to be heard you should whisper. This is very true with horses!

The role of the leg in mutating the horse’s trot.

I habituate my horses to adapt their tempo to the tempo of my calf pulses. Lighter or stronger will depend on the horse but either way the timing is what counts. This is totally different to the stronger leg equals faster motion paradigm, which is useless for advanced dressage. Quicker pulses mean quicker tempo, slower pulses mean slower tempo. Reward all signs of the appropriate adaptation and the horse will soon understand you perfectly.

Now, I mentioned earlier that the moment of suspension elongates in both the Passage and the fully extended trot. This means that in both of these trots you will feel as though you and the horse have gone slightly into slow motion. I always think of it as sound waves running through my body that are elongated. Your calf pulses are therefore slower. They are what elongates the moment of suspension in the trot. Of course it takes time and a progressive approach but that is one way to make the Passage. I tell pupils to think of slowing the calf aid down in both Passage and extension. When you want to ride back into the collected trot from either you simply adopt the usual collected trot tempo with your calves and either gather back or ride out into it depending on the gait variant you started from. The seeds of this understanding are sown from the first year of training.

Putting it all together to make collected and extended trot.

It is not as simple as to say my seat is always lightened in Passage and always emphasised in extended trot. The seat is an influence, not an aid, and it may sometimes need to animate a Passage (in which case it will act as it would for medium or extended trot) or it may need to sooth  a horse in extension. There is no rule, but in general it is fair to say that you begin the Passage with less seat and a slow pulsing calf aid (which may be a little behind the usual position – but not too far) whereas you start off the extension with a little more seat and the leg at the girth which delivers slow pulses within its gently clinging contact. If anything I find that the moment of suspension is often slightly longer in extension than in any other variant of the trot.

All of this begins with small changes around the middle of the trot spectrum and over years of training you will be able to reach the extremes. I am aware that many people reading this will not expect to reach those extremes but it is helpful to have an overview of the process. It is not unrealistic, with the right coaching, to expect most horses and riders to get a lot further than they might originally have expected.

You will have noticed that I make little mention of the Piaffe. It belongs on our spectrum but as something that lies at the very limit of the collection end, far beyond the Passage. Most horses will have a moment of suspension in extension that is roughly the same as their moment of suspension in Passage; both are similarly slow. The Piaffe has no equivalent in extension. The tempo of the Piaffe is quicker and the body base of it is much shorter than in any other trot. For this reason I have excluded it from this article. It is a subject really deserving of an article of it’s own.

Plan for Success In Competition

Competitive dressage is, to many people, the primary goal and purpose of their training. For others it is a less central but still significant part of their life as a rider. It can be a source of great fun and satisfaction but it can also cause negative emotions to surface in us. This can have a knock on effect in all of our relationships, with horses and humans alike. In the same way that I looked at Planning for Success in Training I now want to take a look at how  planning your competition season strategically can help you to be a happier and more successful competitor.

What are your personal goals?

My introduction to the concept of competitive dressage was very different to that of many riders I know. Whilst still in my teens I was based with two riders who had competed at Olympic level. The attitudes to competition which I saw around me were very focused. If there was no end goal, there was no need to compete. There was no going out for fun! Going along to compete with them was almost always great fun, but the fun was not a primary objective. I also know many riders who go out to competition purely for the fun of a day out with their horse. Riders at both ends of this spectrum seem to be fairly sure of what they are doing and why.

Then there are a large number of riders who exist in the less certain middle ground. They have the instinct to be ambitious but who have not found a clearly defined objective; they have what I call ‘free floating’ ambition. They are often easily disheartened and tend to be overly reactive to the perceptions of other people. I have reached the conclusion that defining exactly what you want and setting clear goals is very important. The first step is to ask yourself what your primary objective is. Three things that should never be a part of your motivation:

  • To compete because everyone else does.
  • To compete because people seem to expect you to.
  • To compete in order to validate yourself as a rider.

There are many perfectly healthy reasons to compete, such as pride in the training you have given your horse and to showcase your abilities as a rider. For me the unique buzzy atmosphere of competitions is a huge motivating factor. If you plan to breed from or sell your horse it is a sound idea to take it out and show it off in public. Your reasons, once you identify them, will help you arrive at a plan that is right for you.

Target focused planning and experience focused planning.

Your planning process will involve a range of decisions. If, for example, you are aiming to sell a valuable homebred horse, or embarking on a career as a professional rider, then your planning should be target focused. If you are going out because you enjoy the competition atmosphere and want to show how well you have trained your horse then you are more likely to be focused on the experience of competition itself; your planning will be oriented around this.

Target focused planning

This is where we start with the end result – your destination. It is about identifying the steps you must take to get from where you are to where you want to be. For example you might want to win a particular title or be selected for a team. This works equally if you seek to compete at club level or internationally. Here are some things to consider:

  • What are the qualifying rounds of competition you will need to take part in?
  • What is the timescale for qualification for each of them?
  • Which events are key ones for any selectors you need to be seen by?

If you need to go through a process of qualifying rounds it is wise to allow plenty of time to gain your qualifying scores. Begin earlier in the season rather than later. Become familiar with all of the rules and regulations which will apply. Ask riders who have been through the process; few will mind and most will be happy to give you the benefit of their own experiences. Getting the inside track in this way can help avoid mistakes. It is always a good idea to pick up the phone and talk to the regional coordinators or club officials who deal with team selections. If you want to be considered for selection then ask directly what they are going to want from you. Ambition and a direct approach is always impressive. It marks you out as serious and puts you on the radar of the right people from the outset. Even if the conclusion is that you are not ready yet, at least you know precisely what areas you need to work on. You will have a roadmap.

