Rowan Crosby Para Dressage

Rowan Crosby is one of the most charming and modest young riders you could possibly meet; she is also a rising star of Para Dressage in Great Britain. I have admired her ability and her ethos for some time. When I decided to create the Featured Riders series, it was very much with riders like Rowan in mind.

I met with Rowan and her family last summer and we got along so well that I stayed hours longer than I’d planned to! Then when I sat down to write I honestly struggled. I’m not usually at a loss for words but there was something about Rowan and her story that I found I could not quite do justice to. It comes down to the fact that when a person impresses you this much it is very difficult to write about them. Para athletes tend to be tenacious and courageous people by definition. The conditions that Rowan overcomes to succeed are very great indeed. Rowan has Dystonia and Paroxysmal Dyskinesia, which are both severe neurological disorders. The practical implications for a rider are not only severe pain but unpredictable muscle spasms. Different muscles every time. For the rider, horse and coach this presents a set of challenges that change from day-to-day.

For me, Rowan’s story is about far more than the obstacles and the struggle; that is not where I wanted my focus as a writer to be. I spent a wonderful afternoon with a wise, funny, clever young woman. Beyond those attributes, I was aware that there was a very unusual quality to Rowan. It took time to work out what it was. Strangely enough realising what it was finally unlocked my ability to write about her.

As a horsewoman, as a rider Rowan is extremely sensitive to her horse and it’s needs. As a competitor she is utterly focused and she has all the determination that marks out an elite athlete. Those factors do tend to combine in the best of the best riders. It is unusual however to meet a person who is as serene as they are powerful.

Rowan has a quiet grace about her and an obvious love for animals. I think that is partly what makes her the rider that she is. Her sense of humour is quick but never unkind, most often it is self-deprecating. She related anecdotes that showed me a whole other side to the Para Dressage circuit. There is a level of camaraderie and pragmatic humour less often found in competitive dressage among able-bodied riders.

Olympic Ambitions

Becoming an Olympic athlete was something that Rowan aspired to as a very young child, long before she ever sat on a pony. In fact she first expressed this wish when she less than three years old and it was all the more remarkable because at that point in Rowan’s life she rarely communicated verbally. In spite of speaking very little, Rowan told her parents that she was going to be in the Olympics. This was before Rowan had taken up any sport. When a person says something with that kind of certainty it often does manifest in reality. The earlier in our lives that we articulate such intentions then the more deeply embedded they are in our psyche. I will not be at all surprised to see Rowan Crosby on an Olympic podium. She has absolutely the right spirit and the right attitude.

When I drove down to meet with Rowan she was still in the middle of her GCSE exams. Rowan’s determination to take GCSEs and her plans to go on to take her A levels had necessitated her moving schools. Leaving the peaceful familiar atmosphere of a special school for the bustling environment of a mainstream secondary school has been a big adaptation. It is an added factor in managing Rowan’s energy levels. She is at school for half days, specifically tailored around her GCSE subjects.

Rowan’s Dressage Horses

So many times in the hours we spent talking Rowan spoke of her desire to make her family proud; of her love for her horse, a beautiful young Connemara mare called Tiger Lily. Rowan describes Tiger as her best friend and her ‘peace’ at the end of a long exhausting school day.

Rowan spends a lot of time creating activities to build her partnership with Tiger. Picnics together, wheeling around the arena learning tests with Tiger following behind her, grooming Tiger herself and hacking out with her friends. All of these things are strengthening an already firm bond. What I noticed though was that Rowan didn’t put the emphasis on doing things that she enjoys. Rowan spoke always from the perspective of what Tiger might enjoy and what she thinks might make Tiger happy.

Tiger has carried Rowan to high levels of competitive success in a very short time frame. They qualified for both Winter and Summer Championships and represented both Wales and Great Britain within their first year together.

