To compete or not?

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.

Trudi Dempsey Equine Trainer and Behaviourist
The 90’s with Eite the Fabulous Friesian, me the brainless idiot not wearing a hat!

 

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.

Early Days

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.

 

Trudi Dempsey Equine Trainer and Behaviourist
Sam, Gelderlander with his ears on Inger Bryant List 1 Judge

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?

Losing Confidence

equine behaviourist Trudi dempsey

The path to my door

Many clients find their way to me when they have lost their confidence. I’d like to think that’s because I am perceived as someone who is reliable in offering calm support. A sane and sensitive advisor who has been there and smelled the roses. Of course often one of my clients will recommend me as someone able to nurture nervous riders and handlers. Sometimes I’m approached by riders for whom ‘Classical Dressage’ is a last resort. Perhaps it’s  ‘you’ve tried the rest, now try the best’. But often just that I’m last (or close to) on a long list of approaches that searchers might try.

I  work with horse behaviour change applying science to enable humans to live with and share better the company of their horses. This begins with helping humans to understand why horses behave in the way they do and how to improve their daily lives so that they can lead happier more contented lives.

Recovering your confidence

Grow in confidence around your horse.
Trudi and Moralejo sharing air!

A big part of recovery from diminished confidence appears to hinge on identifying how the confidence was lost in the first place. Reasons can be diverse! Traumatic falls, feeling vulnerable due to decreased mobility, having children, lack of skill the list goes on. Maybe there is no incident that we can put our finger on, no culprit to blame. But it doesn’t make the lack of confidence any less debilitating, it looms each time we think of sitting on a horse or maybe even just standing by a horse.

Our brains are incredibly complex but in simple terms we need to rewrite history, change the paths that are laid down within it and that cause us to panic. We do this in the same way that we work with a horse that has lost confidence; in small steps. No actually not small but minute steps that take us gradually to confidence, calm and relaxation around previously traumatic triggers. It doesn’t matter what trauma, how obvious or seemingly invisible, led us to lose our confidence- what matters is taking tiny steps to recover it.

The first step to recovering confidence is to understand why horses do what they do. What triggers behaviour and how we can help avoid those triggers and build resilience to them. It’s often said that we should dream big. I recommend you dream small. Dream of being with your horse, dream of breathing together, share air together and let your dreams grow as you learn more about each other and what it means to be a human in a horse’s world and more importantly a horse in a human’s world! Did I say small- heck I meant huge because it truly is!

Get in touch

If you’d like help better understanding your horse and building your confidence around them please get in touch for a chat. I offer person to person coaching, small group interactive talks, clinics and workshops where we can work on a more confident future together. I also offer remote consultations and training. Visit my web site here. Or my Facebook page here.

rider balance- get the heads up!

One thing that most of us have struggled with at some time is allowing the seat to find a good natural balance; we might find it in walk but we still have the faster gaits to master.

My current preoccupation with archery atop a horse has got me revisiting my own balance in the saddle. Imagine keeping your balance and shooting an arrow whilst the horse moves! Forget hitting the target, just letting an arrow go seems a difficult task right now and the idea of doing it all in good balance even more tricky.

I recently spent an illuminating time with Felicity Mann who is an Alexander Technique practitioner using an equine simulator to correct balance issues for riders. Again I was reminded of the intrinsic link between rider balance and horse balance.

Every month in my tips and advice at Interdressage I  give guidance on natural rider balance as a way to improve the horse’s balance and suppleness. I’m sure riders would like a ‘fix’ for their horse but until their own balance is better it is hard to make a case for attempting to address the balance of the horse; truly a case of putting the cart before the horse!

If you’re like me you can carry the troubles of the week in your body so it is essential to learn to let go of each area of muscles. Not floppy and over relaxed but decontracted; this release leads to the perfect muscle tone and lack of ‘holding’ tension.

Start with your head and make sure you don’t have the jutting chin tortoise look (working at a computer induced posture in the photo right below) but be careful to balance the head on top of the spine in its natural balance. Looking down can encourage a head down position so try to look down with the eyes (if you have to look down) not the whole head.

Trudi Dempey equine coach and trainer; rider balance
looking down left and chin jutting right

The head is ‘hinged’ at the human ‘poll’ as the spine meets the cranium. The cervical spine (neck) meets the cranium (skull) at the atlas- have a feel about in your neck and see how it corresponds to the skeleton below. The atlas allows us to nod and the axis below it plays its part in side to side action.

The human head weighs around 5kg (11lbs) and if not naturally balanced above the spine will create tension in the neck and back causing chronic pain over time.
Imagine 5kg and what a difference it makes to your balance in the saddle and therefore to your horse’s balance. I often find that when a rider is reminded of the correct head balance they free up their shoulders and neck, and as a result lots more below, allowing for more freedom of movement and the possibility to harmonise better with the horse’s movement.

 

Trudi Dempsey Equine trainer and behaviourist riding Chapiro- rider balance
Trudi and Chapiro

 

Starting in front of a mirror (better still strategically placed multiple mirrors) assess your head balance taking care with this as it doesn’t always feel wrong if you have been balancing it that way for some time; look for the ears being central over the shoulders. If your chin is forwards take it back and down at the same time as lifting up from the top of your head. If your chin is up and the head tilted back (often a posture adopted by those who have been told to sit up tall and hold their shoulders back) again drop your chin and lift up from the top of your head- use a finger on the chin and the other hand cupped and sliding upwards from the base of the skull to feel this. Welcome to a world of double chins!

