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.

IMG_0529

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.

image2

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”

IMG_1100

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

IMG_1101

 

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.

 

SaveSave

Dressage Perspectives – Delighted to be featured by Pegasebuzz!

Dressage Perspectives has been chosen by Pegasebuzz founder Roxanne Legendre to join a hand-picked group of equestrian brands whose content is featured on the app! It was a lovely and unexpected compliment to be asked to join this group because in Roxanne’s words “We select each of them for their renowned experience in a field or their expertise on a specific subject”. It has been a pleasure to connect with some of the other brands who have been chosen by Pegasebuzz; some like Mirror Me PR are already familiar and others such as Pierre Beaupere Dressage , who has a training philosophy I love, and Ecuerie Active , who are designing stable environments with the needs of the horse in mind, were delightful new discoveries!

pegasebuzz-app-dressage-perspectives-01

 

I absolutely love Pegasebuzz, it is a visually stunning app, available in both French and English. Your experience is tailored exactly to reflect your personal interests. The content is diverse, chosen to appeal to equestrians across disciplines, but it is all brought together in a delightfully elegant online environment.

Your personal profile is the centre of your experience, where you tailor your preferences and create your world! It is really easy to navigate within the app. It is easy to comment, share and save your favourite posts to your profile. Moving from one post to the next is simply a matter of swiping across.

pegasebuzz-app-my-profile

 

My feed is built around my interests; the blend of articles about dressage, fashion, people and events keeps me amused and engaged. I love that I can be reading a technical article about dressage one moment, exploring an upcoming Show Jumping event the next and then looking at beautiful images from a high fashion shoot. I even found myself falling in love with a stunning pink jumping saddle from LGM Sellier.

 

pegasebuzz-app-newsfeed

Pegasebuzz is a wonderful resource if you are looking for a job within the industry. There are positions listed all over the world from entry-level and internships to boardroom positions, from niche equestrian brands to national governing bodies. You set the filters to focus on exactly what you are looking for. Employers should certainly keep Pegasebuzz in mind when they are hiring. It fills a gap in the market for business focused recruitment within the equestrian sector. As a marketing graduate with an equestrian background I found this particularly interesting. I found my finger hovering over the apply button on a few occasions. Whether you are just browsing like me or searching with a stronger intention, this is a great place to look!

pegasebuzz-app-jobs

If you would like to discover Pegasebuzz you can download the app free via the App Store and Google Play. I have the IOS version and have found it to both user-friendly and stable. Even the loveliest design concept needs to be strongly functional and this app really is.

You can connect with Pegasebuzz across all of the major social platforms too. I particularly love their Instagram account – roxanne.legendre  where I can get lost for a while in a world of beautiful show jumpers, dream barns and luxury brands. Roxanne Legendre is a photographer with a talent for capturing unusual angles and curious details and I really like this. Not only is this high quality photo journalism from the most exclusive sporting events, it has originality and a distinctive vision. For me as an artist and a keen amateur photographer this is really inspiring.

I enjoy following all of the Pegasebuzz social accounts because they each deliver a subtly different experience whilst keeping the same sense of community. There is always something new to discover and share.

Pegasebuzz will be a great way to keep up to date with our posts and so much more – make sure that you don’t miss out on being part of this beautiful equestrian world!

Download on iOS here 

Download on Google Play here

 

 

SaveSave

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!

 

Brilliance Versus Consistency

A Dressage Dilemma!

Which would you choose if you had to? If I said you can have a brilliant horse or a horse which will perform reliably well, which one would you take? Of course in the ideal world we wouldn’t have to choose, our horse would be brilliant and consistent. In reality most horses are not at either end of this spectrum but somewhere closer to the middle and we have to ride the horse we have on the day. There are horses, and indeed humans, though who definitely tend towards one extreme or another and all too frequently the human half of a combination selects a horse who is similar in disposition rather than one who complements his or her personality.

Personally I am drawn to brilliance over consistency. I value consistency and work at achieving it because I recognise it’s importance. In competition I often feel it to be an injustice when consistency triumphs over talent. I am well aware that this is personality driven and that I am not necessarily right to feel that way. A dressage test was, prior to 1921, a test for military riders and their horses. Now brilliance isn’t what you need on campaign, let alone in battle. Go back a few centuries and nobody ever said “shame, he was killed but did you see that floaty uphill trot the horse was doing?”Even now I strongly suspect army units on parade duty really wouldn’t want many of our top level dressage horses in their ranks. If the dressage test is a test of obedience, control and correct athletic development then the consistent horse deserves to win hands down.

But we have wandered a long way from where we started in 1921 (not that I personally remember) and civilian riders, amateur and professional alike, have gradually transformed the sport into something utterly different. A second thread has been woven into the fabric of what we do. It is as ancient and important as the need for a reliable horse in war. This second thread is the expressive power of the horse in display. Whenever a human climbs up onto the back of a horse that human will feel inclined to show off just a little! Some of us feel inclined to show off quite a lot. Re conjuring under saddle the display behaviours of the horse at liberty is a big part of dressage. It may not have been at the forefront of the mind when dressage tests were initially developed for officers chargers and cavalry mounts but it had been around forever in a broader social context. There has always been an elite prancing around on the backs of beautiful, valuable horses. When we re conjure those display behaviours in half ton creatures we play with fire. I think that is a subtle part of the appeal. When I hear people say dressage is for wusses I just grin and think of some horses I have ridden. I wonder just how long my hunting friends would remain onboard! As a rider I have never been particularly brave but I am adventurous. My desire to experience the sharper, hotter, more challenging horse has often won out over the fear I have felt curling in the pit of my stomach. The need to be a better rider for these horses has driven me to think, to read, to listen and try, when I might otherwise might not have bothered.

When I judge, as I was doing a few days ago, I have to be very very careful not to let my love of brilliance create a higher tolerance for mistakes than would otherwise be there if the horse were less impressive. I cannot have the mindset I would have as a rider or spectator. I cannot say a mistake did not matter in the broader context of potential future greatness. Sometimes I am the judge who allows consistency to triumph over talent and whereas that can seem galling it is also only right. The less brilliant horse is usually a trusting, willing partner to its rider. It tries its heart out and it might not make your jaw drop but it very often deserves its victory. I am always very aware of the two contrasting elements, the context of a test versus the forum for display, and it is a truly wonderful thing when a horse is the personification of both expression and control. That is when the role of a judge is easy. The rest of the time there is always an inner disagreement taking place, which has to be resolved each time in the space of a few seconds.

It is a good thing that there is such diversity of opinion and personality within the ranks of riders, coaches and judges. If we all had the same priorities it would be terrible. I was once told that only by tolerating imperfections in horses would I ever get close to perfection. It was seemingly contradictory advice but it began to make sense over the years. Now I wonder if some of the less brilliant horses might have been more so if they had not been burdened with inhibitions by riders who value control at all costs. I cannot recall the exact quote but Nuno Olivera wrote of there being, in his opinion, subdued horses and educated horses. I have experienced the difference and I know what I prefer. When we take a young colt or filly out of the herd and train it I think we have a duty to respect its personality and offer it an education which is customised for that personality. Hopefully we can allow the brilliance to grow in even the quietest of horses and equally cultivate some self control in the most unruly of horses. This has to be the ultimate test of the rider, to shape the horse’s personality without crushing it. Hopefully then, if we choose to, we will be able to bring it down the centre line towards a judge who will envy us every second of the ride.

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.