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.

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