Dressage Competition Camp – July 7th & 8th

The popularity of training camps for riders is growing and for good reason. It is a training format that I had never experienced until last week. Although I did not take a horse along to Moulton Equestrian Centre I was made to feel very much a part of the group, which was a lovely experience. I took part in the dismounted sessions and found it to be both thought-provoking and valuable.

Where a camp varies from say a two or three-day clinic is in the scope of the activities that are included; This is where they have particular value. There is scope for both mounted and dismounted learning opportunities, focusing on the mind and body of the rider. Most importantly of all, there is plenty of opportunity for the riders to talk to one another and to the coach in a relaxed and informal setting.

I love to learn from riding in and auditing at clinics. Riders and coaches can learn a massive amount that way, but there are drawbacks. At a clinic there is usually silence prevailing because one or other of the riders is under tuition. When my riding session is coming to an end I have often had questions and invariably the clinician is only too happy to answer them but there is alway the sense of time pressure, sometimes a sense of intruding upon the tiny amount of time a clinician gets to have a drink and momentarily relax between the lessons. If I have four questions then for these reasons I ask only one or two. There have been times that clinics have ended with wonderfully social dinners or even parties, but asking riding related questions at times like that seems downright rude; unless the trainer brings up the subject of my horse or my riding then I am certainly not going to.

Where a camp differs, and certainly where Alison’s camp differed, is that the trainer spends more time with the participants. There are structured sessions and around these there is time where discussions can evolve in a less formal way, questions can be asked and discussions among the group can take place. This is something that, given the right company, I like very much.

Day One – Individual Ridden Sessions

The first day of the camp was dedicated to individual riding sessions, a dismounted session with work on rider mindset, and then a ridden session as a group. There was a positive, inclusive atmosphere from the beginning. The first horse in was Sardra, a beautiful mare who has only recently returned to work, ridden by her owner Tory Dobb. Sardra is in her late teens, but you really wouldn’t know it. Given the rather challenging whether we were having the indoor arena was very hot indeed. All of the horses and riders coped very well and Alison naturally tailored the work to suit the situation. For a horse recently returned to work, I was impressed with Sardra’s willingness. She really seemed to enjoy the work and became much more forward as the session progressed. One of the stepping-stones to this was Alison’s instruction to keep the correct tempo in the walk, not to hurry it and to use the trot to help Sardra think forward.

Let the rhythm come, don’t hurry the tempo!

Encouraging Tory to apply the reins, so that she had a light but more defined contact also helped encourage Sardra to go forward. She made some corrections to Tory’s lower leg position and leg aid application; this helped too. It has a double benefit of improving the rider’s body balance, which encourages a forward mindset in the horse, and it makes the aid delivery quicker and lighter, thus more effective. Tory took this correction on board and the benefit of it stayed in place through the rest of the session.

As Alison pointed out, it was important for Sardra that the gymnastic challenges were kept quite easily achievable. She is clearly a very giving and sweet-tempered horse. When you train an uncomplaining horse it is especially important to keep your demands at a level that will build the horse’s confidence. As they worked between the gaits she encouraged Tory to allow Sardra’s hind legs through into the downward transitions. This is something that we can all do well to think about, in every transition we ride. It encourages us to keep the contact soft and allowing, it encourages us to think forward when we transition down and not block the hocks.

Taking a rider’s focus off of a particular thing is sometimes the first step the coach must take to help them improve it. This was the case with Tory and Sardra’s use of the corners. By asking Tory to initially make easy, blunted corners whilst keeping the bend correct they were able by the end of the session to ride deeper corners in good balance. This doesn’t happen by magic of course and nor simply because of the passage of time. There was a key to the situation and it was all about straightness. Straightness is not simply a matter of travelling along a line that doesn’t wobble, in part it is about the horse using both hind legs correctly, both sides of its body equally, and connecting lightly but evenly to both hands. Early in the session Alison identified that contact was an area for this combination to work on and it was a clear focus through the session.