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I asked Rowan what it is about a horse that she likes, what enables her to build the kind of bond that she wants. She told me that what she loves about Tiger is her willingness, her friendly and interactive nature. Tiger is a horse that wants to please and make you proud. Her bond with her first horse Tex, a Welsh x Arabian was different. Tex was rather more aloof in some respects, but loving, willing, cheeky and loyal too. Rowan described his wonderful medium trot as something she really misses. He was a horse that needed a lot of support and input from his rider to do a really good test. A judge once commented that “you get no marks for free from that horse”. It all comes back to finding the perfect balance between brilliance and consistency. Tex was generous and always took care of Rowan, but the sensitivity to his environment made competition more of a challenge. After discovering dressage with a hotter type of horse, Rowan can now enjoy the wonderful pragmatism of a Connemara! As she said, it is wonderful to know that the horse is not going to spook; you can just relax and focus on the riding. Oh how true that is!

It is clear that at the heart of Rowan and Tiger’s relationship is mutual love and trust. As Rowan repeatedly said throughout our chat “the horse comes first”. When she and Tiger were representing Great Britain Rowan described hearing the applause and saying to Tiger “that is for you. That is because of you” whilst hugging her neck all of the way out of the arena. Some dressage combinations are horse centric and others are rider centric, where horses are the means to an end. Rowan is 100% horse centric in her approach to the sport and I just love that.

The bond which a Para rider shares with their horse and the challenges of being a Para rider’s horse were subjects that we kept coming back to. There are times when the horse must simply step into the breach and take charge, because in that moment his rider cannot. A Para rider’s horse can never be afraid of its rider, never be trained by force or fear. That would be far too dangerous. It is a strong, trust based, relationship that is required. In certain moments a Para rider can become extremely vulnerable and the horse has to be a true friend and partner. It must never, as Rowan’s mum put it, have been pushed to the point where it says no to the rider and learns that this is an option. The coaches who ride that horse and who work with that combination absolutely have to be on the right page in terms of training methods and personality.

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Coaching Choices

Rowan’s highest priority in planning her coaching is to work only with people who have the horse’s best interest as their first priority. Rowan has worked with her coach Claire Cooper -Wyatt for eight years now. They have a very strong bond. According to Rowan’s mother they have very similar brains, with a shared love of analysis. This is something which struck a real chord with me too; analytical minds lend themselves well to understanding dressage. When Claire trains the horse that Rowan is riding she rides as Rowan would, one-handed, without using her legs. Coaching a Para rider is something that takes a strong nerve at times. I was once told that the first thing for a coach new to working with Para riders was not the be over protective. Rowan spoke of the courage that Claire has to coach her on the very bad days in terms of her health and her pain levels. I can really relate to how that would challenge me as a trainer. Getting to know the individual rider and their horse is part of the process, but getting to know the medical condition that the rider has and how it can vary from day-to-day is at least as important. As Rowan said, a Para rider’s horse may well have a subtly different rider to adapt to every single day and so in effect can their coach. When she began coaching Rowan, Claire was new to working with Para riders. It is a relationship based on openness, on a shared work ethic and a fair amount of humour too; every day is ‘pick on a Para’ day!

Claire is also there to support Rowan in competition, helping Tiger to adapt to the environment and helping Rowan to find the right state of mind in which to compete. This is something that she is very good at, having a strong understanding of the psychological approach to competition herself. Claire’s commitment to Rowan is incredible, using her holiday days up to ensure that she is able to give the level of support needed. Rowan is also unswervingly loyal to Claire.

Claire has been enjoying a lot of success with her beautiful AES Licensed Oldenburg stallion Devivo. Devivo (known as Albi) is by Desperado (Vivaldi) . His Dam by the legendary Rohdiamont. You can connect with Claire by following So Very Sportshorses on Facebook.

In addition to working with Claire as her primary coach, Rowan also goes to Sarah Rogers and Tracy Ormrod, both of whom are coaches that Rowan trusts implicitly to put the horse first. When it came time to find Rowan’s first dressage partner Tex a new home, it was Tracy Ormrod that they asked to help them. After meeting several prospective buyers, she instinctively recognised when Tex had chosen the right young human to be his next partner. Horses make clear choices if we give them the chance to, but it takes a true horse person to recognise and interpret the behaviours and body language of the horse at a time like that.

