by Francesca Prescott
I did it again. I signed up for a show. It’s a month away, but I’m already stressing out over how things will go.
Despite having ridden for most of my life, I have very little experience with competition. To give you an idea, I’ve probably taken part in less than twenty competitions in my five decades on the planet. I’ve always had conflicting emotions about competing. I want to, but at the same time I know I’m happier in the arena at home, working towards four perfect strides, concentrating on refining my feel for certain movements, trying to get my body to find the keys to asking for, say, a good turn on the haunches. I want to be the queen of turns on the haunches! And of half pass! The queen of everything, really! I love the finicky stuff. I love doing things over and over again, taking my time to get things just right, feeling my way. I could take lessons every day, all day long. I find training fascinating.
The problem is, you can’t take your time and do things over and over again when you’re riding a test. You can’t say, “hang on a second judges, I know I can do a better turn on the haunches than that, because I didn’t use enough outside leg to push the quarters around nor did I hold the outside shoulder enough, and I could have used a more inside leg for impulsion and bend, and besides, Qrac was being a piggy and going lalalalalala just then, so can we do it over? And over? And over?”
I’m not used to riding with competitions in mind, so neither me nor my horse are used to riding one figure after another. Qrac may be rising nine, but he was an extremely green seven-year-old when I bought him, he’s not test savvy, and being of an anxious nature, tends to become fractious when asked to halt at X, go straight down the centre line, turn left at C, then extend down the diagonal, etc etc. And that’s before we add the judges and the flowers and the other horses and the noise. It’s all too quick, all too too what-what-what-comes-next??? Before we’ve gone past A he’s no longer focused on me and is all in a flap, doing a horrendous, Thelwell-inspired pony-trot.
It’s strange, but when I think about it, character-wise, Qrac is very similar to me. He’s super-sensitive, mostly calm, yet ridiculously quickly upset. Like me, he’s a big worrier. He does, however, tend to have a shorter fuse than me and can sometimes be rather rude when asked to venture out of his comfort zone. But with a little gentle persuasion he can eventually be swayed into trying, and once he’s figured out that YES HE CAN, he’s all proud of himself and game to do it again. Ok, sometimes he forgets that he could do something the day before and needs a little reminder. And sometimes I get frustrated, wondering what the heck is wrong with me that I take lessons, and more lessons, and more lessons (up to three a week), and work ever so hard, and lots of people drool over how gorgeous he is and how amazing he looks, yet, almost two years down the line, we’re incapable of doing a basic test smoothly! And then I think back to how Qrac was in the beginning and I tell myself we’re not doing so badly. I think about my horse a lot.
So anyway, Qrac and I are signed up for a show the last weekend in March. Call me pessimistic, but I have very low expectations. The venue is indoors and spooky, the arena is small, and I know my horse is going to look at everything, that he’ll be tense and explosive. But my goal is to do more shows this season, because Qrac needs to go out and see things, he needs to get used to the show ring, and maybe over time we’ll both get used to riding tests, not to mention riding tests in unfamiliar places. Who knows, at some point, maybe we’ll even start really enjoying competing. Maybe, eventually, someday, we’ll place! Maybe we’ll “win the cup” (as my riding girlfriends and I say jokingly). Wow, wouldn’t that be something!
What are your experiences of training inexperienced horses towards competition? If you ride dressage, how did you approach working on a test? And whatever your discipline, how do you deal with a nervous, spooky horse on your first few outings?