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Anna Ross: Kick on – or let education kick in? *H&H Plus*

Opinion

  • H&H’s dressage columnist ponders our ethical responsibility to our equine partners

    It’s been a fun couple of weeks for British Dressage members, with the young horse championships and an international at Keysoe in Bedfordshire.

    Simon Bates and his team did a fabulous job of maintaining a safe environment and reminding everyone of the social distancing rules. Slightly flustered at one point on entering the cafe and being alerted to the rules by the bartender, I panicked, reached in my pocket and tried to put on my horse’s ear defenders as a mask.

    Team GBR have lacked strength in depth in past years, but now we have a plethora of top performers.

    Chef d’equipe Caroline Griffiths’ smile was wider than her mask after the grand prix in the CDI on Saturday night as five combinations scored over 75%, even with top competitors Lottie Fry, Laura Tomlinson and Richard Davison absent.

    In the paras, Natasha Baker and the exciting Keystone Dawn Chorus had three wins with top scores and more to come.

    If the Europeans and Olympics both run next year, it would be an opportunity to showcase up-and-coming combinations and give championship opportunities to young stars. It would be good fun to show the world what Team GBR has up its sleeve.

    Learn from the best

    I urge every aspiring dressage rider to sign up to the various media channels offering live-streaming and get involved.

    It’s easy to feel that high-level competition doesn’t relate to everyone, but there is such opportunity to learn from watching and emulating the top end of the game rather than thinking, “It’s nothing to do with me.”

    Top competitors ride accurately and practise at their best. They have their s**t together. They can handle stress, which enables them to make good decisions during the test and know when to stop in training. They ride excellent corners and are physically fit. They know there are many “wins” in dressage – not all are about red rosettes – and sometimes they fail, just like everybody else.

    Finding the limit and knowing when to ask more is the ethical responsibility of all riders. If we want to work ourselves to death in the gym, it’s our choice. But, as the horse can’t speak, we have to find ways to listen. To make good judgements, our riding education must “kick in” rather than our competitive desire to just “kick on” – in the horse’s interest.

    Be fit enough

    Recently, I was the guest in a webinar hosted by top sports psychologist Charlie Unwin, who was very keen that riders should learn to work with their stresses rather than try to remove them. Every rider can improve their performance with attention to sports psychology, without pressure on the horse.

    If you cut corners, you’ll just keep going around in circles both physically and metaphorically. The best riders focus on the basics. Every rider can do that.

    Physical fitness is something everyone can improve, whether it’s choosing the stairs over the lift, sharing the dessert or spending time in the gym. It’s not about strength, but being able to support yourself. Being fit enough to breathe feeds oxygen to the brain. The grand prix involves a lot of counting – piaffe steps, changes, strides in the zig-zag – so you have to be switched on.

    The tears and the joy

    I had two pupils in the grand prix at Keysoe and I was proud of both for very different reasons.

    Alex Baker, 24, was the youngest rider in this inspirational class. She loved every moment of her journey and having ridden a super-harmonious test, is inspired to ask her horse for more power next time.

    In contrast, Bronte Watson recognised that her much-loved horse was not enjoying the pressure as much as she does and made the difficult decision to retire him from top-level competition at the show. Both the tears and the joy are relatable. The thrill of top sport is in its stories and that’s why all of us can feel part of it.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 22 October 2020

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