Influences and Inspiration

It is not just the choice of coaches that makes us successful as riders. We talked a lot about what it means to be a good pupil. Rowan’s work ethic, her manners, her attitude to her coaches are clearly a reflection of the values she has been brought up with as well as her own personality. The way a rider handles their growing fame and the ups and downs of their career matters as much as any other aspect of the sport. In fact I think it matters more than many of them.

As riders we all have influences who are not necessarily coaches or even people in the horse world. I believe that sharing who and what these are is a way in which we can offer great insights to one another. Sophie Chrisitiansen CBE is the rider who Rowan most admires, particularly for her elegance and accuracy. She produces the most beautiful, fluent tests; as Rowan said “if she can do it, I can do it”. A rider with a first class degree Masters in Mathematics, who has combined winning multiple gold medals in two Paralympic games with a career as a statistical analysis for Goldman Sachs is a fitting role model for Rowan and indeed for me too. A theme emerges here I think; dressage and quants!

Rowan cites Black Beauty as a book which influenced her. It was reflecting on the many changes of home that a horse can go through that made her determined to find the best possible home for Tex when the time came.

We spoke of fellow competitors who have impressed Rowan greatly over the years. Fellow Welsh team rider Lorna Lee for her kindness and for the gentleness she shows to her horses and Emma Douglas for her amazing test riding.

Life as a Para Equestrian Athlete

Riding competitively has been a part of Rowan’s life with horses from a very early age. I could see that it is a source of motivation and strength for her. Rowan has a wonderfully supportive family. This is always something that makes competitive dressage far more enjoyable and more successful. Whilst it is possible to go out there against all of the odds and succeed, it is far more likely to happen if the people you are surrounded by are on your side. We talked about the fun of putting together freestyle tests. Rowan and her mother Elizabeth collaborate to create her freestyle tests. They share a love of creating the floor plans and finding the perfect music. Fortunately Rowan’s grandfather is a sound technician and he helps ensure that her music is professionally put together. This highly creative aspect of competitive dressage is something that I love too. Music generally and specific songs also help Rowan to keep herself in the right zone during competitions.

Although Rowan grooms Tiger at home, she has help with this at competitions. In order to avoid the risk of her body going into spasm during the test, her entire day at a competition is geared around avoiding any unnecessary exertion. Rowan’s primary focus is her state of mind and riding the test itself. Her coach Claire is allowed to warm Tiger up and then Rowan takes over at a just the right moment. The game plan for each competition depends on variables like how Rowan is feeling, her energy levels, how much work Tiger has been in during the run up to the competition. Adaptability is very important. It is challenging to get on a horse that is already warmed up and ride well when you are not. Finding the ideal balance and judging the right moment is a real skill.

We talked about the experience of progressing from early competitive experiences to the full on formality that Rowan encountered for the first time at Bishop Burton CPDI. No matter how kind or well disposed officials may be at such competitions they are more aloof, more formal and quite rightly more focused on ensuring that rules are adhered to. They are under a level of scrutiny themselves that cannot be particularly comfortable. Her first International was a steep learning curve in itself but Rowan was genuinely able to enjoy her first opportunity to represent Great Britain, winning the Jane Goldsmith Award for the young person with the highest score. The most meaningful accolade of all to Rowan though was that Tiger was named ‘the pony that everyone most wanted to take home’!

Managing mindset & using pain for a purpose.

It is difficult to say sometimes why a particular rider ends up on my radar. In Rowan’s case I can pin point the very moment I realised that she was a particularly interesting young rider. She posted a photo to her Facebook page of her sitting in the car before a competition. She was taking time out to get into her ‘zone’. I commented that it was so good to see a young rider focused on optimising their mind-set.

As we talked I realised that Rowan has a wonderfully mature and professional attitude to managing her mind-set.  I really believe in riders at all levels learning how to do this. Finding the optimal mental approach to what we do is important for all riders but for Rowan, who lives with a level of pain that I cannot even imagine, it is vital. She has times when her condition and the pain it brings can induce a state that her mother described as ‘dormant’. Rowan described how this closed down state of mind feels, how it feeds upon itself in a vicious cycle when she is too ill to ride.

