Friday, 29 July 2016

RDA Nat Champs - dressage

My final event of the weekend was my dressage test. After a hasty change from vaulting kit into dressage kit I made my way round to the mounting area.
So grateful for the sleeveless shirt - it was baking!
Helen was warming up on Boysie a bit for me so that when I was ready to mount he was also ready to work hard. Because of the vaulting competition, we didn't have a huge amount of time to get me on board and then get down to the tack check and collecting ring.
 Ready to mount...
...fiddling with gloves...
 ...walking down to the collecting ring...
...and having tack checked! This is done to ensure that there is no 'illegal' tack (e.g. martingales, which help you control the horse, so are banned in dressage) and to make sure that it is comfy and safe for horse and rider. For example, they check that the girth is tight enough (but not too tight) and that the buckles are fastened securely on the bridle. Here, they're checking that my stirrups were attached to the saddle properly and that they were lying flat at the buckle.
With the tack check cleared, it was time to head in for a quick warm-up. Fortunately they were running a bit late too, so the fact that we were a bit pushed for time after vaulting didn't matter too much. In the warm-up, Boysie was, if anything, a little lethargic.
Fortunately we were prepared for this eventuality! Carrying my schooling whip meant that he soon perked up without me even needing to use it.
Just look at those suspicious ears!
Using the stick is helpful for me to encourage him to bend more - I can just rest it on his shoulder or behind my leg to imitate what 'normal' riders can do with their legs - and has the advantage of encouraging him to be a bit more forward. The only disadvantage is that I can't carry it in my good hand because that's busy with the reins, so I have it strapped to my left hand with a piece of elastic - this is fine for not dropping it but doesn't really help me to stop it waving around quite a bit. If it happens to be waving around when we're on the right rein it does make him a bit spooky and makes him veer off to the inside. For this reason it's not very useful in a proper test where you have to ride nicely on both reins, but it is still helpful for the warm-up.
This is better - he's covering the ground a bit better, with one ear pricked forwards and one flicked back to listen. Shame about my lower leg being too far forward!

After doing a few nice transitions and working a little bit on getting a vaguely square halt it was time for a final pep talk from Gillian...
...and then to wait at the gate to the competition arenas, where I briefly lost Gillian (who was calling my test) who had got stuck on holding-the-gate duty.
When the three previous competitors had all finished (there are three separate tests going on at any one time) we were allowed in. This year I was in the middle arena, which was good because it gave me a bit more time to get both me and Boysie settled.
We walked past the first judging box with no problems but then Boysie decided that the second judging box was absolutely not required and pulled a silly face at them. No comments this time on how smart we looked unlike last year with Rolo! I blame Boysie... We then had a nice trot up the outside of the arena to get him listening and paying attention. The bell had been rung so I went back to walk ready for our entry at A. Just as I was preparing the turn I got interrupted by a lady sitting on a chair who wanted to check my number. This was a bit annoying because I knew I was in the right place, as did the judges, and it put me off my stride - literally - so we then had to do another loop to get both me and Boysie back in the zone.
Anyway, on the second attempt the entry at A was fairly good. Entering in walk and proceeding straight down the centre line is far harder than entering in trot. Because the trot is a nice, symmetrical pace with the legs moving in diagonal pairs, it's much easier to keep the horse nicely balanced and straight. I am a particularly wonky rider so getting a horse to stay straight on a centre line is something I find really tough.
I've done a fair bit of work in Cambridge practising heading towards the mirror at C in the indoor school. The mirror is quite narrow so if I veer off course it's immediately noticeable. It also helps me to be able to see instantly if I am sitting centrally. I have a tendency to sit to the left a bit, with my left hip lower than my right. This makes it very hard for the horse to move in a straight line, especially when they're nicely responsive to weight aids - which is a good thing! It's also hard to keep the horse straight when you ride one-handed because that puts an inevitable wonkiness into the mix as you have to think about the effect of your spare hand as well as what message you are relaying to the horse via the reins and the bit. Just walking in a straight line is actually surprisingly difficult!
Boysie's own spine in this picture does rather overstate the issue, but still - this is me *trying* to sit straight!

