To compete or not?
In 2013 I was asked to write a guest post for a dressage blog that would raise some kind of debate. With hindsight they were maybe thinking more of a debate on which aids to use for a movement or which noseband worked best…they asked the wrong gal! This is the blog I wrote.
Rest assured I’m not sitting in judgement; I have no perfect answer because as always it really should be the horse that stands as judge.
It’s many years since I’ve competed; in fact I’ve had a whole ‘other’ life in France and returned since I last entered the competitive dressage arena. My current P.R.E. horses have been spared the terrifying judges box/car, they have never known the horse eating flower monsters nor the horn of doom.
Call yourself a…?
Call yourself a dressage trainer but you don’t compete I hear the cry! It isn’t that easy though, at least not for me and the thing is that I’m not really sure when this all happened. I’m pretty sure it’s a number of, perhaps, random things that have conspired against my competitive spirit, battled with it and beaten it good and proper to the ground but maybe it’s actually a path I was destined to take all along.
I really should come clean at the start and mention that I am an Interdressage judge. The Interdressage system allows competitors to film their dressage test at home and submit their entries for judging online. There are a number of online dressage test sites all offering the chance to compete without the stress of leaving home or indeed the expense. I also undertook training as a British Dressage judge before departing to live in France. So you can already see how tricky it is for me to move my derrière from this rather wide fence I’m perched on.
If I go back to my childhood with ponies it was probably quite a typical horsey upbringing; I hunted, jumped (show jumping (badly) and cross country, and entered gymkhana events plus the occasional showing class. I would hack for hours to a meet, pony club rally or riding club show and make the return journey after competing. I coveted the big red (or sometimes blue) rosette of first place and would almost burst with happiness when, on the rare occasion, I was awarded one. I sulked when my pony refused the first fence three times and red faced I left the arena, my Dad’s encouraging (oh yeah!) cries ringing in my ears.
I was very small when I attended my first horse race with my Dad and not much bigger when I picked my first winner at a point to point. I lived for some years in a racecourse heavy area of Surrey where (with my husband) we indulged our passion for picking a winner, or at least trying to. The Epsom gallops passed our garden and Derby day was a major celebration. I still recall in 1991 Generous winning the Derby and the fabulous meal we ate afterwards to celebrate. This fence I fell off some time ago and I no longer support racing.
I spent countless hours sat in horseboxes waiting, stood in collecting rings putting up practice fences for my husband. I have plaited manes, committed tests to memory and driven myself to equestrian centres- that is until one little mare made me sit up and smell the coffee in the canteen!
The mare in question was on livery with me and had competed at novice level with varying degrees of success. The first time I took her out to compete was at Addington Manor, a large venue with indoor and outdoor arenas with all the madness of horses moving between the two. Warm up was indoors and entering the arena she just exploded into piaffe (something I may have been delighted with at home) and instantly dripped with sweat. I hastily left the warm up area amid tuts and head shakes from beautifully made up ladies on big bay warmbloods (my mate Chris and I used to joke that we would never win unless we wore more makeup!).
Plan B was a warm up hack which went pretty well…until we returned a minute or so before our ‘enter at A’. On riding up the centre line the tension returned and she ignored every pleading aid I could offer. After a 20m circle in a wall of death canter I finally admitted defeat, took polite leave of the judge and returned to the lorry deep in contemplation. The first hand was proffered from beyond the comfort of the fence!
Life in France
Living in dressage droughtville in France (the Limousin prizes its cows rather than its horses) took me away from the competitive world and into a burgeoning world of forums, blogs and online information. The internet saved my horsey sanity at the start of the noughties exiled in France and the free exchange of views brought me into contact with some rather diverse opinions such as those polarized views of Alexandеr Nevzorov, the anti-equestrian sport guru who is definitely not perched on any fence in these matters.
My own choice of equine partner may ultimately have tempted me to leave that fence or, if not, at least made me question some of my long held beliefs about competing with horses. The P.R.E has energy and character in abundance and they are truly a joy to train but the energy is too easy to misdirect and tension results. I was told many times when competing warmbloods that you should train them deep so that the tension at a competition would bring them up into an ‘acceptable’ self -carriage. Training deep is not and never has been my thing but training my sensitive boys has made me even more aware of how tension can manifest itself and how unhappy it seems to make them.
Just because we can?
In these days of global horse competitions is it fair to expect horses to literally travel those extra miles for us to win that coveted red rosette?
Is it acceptable to keep competition horses wrapped in cotton wool and without regular equine companionship other than over a temporary stable partition?
Does the modern equine athlete enjoy his frequent trips in the lorry or is it just something he must learn to cope with as part of life.
Is it building a partnership when kids gallop round a cross country course, pony ears pointing the way?
Should we limit the stress our equines are put under, perhaps leaving them in a field to while away their hours pulling grass and rolling in the mud?
Is there an answer?
I think the answer, as in so many things, is probably to find a balance. I have had many, seemingly small, invitations to step down from the fence but I have resisted taking the huge leap to being absolutely against all equine competition. If we are able to curb our ego and consider the welfare of the horse above ALL else perhaps there is a way forwards. Or is there? Can we really justify our human need to win when it relies on the horse doing most of the work?
Did I mention my comfy fence?