It is at those times that the people around her need to let her know that she is not being the version of herself that she really wants to be. At just the right time they can help her come back to herself and start fulfilling her potential and her choices again. I have never known that level of pain but, like many of us, I can relate to experiencing a state of mind which in which we become a different version of ourselves. Getting out of that without external help is next to impossible. For Rowan what helps is to re-visit her short, medium, and long-term goals. There is one key question that she comes back to

“What are you going to do today, to change tomorrow?”

That is a question I realise I ought to ask myself on a regular basis. In good times and bad it has a beneficial effect on the mind. There have been occasions that Rowan’s mum has booked her in to competitions in order to give her a focal point in time to work towards. Riding clearly plays a huge part in bringing Rowan back from dormancy to the positive state of mind she wants to exist in. Once she is riding again, she is happy.

“I would rather be outside, riding a horse whilst being sore than inside being sore and doing nothing”

Hearing Rowan say that she actively uses pain to help her focus as a competitor surprised me at first, but on reflection it made perfect sense. It is a spur, something that brings out an even greater level of determination. In this respect Rowan acknowledges that she has found possibly the only positive use for her pain. We talked about mental health issues too, including my own, and how any pain could take us into upward spirals as well as downward ones. As Kenji Miyazawa said “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey”

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Working with Jennie Killilea, World Class Programme Sports Psychologist, has been a massive help. With maturity and a growing awareness of psychology Rowan is increasingly able to lift herself out of negative states, with less and less assistance. Rowan’s mother put it this way.  “It is never that she has fallen out of love with the riding; it is just that other things have muddled the way.” I think that is something that a lot of us can relate to.

Rowan and I have both worked with visualisations to help our riding. She pointed out that it is a very tiring thing to do if you do it right. I would totally agree with that. Your mind has had the experience, it is very real and you will feel a sense of expending energy even though it looks like you are doing nothing. We also agreed that getting the technique right is more difficult than it sounds. The need to make it multi sensory and keep it in real-time are two important factors.

Physiotherapy and body work for horse and rider.

These elements are increasingly recognised as beneficial for all dressage riders but they have of necessity been a bigger than average part of Rowan’s life. Para Equestrian athletes are accostomed to taking thier bodies towards limits which might seem downright alarming to some people, less alarming perhaps to the able bodied equestrian than to the non rider though. All riders share a common determination to let nothing stand between us and our particular goals. Within the equestrian community those of us who are able bodied tend to be quite in awe of our Para equestrian colleagues.

With this in mind I was dismayed, though perhaps not surprised, to hear, about the attitudes which some Physiotherapists have taken to Rowan, an already established Para Equestrian athlete. A non rider might look at Rowan and form the opinion that she ought not to engage in so physical and potentially dangerous a sport. That would be a failure on their part to understand the importance of riding and competing to Rowan. A failure also to estimate the impact of suggesting that she remove from her life the greatest achievement and motivation of all. Rowan knows that certain activities, like cooking for example, are difficult and even too dangerous for her. The fact that she is independent on the back of a horse, that she is doing something that she does well, is very important to her. It is where she feels free. It is her element.

Some therapists have even suggested that she should stop doing whatever she is doing if she feels pain. As she said, the pain is a constant regardless of what she does. Like her RDA first teacher, Anne, I am of the opinion that Rowan can do whatever she sets her mind to. She and her family know best of all how to decide what she should be doing and what risks she should be taking. The role of a physical therapist is to support her in her choice. I can see how that takes courage, but if anyone deserves the people around them to keep their nerve it is Rowan.

Rowan has Hydrotherapy twice each week, she sees a Neurophysiotherapist through Alder Hay hospital occasionally, and she sees a functional physiotherapist on a regular basis. Finding the right people, with the right attitudes has been a key to successful treatment. Alongside the professional skills there has to be a belief in Rowan and what she is achieving.

