Friday, May 16, 2014

Lessons Learned from Top Eventers for an Amateur Dressage Rider

At the recent Rolex Kentucky 3 Day, I spent a lot of time observing riders both in competition and in their warmup and there are a few things that I took away that I plan to apply to my own riding.

Prepping for the fence
Of all the traits I observed, this is the one thing that set apart the winning riders from the ones at the bottom of the pack.   This applied in both their dressage and their jumping.    William Fox-Pitt, who ended up on the wining horse for the weekend, truly looked as if he had all the time in the world to complete his dressage test. Before the rein back, he paused so long I thought briefly he had forgotten what to do for the next movement.

In reality, he was setting his horse up for success.  Instead of going directly from halt to the rein back, he allowed each movement to be its own entity.   He didn't begin the rein back until he knew he was going to get a perfect one.  And he did.

The riders who took their time at the jumps were also the successful ones.    There were riders who looked as if they were more or less along for the ride.  Their horse got over the jump for the most part but it had a frantic, "Oh, wow, we got over!" look rather than a confident, "Well, of course, we nailed that baby!" look.

The ones that nailed the jump were the ones that set their horse up for success by sitting back, both slowing their horse to allow them to see the upcoming jump and getting the horses in a nice collected bouncy gait before attacking the jump.

Preparation and Focus
William Fox-Pitt in the warm up
This trait goes along with the previous one but to expand on it a bit, it wasn't just patience - the riders who succeeded did their homework.   It was clear that the riders who ended up on the podium, knew exactly what their horse needed and they had a plan.    In the dressage warmup, they were completely focused on their plan.  Despite their sometimes being hundreds of people surrounding the warm up ring, the rider paid no attention to them and focused on their plan.

Because I was reporting for a British magazine, I spent a lot of time watching William Fox-Pitt and I was truly impressed with his focus.  He spent about an hour in the dressage warm up and in that time I never saw him look up from his task, minus one quick stop to get a drink.   Watching him, you would think that he was home alone in his ring.   Complete focus on his plan.

Before the competition begins, the riders walk the cross country course.  Again, the riders who succeeded were the ones that had a clear plan of attack.  As they approached each jump, they knew exactly where they were going to turn, exactly how many strides it was going to  take to get to the jump, exactly where they were going to collect the horse and exactly where they were going to take off.    This type of planning pays off in your horse's trust.  The successful rider's horses looked confident that they were going to get over because they trusted their rider had a plan for them and was going to execute it.
What light fingers! And the expression on this horse's face
looks like this massive fence is so easy he could take a nap.

Patience, focus and preparation are the same traits I should take to each dressage test.   I know my horse and I should have a clear plan for warmup and should execute it with focus.
During the test I need to make sure I set up each movement for success and have the patience to do so.  If I know my horse rushes the entrance and initial halt, I need to have exercises planned in the warmup to mitigate the issue and as I turn the corner to enter the arena, I need to take my time and have a clear plan of action to help him go down centerline with confidence and a steady tempo.  A wish and a prayer aren't going to make it happen.

Kindness and Compassion
One other item I witnessed at Rolex that I have to mention is the respect and compassion for the horse.   Not once did I hear a rider say they failed because of the horse.  It was always, "I should have set him up better" or "he tried hard but it wasn't his day".    When they had success, they never took the credit but gave it to their horse with, "She was fabulous.  I couldn't love her more."

I saw the riders pat their horses on the neck infusing a bit of courage before entering the ring and I saw them clap their success on their necks after successful jumps.

Despite what must be crushing disappointment after putting so much of their lives into competing at Rolex, riders again and again made the tough decision to retire their horse from the competition - not because a judge told them to but because they knew their horse and knew it was best for them.

Riding, in any discipline, is a team effort between you and your horse and these top riders showed this amateur rider a thing or two I plan to follow.