In 2013 and 2014, Dolly the big chestnut mare and I focused on and achieved many goals in the show ring. We had not achieved what I hoped we could in dressage and given my passion for dressage this always frustrated me. I had performed well on ponies before but Dolly and I always fell somewhere short of the mark in competition. In a class of seven we were usually fifth or sixth in our advanced intermediate grade and with this consistent mediocrity I was afraid I was becoming one of those people who bang on about ‘potential’ for years without ever delivering any actual!
In September 2014 I saw an ad on Facebook for a clinic with the instructor I had trained for my BHS exams with. I figured if he could get me to perform in and pass exams he might also be able to get me to perform in the ring. I had nothing to lose and as we headed off to his yard for that first lesson I didn’t know what to expect. My session turned out to be a private one and I worked muscles I didn’t know I had. I knew in advance that the horse and I had a lot of the basics wrong – she loved to tank on and hang on my right arm like a dead weight while I contorted myself in the saddle to counteract it. I had tried so many quick fixes with limited results in the past but in this lesson for the first time someone started to address and retrain the very basics. I learned that my legs were about six inches further back than they should be and that I was going too fast in all paces (going too fast, story of my life). My hands did too much, my legs did too little and my horse bent her head and not her body. I had a competition the next day and had a chance to practice a bit of what we learned. We didn’t come fifth or sixth, we came second. I had to check the result twice to be sure.
That was the start of our journey from show horse to dressage horse. I started getting regular lessons. We worked on all the basics. The most valuable thing I learned was that the horse was not an easy ride in dressage – she is big, strong, wide and easily unbalanced onto the forehand. I think realising this allowed me to stop blaming my riding so much when things went wrong and instead to learn how ride differently to help the horse to work with me not against me. I also had to slow down and stop haring around the dressage arena in a big showing trot and gallop. I realised that life in the show ring is easier as you only have straight lines to worry about. As weeks went by we started to get consistent results and placed highly in the riding club Autumn dressage league for the first time. I attempted some unregistered Dressage Ireland shows to see if we were up to the mark. I’d been terrified of Dressage Ireland since my first attempt years ago and had flashbacks of trotting around the warm up frantically trying to avoid fancy horses going sideways. It turned out we did okay and the day we managed to win an unregistered novice class was an important step in believing we could go further.
Sometimes, one question can change so much. My coach asked me one day what my end goal was and what was my ambition – did I want to learn advanced or be a grand prix rider someday? I laughed and told him my goal was honestly to be less bad than I was. Afterwards I realised that was pretty sad – I’d just always assumed I’d never be much better than I was and that being an advanced or GP rider was never going to be for the likes of me. In doing so, I’d set limits on myself and I wasn’t sure why, I guess I was in a way just afraid to dream big because if I believed that going further than I knew was possible I would end up disappointed. Yet if someone else wasn’t putting limits on me – why was I putting them on myself?
So, having realised this I set goals for 2015 to register with Dressage Ireland in order to compete at preliminary and novice and to upgrade to open in riding club. I kept up the lessons. I’d like to say it was like a Rocky movie montage of training and success but the truth is there were good days and bad days. Learning to slow down our canter nearly killed me off. God help my coach who spent hours helping me and yet managed not to lose patience when I either broke to a raggy trot or scorched off once again. Learning basic lateral (still a work in progress!) was entertaining as the horse understood that leg meant ‘go’ so moving sideways was a foreign concept. My practice sessions were just me and the horse so it forced me to work harder, have self-discipline and to repeat the same exercises until it became a habit and started to work.
I bought a second hand dressage saddle. For the first three weeks I wanted to burn it as I lost my stirrups and smacked myself gracelessly off the pommel on a daily basis. On my first day competing in it I had ridden three tests. My legs cramped up on the way home and my friend was in stitches driving as I wailed in the passenger seat massaging muscles that were screaming at me. I don’t know when it happened but eventually the gap between my ass and the saddle grew less, I managed to sit in it and now I cite that saddle as one of the best bargains of my life.