It was in the canter work that the most obvious changes took place, again due to the influence of straightening the horse and equalising the contact. One of the ways that Alison enabled Tory to achieve the improvement was through judicious use of counter bend. For a few strides prior to the transition she asked Tory to put Sardra into counter flexion and a gentle degree of counter bend. Upon returning to true bend they immediately struck off into the canter. This exercise has a clear gymnastic benefit to the horse and in addition it made the rider more aware of what became her outside rein going into the canter. The result was a clearer moment of suspension, more energy and more ‘jump’ in each stride. This was a great demonstration of the principle that straightness allows impulsion to develop in the mind and body of the horse.

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Many riders don’t get to experience riding in a 20 x 60 metre arena on a daily basis and Karen Browne mentioned this at the start of her individual session with Harvey. Riding in the long arena when you usually train in a short arena, can challenge both the stamina of a horse and the spacial awareness of the rider. Harvey, an eighteen year old Welsh section D gelding, has belonged to Karen for nine years and they have explored a variety of activities together. Karen has an interest in biomechanics and is keen to explore dressage in greater depth with Harvey. They have taken part in tests at Prelim level before and also have experience together in endurance riding and jumping. Harvey is a gorgeous horse, with the energy levels and positive attitude that are so often found in Welsh horses. His basic gaits were very good and showed all the promise you could want for future development. What has struck me many times, and did so again with these horses, is how a well cared for horse in its late teens or early twenties often moves better than a poorly trained horse of six or seven.

The main focus for Karen in the early part of the session was a correction to her upper body position. Harvey had initially shown a tendency to fall in. There is a wise old saying that “a crooked rider never made a straight horse” and this applies to us all to some degree or other. We are endlessly correcting our bodies to correct the bodies of our horses. There are those who teach only the effect of hand or leg in cases like these but Alison is of course a far more educated teacher! She made numerous small, relevant changes to the positions of the riders throughout the camp and it was lovely to see that connection in place. Alison corrected Karen’s upper body position relative to the line of travel. She did this skilfully by asking her to bring her outside shoulder around, rather than by asking her to take her inside shoulder back. This has the advantage of avoiding excessive twisting of the upper body and the collapsing that can go along with it. It is also easier for the rider to maintain the outside hand position and rein contact when it is done this way.

It is great to work with riders who have done ‘a bit of everything’ rather than those who have dressage focused tunnel vision. The reason for this is that, like Harvey, their horses often have a lovely unspoilt basis to begin training. There was no incorrect training to undo, no hand imposed tensions in the poll or the back. The flip side, if it can even be called that, is that Harvey had not yet learnt to gather his body under him and explore its full power and gymnastic potential. Even at eighteen you could see that he had plenty of scope for this though. Alison gave Karen an idea, an image to keep in her mind. It was of a big elastic band around Harvey’s whole body, there to encourage spring and elasticity in his movement. It gave Karen the idea of elastic connection. Throughout the session I could see this starting to grow and develop. Like the corrections to a rider’s seat, a transformation like this is gradual and takes an ongoing effort to make sure it takes root.

“I loved this clinic. It was relaxed and everything was broken down so it was easy to understand. Roll on my next Dressage!”  Karen Browne

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A positional correction will usually feel alien to the rider at first. As Karen put it “it feels right and wrong at the same time”.  It is the reward the horse gives the rider that becomes a marker of the change and acts as a motivation to sustain the change. Harvey discovered a more springy, softer way of going through the session and the contact improved. Karen noticed his lower head carriage and Alison described it very appropriately as “a wonderful by-product”; Harvey had in fact begun to noticeably soften and lift his top-line into early stage roundness. It was a lovely transformation, that showed his movement to even greater advantage. Working into the canter transitions Alison gave the following set of instructions:

“Build the trot, engage the outside rein and think canter”.

The result fitted exactly with the imagery that she had suggested to Karen at the start. It was as though Harvey had a big elastic band around him, he had become more elastic in body and mind.

One thing that I noticed throughout the sessions was how the horses all gravitated to Alison when they had the chance; at the start and end of the sessions and when she stopped them to explain something to the rider. This is always a good sign to me. The horse, the rider and the coach are a unit of three and trust has to exist between all parties.