Put your riding hat on and check your balance again- notice where the peak sits and again adjust your head balance, many hats will add 600g in extra weight to your head which is not insignificant in itself.

If you have school mirrors the next check is easy but if not make sure to have eyes on the ground or video yourself to get a feel for that head balance once mounted. Check your head in all paces but don’t foget that rider balance is dynamic, don’t fix one imbalance by creating another in trying to ‘fix’ your head in one place! If you’re like me you can become fascinated by something happening with the horse and constantly look down, the first step to change is becoming aware of this and changing becomes easier once you know about it.

I can thoroughly recommend a simulator session and Alexander Technique, Pilates, Craniosacral sessions too. Be sure you get the heads up on all these awareness systems for your balance!

Next time we’ll check out shoulders.

If you would like help with your rider balance or your horse’s balance check out my video assessments with full feedback.

 

 

Note: if you experience any back/neck pain or headaches whether riding or not then always consult your doctor or physio.

 

Take a seat please

carl hestercharlotte du JLouise asked…could you do something on the riders seat please? In pictures you see the classical male rider with a very arched back, even Carl Hester, but then you look at Charlotte Dujardin and she has a very straight seat and back! Confused.

To fully cover the seat a book is required but it is an interesting point that Louise raises and one that  bears a little investigation and discussion- not least to discover what implications, if any, it may have for us regular dressage riders.

First a disclaimer- as most who know me are aware I am not a major fan of top-level competitive dressage these days but I am in no way nit-picking these two talented riders who are at the top of their sport- they are purely helpful to us in illustrating the seat and its differences.

I think the two screen shots above support Louise’s observations. On the left we have a typical male rider with an anterior (top edge tipping forwards) tilt to the pelvis and on the right a much less (but still tilted) anterior tilt in a female rider. Even though I tried to grab shots (same horse) at a similar part of the stride it is not entirely the same ‘moment in time’ that is captured- although both are in passage I think the moment of collection on the left is more defined and so the seat may be working differently. You can watch many videos on Youtube and decide for yourself if the arch is greater.

If, like me, you have a more typical female posture and shorter limbs then you will be heartened by Charlotte’s posture in spite of what I see as my ‘faults’. If you crave arms long enough to always keep the elbows to your sides and your legs draped with ease around the horse then you will envy Carl and his lengthy limbs.

Much of the spine is able to move (aside 9 elements in the very lower part) but you get what you are given and some people are just more flexible in their spines than others. You can work on your flexibility but there will always be a ‘break point’ that stops any further flexibility.

Today’s modern competitive riders tend to be behind the movement with a ‘driving’ seat which is not something I admire but it is a very typical sight around the world’s dressage arenas. It can prevent the seatbones, hips and pelvis from functioning in the most absorbent manner (each side independently) and will, I imagine, cause undue strain on the back over a lifetime.

Although some female riders have long limbs and arched backs it is usually the males who dominate this style. The pelvis of a woman is quite different to that of a man in order to accommodate childbirth and so what a man feels sat in a saddle can be quite different to what a woman feels…see the image below curtesy of trailwisesaddles.com

 

trailwise saddles

 

Men were designed to walk we were designed to have babies! Most classical male teachers/coaches will talk of sitting on the ‘bum’ whereas I see benefits in referencing the pubic arch (not of course sitting on it as a fork seat but knowing where it is). The male pubic arch is narrower and more acute in angle so I imagine far less comfortable to reference! The picture below curtesy of radiologypics.com shows this difference.

pelvis 1

 

Many women like a dressage saddle with a decent twist  (see this blog post from Trailwise here http://www.trailwisesaddles.com/wordpress/?p=661) and anatomically this makes sense. The way we ride as women (OK generalisations but most women)  makes use of our natural thigh position (turning in slightly to the knee) and balance in the saddle- students often hear me talk of our thighs as our ‘secret’ weapon with their ability to absorb movement and support our seats.

I think the advice has to be to cater for your own needs and ride within your own abilities dependant on your sex, age and flexibility -of course if you are ‘loaded’ you could spend a fortune on custom made saddles because surely this route has to be the most comfortable for horse AND rider. For those of us more financially challenged it becomes incumbent upon us to ride in the best balance that we possibly can so that we are less burdensome for our horse.

Ride in lightness ladies; with those secret weapons (and those few gents that might happen by this place- continue to drape yourselves with grace and ease)!

Dressage Jean Licart

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I bought this flimsy looking book at a show in Limoges purely to practice my dressage terminology in French. Little did I know what lay between its covers!
The Commandant (past rider of the Cadre Noir) writes a manuscript for his son to follow with a young horse a particularly difficult mare of 4 years). From general thoughts on training and starting a young horse in its first balance to collection and perfectionment (I know, not commonly used in English but an Anglo/French word that works so well!) the book is full of great truths and insights.
From the opening words of the Introduction-
‘A jeune cheval vieux cavalier’ dit un proverbe arabe / ‘a young horse, old horseman’ says a well known Arab proverb.
– to the final paragraph:
‘Le rassembler et la légèreté sont caractéristiques essentielles de l’equitation supérieure, savante, et de la haute école.’ / Collection (I love rassembler though) and lightness are essential characteristics of superior equitation, classical and high school.
I felt completely at home even without first fully understanding the nuances of these truths in another language. The work is supplemented with the Commandant’s drawings, penned under the pseudonym Tracil (Licart in reverse!).

I intend to share some regular pickings from the book which, unfortunately, seems not to have an English translation.

 

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