After the entry (with no halt for salute) we turned right at C and then right again at B before halting at X for four seconds. The halt was pretty nice, so I was pleased, and although Boysie jangled his bit a little it was a pretty nice relaxed halt for him. Only a few months ago he was really struggling with having to stand still (especially for mounting!) so this is definitely progress. I think it helped that I remembered to keep my legs a bit more relaxed.
After the halt we proceeded to E and turned left, then walked around the arena to A.
At A there was a 10m circle (still in walk) which is something I've practised a lot in lessons. I'm not very good at judging size or shape but we did alright. It helped that just before the circle I remembered that I was riding a dressage test at the National Championships; that I had trained hard for this; and that I needed to concentrate more than I had been! I'd gone onto autopilot a little bit which meant I wasn't really thinking about going for every extra mark or half-mark - the ones that make a big difference to your placing.
Whilst I expect that there wasn't actually anything intentional going on with that left hand, it does look a bit as if I'm pointing to Boysie where I want him to go!
Straight after that there was a 20m circle from A, picking up trot before X.
Quite nice, but I could have my head up a bit more.
This went nicely and the transition back to walk before B was also quite smooth, with minimal 'nose-poking' from Boysie. At B we turned across the school to E again. This time at E we turned right and did the 10m and 20m circles again at C.
At this point we were very close to a photographer who kept popping up between C and M to take photos. Fortunately Boysie didn't panic completely over this but he was definitely wary and I had to work hard to keep his focus on dressage and to keep him moving nicely. Gillian was quite annoyed with the photographer as it did influence my test a little. At least they got some nice photos!
Mind you, so did John ;)
After the 20m circle we changed the rein from B to K, which wasn't very good because I didn't prepare for it adequately.
After that we walked round to F, then changed the rein again in a free walk from F to H. The free rein walk was better than I expected - Boysie really stretched down nicely and stepped forwards well. Finally we rode round to M then, between M and B, turned half a 10m circle and halted at G (on the centre line between M and H). The halt was calm and quiet if not perfectly square and straight.
Walking out, Gillian and I discussed my chances. I'd ridden OK but didn't feel it had been fantastically good - even though nothing had gone disastrously wrong and I hadn't made any specific mistakes, I could certainly have done some parts better. My dressage class was huge (the biggest of the weekend) and we had no idea what the judges would make of me and Boysie in comparison to all the other riders. To be honest, I wasn't particularly hopeful of getting placed - there were too many other riders and I expected a lot of them to be better than me! All the same I was pleased that the test had gone well.
After riding back up to the mounting/dismounting area there was time for a quick photoshoot...
Then I had to sit and wait for vaulting and dressage results! Waiting for results is quite possibly the most horrible part of it - everything is completely out of your hands by that point.
Not much to do but untack and sponge Boysie down, then feed him lots of his favourite hay'n'carrots.
Because it was such a massive class, it took a LONG time for the results to come up. They were being posted in dribs and drabs from shortly after the class's 8.30am start. When my results were added at about 12.00 I had done much, much better than I expected. In fact, I was in the lead with a score of 73.61%. This is just about the best I've ever done - I have one test where I got 74% but that was just a competition for CURC members so the nerves weren't really jangling! I was completely astonished by my score and was convinced there must be some mistake. I kept waiting for them to come and change it by scribbling out the '7' and writing a '6' instead - I didn't feel that I'd ridden well enough to deserve a score in the 70s.
The CURC competition - BD Prelim 7 with cute little Oscar! <3
Being in the lead is nice but it's tense. The afternoon dragged on and John and I kept checking the results. Every time new results were put up, I was still in the lead. I kept counting how many spaces there were still to fill on the results sheets. I knew that if I could hold on until there were five spaces left then I would be guaranteed a rosette. Given that I'd entered the competition (and come out of it!) not expecting to get a rosette at all, my ambitions changed quite quickly over the course of the afternoon. As soon as enough results were up that I knew I'd be placed, I realised how much I wanted to win. I had no idea what the riders after me would be like. I had no idea if there would be just one person who would come and blow everything out of the water with a stunning test. I almost wished that there were someone ahead of me so that I wouldn't be worrying about holding my lead!
Admirable sentiment, and I agree in principle, but it's nice to win too...
