Dressage Diva

Dressage Diva

There is simply nowhere to hide in dressage. Every footfall, every head toss, every brace, every tail swish, every moment of over enthusiasm or reluctance, every error is seen and noted. It is brutally exposing. And my God it is so hard! I am sure show-jumping is just as technical: I am probably kidding myself when I get an ‘unlucky’ 4 faults, but I simply can’t pretend all is well when doing dressage if it isn’t. My performance is 100% down to my schooling and my riding. And that is a little depressing tbh as I am just not very good at it!

So I plan to focus on dressage heavily over the winter starting with an Into & Prelim competition yesterday. Our dressage adventures started reasonably well with a 65% Into B, a 2nd place and some lovely comments.


Then life got a little more, (ahem), interesting……..

There is an art to calmly understated test score comments I think: Amber’s bucking, spinning and napping at speed back to her pals in the collecting ring on the canter transition was down as the fairly tame sounding: “Disobedient. Left arena.” Oh dear.

To be fair to her, bucking is highly uncharacteristic so I won’t ride her again till she has been checked out by a physio. She bucked in the warm up every time I asked for canter– and has never done before. Amber and I have a good connection now. She knows when I start to think about doing some canter work and the rhythm of her trot changes immediately. So I actually have to watch my thoughts quite carefully when I am planning ahead. I need to think ‘canter NOT YET STAY TROTTING’ instead of thinking “hmm should we canter on the next bend”’. When schooling/warming up at the venue and also in my final schooling session before competing, as soon as I thought canter she pinned her ears and tensed up. She is a very expressive horse who is not at all backwards about letting me know how she feels about things. It felt like she was saying “I  know what’s coming and I am REALLY not happy about it!” So the bucking was no surprise really.

But aside from a specific, (hopefully) solvable problem to do with tightness or discomfort, I do find dressage extraordinarily frustrating. My hands and legs are not very good at working independently. My timing and feel are awful. I do not release well

To make matters worse, the into & prelim tests in 1 arena were running alongside the advanced medium tests in another arena and we warmed up in the same area. So there’s me trying to get basic control of my wayward beast, while others were practicing their counter canter, half passes and lead changes on their beautifully elegant dancing horses.

Oh well we all have to start somewhere and on that note, watching this gives me hope….



Do The Work…. But WHICH Work?!

Do The Work…. But WHICH Work?!


I read this recently:

“Research has shown that a feeling of activity specific competence is the single best predictor of enjoyment and achievement in a given activity”

So that’s where I have been going wrong! Schooling Amber is instead a daily immersion into an activity-specific feeling of ‘I haven’t got a bloody clue!’!!

90% of riding is done alone: schooling, fittening, hacking, practicing. I have no problem doing the work but I struggle to know what to do. I lack confidence in my own judgement. So I have lots of lessons with lots of people who say lots of different things.

I did not set out to RI hop like that, but I have been to 2 camps this year and had 3 different sets of dressage instruction as part of those camps. I also hosted a clinic with someone in the Buck Brannaman tradition which is different again. And I had a lesson with John Thelwall who my YO  invited to the yard for the day……Plus my regular lessons with the YO/RI. Each clinic or camp or new opportunity seemed like a great idea at the time. But I realise now that frankly I am just more confused than ever about how to ride Amber. I have lessons where she floats and it feels fantastic, but I cannot for the life of me recreate that without moment by moment instruction from the ground!

So when I am schooling I just flit from strategy to strategy till both me and my poor horse are confused and frustrated. And all the time at the back of my mind is the fear that I am going to ruin her, which means my ‘schooling’ just ends up unfocused and bland. For fear of doing the ‘wrong’ thing I end up doing nothing at all!

So basically I am inconsistent AND unfocused. No matter which approach I go for, it has to be better than that!

I am beginning to recognise there is no magic bullet. She goes beautifully in different lessons despite differences in the instruction. There are many roads to Rome. I just need to pick a road and STAY ON IT.  So the plan is to stop ALL lessons apart from those with my YO and just do as I am told by ONE instructor. Whatever that ‘way’ actually is, it’s got to be better than the muddling mess I am making of things at the moment! Eventually, perhaps, that elusive ‘activity specific confidence’ will begin to appear….

Green on Green = One on one!!

Green on Green = One on one!!