One of the most surprising things Rowan told me was that she has taken up Boxing. It was initially a response to being told that her physical strength would only deteriorate. Not only does it help to counteract this loss of strength, it is also, according to Rowan, a great way to use your pain and work through it. Inspired by Rowan, her boxing coach has set up his gym as a fully accessible facility for disabled people. He found that Rowan’s ability to lift weight and to punch is way beyond what her appearance led him to expect. He likens her to Yoda and I think this comparison works on a number of levels! Together they work on a customised blend of Boxing, Strength and Conditioning and on Kick Boxing.

Rowan has used her competition winnings to invest in gym equipment for her to use at home. There is an exercise bike in the barn so that Rowan can cycle on it and chat to Tiger at the same time! The riding itself is part of her physical therapy and she finds that lots of hacking helps to keep her strength up. There is a fine line between exercise helping Rowan’s body and sending it into spasm. This has a direct bearing on her training schedule with Tiger and the decisions she makes around warming up at competitions. Warm ups are limited strictly to a maximum of twenty minutes. Training sessions can last up to twice as long but Rowan can do nothing the day before.

Tiger, of course, sees a physio regularly – Laura Clinton helps to Tiger comfortable and thus working optimally. Laura is a wonderful physio and although at the time of writing this she is away on maternity leave, you can find out more about her work at http://www.equiflexion.co.uk

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Rowan’s Advice to Other Riders –

I asked Rowan what advice she would most like to pass on to other riders, as a result of her own career experiences. This is what she said:

To Para and Able Bodied riders – that you can do whatever you put your mind to, to enjoy what you do, and that in training or competition there is always something good to take away from the session. Sometimes, when a competition goes badly, all you can take away from the experience is that you get to take your pony home safe and well. Then you realise that this is everything that matters.

Another maxim that Rowan lives by is

“Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail”.

Expanding on that point we talked about the importance of preparation at all levels of competition, from local unaffiliated to Internationals. There is no competition that is unimportant when you are representing yourself, your horse, your coach and the people who love and support you. It always matters. You don’t need permission from anybody to take yourself seriously as a competitor.

Having started her journey with horses through the RDA, Rowan is keen to make her contribution and qualify as a coach. Clwyd Special Riding Centre sounds like an idyllic place, which Rowan describes as being more like a social club. She has grown up there with a group of young riders who still spend a lot of their free time there together, this long after she moved through from RDA to Para Dressage. The volunteers and coaches at the centre have been a constant source of support for Rowan and I think she, in turn, will make an excellent teacher.   

I am so pleased that I contacted Rowan and that she agreed to be interviewed. There were so many instances, during the time I spent with her, that I felt my gut instinct about her was utterly vindicated. To me, the most important quality of a horsewoman is love for the horse and seeing Rowan interacting with Tiger made it clear that this is a quality she has in abundance. I wish her the very best of everything for her future and I am looking forward to staying in touch and keeping you all up to date with her news and achievements.

 

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Somerford Park Premier League 2018

Why the Prix St Georges is essential viewing!

You will always see some very interesting dressage at a Premier League competition. I usually gravitate to the arena where the Prix St Georges class is taking place. This is always the most interesting class to me because it is where the equine stars of the future are to be seen; horses that have been on my radar for a few years in some cases, and sometimes horses who have been more or less kept under wraps. PSG reveals a lot about the future potential of a horse. All of the building blocks for the future are shown at this level.

I was looking out for the horses with the balance, the suppleness, the strength to go higher through the FEI levels and to do it well.

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Aside from Young Horse classes, there are two key competitive levels for me – Elementary and PSG. Each is an important milestone in the training and I have a personal theory that you can see the PSG horse in the Elementary horse and you can see the future Grand Prix horse in the horse at PSG.

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Premier league competitions are an inherently interesting mix because of the riders that they are designed to appeal to. There are many motives for riders to attend these prestigious shows, but some of the main reasons to be there are

  • To showcase horses with international potential
  • To help horses with that international potential gain exposure and experience
  • To gain direct qualification to the National Championships

I saw a lot of lovely horses and some very nice riding yesterday but there were those who stood out from the crowd. Deliberately setting aside the matter of fame or prior accomplishment, I will say this:

The best work was, in every case, produced by the riders with the best seats, the riders who’s aiding was both subtle and precisely controlled.

