Dressage Judging

I’ve been thinking a lot about judging dressage. It’s definitely something I’ve thought about doing in the future, but at the moment I’m quite happy dabbling in my Demi Dressage judging. Which has a scale of 1 to 10, but focusing much more on the teaching side of things – taking the time to comment on how the movement has gone well or how to improve. And the scale isn’t comparable to British Dressage. For example, there’s no way we’re going to be giving out 4.0s and 5.0 to the tiny tots doing their first test. So the marks used tend to be higher than you’d expect, with 9.0s dotted around. But we want to be encouraging, give them a good experience and help them improve both themselves and their pony.

It’s an approach to judging I think should be universal. Aim to give positive and constructive feedback, encourage riders of all ages to improve and have another try at a test. After all, the judge sitting as C doesn’t know their journey. Sure, they may be full of confidence and able to take a tough judge. But they may also be nervous and spent months building up to this moment. It may only be a prelim test, but to them it’s their Olympics.

Phoenix and I have been plugging away at affiliated dressage this summer; being very comfortable and bored in novice, we pushed up to elementary.

Our first elementary test wasn’t an easy one – typical – but we could ride each element and I felt that so long as she didn’t anticipate anything, or spook then we should make a respectable debut. The test itself, she rode everything as I asked. Conservative, and sometimes a little wobbly, but as well as she could. I was pleased.

However, when the scores came through I was really disappointed. Expecting 62% ish, with what I thought to be realistic expectations, we’d scored 57%.

Initially, I was gutted. The score was much lower than I felt we really deserved. Yes it hadn’t taken us out the placings, but it just felt very unfair. Phoenix has quality gaits and usual marks are 6.5 when she’s going in a very average way. Of course, if she jogs the walk or spooks she picks up a 4.0. But that’s fair.

Anyway, I looked at the score sheet for some feedback, and it was very disappointing. Little to no feedback or justification for the low scores. I looked at the rest of the class, and there were more scores than usual in the 50s, so it seemed to be a general theme of the day. I was very frustrated and disappointed, moping around for a couple of days feeling like I’d been wasting my time.

Then I saw a friend who had been volunteering and supporting her friends at the competition. We had a moan, but most importantly, she told me that those competing regularly at elementary had received a score approximately 5% lower than their normal. Which made me feel better, and that another judge would have put us in the low 60s that I’d anticipated for our first time, and it wasn’t a personal vendetta.

Before we go any further, let’s look at the repercussions of judging negatively. Yes, I respect that you need to use a range of marks, but no decent feedback and for the whole class to be scored low is not good for anyone.

It’s not good for the competitor. My first experience of an elementary test did not inspire me to continue trying. I wanted to give up. I lost my confidence and self belief. And I wouldn’t be the only competitor in this position. Leisure riders who spend hours of time and lots of money training towards a test, perhaps it’s at the top of their game, are in it for fun. Reading those score sheets are not fun. These riders, who go to British Dressage competitions regularly actually make up a large proportion of BD membership, and make these show days financially viable. Don’t put them off.

It isn’t a good advert for British Dressage – why would you opt to go to a BD show if you regularly received unfair judging when there are perfectly acceptable Riding Club options, which a more inviting and supportive atmosphere.

It’s not great for the judge. I looked her up and I won’t be going to the BD venue she’s associated with. Nor will I put her name forward to judge at any Riding Club or Pony Club competitions. If I learn she’s judging a class I’m entered in, I’m not sure I’d even bother going. I’d rather forfeit the entry fee. And I definitely will not be looking for lessons or clinics with her, or recommending her to anyone else.

The venue. It’s very local to me, and whilst the venue was great, it will be quite a risk returning there in case she judges again, so the venue has certainly lost out from that perspective.

No one benefits from this situation, and as I said before, it may be the first rung on the BD ladder, but to some this is a massive achievement – training, overcoming nerves, travelling, riding in a new environment, and then learning the test.

Depending on your point of view, fortunately or unfortunately I had already entered another elementary test at another show. Which meant I had to pick myself up and brush ourselves off.

I sent the test video and sheet to my coach, and then ripped up the score sheet. I’d rather put my trust in her to guide me in my next training steps, than dwell on those low numbers. I knew already what our weaker areas were, so started practising those before our next lesson. I also did some fun hacks and jumps to remember why I ride Phoenix.

It was definitely a test of resilience. I really didn’t want to go to our next competition, and had to dig deep to practice. It was also interesting to note that my general confidence with riding and work took a dip. I thought of attending some clinics, but didn’t want to ride in front of anyone unknown. The risk of taking another battering I guess.