Karen Kendall’s thirteen year old piebald cob Seamus had previously hacked and taken part in endurance rides. Karen is aiming to improve his work in the school, with the goal of taking part in a riding club quadrille this September. Karen has Arthritis in both hips and, because of this, her legs take time to relax into position at the start of every ride. Improving a rider’s seat is as much about ensuring the rider has time for relaxation and comfort as it is about body alignment. Alison made a quick correction to encourage soft bend in Karen’s elbow, with a virtually immediate improvement taking place in the contact. Seamus’ primary issue has been with going forward. From my experience with horses of his type, and no doubt this was the case for Alison too, it is clear that fitness and coordination are the underlying factors, rather than a lack of willingness. Like many horses with substantial bone structures, Seamus will take time to develop the muscle power he requires to work at his absolute best.

Seamus and Karen have only begun working with Alison very recently and it was clear that they are both building self-confidence thanks to her knowledgable and patient approach. In the two ridden sessions I saw Seamus grow in confidence and offer work willingly that had apparently been something of a battleground in the past. A key factor in this was the rider’s tone of voice. How can something so subtle, that is not a body aid make such a difference? Well, I think it is because tone of voice reveals the rider’s underlying state of mind.  Alison picked up on some underlying mental tension and quietly reassured Karen, asking her to make a very specific change to her tone of voice if she uses it for upward transitions. From that moment on an upbeat, positive, friendly voice aid backed up the leg and it took both horse and rider onto an upward psychological spiral that was lovely to see. Seamus definitely needs a tone that says “you can do this” much more than he needs a tone that says”you will do this”.

 

Seamus offered much more sustained forwardness as the session progressed and many of the improvement that were coming into Seamus’ work were by products of this. Controlling his shoulders on the circles was an area that Alison and Karen focused on. Keeping the shape and dimensions of the circles depends first on controlling the shoulder mass of the horse and only then can consistent bend exist. By the end of the session Karen had a great deal more control of Seamus’ shoulders. He was flowing around the circles in trot better than ever before. The physical change in him was clear and he had a happy look on his face, as did Karen! Looking at Seamus I could clearly see his potential; given time to get stronger and lighter, fitter and even more confident he will make a beautiful quadrille horse or competition horse. There is no such thing as a dressage horse. Dressage is a process that exists to serve the horse and the rider. As they continue to train with Alison I am certain that this process will be the making of Seamus, mentally and physically. He showed a lovely hint of things to come in the free walk towards the end of the session when he stretched down, held the connection, lifted his back and his walk got a rather lovely swing to it.

“I really benefitted from the ridden sessions and then discussing and breaking it down into chunks. I feel positive about our future in dressage and excited to move on”  Karen Kendall

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Mindset Session

We chose to take the dismounted session outside. Once the horses were settled into their stables we found a bench in the shade. I took part in this session and so my impressions are those of a participant as much as an observer. Preliminary 13 was the test Alison had chosen to look at for the session. We began by talking about how we learn tests. For me letters don’t really come into it much because I learn patterns, usually linked together in blocks. Alison asked us to begin learning the test, she then stopped us part way through to focus on one particular movement. Our minds were in a focused state at this point. The movement that we focused on for the visualisation was the section of trot along the wall after the corner and a twenty metre circle halfway down the long side – working trot H to E, with the circle at E. There is a give and retake of the reins on the second half of the circle as you cross the centre line. We used this movement to create a visualisation.

Despite being familiar with visualisations and accustomed to using them in training I did something that surprised me. I set myself up in my mind, trotting down the wall and onto my circle. The sun was warming me, the scent of gently perspiring horse was rising to my nostrils, I could feel the stirrup treads gently under my feet and my seat bones  were moving with the horse, the birds were singing and all was well. The trot tempo was steady, the contact was nice and the bend was rather pleasing. Then I came to the give and retake. I did a quick, token arm gesture totally unlike anything I would normally call a decent give and retake. I need not have moved my arms at all during a visualisation. The phrase “what I should be doing” came up from one of the riders and although I hadn’t said it, I too had thought it. Alison suggested we reframe that as “what I would like to do”. The way we talk about ourselves and to ourselves is critically important; language really matters to mindset. When I went through my visualisation again I made sure that my give and retake was the real thing! In our visualisations we must not mark the movements but fully create them in our mind.

