‘A enter working trot. X halt, salute and remember to breathe.’
Dressage is the sport of horse ballet. However unlike a ballerina, it’s not just a single person effort. No, as riders we have 500 kilograms of self-thinking muscle underneath us that we have to contend with. All the while staying within a 60×20 metre rectangle normally made out of some sort of bordering material that is trying to kill us at every turn!
We all want our Charlotte Dujardin moment, and there are many things you can do in a dressage test to make it as successful as possible. Here are five tactics that may help you get through a dressage test feeling more “Charlotte and Blueberry” and less “bag of tense potatoes strapped to a rocket”.
Breathing can be the difference between life and death, literally, when riding a horse. Numerous times, in various disciplines, I have had instructors yell at me, telling me simply to ‘BREATHE’! Riding a horse isn’t about ‘just sitting there’ (as many non-horsey people seem to think!) and therefore it isn’t always the easiest or most ‘peaceful’ experience.
When we become nervous or scared — maybe our horse is constantly spooking or just feeling very fresh today — then our body tends to tense up as though bracing itself for the worst, and our breathing becomes irregular or nearly non-existent. And trust me, a tense horse and an even tenser rider is a recipe for disaster.
I know it’s easier said than done, but in these occasions when you and your horse are both feeling tense and worried, the best thing you can possibly do is also the simplest. Take a big, slow breath in, and let a big, slow breath out. And repeat. This instantly relaxes your body. Horses are very sensitive to the feel of our bodies on top of them and if they can feel that your body is soft and relaxed, that will transfer to their body and ideally, the horse to will start taking deep breaths, returning its mind back to earth!
A little tip I find helpful is counting my breaths. In your head you will be able to hear if you’re counting very quickly, or not at all, and therefore will be able to alter your breath to be slow and regular. This is similar to when your instructor asks you to slow your rising at the trot and you have to focus on making your whole body slow down even though the horse may be speeding along. Riding is so much about being in full control of your body as well as that of the horse’s underneath you.
Ride your corners
In the dressage ring, there is no better way to get those extra marks from the judges than to simply, ‘ride your corners’. Nothing looks worse in a dressage test than cutting the corners of the arena right in front of the judge’s box.
Corners are the perfect time to show the judges that you have a soft, bendy horse that listens to your seat and legs. Your aim is to ride corners as deep as your horse can manage. You want them to be able to keep the same rhythm, tempo, balance and quality of their gait through the corner and you should have the same horse underneath you coming into and leaving the corner. As a rule of thumb, even when only training at home, you should ride every corner as you would in a competition therefore making it second nature to you and your horse.
Toes up, heels down and legs on!
One of the first things we are taught when we start riding is to point our toes towards our horse’s ears, have our heels down and to use our legs to push the horse forward. And no matter how long you’ve been riding, I can guarantee you still have your moments where you forget these basics. Having your toes up, heels down ensures you have maximum leg contact with the horse and in dressage this is very important. You want to have your horse responsive to your leg and to maximise the effect of this, good leg position is crucial.
The key to a good dressage test is having your horse going forward, however this doesn’t mean getting through your test at a million miles an hour. Judges look for impulsion, rhythm and consistency through your movements and these are near impossible to achieve with a horse that’s plodding along as though it’s out on a Sunday stroll. Training your horse to think and be forward will make all the difference to every single aspect of your dressage test and although it sounds easy, it’s not always a simple tool to train.
Transitions are a fantastic tool for getting your horse to be responsive to going forward from the leg whilst still in control and are the basis for a number of movements that you will come across in your test. You want your horse going forward into everything, even when you’re going down a transition. The last thing you want is a horse that just simply stops when you’re coming down from a trot to a walk simply because it isn’t going forward enough!
Know your test
There is nothing worse than being in the middle of a dressage test and hearing the sound of the car horn or bell ringing from the judge’s box. Knowing your dressage test backwards and frontwards, inside and out is probably the most crucial part of being successful in the dressage ring.
Even if you aren’t the best at memorising things, it is important that you learn your dressage test confidently. They say it takes approximately 21 days to create a habit so begin to learn your test at least three weeks before the competition. Some other techniques riders use to memorise tests are:
- Draw it on paper
- Do your test on foot
- Have a friend test you on the sequence of movements and transitions
- PRACTICE THE WHOLE TEST BEFORE THE DAY
- Record yourself reading the test and listen to it on repeat
The build up to doing a test can be overwhelming and it’s very easy to get down that centre line and halt at X then have no idea where you’re headed to next. However, just like everything else, the more you prepare and practice beforehand, the more the flow and order of the test will become second nature to you and your horse and hopefully help you to avoid awkwardly trotting your 20 metre circle too early.
At the end of your test, the important thing is to remember that you’ve done your best and to be proud of yourself. Just getting to a dressage competition is an achievement in itself and once you’re there, you should just enjoy being there. Judges love seeing a rider who’s smiling and looks like their having a good time. It is a fantastic tool to help you relax and if you’re consciously remembering to smile, than that’s one less space in your brain for stressful thoughts.
And hey, you’re also guaranteed to have lovely photos. What better way to remember all the hard work you’ve put in than a great picture of you and your horse both smiling at the end of a great test?
Good luck — may you and your “Valegro” show the world what you can do.
Top Photo courtesy of Rebecca DeVries, HorsePlay Photos.