But it was fine. We weren’t hugely well prepared, and the second test had some mistakes. But the scores were fair, and justified, and we came home with a first and second. This inspired me a bit more, so I entered another two tests to keep the ball rolling. Last weekend the scores increased further, although there were still some mistakes (like riding canter to halt instead of canter to walk in the simple changes, and me forgetting where the final halt transition was on the centre line and wobbling around), and we had another first and second.

I feel like we’ve established ourselves at elementary level, and it feels the right level of difficulty – not perfect, but challenging enough. So now I’m planning a few weeks of training to consolidate what we’ve learnt from the competitions. And really focus on our weaker points, such as finding and maintaining the balance in medium trot. Then we’ll get out between the white boards again and hopefully have some more successful outings.

Prix Caprilli

You know I always like a challenge, and this spring I’ve had the challenge of training a dozen keen Pony Clubbers for the Area Prix Caprilli competition.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Prix Caprilli is a riding test, akin to a dressage test, with two jumps in. It’s a dying competition which I think is a shame because having two jumps helps disguise the fact they’re doing dressage, and the fact it’s a ridden test means it is welcoming to everyone; young horses, hairy natives, the elderly schoolmasters, and riders of all ages. It doesn’t matter your mount, it’s how you ride them.

As you can see, it’s a challenging test. Especially when my youngest rider is only six years old. So my first challenge was to work out how to teach the different elements of the test to a group of primary school age children in a group setting whilst keeping them engaged and interested.

I decided that props were the best way to go, and to split each lesson up so that the last twenty minutes was spent jumping – even though I knew they were all capable of jumping the small height of the prix caprilli jumps. It would reward them for their hard work on the flat. I ensured they approached the jumps straight and in a rhythm, practising establishing the correct canter quickly after the jump. In one lesson we had a bit of fun doing a Chase Me Charlie.

For the flatwork, I chose a couple of different elements of the test to work on in each lesson.

  1. In the first session I laid out a 20m circle using little sports cones at A. Throughout the warm up, they practised trotting the 20m circle. With the cones they semi taught themselves, as they could see for themselves when their pony deviated from the circle. This meant we could keep the lesson moving. We also practised the change of rein across the diagonal and then cantering the circle individually.
  2. The next session we practised the centre lines. I used a tramline of poles at X and then cones at A and C. They did numerous changes of rein up and down the centre line. We added in halts at X, using the poles to stay straight. I think I also worked them in sitting trot and without stirrups, and nit picked how they rode their corners.
  3. The trickiest part to this test, and the hardest for children to understand, is the two shallow loops up the centre line, so I used two cones at X for them to ride through, and then used a jump pole to mark each shallow loop. The warm up was based around changing the rein with the loops, as well as revising other movements in the test. Then I used a handful of cones to mark out the two half ten metre circles and had them all trotting and walking it to learn the size and shape of the half circles.
  4. The penultimate training session focused on the canter sequence. It’s quite a fast paced section of the test and the movements come up quickly so I wanted my riders to know this part of the test really well, and then start riding tactically. For example, riding from left canter to trot close to B to give them as much time as possible to prepare for the “wiggle” as we nicknamed the double shallow loop. This exercise also allowed me to link the jumps into their flatwork for the first time.
  5. Then, just before the competition we had a dry run. They made a warm up plan with me, then warmed up as they would at the competition and they all rode through the whole test individually a couple of times to fine tune it. Then they went away to practise at home!

I enjoyed the challenge of finding exercises which kept the children engaged whilst helping them learn the test movements, which were simple enough for them to replicate at home.

But what I think I enjoyed the most about training the Prix Caprilli teams was competition day. The straightening of ties; warming them up; quelling any nerves; calling their tests; bacon butties afterwards, and most importantly watching them all pull off smart tests! I felt very proud of the young riders and their ponies.

One child asked me to read for him, sacking his Mum as he did. As we walked towards his ring he said “I’m feeling a bit nervous.” and privately, I had to agree! I definitely had butterflies in my stomach for all my riders!

Another thing for the CV, and whilst I was some what reluctant to take on yet another project, it was certainly enjoyable and I guess I’ll be doing it again next year!

But I am wondering, why can’t adults have Prix Caprilli competitions too?

Jumping Away From Home

August started off with an absolutely crazy week recovering from Pony Club camp week and judging Demi Dressage tests. Which means my blog has been neglected. But let’s start afresh with one of my latest challenges.

