In the ribbons: dressage diva motivation

Ginge and I have had a brilliant end to the summer and it was just the boost we needed after a manic season and a brief setback due to rider injury. He can definitely be a grumpy beast at times when we’re training, but when it counted this month he really pulled it out of the bag! Our horses can be so tuned in to us as riders that I’m sure they know when they are on show and their performance really counts.

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The first test for us this month was a return to Dressage Anywhere. I love the DA concept, it is perfect for people who don’t have their own transport and for people who are a bit nervous or those with young or inexperienced horses. I think ginge and I tick most of those boxes so it’s ideal. The best bit is all the judges are BD listed, so you know you are getting consistent and top quality judging. We definitely aren’t brave enough to head out to any affiliated competition yet, but this way we have top quality judges in the comfort of our own home! We tried DA once before and our comments then had given us plenty to work on. Well, it looks like our hard work paid off: our second try at DA saw us score 69.35% at Intro B and come 9th in a massive class of 71! Our first time on the scoreboard and I couldn’t be more thrilled, it’s a real validation of our hard work and the bond we’ve built as a team. We also submitted our first ever Prelim test, after some encouragement from other DA members. Prelim 7 is quite a nice test and I felt like we had managed OK despite one or two rider errors and a questionable second transition to canter. I was so nervous submitting the entry, but to my surprise we scored a respectable 63.41%! The judge’s comments were very positive and particularly complimentary about our trot work (it’s no secret that our canter still needs work). We even managed a championship qualifying score, so we have no choice but to enter both prelim and intro again this month in hope of the magic second qualifying score.

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With the incredible confidence boost of our DA performance in our pocket, we were given the offer of a lift to a local show hosted by the Stroud Pony Club. We jumped at the chance and entered Prelim 2 and the 60cm Open ShowJumping. Dressage was first up and meant an early start. I’m not the best at plaiting whenever I do it, but Ginge was particularly unimpressed by my efforts at 5:30am. Despite our dodgy plaiting, the horrendous weather and crippling nerves on my part, our very soggy dressage test impressed the judges for another scoreboard finish with 2nd place and a mighty 70.5%. It’s probably fair to say the scoring was generous compared with official BD scoring, but we had lovely comments and some points to work on nonetheless. Feelings at the yard about generous scoring are mixed. The dressage divas label it false encouragement and criticise it as setting people up for disappointment if they take these scores as the nod to go affiliated. Other grass roots riders have said they think it’s nice and what’s the harm in a little encouragement – do you really want to mark strictly at pony club level and potentially put kids off dressage for life? I think there’s merit to both arguments, I’ve come out of the experience still realistic about our chances at scoring 70% at any affiliated competition and since the scoring was generous across the board the placing remains valid, so it doesn’t feel like there’s any harm done. We also have a beautiful photo in the house now, courtesy of Top Shots Photography (apologies to the lovely photographer we nearly crushed while spooking at the white boards)!

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As a bit of fun, since we were at the show for the day anyway, we also entered the 60cm Showjumping class. Our round was entertaining to say the least. I think we were the only horse in a class of ponies and jumped out of trot as the slippery grass was worrying us. However, my darling dressage boy managed to leave almost all the fences standing and bravely tackled his first ever wall and TWO doubles, which he normally finds too stressful. We managed only 4 faults and qualified for the jump off! Sadly, I had no idea we were in the jump off, so no rosette there for us. I thought that was for clear rounds only and the weather meant I couldn’t hear the announcements! All a learning experience, next time we brave leaving the ground we’ll pay attention in case we have a jump off to attend!

Onward into September: we’ve still got plenty to work on, but this confidence boost is welcome motivation as we get schooling ready for the winter season. Here’s hoping we’ll get a few more lifts and outings, but you’ll be seeing us on Dressage Anywhere either way!