Eventually, at around 4pm, the class finished. There was only one result left to post - only one result that was potentially standing between me and the first place that I was still just about clinging onto. The results tent became quite a tense place as everyone in the class started to gather around waiting to see what would happen. Whilst waiting I met the lady who was in second place behind me. I also met the coaches of the lady whose result we were all waiting for. They said that she had ridden well but probably not well enough to get placed. Well, that's what Gillian and I had thought about my test, so I didn't pin my hopes on this assessment. Finally - FINALLY! - they came to write up the results. At this point everyone leaped in front of me and as I was in my chair I couldn't really see - what a good job I had John around. I had done it! Boysie and I were National RDA Dressage Champions!
That was nearly two weeks ago and it still hasn't sunk in. I still can't really believe it happened. I never even dreamed that we would do so well (and some of my dreams are pretty optimistic) and because we had what was, for us, quite a 'normal' test I think I still don't really understand where the marks came from.
I need to work on my 'this is definitely not a fluke' face...
On the other hand, looking through my scoresheet and comparing it to previous events has been useful. I only got one '8' in the test and two '8's in Collectives, but apart from that my lowest score for a component was 6.5 (of which I had two). Everything other than that was either 7 or 7.5 - with a lot of 7.5. In comparison, my scores at Oaklands on the same test (which was on a different horse, so isn't a direct comparison) were mostly 6.5, with only a few at 7 and a few at 6. This made the difference between an average mark of 66.1% (Oaklands) and an average of 73.61% at Hartpury.
At Oaklands with Beets
In previous tests with Boysie I'd done well - this is now our fourth dressage competition together and our fourth win - but again I can see that it was little things that made the difference. It's never easy to compare different tests and different judges, but there has to be improvement between a '6' (in a February BD test) and a '7.5' in the walk down the centre line. We also improved our free walk quite a lot, from 6.5 to 7.5 - this is an important one as the score for this component is often doubled in BD tests!
Me and Boysie competing at Milton in January 2016.
Basically, what's happened is not that we've had a major revolution and both become superstars overnight (I wish...). I've just learned to make small changes which add up to make a big difference overall. It's the classic 'marginal gains' theory and it works! All the little things I've done to improve my position, to think about accuracy, to make transitions smoother, to keep straightness, to get the right bend on turns and circles, to keep the rhythm of each pace, to encourage looseness in the horse - all this and more - have all added together to make me a National Champion. Attention to detail + hard work = winning combination.
This was actually before we had any news to celebrate - Gillian was just trying to get Boysie's attention for a nice photo!
I find this really encouraging. Sometimes I worry that I'm not making big enough improvements - not just in dressage or even just in riding, but across all supports and life in general. However, my experience with this dressage test has shown me that big changes can creep up on you. They happen without you noticing. They aren't visible until you put them to the test, and only then do the hours and hours of work that you thought were getting you nowhere suddenly come to fruition. From now on, I'm going to keep on chasing those small changes. They seem to work.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

RDA Nat Champs - Vaulting

On the Saturday of Hartpury I didn't have any classes, so instead I watched Jodie and Anne compete in the Countryside Challenge phase of their Combined Training (which also includes dressage). Both were riding Boysie, and I was pleased to see that he was relaxed and co-operating! By the end of the day they had both performed fantastically. Jodie came fifth in her class and Anne came fourth. We are very proud of them both!
Anne and Boysie looking stunning in the Countryside Challenge.
Whilst we were waiting for results, I took the opportunity to find out what was going on with vaulting. This had been a little complicated - initially they hadn't put a time up for the vaulting class, and when I checked it turned out that it would almost certainly clash with my dressage. I'd raised this as an issue but hadn't really heard what was going to be done about it. I hate not being in control of a situation and not knowing what I'm doing (especially when I've put a lot of work into making everything just right!) so it was good to meet the people organising the vaulting competition and get it all sorted out.
After putting my mind at rest on that count I ran through my routine on the barrel which was out for demonstrations, and which would be the one in use for the competition. One bonus of it was that it was a decent length, which makes a forward roll much easier! On the other hand, compared to the one we have in Cambridge, it was covered in quite a slippy material and the handles were really small, which meant that my assisted stand in the handles (where they basically prop me up) would be tricky - but not impossible. I wasn't happy that I'd managed to attract a small audience to watch me running through the routine, but then it was out in the middle of everything. Anyway, I was gratified to feel that - despite the small handles and the worryingly slippy material - things would probably be fine. I wasn't sure that I would be as confident standing - which I never do on a horse, but which I'd hoped to manage on the barrel - but that would be something to think about overnight and decide the next morning.