For riders who might not have worked with visualisation before, the main surprise and the main challenge too is that they must be in real-time. It must take you as long to ride your movement in your visualisation as it would to ride it on your horse. The second thing is that they are multi sensory. Alison encouraged the riders to think about what they could see, hear and feel through the visualisation. For the exercise to work it is vital to make the experience as real as possible. We all jotted down what we had been aware of. Because I have been trained to soften my eyes, look up and, on a circle I take my outside eye line to the inside ear tip of the horse, the view for me was a wide-angle, soft focus, constantly moving panorama of my current home arena. I was aware of hearing birdsong and the footfalls of the horse. The perceived sensation of movement revolved around my hips and seat bones primarily, with the pleasant rein contact and the stirrup tread contact being part of my awareness too. Overall I was aware of my body positioning for the circle. My thinking felt clear and calm because of the soft focus and the steady tempo. My state of mind could have been categorised as calmly alert. That is probably the ideal state to ride and also to compete in. This is one of the ways in which repeated visualisations really do help riders.

We were then asked to choose a movement in the test which we would find challenging. I thought of a particular horse I know and decided that the free walk would be our greatest challenge in that test. It is a quietly challenging movement and not to be underestimated. In Prelim 13 it carries a double score and that in itself says something about the challenges and importance of that movement as an indicator of quality training. One of my teachers used to say to us

“Remember it is free walk on a long rein, not long walk on a free rein!”

Whilst there will be less contact than in an extended walk, there is still a connection to preserve through the stretch. With a horse that is nervous and who can be inattentive it is often easier to ride an extended walk, where the horse remains on a more defined contact and therefore is more easily kept on the aids, than it is to ride a free walk. That was what I jotted down for my “issue” with the movement. I was asked to make a second column for what I wanted in the movement and it looked like this:

  • Staying focused, taking the contact down, moving freely into a good over-track, with the back lifting and swinging under me.
  • Remaining focused and on the aids for as long as I want the stretch to last.

Exploring the things I wanted gave me the blueprint for how to change the issue into the things I wanted. I was able to come up with a plan. I decided that I would not try initially to go for gold in that movement. In training I would ride it progressively from a smaller stretch, keeping the connection between horse and I, to a greater stretch as time went on. In a very spooky environment I would ride for a modestly respectable mark, so as not to wreck the movement altogether. I have always believed in knowing when to ride for a modest gain, a solid confidence building result. Showjumping taught me that. There is definitely a dressage version of the slow careful clear round and it is a valuable thing. Like all of the participants I had, through this exercise, found my own solutions. Therein lies one of the differences between coaching and teaching. An exercise like this helps riders to draw on their own reserves and that is something every rider can benefit from. It really creates confidence.

“I love the inclusivity of the session and the opportunity to discuss and process the ridden sessions. It was really helpful to share experiences and have the chance to learn from each other”  Tory Dobb

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The Group Ridden Session

We were all back indoors for the group ridden session. This was designed to have some shared objectives and some individual ones. Some of the shared objectives were about using the space and getting used to sharing the space. Sooner or later we all come up against others who warm up in a less than friendly fashion. Alison had some great, constructive advice for dealing with this. It involved positive body language and making a polite personal connection with the rider in question. A confident smile or a compliment can go a long way. It enables you to feel pro active rather than reactive to that person. Many riders don’t get the opportunity to ride in with others on a day-to-day basis and warming up arenas can come as a shock to the system. Having a group session built into the camp was a very good idea for this reason alone.