They had the most engagement, the most suppleness, the power in balance; they produced the best dressage.

What you need to be looking for in a dressage horse at Prix St Georges.

  • Strength combined with suppleness – a flexible but well-developed physique.
  • Power in balance – more power and slower tempo. More lifting, less pushing.
  • Confident connections – a calm, prompt response to the leg. Happy with the hand and settled in the mouth. If there are any persistent contact issues at this level they absolutely must be resolved otherwise they will return to haunt you later!
  • Lightness – all of the above combine to produce the marked cadence and brilliance that tells me I’m looking at a potentially good future Grand Prix horse. Put simply we are looking for airtime!

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One indicator that a horse is developing along the right lines is the ability to flex the hock joint and bend the knee more. Engagement that comes almost entirely from articulating the stifle, where the hock is not bending so much, is often seen when a horse is travelling too quickly and is offering a the type of movement that one of my coaches used to call swan paddling! To succeed through from PSG to GP the horse will need to flex the hock and sit.

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If you look at the front of the hock joint you will see that these horses are closing the joint well and if you look at the degree of knee bend you will see that it gives a soft, suspended impression. Horses that are pushing from behind and not lifting enough through the shoulder will rarely if ever show this quality.

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In extended gaits this quality of suspension can give the (false) impression that there is a lack of power. Good power, that is to say balanced power often looks quite different to how it feels! The wrong kind of power, rapid motion and excessive pushing from the hind legs will feel tiring and produce tension in the horse and in you. Soft, balanced power is a wonderful feeling, exciting for the rider and soothing to the spectator! The skilled eye will always know which horse is travelling powerfully in slow tempo and which horse simply lacks impulsion.

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There is nothing so necessary at higher levels as this balanced power; it is the foundation of all of your work in higher collection. The lack of it is why many combinations get to PSG and hit a ceiling. As we develop higher collection and greater extension in the gaits there is more airtime at every step so one thing to keep in mind is this:

Air time takes time!

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Several horses showed strong indications of future talent for the higher levels. River Rise Escarla is confident, strong and admirably supple. Her work was consistently lovely. This mare has an expressive face and she looked utterly happy and positive about her work, very enthusiastic and focused. A horse like that in the hands of Charlotte Dujardin is bound to be quite something! Quentano 2 ridden by Emile Faurie, was my favourite though. This horse had moments of insecurity and in less tactful hands I think things could have gone wrong. Emile provided the horse with mental space and the lightest hands at just the right moments and together they produced a stunning test to take second place. This horse showed a more developed ability than any other in the class to sit and elevate the forehand. The balance was consistent and the cadence breathtaking. If he progresses in training, as I imagine he will, then he will really shine at Grand Prix.

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A strong Grand Prix class & why I have yet another reason to admire Carl Hester!

The stand out combinations in the Grand Prix class reflected the same principle I mentioned earlier, that a good riding style leads to a superior way of going in the horse. It was a competitive class with some superb riding. I am often rather disinterested in the results of a competition, watching it more for the key skills and general impressions rather than for the sake of the competitive outcome, but in this class the placings reflected very clearly the quality of the skills in question. Matt Frost, Isobel Wessels  and Michael Eilberg all rode superbly but it was Carl Hester that really surprised me. I have seen him develop as a rider over a couple of decades but it has been almost two years since I have seen Carl ride in person. Many riders rest on their laurels well before they reach his level of excellence but Carl Hester just keeps on improving.

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There was a memorable moment during his test when Hawtins Delicato surged out of the canter pirouette to the right with more power than he had gone into the movement with. That in itself is impressive. The movement was beautifully executed and as the horse lifted out of it and cantered straight forward Carl reached down and rubbed the horse’s neck in a gesture of reward and thanks. It was a private moment between horse and rider, blink and you’d have missed it, but it is indicative of the kindness and the intelligence which Carl brings to the training of his horses.