One of my clients has a lovely pony who is perfectly capable jumping at home, but gets a cricket score whenever they go out jumping. Since lockdown they’ve been focusing on arena hire, getting him out and about. But they’ve found themselves stuck in the cycle of one refusal, then he jumps the jump fine. By the end of the session he’s jumping beautifully, but of course that’s not the way a showjumping competition works!

This week I went along with them to see if we can break the cycle.

I had my rider warm up quickly, purposefully keeping away from the fillers and jumps. Meanwhile, I put all the jumps at about 50-60cm, with a central gap between the fillers.

We used the first, plain jump as a warm up fence and made a plan. My rider expects her pony to refuse so rides expecting a stop. The pony stops and once he’s stopped he uses it as an excuse to stop at the next jump. A self fulfilling prophecy. With the jumps as low as they were, he could jump them from a standstill. Therefore the pony learnt that he only had one option – forwards – and that going left, right or backwards wasn’t an option. My rider had to set him up in a straight line, use her seat to send him forwards and channel him straight with the leg and hand. She needed to ride slightly defensively yet positively so that she wasn’t giving him any vibes to have second thoughts. If he stopped, he had to walk over the jump between the fillers. So there was no turning away.

My rider jumped the first, plain fence to set them both up into a positive, rhythmical canter. They came around the corner and he screeched to a halt at the fillers on the first part of the double. She sat back, used her legs and he jerked over the fence unelegantly before trotting over the second element. They picked up canter and approached number three on a long dog leg, with bright, white fillers. He backed off, thought about stopping, but my rider rode so determinedly that he cat leapt over it from a slow trot.

But then the penny dropped. And for the rest of the round, the pony started taking his rider into the fences, fillers and all, without hesitation. Of course, his rider still had to be on the ball and not become complacent, but they seemed to be reading from the same page.

I adjusted the jumps for their second round, bringing the fillers closer and the jumps higher. Again, this went smoothly. Number two caused a problem again, but it was because their approach wasn’t straight rather than anything else. The rest of the course was confident and flowed very nicely.

The third round was up at 70-80cm, with all the fillers underneath the jumps, so much more like a showjumping competition. They flew this time, with my rider not looking twice at the fences.

Finally, I put some oxers in and turned two fillers around so it was a different image at the front. I didn’t want to have them repeating the jumps too many times as they had nothing to prove with the height, but I wanted to keep putting in new questions now that we’d changed both mindsets and broken the cycle.

The ninth jump didn’t cause an issue at all with the change of filler and addition of a back rail, but number two did. When he stopped, I moved the fillers slightly and put the pole down so he could still walk forwards over the jump. Turning around wasn’t an option. As the rest of the course flowed so nicely, with no hesitation, I turned our attention to jump two before we finished.

As the pony was getting tired, I lowered the first jump to a cross as it’s purpose was to set up the canter and start the jumping course. We focused on having counter flexion on the turn to stop him falling through his outside shoulder, and then channelled him positively. He stopped again, but it looked to be more of a test of rider than anything else. I moved the fence again so he wasn’t turned in a circle, and jumped it. We repeated the exercise and then he jumped boldly over, although my rider couldn’t let her guard down! After the double she jumped the third jump, so that they were finishing on a fence where he wasn’t backing off at all.

Next time, I want to start in a similar fashion, with only one warm up fence, and the fillers will start at the side, but closer together and the fences slightly bigger. But still small enough that they can be jumped from a sticky trot. Then hopefully we will progress to jumping with the fillers underneath the jumps quicker. My aim is to give the pony a positive, confidence building experience whilst ensuring that he learns that forwards is the only way to go when cantering towards a jump. In the meantime I want my rider to continue riding so positively, be more aware of how she is setting him up in terms of straightness and the use of her aids, yet starting to change her mindset from “he’s going to stop” to “he will jump it”. Once they can get to a training venue and jump a clear round straight away they can progress to clear rounds and competitions.

Times A Changing

The last thirty six hours has thrown the British equine world into disarray. Covid-19 has been coming a while, infringing on all areas of our lives, but now we’ve moved into unchartered territory.

We’d discussed it at Pony Club and Riding Club – talking about reducing the risk of infection at events and providing hand washing facilities. But it was business as normal with just a couple of adjustments to our routines.