Work out exactly how much this process is going to cost from start to finish and make sure that you have the budget in place. Make sure that you will have the time and the support as well as the money to enable you to reach the goals you set.

Make absolutely certain that you are more than ready for the level and standard of competition that you will be part of when you get to the championship. This is where you have to be sure you are not aiming for a goal that lies toward the outer limits of you riding experience. Forget any notion of impressing people and never let vanity do the talking when you set goals. If in doubt book a lesson or two with someone who judges at that level and consider their feedback carefully.

If you are new to dressage as a sport it is worth going along as a spectator to get a measure of the atmosphere at championship shows. At major shows it is all good fun whilst your focus is on the shopping and spectating but go along with a different mindset and imagine that you are about to tack up and warm up for a test. Watch some tests and see how comfortable you feel with the idea of it being you riding down the centre line. Being able to ride the test is one thing, riding it under those circumstances is another thing altogether. That can be a big shock to the rider’s system. There are major shows with calm inviting atmospheres and others that have an atmosphere like a blast furnace. Know where you are likely to end up should your campaign be successful and factor that into your goal setting process. If you conclude that you can ride the toughest test at a particular level well and that you could ride it under suitably challenging circumstances then give yourself the green light and set the goal. Find out what steps you need to take to make it happen and go for it! If you feel more than a little doubtful of the outcomes then don’t give up on the idea but see if there are some steps you can take to alter the landscape. See if your coach, or a friend, can lend you a schoolmaster to ride in some higher profile shows. Work on your horse’s acceptance of crowds, tablecloths, loud-speakers, TV cameras etc. Time spent working on these things is time well spent.

Experience focused planning

This kind of planning revolves around making choices that optimise the positive outcomes for you and the horse. It is about going out and having a really good day. This may be because you are competing purely for fun or it may be because  you or your horse need to build confidence. In no way does this take less planning but the focus is experiential rather than on reaching a target. Key decisions will revolve around issues such as:

  • Where to go.
  • How to get there.
  • Who travels with you.
  • Your show day routine.

The number one consideration is the venue. Choose a venue that you like, one that will calm you and one that is well run. A well run competition is much easier on the nerves than one full of stressed out, complaining fellow competitors. Visit all of the venues within your region as a spectator and pick out the ones which seem inviting. This can be a very subjective choice, a matter of instinct. If you like the lay out of the facility it will help you relax and that will help your horse.

If either you or your horse is inexperienced then it is vital that the competition experience is optimal. Renting a box at the venue is helpful, even when you are not staying over. The horse will have somewhere to relax, to be closer to other horses, and you will be able to leave the horse for slightly longer periods than if it were on a lorry. Stress can be infectious. Some combinations calm down when around one another but often the reverse is true. What I have done for pupils in the past is offer to stay with the horse whilst someone else takes them as far from the horse as possible, for as long as possible. This is where a good groom, or willing friend, is invaluable. For me personally, I avoid human company as much as possible and virtually camp out in the stable with the horse. Work out what is best for you and go with that but having a stable to use gives you more options.

Planning your journey is important too. One thing to note is that driving your own horse to a competition can be a stressful thing in itself. I prefer to travel separately and get to the venue ahead of the horse. If that is true for you as well then consider using a transporter or getting a trustworthy person to drive the lorry for you.

Choose your companions with care and plan how you would ideally like the day to run. Ideally I would prefer to keep it to a core team of driver, groom and possibly one other person. In an ideal world I also have a million lists and a timetable. Turning up with a collection of enthusiastic supporters might seem like a good idea but it is fraught with potential for stress and problems. In my experience, having more helpers around often results in things being forgotten and tasks being overlooked. It also increases the chance of performance anxieties affecting you as a rider. Even supportive, well meaning people can put you under pressure without realising it.

Defining your individual goals and planning your competition season.

If you have clearly defined goals as a competitor then you will be planning your outings many months and sometimes even years in advance. If your goal is less clearly defined then your season can more spontaneous but the research and planning that goes into it is no less important. I would still advise anyone to plan ahead for as much of their season as they can. There are many good reasons for this; it helps to make sure that you have time off booked, that you avoid diary clashes with family occasions and that you have higher odds of being able to book transport and help if you don’t have a lorry and a full time groom.

Knowing how often to go out is a key thing for all riders. I have known of riders qualifying for championships and then not going out at all in the interim. For some horses this is fine but for others need to be out fairly regularly to remain calm in competition atmospheres. I have also seen riders who took their eye off the ball and let the horse lose it’s physical edge in between one competition and the next. Equally it can be easy to make a horse jaded and tired by over competing it. This is particularly true as tests become more demanding in terms of complexity and physical effort. Respecting the individuality of your horse is important and adjusting through trial and error will let you fine tune your strategy. If you need to avoid gaining too many points at a particular level, but want to go out anyway then you can always ride Hors Concours, or go along as a non competing horse. In both cases you must make the venue aware of what you are hoping to do and respect their wishes on the matter.

Whatever your reasons for getting involved in dressage as a competitive sport the most important thing is for it to become a positive part of your life. The key is in the preparation, your frame of mind and that of the horse. There is a lot that good preparation can do to help with these elements and that is going to be the subject of the next article in this series. In the meantime I hope that approaching your life as a competitive rider in a structured way will enable you to identify what you want to achieve and set you on the path to attaining your goals. Success is something you define for yourself in advance, whether that is winning a national title or getting through the test without impromptu airs above the ground.

“Clearly defined goals lead to a clearly defined sense of achievement.”