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Dressage as a sport can accidentally encourage the mindset that we measure success by what a rider wins. Another measure of success is how we sit and how we communicate with the horse. There are dressage riders who sit well enough to do the job, then there are riders with very good seats and then there is Carl Hester! He had the basis of this seat at nineteen years old and it has just got better with time. That was what struck me as he rode into the arena, before the test even began.  It is not only that he produces one fabulous horse after another, he has continuously improved as a rider as well. If I had to choose two factors which set Carl Hester apart I would say that

  1. He has a seat that is the equal of any great rider, past or present.
  2. His horses work forward, but in the slower tempo than enables superior balance.

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FEI Pony Tests

Before I went over to watch the Prix St Georges tests I made some time to watch the FEI Pony Team Test. For those who are not familiar with this test it is a moderately challenging one, with elements from Elementary and Medium levels in it. For riders between twelve and sixteen years old, many of them on ponies they have trained themselves, this is a challenging prospect.

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The arena in which the ponies were competing was closest to the trade stands and at one corner of it there were several flag poles, complete with flags whipping in the wind. Some of the ponies were more disturbed by this than others but I noticed how calmly and kindly their young riders dealt with the situation. One rider in particular impressed me because, when the tension became too much and the work deteriorated as a result she simply patted her pony on the shoulder and withdrew from the test. She did the best thing to conserve the trust and confidence of her pony and handled what was no doubt a disappointing situation with professionalism that a rider of any age would be proud of!

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There was one pony rider whose test I knew I simply couldn’t miss and that was Mollie Whitham! Mollie has a massive following on social media and I have seen her progression as a rider over the last few years through her Twitter account @poniemadmollie.  She is a very dedicated young rider and has owned and brought on her young pony DZL Royal Sunrise from backing.

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I understand that last year Mollie watched this event at Somerford Park and declared the intention to ride there the following year. I am delighted to have watched her do just that!

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Seeing riders who are right at the start of their dressage careers is a positive thing and also thought-provoking. I saw some beautiful ponies and some very promising young riders. If those riders are to fulfill their considerable promise and make their dreams come true I would advise all of them to look very carefully at the best available role models. On a day like yesterday they need to look at Emile Faurie, at Matt Frost, at Carl and Charlotte, at the Eilbergs and decide clearly what kind of rider they want to become. Look at how those riders sit, look at how they aid, and at the quality of the connection they develop with their horses. There is nothing more important than that and it is never too early in a rider’s career to begin honing those key skills.

That thought has brought us full circle, back to the idea that how we sit and how we use our legs, seat and hands, will ultimately come to define the quality of work we create with our horses and ponies. Excellence in those areas will often lead us to success in competition but it will always earn us the respect and affection of our horses.

Christine xx

All of the above images are my own and are subject to copyright.

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Dressage Perspectives Featured Riders

I was told once that the horse world polarises people; that I would see the best and the worst of humanity within it. That has been so true. On the whole I have seen far more good than bad. I have been lucky and, where necessary, I have been ruthlessly selective. My advice to people entering the industry – find the good people, walk away from the wrong ones quickly and keep putting the horses first.

The creation of Dressage Perspectives arose from a conversation with a group of friends. One of the issues we discussed was the trend towards celebrity riders and the need for riders to represent themselves, or be represented professionally, in a more aggressive way than ever before. To consumers of publicity it is easy to imagine that it just happens, as a natural consequence of having talent or being in some way interesting. Of course this is not so. How does an article usually end up on the pages of a magazine, digital or otherwise? For that you must explore the synergy between Public Relations and Journalism. The mechanics of that process might shock some people; for me it just invokes a wary cynicism. Too much hinges on what riders win, which studs they ride for and the market value of the bloodstock that carries them to victory. The commercial wheels of the industry have to turn, I guess, but there is far more to the horse world than that. There are so many really wonderful people out there. My mission is to discover the inspiring teachers, the small-scale horse breeders so passionate about what they do that they operate for decades at break-even point, and the riders who, win or lose, plainly adore their horses. Those are the kind of people I want to write about.