However, on Monday the PM released a statement bringing more stringent methods into daily life – minimising social contact, reducing unnecessary travel, self isolating. This was closely followed by statements from British Eventing and Pony Club stating that all competition and training has been suspended. On Tuesday, British Dressage, British Showjumping, and British Riding clubs followed suit.

It’s incredible to think that there will be no equine competitions for the majority of this year, and is very disappointing for those who rely on it professionally, and who plan their training with a particular competition goal in mind.

Disappointing as it is, at least we are still allowed to ride. Italy has banned riding and high risk sports to reduce the number of accidents needing treatment in their overstretched hospitals. Phoenix was going to have a go at her first novice test this weekend. No matter; we will keep up the training so that she will be working at elementary level by the summer, and I’m still able to take her out schooling to get some cross country practice in and keep up her jumping training. The important thing is to find some alternative goals and aims to keep us motivated and to keep spirits up.

I made the suggestion to my riding club committee, that we should run our spring dressage competitions online. It’s not the same as going out to a competition, but it’s better than nothing and I think there will be lots of interest. Of course clinics are also being cancelled, so I think we will have to put our heads together to come up with some challenges we can give to members to help everyone keep in touch and motivated. Perhaps get everyone to share a photo or talk about their riding that day. There’s no restrictions on hacking, so perhaps we should make a hacking challenge?

With the Pony Club, I already have some ideas for the kids. They’re going to have a lot of extra time on their hands, so it would be good to give them some ridden exercises – a bit like online lessons – or stable management quizzes to keep up their knowledge. I’m keen that those working towards an efficiency test don’t regress or lose motivation due to tests being delayed and training cancelled. But we’re going to let everyone acclimatise to this new, strange normal, and then get our thinking caps on.

I judge for Demi Dressage – an online dressage competition for under 16s – and I think that will become really popular in the coming months, as a way to focus children on developing their riding. Already I’ve seen more and more online competitions cropping up, including jumping competitions. They’ve been in the pipeline for a while I think, but this current climate has brought them to the fore.

Finding the fun that we can do safely, will help us survive the emotional challenges the coronavirus brings. We’re lucky that equestrianism is an outdoor activity as even if competition venues close, we still have our riding areas at home.

With everyone being encouraged to work from home, I was starting to dread enforced time with an energetic toddler in an enclosed space. But we’re lucky enough to have a garden at least, and I’ve drawn myself up a list of jobs to do. Regardless of any quarantining, we will be spending more time at home, so it’s an ideal time to do the jobs you never get around to doing. Maybe that room will get painted, and the garden will be perfectly manicured?! Or perhaps we’ll actually eat those emergency tins of soup at the back of the cupboard?

I was very relieved when the BHS released a statement saying that coaches should continue to work where possible. I only interact with fit and healthy people outdoors, not getting too close to them; and by following the suggested hygeine and social distancing guidelines, as well as both sides reacting to the first symptoms, the risk should be minimal.

I think it’s important to maintain as much of a normal life as possible for our own sanity, whilst being sensible and sensitive to the situation. Of course, my work may not be vital to the infrastructure of the country, but horses are many people’s saviours. Their down time in a busy world; the thing which turns their day from doom and gloom to sun and laughter. Their coping mechanism for the rest of their life. It’s easy to overlook the importance of a good riding session (or any exercise) to someone’s mental health.

Just like many hobbies; gym classes, book clubs, sports clubs, social clubs. Not only do the clients need these to balance out their lives, but those who run them need the financial reward in order to feed their families. So yes, let’s reduce close contact with others, but in a world where everything’s at a click of a button, let’s make sure we continue to stay in touch with ingenious ways. Summer is coming; move clubs outdoors if possible; use online videos, conference calls, and social media to keep this side of life going.

It’s the start of a new normal, which will take some adjusting to, but hopefully by everyone being sensible (you’ve bought all your toilet roll now, haven’t you?!) and by keeping an eye out for others (we don’t know many at risk people locally, but I’ve offered to organise online shopping for my Granny, and plan to send her bits and pieces in the post over the next few months as well as regular emails to stop her feeling so isolated), we will survive.

Walking The Course

This has come up a couple of times this season, but unfortunately it keeps going to the bottom of my blog list.

So often when riders walk a course, especially eventing when there’s two courses to remember on top of a dressage test, they focus on remembering the order of the jumps and where they’re going. Sound familiar?

Inexperienced riders rarely pay enough attention to the tactical aspects of riding a course. Yes, they’ll think about which fences their horse may dislike, or the gear that they need to approach a jump in, but what about the factors on course which you can’t influence so easily?