When it came to deciding the individual objectives it was clear how much confidence all of the riders had gained throughout the day. Rather than focusing on more of the same from their earlier session, they wanted to explore some lateral work with their horses. These choices were very appropriate extensions of what they had already been working on. There is nothing like shoulder in or quarter walk pirouettes to help gain control of the horse’s shoulders and increase straightness. For some horses it was the very beginning of their work in these movements and others had already made a start. By the end of the session all of the riders were more at home with the aids, more relaxed in their bodies and the horses showed some very nice responses. All through the session Alison built upon the basics that had been put in place earlier, keeping the riders aligned correctly and the horses on an even contact through both sides of their bodies. The work was approached very correctly and the horses all showed better walk, trot and canter as a result. That is the mark of correct lateral work, that it improves the forwards locomotion on a single track. You can’t ask for more after a day’s work than for greater longitudinal balance, better lateral balance and a marked increase in the beauty of  a horse’s movement.

Day Two – BD Competition at Moulton EC

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The second day of the camp was dedicated to the competition itself. Not all of the riders from the previous day were planning to compete and two new horses joined the group. The beautiful Stella, who belongs to Diane Underwood, totally lived up to her name. I watched Alison work with this combination at the start of the day and again through their warm up. Stella worked with great consistency and focus. She has the ride-ability factor and seemed, admittedly on short acquaintance, to be an absolute sweetheart. Her movement clearly had the potential to be big and I really liked that Diane and Alison kept her in good tempo and good balance throughout. Stella’s movement is cadenced, but soft, which shows that she habitually works in a state of relaxation.

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Stella clearly has a high level of confidence in Diane. She worked in a strange arena just as though she’d been there forever. That attitude to life is a wonderful thing to work with; it means you can focus on the technical aspects of training rather than on managing behaviours. I suspected that she might, at some point in her life, have been ridden in a way that had destabilised the base of her neck. This usually leaves a mark on the horse’s way of going that takes skill and determination to correct. As Alison put it “she is learning that we are not at home to wiggling the neck”! Stella was showing very sound Elementary level work with lots of promise for reaching the higher levels. Keeping the focus on straightness and balance is certainly the way to do exactly that! Diane and Stella produced a really lovely test to take second place in the BD Elementary Freestyle to Music.

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I also got to meet the very handsome Beau, who belongs to Tamasine Thompson. It is clear that Beau is a horse with a lot of personality. He and Tamasine clearly have a very strong bond. I can totally understand why someone would fall for this horse. Something that seems paradoxical in horses applies to him; I realised I had met yet another example of the brave but spooky horse. Beau had quite a career as an event horse and his courageous, idiosyncratic nature is written in every line of him and every gesture. His eyes have a powerful look I’ve seen in great racehorses. On the other hand he clearly finds the world a spooky place to live in. This paradox is familiar to me and I have ridden several horses who exhibited similar behaviours of high courage and high reactivity. My conclusion is that they are the ones most determined to remain alive, the successful ones in survival terms. When asked to do a job other horses would balk at, they get on and do it, but if a leaf blows off a tree then you’d better fasten your seatbelt!  That Beau showed some tension in his test was no surprise. From observing him outside of the arena I was pretty much expecting it. He’s the kind of horse that can give you fireworks, of the sort you want and the sort you don’t!

There were some issues with the sound system and before the test got going Beau was met with a screeching noise that would have put the wind up many horses! He dealt with that really rather well but I don’t think it increased his general happiness level with that particular environment. Each time Beau had a spook Tamasine handled it tactfully and effectively; encouraging him to relax and listen. You cannot force relaxation, it is impossible. If the tension comes from the mind of the horse then all you can do is ride correctly, confidently and reassuringly whilst you wait for it to pass. Of course the tension levels will have a domino impact on other factors in the horse’s way of going. It would be my hope that as Beau advances in his training he will offer more of his best and exhibit less of the tensions. I say this because when Beau settles he shows movement that is eye-catching, athletic, and cadenced. He has all of the presence you could ever want, but of course it tends to be the challenging horses who do.

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Sardra’s test in the BD Preliminary Freestyle to Music was absolutely lovely to watch. In spite of being recently back in work, having travelled on both days of the weekend and having worked fairly hard on the first day, she was if anything more forward. Her canter work was enthusiastic and she looked like she was really enjoying herself. Some horses just come alive to music and I wonder if she is one of them. All of the improvements that Alison and Tory had worked on through Saturday were visible in the test and it was great to see everything fall into place. Not only was the test a pleasure to watch, it had a very successful outcome; a good score and a red rosette, but most importantly of all a happy horse and rider!