There are those who would have us believe that media will only appeal if it is seamlessly slick and relentlessly aspirational, that the attention span of our audience is currently around a nanosecond, and that all we merit is the victory of style over substance. I disagree and this is why. Equestrians might enjoy escapism as much as anyone but the reality we inhabit is bounded by mud, love, discomfort and joy. Our best friends tread on our feet and sneeze all over our clean clothes. We struggle to forge careers that make no sense to our friends, families and bank managers. We have to be tenacious if we are in it for the long haul. Our stock can rise and drop with the state of an animal’s health. Oblivion is always beckoning. There are those around us who only love a rising star, those who want your style to cover for their lack of substance. Those people will be gone quicker than a rat up a drain if your luck turns for the worse. Knowing this, it is vital to identify and cherish the people who will still be around, those sponsors who will stick with you through a dry spell, owners who will say no to those who covet your rides, pupils who are there for what you know and not who you know. One of the more valid measures of success in our careers is the relationships we build and sustain.

A lady I know once said to me ‘it is all about bred by, ridden by, trained by and owned by’. Initially I shrugged off her cynical take on an industry I thought I knew better than she did. But, in a way, I must admit she was bang on the money, she identified exactly where the money is to be found. She was very wide of the mark when it comes to finding happiness, friendship, decency and humour though. I suppose that in life you find what you go looking for. I have found kindred spirits, equine and human, in the most wonderful and unlikely places. For me this world (not just the horse world) is all about the connections we make with other creatures. The connections between teachers, pupils, friends, mentors, grooms, owners, sponsors and above all that between the horse and its rider; these are the fabric of our world. It is those strands of connection I want to explore.

This Featured Riders series is an opportunity for me to talk to those riders who I think deserve to be talked about for all the right reasons. So far this year I have had the absolute pleasure to meet with Rowan Crosby and Alison Kenward, both of whom are true horsewomen with fascinating stories to tell. I am currently trying to do those stories justice as I write about them. We never know who will turn out to have a positive influence in our lives, however great or small. The more we connect with others and find common ground, the better our own lives and our horses’ lives will be. Sharing our stories and finding inspiration in one another is something I really believe is important. I hope that this new dimension to Dressage Perspectives is something that proves insightful and enriching!

 

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!

International Dressage Rider

What idea does that phrase convey to you? Elite sport, being selected for a team, prestige and recognition? It is a proudly mentioned tag line in many riders personal advertisements, an important way to distinguish themselves in a crowded market place. It really means something to have been selected to represent your country; in theory it means you are one of the best. It is a dream which motivates many riders and one which a tiny minority sees come true. Personally, I knew I didn’t stand a chance and that is realism not defeatism talking. I lack the tenacity and the resources; I knew at twenty that I would be setting myself up to fail if I chose that particular dream.

But, the truth is that being a dressage rider automatically makes you part of an international community and that is one of the best things about it. Whether you struggle with a 20m circle or one tempi changes there are people all over the world who share your pain! There are books, DVDs, internet sites in just about every language dedicated to helping you find solutions. Coaches travel the world to share their wisdom and experience. There are job opportunities and training opportunities all over the globe.

I’ve met riders in all disciplines who chose to look outward and take opportunities large and small. I am one of those riders. Equally I have met many riders who know very little about what happens outside of their own county or region. This I will never understand.

I learnt a language so that I could understand one of my coaches and I am learning another in order to make the most of my next training sabbatical. Dressage has helped expand my personal and cultural horizons and the effect on my life has been nothing but positive.

Social media has made it easier than ever to be part of a worldwide network of riders, to buy products from other countries, to source horses, to learn about different traditions and perspectives on training horses. Even if you can’t travel to seminars and competitions you will find detailed reports available online. Finding out which clinicians are visiting your country has never been easier. So if you are leaving school or college check out international jobs rather than working at the yard down the road.

On my travels I have noticed that riders are often intensely proud of their national identity and heritage but the best riders everywhere have an outward looking, international mindset. Looking outward beyond your region, or even your nation, can change you as a rider forever. It could be as simple as picking up a book, or as complex as moving to another country, but either way you should go for it! In many ways its a metaphor for riding itself, look up and look outward.