Firstly, the ground and way of going. Yes, you can’t change the fact it’s rained and the ground is soft, almost deep. But when walking the course you want to take the ground conditions into account. It may mean you ride a wider turn so your horse is less likely to slip, or if you know your horse finds one type of going easier than others you adjust your riding to best suit them. For example, accept some time penalties and take a steadier canter to help your horse out. You also want to consider the running order. If you are running towards the end of the day you should be aware that the course could become churned up and deep in places. So adjust your lines to take this into account.

Terrain. Some events have more undulating terrain than others, but as you walk the course you should be looking at all the twists and turns of the ground, and plan your ride so that you take the route which will enable your horse to stay most balanced and rhythmical. For example, a jump may be positioned at the edge of a hollow, so depending on how your horse copes with downhill, you may want to ride a longer line to the jump to give them more time to rebalance the canter after the downhill slope. Whether you are jumping uphill or downhill will also affect how you ride the fence. Going uphill you may need to put your foot on the accelerator a bit more, particularly if it’s towards the end of the course. Going downhill, you’ll need to ride a smaller canter to help keep your horse balanced and off the forehand, which will affect their take off point. Incorporating the terrain into your tactics for riding the course can make all the difference to going clear or picking up penalties as your horse will be better placed to jump confidently and successfully.

The weather conditions. One of my lasting memories of eventing Otis is when we were going cross country at 4.30pm in September. Invariably we’d been delayed, so it was after 5pm, and I was galloping up the hill directly into the evening sun, with a large table at the top. God knows how I managed to get over it as I was very disorientated and nearly steered into the hedge, but Otis got me out of trouble, as always. I hadn’t clocked the impact of the setting sun on my ride, and after that event I was always much more considerate of where the sun would be when I would be jumping, rather than where it was when I walked the course. It’s the same with shadows; if a jump is under some trees, check where the shadows are going to be. It takes horses eyes longer than ours to adjust from light to dark, so again you’ll need to adjust your riding line or gear in order to give your horse the best chance of seeing and judging the question. Equally, if it’s raining or windy, you’ll firstly be questioning your sanity, and secondly, need to adjust your riding whether you’re cantering into the rain or wind, or away from it, as your horse will find it harder when against the weather so will need more positive riding from you.

My challenge to you is the next time you are at a competition, or cross country schooling, to start to take into account the weather conditions, terrain, ground, and shadows, as well as trying to remember the order of the jumps. You should start to feel that although you are making more micro adjustments to your canter, and riding less direct lines, your round will flow more and the jumping efforts seem easier.

Perfect Circles

Last week I had a new experience; I was videoed teaching a masterclass with two young riders for Demi Dressage.

Since Christmas I’ve been involved with Demi Dressage – Which you can read about here – and the theme for the Easter holiday tests is circles, so we decided to have two guinea pig riders of different abilities and record a masterclass to help teach our young competitors how to ride round circles, rather than egg shaped circles.

Considering I’m the person who hated my mentor observing my lessons while I trained for my BHS PTT exam, and she had to leave me with my clients and sneak into the gallery to watch, this was quite a big deal for me. I was fairly nervous, and even got as far as writing down my lesson plan rather than just having the vague agenda in my head.

One of my riders was five, not particularly confident and not ready for canter. The other rider, she was ten I think, was more advanced and cantering competently.

Before we got mounted, we looked at the Crafty Ponies Dressage Arena diagram (not heard of Crafty Ponies? Where have you been) they’re amazing! ) to see what a correct circle looks like in the arena and how circles are often ridden as either ovals or egg shapes. My youngest rider told me that the most important thing about the shape of the circle is that it is round. Whilst my older rider told me that the hardest part about riding circles was making them round.

Whilst the girls warmed up their ponies I got busy with setting up a perfect circle. My able assistant stood on the centre line ten metres from A, holding a lunge line. I then walked the circumference of the 20m circle, laying out small sports cones. These are my new toy; soft and flexible it doesn’t matter if they get stood on (although I do charge a fee of one Easter egg per squashed cone) but they provide a great visual aid for riders.

I used plenty of cones to help my younger rider mainly, but you can reduce the number of cones as you get less reliant on the cones. I also used yellow cones for one side of the circle and red for the other – for reasons that will become obvious later.

I ran through the aids for riding a circle with the girls: turning your head and body to look halfway round the circle, indicating with the inside rein and pushing with the outside leg. The girls then rode the circle in walk so that I could see that they were using the correct aids, and also check their level of understanding. This is more important for the younger rider really. I had gotten the older rider to ride a 20m circle at C in the warm up, with no help so that she could compare her before and after circles.

