Want an EN insider tip? If you want to improve your riding quickly and cheaply, head to the collecting ring. It’s where you can observe the building blocks that lead to sparkling dressage scores (I’m looking at you, Michi Sub-40 Superhuman Jung), and the various ways that top riders deal with tension, excitability and focus issues: the very same things we Regular People have to cope with in our own warm-ups.
The collecting ring at a CCI4* is a particularly potent stew of free knowledge, and this morning’s dressage session at the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials yielded some life lessons we can all learn from.
1. A good support team is essential.
It takes a village to get an event horse into the ring at the top level, and while we’re not all lucky enough to have a full bevy of owners, grooms and trainers at our disposal, a friend with a clean rag who can give your boots a wipe and offer a last-minute confidence boost can make all the difference. Your personal cheerleading squad will be prepared to celebrate with you regardless of the outcome — no horse experience necessary.
2. Every dressage test is a learning opportunity.
If you have a trainer who can help you warm up, so much the better — not only does it help to mitigate the risk of over-thinking (something we’re all guilty of — but with horses, as with men, overthinking solves nothing and mostly just leads to a tactical cry into a veritable fishbowl of wine), it also gives you the chance to turn your score into something positive: a chance to improve.
Whether you smash out a personal best or barely make it back to A, your trainer will be able to help you itemise areas you can work on to improve your scores in the future. Hey, even The Terminator receives coaching in the collecting ring. (As an aside, what does one even say to the world’s most decorated rider as he warms up for a dressage test?)
Coaching Michael Jung: a step-by-step guide.
3. Focus on the task at hand.
Okay, so no one goes eventing because they prefer the first phase — there’s a ready-made, sparkly discipline for that. You’re probably braving the white boards for one reason: you and your horse want to go cross-country. Thinking ahead to the fun bit can allow excitability to creep into your flatwork, which will manifest itself as tension when you desperately try to keep all four legs in the arena.
Instead, think about the here and now: if your horse, like Tom McEwen’s mount Toledo de Kerser, wants to run on and break into canter when schooling trot lengthenings, work on compressing and lengthening his stride in a no-pressure way, working transitions within the gait into a stretchy circle before asking your horse to pick himself up and fly across the diagonal. Your job isn’t to make sure he’s ready to tackle terrain at speed — for now, it’s to help him sit and focus.
4. Know what works for your horse …
Don’t get bogged down with what another rider is doing in the collecting ring — they’re on a different horse, and while schooling changes and lengthenings may work for them, your horse may benefit from working on something he finds easy, like calm, quiet transitions. Know your horse and ride him accordingly, and for the length of time that suits him best.
With The Blue Frontier, who can be notoriously tricky and reactive, Andrew Hoy left enough time for a long, unhurried warm-up, working on lateral flexion within the canter work to encourage the horse not to set his neck, while giving him plenty of time to settle into the atmosphere. Roo Fox, on the other hand, found a quiet spot away from the collecting ring to work Fleet Street, knowing that exposure to the tannoys and crowds by the main arena would excite him before her test.
5. … but don’t be afraid to change your game-plan.
So your normally quiet horse has got a bit too much spring in his step — adapt and overcome for your best chance at a good score. If your usual warm-up routine isn’t working for you, for whatever reason, incorporate some different exercises to help your horse tap into his best work. Think about your lessons and schooling sessions at home — what do you work on there? Thinking about it analytically will help you to make a plan on the fly, and will also reduce competition nerves as you’ll dial your focus in on the moment.
6. Remember that mistakes are universal.
When it all goes a bit pear-shaped it’s so easy to let your mistakes become the centre of your universe — but even the world’s best riders can have less-than-ideal warm-ups and blips in their work, so if something goes wrong, you’re in great company. Don’t resign yourself to a bad test just because your warm-up hasn’t gone to plan — instead, stay in the moment, take a deep breath, and think and ride positively. A mistake isn’t a death knell, and a bad test doesn’t make you a bad rider.
7. Don’t forget to smile.
Away Cruising may have struggled to maintain his focus during his warm-up, overreacting his changes, which then went on to score 4s in the test, but Harry Meade kept a smile on his face throughout. While the pair may not be in contention for a top placing, Harry will be looking ahead to tackling Capt. Mark Phillips’ beefy cross-country course tomorrow — and that’s reason enough to smile (if you’re, you know, mental). Keep an eye on the positives, and remember the most important part of eventing: It’s fun!
Go Burghley, and Go Eventing!