This particular episode has made me realise the value of having back-up plans - something I've since discussed with other vaulters. When you go into a competition, you obviously need to know what you plan to do. However, if for whatever reason you need to change an element, you need to have a plan for that. This means, of course, that you need to know how you're going to get into and out of that element too, which makes the whole thing quite complex. However, it's much better to have worked this out in advance than to be improvising halfway through your routine. At the level I'm currently at, there isn't even an advantage to performing more difficult moves - there is no mark for difficulty of routine, only for execution, so really it makes sense to keep things simple and do them well. The only advantages of introducing more difficult moves are if they add more variety to your routine and/or they bring out elements of your music. My routine was definitely dreamed up with variety and applicability to music in mind, meaning that I needed to have a back-up plan if any of the more difficult elements didn't work.
Trying and failing to get my right foot into the left stirrup...
There were various elements which I thought might have to change depending on the nature of the barrel and my nerves! I was pleased to be able to keep in the roll and the arabesque/needle and Y-stand. Hanging off the side was made harder by the fact that there wasn't a proper roller on the barrel, and so the cossack stirrups were just loose stirrup leathers buckled through the handles. I kept the move in (it fitted with 'fly upside down with their legs in the air') but pushing myself up with my hands was a bit less dignified than using my stomach muscles to pull me up, which I can do with a proper roller. The only other main change I made was to the section before the last few moves. In training, I'd attempted to stand and then march on the spot whilst turning 180°. This hadn't always gone to plan even at home - standing is not my strong suit and once you start to wobble up there it's difficult to get your balance! I added in a quick splits instead and then aimed to stand very briefly, with just a few steps of marching on the spot but facing forwards throughout before stepping into the handles for more support. 
This is a move I always have to think about carefully before including, because it always makes me black out! :)
So much thought that has to go in for one minute of performance! 
Like this, except there's nowhere near enough underwater...
Anyway, on the Sunday morning I got togged up in my costume for the first time. We made our way up to the stables and John dropped off my dressage kit (for a quick change afterwards) whilst I made my way to the indoor arena where the vaulting would take place. I met Helen - my super helper for the morning - then handed in my music and started warming up. We were there by just before 10am which gave plenty of time for me to stretch and have a quick run-through on the barrel. Not long after 10.30 it was time to start! 
The video shows me marking some of the start of the routine on the barrel.
Helen and I marched in together. I'd lent her my show jacket so that we both looked smart and broadly as if we might be something to do with the RAF! I even had my spare crutches with me which are blue so they match (even if they are blue with penguin print). Our marching in music was the Battle of Britain March, which is a good stirring tune. We marched in, bowed and saluted to the judges, then marched over to the barrel. At this point there was a long pause whilst the lady found my music for the routine, which then started in the middle of the piece, leading to another pause whilst it was put back to the beginning. I felt a bit of a wally standing there grinning inanely whilst waiting for the rumble of aircraft engines which heralds the beginning of 'Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines' so I was relieved when it actually started properly! Helen bunked me up very smoothly and we were away.
I mounted to knees, then went straight into prince seat. The 'waving my arms around part' here was one which I used a few times - look strong and manly and muscley for 'magnificent men' then pretend to be an aeroplane for 'their flying machines'. Unimaginative but effective! I hopped up to a needle ('impress all the ladies')...
 ...and then into a Y-stand ('and steal all the scenes'). 
Turning backwards on the 'neck', I went into a forward roll towards the 'bum' end ('looping the loop'). Not really knowing what else to do during the words, 'they're all frightfully keen', I had opted to wave my legs around in time with the music! 

After this there was a brief instrumental which gave me time to get my right foot in a loop and hook my right leg over the left handle so that I could lie back for 'fly upside down', then lift my left leg for 'with their feet in the air'. Next I came up to a sideways prince seat then down into the splits, before feigning astonishment and concern at the antics of 'those young men and the chances they take'!