Using the perfect circle of cones, we could see where the ponies tended to lose the shape. All ponies are reluctant to leave the track and security of the fence line, and the cones made both girls more aware of this so they had to apply their aids earlier and more strongly in order to leave the track at the right place. With my older rider I could talk about the balance of her aids, and fine tune the circle, whilst with the younger one I kept it simple and focused on her looking further around the circle, which automatically applied her weight and seat aids.

The girls worked on the circle in walk and trot in both directions, and then the elder rider cantered it on both reins. The canter was more interesting as we could see the difference in her pony’s suppleness (I racked up a few Easter eggs here!) which led to an interesting conversation on the asymmetry of the canter gait.

With the girls understanding and experiencing a perfectly round circle, we then talked about how to ensure that the second half of our circles are the same size as the first half.

I got the girls to ride their circle in trot, counting their strides all the way round. This part of the session would go a little over my young rider’s head, but I felt she’d still benefit from learning to count her strides and the theory. The bigger pony got 32 strides on the whole circle, so then we tried to get sixteen strides on the yellow side of the circle and sixteen strides on the red side. With the cones to help, she pretty much nailed it first time.

With my younger rider we aimed to get twenty strides on each half of the circle, and whilst she struggled to count and get the circle round, it did help improve her understanding of the previous exercise, and she did manage it with some help from Mum counting aloud with her.

I didn’t do this exercise in canter as I felt my older rider had enough to digest, and she can apply the same theory to it another day. However, I did set her a challenge to finish the lesson. We tidied up the cones, and I asked her to ride a twenty metre circle with sixteen strides on each half.

Which she did correctly first time! And could analyse the differences between the circles she’d ridden in her warm up, and her final circles. Overall, a successful and enjoyable lesson I believe. And the videos aren’t too cringeworthy either – to my relief!

Positive, Neutral and Negative Riders

I heard an interesting analogy last week, which I thought I would share with you as it’s a good attitude to have each time you go to ride your horse.

There are three types of rider: those who have a positive effect on their horse, those who have a neutral effect, and those who have a negative effect on their horse.

It doesn’t sound very nice really, does it, saying that you have a negative or detrimental effect on your horse. But we all started off as negative riders. When we were bumbling around with clumsy steering aids and heavy rising, those riding school horses tolerated us and accepted our mistakes as we learnt. But this comes at a cost. The horse’s way of going will deteriorate over time by them losing topline muscles and learning to compensate by working in a hollow manner; they may lose the level of impulsion and cadence to their gaits.

Once you’ve mastered the basics and have control over your aids, and can maintain your balance you begin to become a neutral rider. That means that the time you spend riding your horse (assuming you are appropriately matched) won’t cause their way of going to deteriorate, yet you also won’t improve their level of schooling.

Finally, there is the positive rider. These are more experienced riders who can enhance the horse’s way of going; teach them new movements or fine tune their current skills.

Throughout our riding careers you can find yourself as all three types of rider at some point. If you are overhorsed, you may be a negative rider for the short term but with the right help you can improve your skills so that you become a neutral rider. You may find yourself riding a young or green horse, in which case you need to be a positive rider to further their education.

As a rider, horse owner and horse lover, you should want to do the best by your horse, and that means that on a bad day you want to have a neutral effect on your horse – perhaps you’ve had a busy day at work and just need to hack or lightly school. But every other day, you are a positive rider, and enhancing your horse with every ride. Be that by improving a certain movement, building their self confidence, or by riding exercises to improve their muscle tone.

It’s a good ambition to have, regardless of whether you want to ride an advanced medium test, event internationally, or hack confidently or enter your local riding club competitions; you should aim to be a positive rider for the benefit of your horse.

Demi Dressage

I’ve blogged about it before, but I get so frustrated with the lack of child friendly dressage tests. So many British Dressage and Pony Club tests have movements above a young rider’s comprehension. Then the judge’s feedback goes over their little heads, and I feel that they don’t really benefit in any way, shape or form. Which means, unfortunately that dressage is less popular amongst young riders (with the exception of that Scottish girl who scored 93% or something outrageous. See this week’s Horse and Hound for more details).

So when a friend approached me a few months ago with the idea of running online dressage competitions with tests written for children, and focusing on using a language that they understand and using appropriate school movements (for example, many children can canter, but are unable to canter a circle at E, or pick up canter over X). And of course, promoting fun, with feedback that they understand.

