The amateur rider – PetPlan Area Festivals and what's next

A picture might tell a thousand words, but selecting the top five out of one hundred photos the photographer sent to you to share on Facebook, more likely tells a thousand lies. Exhibit A, the photo for this blog post.

The day before my first Petplan Area Festival

I decided I would abstain from alcohol the day before the big day. Already against the odds, adding a blurry head to the equation isn’t going to help. That was until I went to get my horse in. Covered in sweat, he’s been running around like a mad man possessed. But it’s worse than that, he’s lost a front shoe and it’s late afternoon on a Saturday. I phone my farrier, he’s injured so can’t help – great, and typical I thought.

I bathed him anyway and semi-prepped for the big day. Feeling very annoyed, there’s a more fitting word but I’ll leave that to your imagination, I get home and decide remaining sober after my visit to the yard is the wrong response to what’s happened. I find a bottle of red and drown my sorrows and frustration in Rioja. After drunk texting a couple of my main advisors, the unanimous decision is that I should still go, it’s on a surface and he has good feet.

It’s showtime

We get to Prestige on time, horse looking great minus a shoe, and despite our last performance of 51.25%, I am still confident we have a chance of pulling this one out the bag. Perhaps not the greatest of chances, however I am an eternal optimist.

In the warm up my horse was doing his best to do everything he shouldn’t be. Luckily my instructor is there shouting at me to do lots of transitions, serpentines and change of rein to get him to start listening to me. The last and most important piece of advice I am given is stop looking like I shouldn’t be there – own that arena and pretend you’re Carl Hester – pah, I can’t even pretend to pretend to be Carl Hester. Mr Blobby perhaps but not the deity that is Carl Hester.

Anyway, I take the advice onboard and proceed down the centre line. I can feel that my horse once again doesn’t really want to pay attention or give me one ounce of help in my test. But this time I embrace my inner Carl, or at least try to! I will not be defeated by my arrogant little toe rag who thinks he knows best. Amongst other tactics, I used my corners to give him a firm half halt and a kick to remind him he has a job to do – a five minute job I might add. He bucked into his right canter lead and was far from compliant throughout the test, however, I felt happy that I tried my best and we scored 64%, far from the 70% I wanted but much closer than my last result of 51.25%.

Contact, contact, and yes more contact please

The judges’ comments are consistent across all three judges – three judges is something new, usually there’s only one, but the message is loud and clear, contact, contact, and contact.

Having no idea what I am supposed to do to improve contact, I ask my instructor. She explains that more lateral work, for example leg yielding, at home will help. I respond that I haven’t been doing any lateral work, she looks at me confused, that face that I interpret as I should’ve been doing lateral work a long time ago. But no-one told me going sideways was important, all we’ve been practising is our 20 meter circles.

Warm up show for the last chance

So after my first Area Festival it was unanimously agreed that between now and my next Area Festival I should try and get another competition in, both for me and the horse. We head to Pencoed which is the closest competition venue to us, about 25 minutes away, 20 minutes if you’re running late and your horse corners well.

Don’t do your best in the warm up

After my very fresh and opinionated youngster at Prestige Equestrian, I decided to warm up for a little longer than usual and do my own version of lateral work and it seems to be working. He feels good and well behaved. I went into the arena and almost instantly I realised I’m in trouble. I’ve done all my best bits in the warm up and today my very opinionated five year old has been compliant, polite and well-behaved. Note to self, learn to read the horse you have underneath you in the collecting ring much quicker.

We go into the ring and do a well behaved but slightly pony club kick type test that scores us a 66%, and no naughty behaviour which is the most important aspect of our mission today.

Who chose what letters to use for a dressage test?

Next test, a quick five minute warm up and we go in with the confidence I can ask more of him and he’s more likely to be agreeable. The test goes so much better until I realise I am concentrating so hard on what myself and the horse are doing, I forgot to listen to my caller aka my fiance! Now I am completely lost and decided to improvise. I started cantering between C & M as that is what I had to do for one of the tests at some point since I started doing dressage, the bell goes – I’ve gone the wrong way. Second attempt, I go wrong again, again the bell rings. This time as the judge can see that myself and my wonderful fiance aren’t quite getting it, she explains that I need to do a 20m circle in trot before the canter between C & M. The rest of the test goes really well and I kick myself for the two mistakes.

The minute we are out of range my fiance is moaning at me and quite rightly so, it was my fault, but in the moment I couldn’t help but defend myself and explained that she needed to enunciate the stupid letters better.

Who decided to use letters that can sound extremely similar? C, B, E, V, G – give me a break, if it isn’t hard enough, pick letters that don’t sound the same when they are being bellowed at you by your caller. Dressage indoors is performed in a tin shed not the Royal Albert Hall with perfect acoustics.

I got 66% again but this time with a minus 4 marks for going the wrong way twice. That’s the one of the things I like the most about dressage, you can make a complete horlicks of a movement and still do alright.

Our last chance

Since starting my short lived career between the whiteboards, my horse and I have been borrowing saddle pads and numbers from very kind people who take pity on us. For our last dance, we poshed it up and invested in a Le Mieux dressage pad that you can put the numbers in on both sides – why didn’t someone think of that sooner!? And of course we got a matchy, matchy cloud white half pad.

It’s official, my horse and I are the perfection of the phrase, “All the gear and no idea”.

Our final Area Festival was at Beacons Equestrian down west Wales, we turned up early and watched a couple go. Again, misplaced or not, I am feeling confident this might be the time that we score the elusive 70% and clinch a golden ticket to the Petplan Championships, too.

That moment when it finally sinks in

With my chief instructor warming me up, there was a light bulb moment when she said that I need to be preparing for my movements a good five strides before the movement itself. That stopped me in my tracks, literally, I halted. I responded to my instructor saying that I have only been preparing for the movement a stride before because that is what it looks like they do on TV. She laughed at the fact I was trying to replicate what an experienced, professional dressage rider would be doing on an experienced Grand Prix horse, also mentioning that they are more than likely prepping five strides ahead too, you just can’t see it.

That was when I felt I finally understood how to ride a basic dressage test. You treat each movement like a jump in a showjumping course, you don’t prepare for a jump at the jump you prepare way out before the jump, so why wouldn’t you prepare for a dressage movement multiple strides out before – eureka!

We go down the centre line armed with this new information about preparing for movements well in advance and it all feels so much easier and controlled. I finished my test fault free and with a very well behaved young horse who couldn’t care less about the atmosphere. I left the arena immensely proud of how my little horse in five months went from a galloping canter to completing an Area Festival with a very respectable effort.

The judges marks didn’t quite match up with how I felt, despite my last minute eureka moment the comments again were focussed around contact and consistency, scoring less than we did at Prestige with a 63.19%. However, for the first time in a very long time, I didn’t care about the score or the result, obviously I wanted to win but my horse’s performance and attitude to the job at hand made up for it in spades. It was a happy drive home from the show.

What's next for my young horse and I

Well, the pure dressage was supposed to simply be a useful training exercise over the winter months ahead of the eventing season, however now I know to to treat it like a showjumping course, it’s more fun and I don’t think I can simply put down the pure dressage till next winter, so we are going to qualify for the summer Area Festivals and hopefully this time make it to the final.

PS, we are definitely going to do some eventing and showjumping, too! But as he’s only young I’m telling myself his flatwork is more important at this stage, not that I actually quite enjoy this dressage lark.