Well one advantage of being a 70/80 rider attending a Gemma Tattersall clinic is that I was so far below the level of the others that I had private instruction all week! 3 private lessons with Paul Gaff and a private XC session with Gemma. Result! I did feel very privileged but it meant poor Amber worked much harder than the others as she never got any ‘watching-other-people’ breaks.

I felt ludicrously, hopelessly out of place though when overhearing: “have you heard [X] is just competing over BE100. What a ridiculous waste of a horse!’

Did I dare fess up that I am competing over 70cm in a couple of weeks and aspiring to BE80/90 next year?  BE100 feels as remote as the moon.

But I declared my inexperience before booking on and was told it was fine so I decided to just ignore what everyone else was doing and focus on my lovely horse and my modest aspirations.

So first the dressage with Paul. Amber was calm and focused which was very unfamiliar. Where was my wired beastie? Had I brought the wrong horse with me?  I gave a potted history – as far as I know it – and Paul later said he was pleasantly surprised that this mare who looked like a bog standard Irish pit horse (“no offence”) had lovely movement and was rhythmic, straight & supple. Supple? Amber?? MUST have brought the wrong horse with me!  He finished by saying she ‘has quality’ and is actually a very promising prospect. Which is nice to hear. Sadly she has to put up with me …. But everyone has to start somewhere. We worked on ‘rideability’ –  Paul’s idea which is good as that is my favourite word at the moment – mainly playing around with bend, contact and with transitions within the gaits.

I put her back in her stable afterwards and was relieved when she pulled her bitch face and threatened to bite me if I went near her haylage. Yup it’s Amber! Just somehow seems to have morphed into a calm and supple horse while I wasn’t watching. Perhaps all those small circles are performing their magic? Not to mention an hour and a half’s dressage lesson with my fab YO the day before camp to give me a bit of a confidence boost. The last time I took Amber off-site for dressage she cantered when she should have trotted, trotted when she should have walked and walked when she should have halted. It was a lovely test – just the wrong one!

A few hours rest then XC with Gemma. Amber was a superstar. The jumps were only 70-90 but she was so positive and willing that Gemma said she got the feeling that I could present her to any fence and she’d jump it for me. The trouble is she is too bold for this timid rider. She just launches herself at everything. Including steps and water, when a little more care and attention might be nice! (Yes we got very wet). So I spent a bit too much time in what a local trainer calls ‘Position 5’ aka the ‘oh shit’ position. As time went by she was getting more and more wound up, more and more excited, jumping bigger and bigger regardless of the size of the fence and tanking off on landing. I decided we’d had enough. (Correction I had had enough…..) Then Gemma said instead of stopping let’s ‘change the subject’ and do some dressage on the XC field. So we did and after a few laps of a smallish circle Amber’s brain was back in her head and she settled. More than settled actually, she transformed completely. She started snorting and sneezing, licking and chewing. Which means she was releasing tension and then mulling things over apparently. After that we jumped a few slightly bigger fences calmly. Which was fabulous. What a great day. Better still apparently Gemma told the camp photographer afterwards that she thought Amber was great. A 4* Olympian likes Amber. I’ll take that!!

Next day was grid work with Paul again. Calm and co-operative Amber made an appearance. She fell over the 2nd element of the grid the first time of asking. But after that figured out where her feet needed to be and jumped everything cleanly. A few hours haylage munching and then we went show jumping. It got a little yee-haa at times. So much so that Paul had to re-measure the double as he found it hard to believe she was jumping it off 2 strides not 3. (Yes she was….) “Try to keep the same rhythm into the fence”. Oh dear. That didn’t really happen. Amber is more of a lock on and launch horse at the moment.

But she was brave, willing and honest as ever. Paul’s verdict? “This is a good horse. A really nice horse with a great attitude. I’d  happily produce and compete her. Here’s my card!” I am beginning to feel a bit anxious about not ruining her as I seem to have accidentally stumbled on a diamond in the rough. But I’ve got plenty of time, energy and commitment. And plenty of very experienced help around me. So tempting though it is to hand her over to someone else to produce, I think I will carry on taking the slow and scenic route myself to achieving our goals…. I’m loving the journey so why hurry it?

Pics of camp with photo creds to the awesomely talented Katy Tuck of KT Equine Photography.


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