Insider: Withington Manor Horse Trials

On the first May Bank Holiday weekend every year, a sleepy Cotswold village plays host to scores of International Event Riders and their rising stars for one of the highest profile One Day Events around (us locals think so anyway)! Two weeks before Badminton, it is a great opportunity for the big names to test their fitness and local fans to “celeb spot” without the big event price tag. This year, I happen to be working at the livery yard attached to the ODE ground, so I was there for the insider’s view of all the hard work and preparation that goes into an event like this and to spot the opportunities available for local equestrians to get involved.

In the lead up to the big weekend, the staff at Withington Manor work flat out on the preparations. Tractors charging to and fro are preparing the ground and delivering giant cross country fences, tents and decorations. Course designer, Eric Winter, also designed the course it Badminton, this year, so standards have to be high. Obviously, the resident horses find all the activity a¬†combination of exciting and terrifying that makes turning out a more hair-raising experience than usual in the mornings! “Exit” signs, fir trees and even new gravel appearing has all needed a thorough investigation in case of horse-eating-monsters by the 20+ residents of the Manor. For us grooms, the deliveries instil a sense of excitement, buzzing about the soon-to-be influx of “celebs” (confirmation that Mary King seems just as lovely in person as you’d hope) and excited plans about when is best to sneak up and¬†watch the event in action between jobs.

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The buzz of a busy lorry park!

When the big day arrives, the excitement begins with the arrival of the competitors and a spot of celeb lorry spotting. Every one arrives full of anticipation and the atmosphere is electric with last minute plaiting and preparations. For your more amateur rider, the first opportunity to be find at a local event of this scale is seeing how others warm up and get started on event day. Some people start with a hack around the grounds to help their horses relax and get used to the atmosphere; others can be seen lunging to get their horse focused and loosened up ready to go.

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Vittoria Panizzon & Chequers Play The Game in the Advanced

The dressage phase brings the next series of opportunities. Writing for the judge is a commonly cited option for the amateur rider. Of course, the quality of this opportunity varies depending on the judge. The best judges to write for are the friendly and are happy to chat through what they are looking for and give hints and pointers, there are others who are not as keen on coaching the amateur rider at the same time as focusing on judging. Obviously, try not to be too demanding of their time – judging requires focus and concentration, so you won’t be thanked for constantly interrupting with comments and questions! Another, perhaps lesser known, opportunity for the skilled amateur is the opportunity to be the guinea pig rider for the dressage phase, in order to set the judges up for the competitors. One of the liveries at our yard had the chance to take this opportunity for the 1* and jumped at the chance! After all, when else do you get the chance to ride for international standard judges and get feedback – all for free!

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Justine & Alfie guinea pig ride the 1*

Next up is the showjumping, where there’s less opportunity to get involved – unless you fancy a work out restoring fallen poles between competitors! There is always a learning opportunity though. At your local show, you are much more likely to get up close and personal with the ring and be able to analyse the different riders styles and lines. After all, where else are you likely to be almost within touching distance of the legendary Mark Todd as he handles a tricky combination!

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Mark Todd flying around the showjumping phase

Last, but definitely not least: the challenge of the cross country course. The course at Withington is challenging to say the least! Eric Winter certainly knows how to design a bold and testing course. For your local rider, there are two main opportunities: fence judging and riding the course. Fence judging is potentially a great opportunity, hopefully you get an interesting fence and you get to watch, in detail, how every single rider approaches it. You can analyse for yourself the successes and pitfalls of these approaches and maybe apply some lessons to your own riding. It is a long day and full concentration is required, so maybe not for the fainthearted!

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A section of Eric Winter’s course

A number of local events hire the course out for local people to ride for a few days after the event. A few of us took the opportunity, so I can now say I’ve ridden on an Eric Winter course! Did I jump anything? Absolutely not! This dressage diva does not have the brave pants required for that level of course. We did trot through the water, pop up and down the much shorter sides of the bank and have a good blast around the field without spooking at any of the giant fences though. For Ginge and I, it was a great chance to ride around and have a look at a world class cross country course and face his worries about water. I feel like we succeeded. For those competing at a much higher level, it is an even greater opportunity to pop a few choice fences and practice the tricky ones without the pressure of competition and a ticking clock.

So what is stopping you? Get out there and get involved at your local event!