Finally I stood with feet in handles (easiest way to balance!), did a bit more magnificent arm-waving and aeroplane arm-waving then, after pointing 'up-tiddly-up up' I jumped 'down-tiddly-down down'!
It all seemed to go down quite well and I was relieved that, apart from a brief moment of panic where I got my head stuck following the forward roll (meaning that my planned demonstration 'defying the ground' was a bit less planned but no less vivid) it had pretty much gone to plan. The Battle of Britain March started up again; Helen and I bowed and saluted to the judges; and then we marched out (well, I say marched, but it's hard to march properly with a limp, a crutch, and a justified fear of stacking it!). Then, it was straight to Boysie's stable to get changed! There were, of course, more appropriate changing facilities on site but we were very much under time pressure and they weren't easy to get to quickly. Helen took Boysie off for a quick warm-up whilst I made a rapid transformation from Magnificent Man to Dressage Diva.
Getting changed in a stable - like Jesus. Kind of...
More on the dressage test and results later - now you have to imagine skipping forward until after my test and to me awaiting results!
I didn't even have this little madam to cuddle this year either :(
The vaulting results took a long time to come up. We knew that all the competitors had gone, but because we'd all been in a rush to get me ready for dressage we didn't really know what their routines had been like. I was trying to avoid watching the dressage because I didn't really want to watch the people competing in my class, but nor did I want to go all the way down to the Countryside Challenge field - it was too far away from the results tent! I'd already done the Horse Care quiz the day before so didn't even have that to distract me. Nightmare!
Horse care for beginners.
I was sitting on the grass near the dressage doing my best to watch other people's classes when Helen came up and informed me that I'd won my age group (which was good news, but not amazing as there had only been one other person) and that I had also won overall, beating all the competitors in the other age groups too (which was better news!). To be honest at the time I think I was bit too pent up about the dressage scores to enjoy the moment. I was happy, obviously, but I was still very strained!
I am happy, just...worried as well...
I went to have a look at the results for myself. In all honesty they don't mean much to me as I don't know what they're marked out of... However, it was nice to see a clear lead ahead of the lad in my age group and a fairly decent margin of victory over the others too. When I got my score sheet it was rather bare compared to jumping/dressage/the other vaulting competition I've done. The one comment was positive though - 'worked really well with your music' - and did reflect extensive thought on the matter!
Deep in thought on my makeshift vaulting horse...
Olivia's dressage result had also come in by this time. She had come fourth, which was a bit disappointing for her because she had the same score as the rider who came third. Where there is a tie they look at a particular subset of scores ('Collectives' - posture, control, and so on) and award the higher placing to the rider with the higher score in that particular area. She was a bit disappointed that she had come so close to top three but this time last year she would have been thrilled (and indeed was thrilled with 6th place). It's a sign of how dedicated she has become over the last year; of how determined she is to succeed, and how high her standards are. I still think that fourth place in the country (and only by a whisker) is a pretty tremendous achievement, especially in a competitive class like Grade III dressage. To achieve this with a horse who is lovely but not as natural a dressage horse as many of his competitors is even more remarkable, especially when Olivia doesn't have someone else to train him for her.
Olivia collecting her rosette from Sam Orde, Chairman of RDA
Anyway, vaulting had gone well. I was even awarded a rosette for being the 'Best Turned Out Individual Vaulter'. I hadn't even known that there was a prize for that! Still, it made the hours of work put in by me and my mum (who sewed badges, 'medals' and 'buttons' onto my leotard - NOT an easy job) even more worthwhile. The costume had been months in the planning - the leotard was made to order from China (which was cheap, but took some time), I had two pairs of leggings in case of disasters, the hat had been carefully and painstakingly painted which took several hours, and even finding the buttons, ribbons and badges to sew on the leotard took ages. The badges were made by finding images online, doctoring them on a laptop, reversing them, printing them out onto t-shirt transfer paper, transferring them onto a cheap white kid's t-shirt I bought in Tesco, and then finally being sewn on by my mummy! All in all quite a lengthy process so it was nice for there to be recognition and for me to be able to show my mum that something she had done had been so helpful in creating the right impression.
The 'I wasn't expecting THAT!' face on being given two pretty rosettes.
I was also given a sweet little trophy with a horse's head on it which I get to keep until next year. Maybe then I can win it back!