As my horse Morris and I made our way to the Summerhouse British Dressage (BD) regional finals last week, with my friend Ruth and Morris’ ‘girlfriend’ Arietta, Ruth and I discussed the differences between dressage and race riding, of which, there are many. There are the obvious ones, such as my stirrups on my tiny riding out saddle being a quarter of the length of those on my beautiful Bliss Paramour Dressage saddle. Or finding your balance during the sudden burst of power as your horse jumps off at the bottom of the gallops.
There are, however, more subtle differences that you only realise exist when you’re required to switch between the two riding styles. In dressage, you encourage the horse to go in ‘self-carriage’. An elastic, independent contact is desirable on a dressage horse and your bodyweight should never be used directly against it. Ride forward, to a forward hand. Allow! Soften! Don’t pull! This principle has been drummed into me, so you can imagine how alien it feels for me to counteract a horse’s desire to move forwards, entirely with the contact and not my seat!
However my determination to avoid embarrassment and keep my trusty (yet eager!) four-legged friend, Panther Patrol, behind our cantering partner overwrites my pre-programmed ‘dressage mode’. In short, I fight my instincts to soften, and hang on to Panther as tight as possible.
Each morning when I’m riding first lot at Eve Johnson-Houghton’s yard, Panther allows me to shift my weight, experiment with my stirrup length and try to remember my training on the Equiciser (neutral foot balance, soft knees, bum back…). In exchange, I just have to keep my balance central and the contact secure. My arms are usually a bit shaky after cantering as they’re not used to working so hard, but other than that, I’m pleased to report that my body is coping well with the new demands being placed on it. Although I do need to start doing some cardio work. Soon. Maybe next week.
While staying at my dressage trainer’s yard for a pre-regionals tune up, he told us about a friend of theirs who’s husband is terminally ill with cancer. Nowadays, I don’t believe there is a person on this earth who hasn’t been affected by cancer in some way, be it directly or indirectly. Cancer doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, what colour your skin is or how old you are. Hearing this tragic news renewed my resolve to do my best for both the charities I’m riding for — Willberry Wonder Pony and The Bob Champion Cancer Trust – in the Champions Willberry Charity Race at Cheltenham on 20 April 2017 (www.championswillberry.org.uk).
Fundraising is going well; I am perpetually amazed by the generosity of my family and friends. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has taken time to donate so far, and to prompt anyone else who might be thinking about it! Every little helps. Bliss of London Saddles are kindly making me my very own half-tree training saddle in their beautiful colours, which will be up for grabs in the charity auction on the day of the race! A must-have for anyone wanting to ride out in style.
To support my fundraising efforts, please visit: uk.virginmoneygiving.com
Back in the truck on the way to Summerhouse, while Ruth and I were merrily munching our way through a packet of Mini Eggs, Morris and Arietta were in the back, deciding how they could best contribute to each of their rider’s long term interests. Arietta decided that Ruth required a quick lesson in rodeo riding in the warm up, to help improve her seat and ensure she knew the location of the neck strap. Luckily, Ruth held her nerve (and her seat!) and produced a super test.
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Morris, attentive as ever, had obviously noticed me wearing my new riding out breeches in the mornings, and goggles on my skull cap. Maybe he also noticed a slightly lighter seat. Who knows. But for some reason, he chose the moment that we cantered down the centre line in the advanced medium winter regionals to show off his Frankel-Valegro-hybrid impression. That day, I clung on to Morris as tight as I cling on to Panther each morning. My arms shook as we cantered sideways out of the arena after our test, as though we’d been up the gallops.
I’m sure Morris’ intentions were good. I’m positive he enjoyed himself. However, it turns out that despite making the judge at C smile at his enthusiasm, channelling one’s inner racehorse during the extended canter isn’t what buys you a ticket to the nationals. It’s just as well really; I’m so busy trying to be a jockey that I wouldn’t have had time to go to the nationals anyway.