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The level of support that Alison gave each of the riders was wonderful. Having a coach on hand to help you warm up is something that many riders don’t get to experience very often. Knowing that they will be there to talk through their impressions of your test is valuable too. What a rider remembers of a test is often a little at odds with what an observer sees. The judge has no context on you or your horse, they must comment and mark within fixed parameters. Your coach knows the background and context and can offer vital input as well. It is ironic that the riders with the most experience, who may well be coaches themselves, are the ones most likely to have coaches of their own in attendance when they compete. This particular camp format gave the riders a taste of what it is like to have the support system that some, though by no means all, professional riders experience.

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Reflecting on the experience of the camp in general I would absolutely recommend it. I did so beforehand because I firmly believe in Alison’s capability as a coach. Now, my conviction is even stronger. Although I was there as an observer I felt very included. The company was great. I realised that it did me a lot of good to sit and chat with other riders. Had I been planning to compete on that Sunday I would have felt like part of a team. Camps offer us a chance to be open, to share, to support one another. One of the things I wanted to do when I began writing was to show the connections and common ground that exists between all riders. The two days of the camp were full of opportunities to learn, to build confidence and to have fun. I won’t be able to be at the next one, but I really wish I could. I will look forward to hearing how all of the horses and riders are getting on though and hope to meet them again before too long!

There was a lovely goodie bag for each of the riders and one for me too! A big thank you to Alison and to Equissimo, Laura Mary Art and Equilibrium Products for putting this together; it made a great weekend even more memorable!

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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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“Dressage Formula” by Erik Herbermann

 

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When I was eighteen years old I bought a copy of Erik Herbermann’s “Dressage Formula”. At that point in my life I was trying to train a grumpy 14hh show jumping pony and a green 6-year-old OTTB. I had a great thirst for knowledge but knew very little. I was earnestly trying to put into practice what I read and so the wrong books could have been a real problem. I could not have bought a better book than “Dressage Formula” though. There is such a wealth of information in it that I will always be able to pick it up and learn. It is written by one of the world’s greatest horsemen after all. But if you are new to dressage, as I was then, it is accessible and the format is absolutely reader friendly. As you can see in these photos, there are illustrations throughout, bullet point lists break down the ideas very clearly, everything is streamlined and simplified. You could not possibly end up confused by this book.

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One of the things I have always loved about this work is the choice of horses that Erik Herbermann chose to feature throughout.

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Atlantis – a 16.1hh Percheron – Thoroughbred cross. Atlantis is described as having ‘Klunky’ gaits, he was a family hack and hunter who started his training with the author at the age of 10.

Meteorite – a 15.3hh Standardbred cross who had been down the severe bit route and utterly ruined. Herbermann states that his ‘mind and body were knotted with tensions’ but that he was by far the most athletic mover of the horses featured in the book.

Barty – a 14.2hh Arab x Pony with choppy gaits and a thick-set throat area. Barty is described as having a very willing disposition.

Not only are these horses relatable for so many riders but, through the pages of the book, we get to see them transformed in the hands of a master horse trainer. Sadly this is not something that we often see! I have this book to thank for the initial understanding that there are great riders out there who love and totally see the point in training the ‘ordinary’ horse. If anything it helped a young person validate her instinct that these horses are perhaps the most interesting of all to work with and help.

Erik Herbermann’s love and respect for the horse shines through in every line of this book. It is a serious work, suited to the most expert riders and yet it made sense to me when I knew very little. That is rare too and I suspect it is a reflection on the brilliance of the author. Whatever stage you are at in your dressage education and whatever the challenges you face with your horse I would absolutely recommend buying a copy!