Understandably, I jumped at the chance to be involved, and so Demi Dressage was born. My involvement is fairly basic; I double check the tests as they are written, and then judge the entrants at the end of the month.

There are five levels, which I think covers children of all abilities, and provides them with the groundings to enter a prelim test at the top level. And yes, I have shamelessly copied the description of the levels from the website!

  • GREEN – for riders who are riding independently in walk, and starting to become confident in trot off the lead. Tests will mostly be in walk, potentially with some very very easy movements in trot, and may include some fun mounted exercises. School movements will be very simple. (Approx expected age 4-6 years – but all ages are welcome!)

  • YELLOW – for riders who are relatively competent in walk and trot but are not yet cantering on their own. Tests will be exclusively in walk and trot, they may include some fun mounted exercises or easy movements without stirrups. School movements will be simple to execute. (Approx. expected age 6-8 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome! Depending on entries Yellow tests may be run in the same class as Yellow-Plus tests, and placings will be determined by percentage score. If there are enough entries, the tests will run as two separate classes with placings and rosettes for each.)

  • YELLOW-PLUS – these are Yellow tests that are slightly longer, with more trotting, for riders who are not confident to canter but are able to ride slightly more demanding school movements in walk and trot (Approx. expected age 7-10 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome! Depending on entries Yellow-Plus tests may be run in the same class as Yellow tests, and placings will be determined by percentage score. If there are enough entries, the tests will run as two separate classes with placings and rosettes for each.)

  • BLUE – for riders who are competent in walk and trot, and learning to canter independently. Tests will predominantly be walk and trot with some very simple canter work. School movements will build on those introduced in the earlier levels, and possibly include some fun mounted exercises. (Approx expected age 7-11 years – but younger or older entrants are very welcome!)

  • RED – for older or more experienced riders getting close to progressing to BD Intro and Prelim level tests. Tests will feature walk, trot and canter, possibly some mounted exercises including work without stirrups, and school movements will start to become more complicated in line with those found in BD Prelim tests. (Approx expected age 10-13 years – but younger entrants are very welcome!)

For the Christmas competition we had a two year old on the lead rein doing the yellow test! I found it lovely to see the wide array of ponies and children entering, and all seeming to have fun. Two competitors who really stood out were brother and sister on their family pony. The sister rode off the lead rein, videoed by Mum and with the test called by Dad. The brother was led by Dad, had his sister calling for the first half of the test, and Mum videoing, with the baby strapped to her chest, and calling the second half of the test when sister got bored (Mum, I salute your multi-tasking abilities!). Anyway, it was really nice to see the competition as such a family affair.

Kids love getting rosettes, regardless of colour (I certainly remember the disappointment when I came home empty handed), so Demi Dressage feels it’s important that every competitor receives a rosette. Each class has rosettes to 6th place, every other child gets a special rosette, and there are extras each month for “Best Fancy Dress” or anything else which we feel needs applauding.

We had great fun judging the videos, making sure we were fair, provided positive and constructive comments, focused on where the children were in their riding, and gave feedback which the children understood. I tried to give each child something to focus on next time, as well as saying what I was impressed with. For example, “try to ride from letter to letter to help improve your accuracy marks”, or “practice your sitting trot to help with your canter transitions”. I was really pleased to hear back from one parent that she was very impressed with the feedback her children had received as it was exactly what they were working on at the time and not “dressage jargon”.

With the focus on making dressage fun for the kids, we’ve put in movements such as Around The World and Half Scissors, going over or between poles, and in March there’s going to be a special one-off Prix Caprilli competition. It will run slightly differently, with only three classes (lead rein, walk and trot, walk,trot and canter) and be open to under sixteens, instead of the usual age limit of thirteen. Rosettes will go to tenth place, and there are prizes to be won! Then in April there will be monthly competitions which will run as an accumulator series, and a champion awarded in September. With a sash! And prizes for all the runners up!

There’s another Demi Dressage competition coming up in February, timed to coincide with the school half terms, and I’m looking forward to judging this test! A lot of kids take a break from riding in the winter, so the test is nice and short to encourage them to get back into it even if it’s just for a week, and involves some fun elements such as Around The World, and dropping carrots on the snowman’s nose. Intrigued? Well borrow a pony and get entering! I would if I could …

So if you have a child, or know of one, who would enjoy this, please introduce them to Demi Dressage and spread the word for this fantastic fledgling of a business. Their Facebook page can be found here!