In competition we also had great days and bad days. The horse had a habit of warming up beautifully and then bursting into a ball of tension once we entered the arena at A. This culminated at a Dressage Ireland show where she warmed up well and then refused to go into the top half of the arena because she was terrified of people behind the new glass fronted café. To tackle this head on I brought her to a few shows and entered three tests so that the horse would go into the arena a few times and hopefully start to relax and understand what was expected. I also learned a new warm up routine from my coach to ensure that we really did work in for a good period of time before competing. This approach was tiring to say the least but it worked and we conquered our demons in the arenas that had been causing issues. The horse racked up 28 Dressage Ireland points in her first three shows at preliminary and novice level. Elementary level felt unachievable to me until I actually sat down and watched the class. I realised that the difference between me and those other riders was that they were not afraid to try and fail. So I tried. Some days I failed and some days I succeeded and before I knew it we had qualified for a national final in all three levels. We did not succeed at that final but just getting there at that level was a major milestone.
As for riding club, we rode our first open show in snow so while we placed joint first in a class of four I was reluctant to believe we were at standard because the arena was white at this stage and I wasn’t quite sure the judge could see us. We had varying success at the regional Spring league but finished on a high winning the final leg on 78%, a score I never expected to see! This earned us second place in the league. After the league, we ended up on a club team for the riding club national team dressage qualifiers. One the day of the qualifier I was sick with a virus and had the breathing capacity of a seventy year old. Our downhill counter canters were particularly unattractive but somehow we did enough to contribute to the team and club winning the qualifiers.
The championship took place in Mullingar in August, almost a year from when we started training again. We had a ridiculously early start and my teammate and I set off for what would be a long day with each of us riding four tests to compete both individually and as a team. I was nervous and surviving on Lucozade as I couldn’t eat much. The first test, my morning team test did not quite go to plan. I remember thinking ‘ah what a lovely steady canter’ a split second before we banged back into trot. My second test, my morning individual test, went well but I was afraid to think that as it may not have looked as nice as it felt. My team mate went off to check scores and came back to advise my first test had scored okay for the team despite our hiccup and my second test for the individual had scored over 79%. I sent her back to check again as I’d never seen that score in my life. It turned out the score was correct and I was in the lead. Most people would have been delighted but as I have always in my competitive life done best as an underdog – I had a meltdown. I was terrified I would balls up the third test which was the afternoon individual test and the pressure was weighing on me like a lead vest. Thankfully I had a coach on the phone and a good friends on the ground who gave the sage advice of 1. Breath 2. Ride the test 3. The first score was from hard work and not luck. We managed the third test without any issues and a big sigh of relief at the final halt. At this point the horse felt tired, I was tired and we still had another test to ride – the afternoon team test. I hadn’t realised that I was in danger of taking it easy until I had a voice message from my coach telling me he knew I was thinking the horse was tired and that no way was I to go easy and I was to get back on and ride for and earn every mark for the team. It was valuable advice and after warming up again the horse put her best hoof forward and finished with another decent test.
The wait for results was agonising and the four of us were on edge. I was too short so had to send someone taller in to see the results over the crowd in front of the board. We had done it. Dolly and I were National Open Individual dressage champions. My team mate Lianne who travelled with me was National Advanced primary dressage champion. To crown the day, our club were announced as AIRC Connolly Redmills National Team Dressage Champions. The prize giving was brilliant and Lianne and I dressed up the horses in the carpark in their new rugs and rosettes to take some photos. It was late and about sixteen hours since we left home and I am sure that to anyone not equestrian we must have looked mad dressing up our horses at dusk in an empty car park. However it was a great way to take a moment and celebrate the day where preparation met opportunity so well for us both.
In twelve months Dolly and I went from averaging 5th at advanced intermediate locally to National individual and team champions. As a younger rider, for years I had stood ring side at riding club shows watching the higher graded riders and wishing but not believing that someday I could do it. It is hard to believe how far we have come. Now, at the lower levels of Dressage Ireland I watch the higher grades and think it is hard to see how much I have still to learn. I think the difference now is I know what hard work, time and dedication can achieve.
Our recipe for success in 2015:
60 Dressage Ireland points
2 AIRC Dressage Championships.
1 damn good coach
1 amazing owner
Several brilliant supporting friends
1 horse with a heart of gold.
As for 2016, I would love to build upon 2015. I know there will be good days and there will be bad days but I have plans, goals, great horses, great owners and a great coach and that is the best place to start.