Christine xx

“Dressage Formula” by Erik Herbermann was published by J A Allen and is available from ABE Books and Amazon as well as from Trafalgar Square Books as an audio CD

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#wednesdaywisdom from Erik Herbermann

Our riding will more consistently embody beauty and joy when we are motivated by respect and love for the horse. This outlook, above all, helps us to overcome the inevitable difficulties

Today’s quote comes from ‘Dressage Formula’ by Erik Herbermann. I chose this photo of Emile Faurie because he is a rider who embodies the spirit of the quotation – in his work there is beauty and joy because there is love and respect for the horse. As riders we all inevitably encounter difficulties in training but it is how we approach those challenges that comes to define us.

Photo Copyright – Dressage Perspectives.

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Keep the balance, don’t burst the bubble!

 

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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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ProLite Performance Pads

ProLite Performance Pads are awesome! We use them everyday and they offer us solutions to meet both long and short term needs. They are one of the most important investments we have made in our horses comfort; and comfort equals better performance and happier horses.

Temporarily improving saddle fit.

No pad can compensate for a saddle that fits your horse perfectly. I would not advocate the long term use of pads which alter the saddle fit. In the short term though I use the Multi Riser Pad because I can totally customise the effect it has on the saddle balance. This is great with horses that are changing shape rapidly, for horses at the very start of training and those who lost muscle tone due to time off. There are times when it is not practical to have a saddle reflocked, mainly because the situation is very temporary. We have the Multi Riser pad, which has additional ProLite inserts for the front and back, and I am keen to try the Tri Pad, which has a third central pad for even greater adjustability! Of course, without the additional shims, the Multi Riser Pad is useful to pop under a well fitting saddle for even greater weight distribution without impacting the saddle balance at all. If you were to buy only one ProLite pad, I would recommend this because it is multi purpose. Be sure to store the inserts carefully when not in use, or you will end up hunting for them at the bottom of a tack locker when you do need them! Having learnt from my mistake, I now keep mine neatly together in a clear sandwich box!

Optimising every day performance in dressage training and equine rehabilitation.

The main use we make of the ProLite pads is to give extra protection to the horses’ backs in day to day training. For this we use the ProLite GP and Dressage Relief Pads. The specific quality I love about them is the ability to distribute pressure evenly over as wide an area as possible. Several things can contribute to this – a relaxed rider with a good seat, a saddle with broad panels and, for me, the ProLite pad offers a lovely additional safeguard. I do a fair amount of remedial training and equine rehabilitation so providing comfort and protection to the weak or vulnerable back is especially important.

ProLite pads are an ideal product for the young horse, the older horse or any horse with a sensitive back. That said, I use them on the fittest, strongest horses too!

One thing I am a stickler for is that all saddle cloths and pads are pulled up fully into the gullet of the saddle. It is vital that they exert no pressure upon the spine. The ProLite pads are shaped beautifully, even for the high withered horse. They sit up into the gullet, clear of the spine all the way along, and most importantly they stay there whilst you are working. I have never known them to move, even through the most energetic training session, through galloping, jumping and impromptu rodeo riding! The pad is always exactly where you put it at the start.

ProLite pads are very lightweight and that is another feature I love. I always liked gel pads and used those in the past but the weight of them was a disadvantage, as was the difficulty of keeping them from slipping down over the wither. With the ProLite products that is never an issue. I also used to feel that the gel pads somehow reduced the two way communication between my seat and the back of the horse; with ProLite pads I feel the communication is just as clear as if the pad was not there at all. This is so important for the dressage rider who needs to ‘read’ the back of the horse and influence the movement through their seat.

The pads also wash easily and wear extremely well. We launder all of the saddle pads and bandages every two or three times they are used and in the case of the ProLite pads we wash them weekly. In one extraordinary case I found a ProLite pad which had fallen down a gap between two buildings and spent an entire winter there. When it was discovered, soaking wet and disgusting, I decided to try washing it. Not only was the structure of the pad intact, it washed up bright and clean as new. It is back in everyday use and you would never guess what it had been through!

The ProLite Performance website explains that the product offers 3 in 1 protection from impact, pressure points, and movement. Specifically they absorb lateral movement without moving against the skin of the horse. This means that the hair is unruffled and the coat is not rubbed. The importance of this for dressage horses goes without saying. Click through to the ProLite Performance website and have a look at the full range of products for horse and rider!

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