One Year On

Last weekend marked one year since I bought Phoenix so I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on our journey together so far.

Initially, I didn’t think there has been a huge change in her physically. I mean, she’s put on muscle, but she’s not grown taller or bulked out like a youngster does. If anything, she’s a leaner frame, and less barrel shaped. Having said that, due to the fact she’s now fully clipped and had her mane pulled, she’s almost unrecognisable to the bystander.

So what have we achieved in the last twelve months? Quite a lot really I think.

To begin with, she’s done some travelling to clinics, competitions and lessons, and has progressed from cautiously edging up the trailer ramp, to almost running me over in her excitement to get loaded. She travels quietly and calmly, and has excellent manners both in the trailer and away from home.

I did quite a lot of groundwork for the first four months with Phoenix. Initially, she couldn’t canter on the lunge, and was quite unbalanced. Here’s two photos to compare the changes in her trot from the lunge. Her trot now is more uphill, and whilst the photos don’t really illustrate it very well her hindquarters are more engaged so her trot has a slower tempo whilst maintaining the same level of energy. Her back and topline also looks much stronger now. Now on the lunge she’s proficient at raised poles, canter and is developing a range of trots in preparation for Novice level.

Phoenix had been introduced to poles before I bought her, but hadn’t really done any jumping. I started with some jumps on the lunge, and since then she’s really taken to it. I only jump a couple of times a month, but she’s now confident with fillers and showjumps up to 85cm, enjoying it and showing a good technique. I had a jump lesson a couple of weeks ago, where we had very positive feedback and she jumped very well, growing in confidence over the related distances and fillers. Unfortunately, there aren’t any photos because it was pouring with rain. She’s also been cross country schooling, which again was a positive experience for her. Next year, my plan is to build on her competition experience over showjumps, and to do more cross country with her, on sponsored rides and training, in preparation for a hunter trial in the autumn. Weather dependent, of course!

In her ridden flatwork, Phoenix has gone from being a bit tucked in in her head and neck, and with quite a choppy trot, to carrying herself in a longer frame, in self carriage and with more impulsion from behind. Unfortunately there aren’t any recent ridden photos – I’m sure you’ll see some soon. She’s been to some dressage competitions, and definitely has the talent to succeed here. Marks have been high, with some low due to her greenness, and excited anticipation. This is an area we’re currently working on. She’s rather fresh at the moment, but after ten minutes work will settle into a lovely trot and work beautifully. Then I walk and give her a breather. Unfortunately, she then anticipates canter so it takes another ten minutes to re-establish the trot. On a positive note, the canter to trot transition is much calmer and more balanced, so we are getting there slowly! I’m looking forwards to cracking this as then we can move up a level and develop her lateral work, because the moments of good work are really good! She’s teaching me a lot, as I’ve never ridden a horse where I have to sit quite so quietly and have such minuscule aids. The slightest aid can get a huge reaction, so I’m on a learning curve (especially while she’s so lively) to stay relaxed whilst sitting quietly, and trying to remember not to back off my aids when she gets tense or scoots off as that makes her even more sensitive to the aids. For example, when she tries to rush in the trot it’s tempting to sit even more lightly. But that means I can’t use my seat without her acting like I’ve electrocuted her. I have to remember to keep sitting into her and trust that she will relax in a few strides. Then I can use my seat to half halt effectively.

Other experiences that Phoenix has had, and accepted, over this last year, are clipping, babies, pushchairs, massages and bareback riding. Clipping is still quite a stressful experience for her, but everything else she’s taken to like a fish to water.

Phoenix had done a fair bit of hacking before coming to me, and I don’t get her out as much as I’d like, but she’s brought the fun back into hacking for me. I hadn’t realised how on edge hacking spooky horses had made me last year. Now, I’m finding our hacks very relaxing and fun, either in company or on our own, especially as she’s so well mannered in open fields and is rock solid on roads. I’m looking forwards to doing some sponsored rides next year, especially as Otis had a lifetime ban for his continuous airs above the ground on these rides.

Looking back, I think we’ve made a solid start to our relationship and journey together. We’ve made a good start to all areas of leisure riding, and whilst we may not be perfect yet, a solid foundation is being built, so that hopefully we have a successful competitive career, whilst having a lot of fun. Phoenix is everything I wanted from my next horse, so I’m glad I took the gamble and bought her without trying her myself and before I was supposed to be purchasing. I’m really excited to see what the future brings for us.

Watch this space!