Keen to have a go at dressage, but don’t know where to start? International rider Harriette Williams tells Julie Harding all you need to know to get you off to a flying start.
1) Choose your dressage horse wisely
When you are starting out in dressage, it’s important that you are paired with the right horse. Reliability is the key here. You need a horse that isn’t going to be too nervous, sharp or fizzy in the warm up or in the arena — after all, you want your first experience to be a happy, confidence-boosting occasion.
In terms of size, you want a horse that is compact and not too big — he should fit you. He also needs three correct paces — a good walk where you can pick up a lot of easy marks, a correct and rhythmical trot and a rhythmical canter that doesn’t turn into an irregular four-time gait.
2) Plan your dressage lessons
You definitely don’t need to spend thousands of pounds on training when you are starting out in dressage, although you do need to have a basic understanding of what the judge will be looking for. That way, you can set your own personal goals.
Your current instructor will no doubt be able to help you here. Once you have become hooked on dressage, you may then need to think about investing in lessons with a flatwork professional, but it all depends on what you are trying to achieve.
3) Start with unaffiliated dressage
Unaffiliated competitions are a great place to start if you are new to dressage. Such fixtures are generally low key and friendly and having a positive experience will boost your confidence. However, all venues are different and to familiarize your horse beforehand, especially if he lacks experience, it may be best to attend a clinic there or hire the arena for an hour or so.
If you do well in the basic tests at unaffiliated level, that will give you an idea whether you are ready to progress to affiliated competitions. However, don’t have unrealistic goals for that, as the judging will be harsher.
4) Choose quality dressage clothing
If your horse is comfortable and can use itself in your current general purpose or jumping saddle then it may not be worth investing a lot of money in a dressage saddle for the time being. As you progress and do more flatwork, though, a dressage saddle will put you in a better position and will also give the horse more freedom to move through his shoulder.
Another important item of tack is a well-fitting bridle, which, like everything else, should always be clean for the competition. I also use white brushing boots while my horses work in, but if your horse isn’t used to these, avoid putting them on for the first time at a competition.
Buy the best-quality riding clothing for yourself that you can afford. A smart navy or black show jacket or a showing jacket that is neat and fits well will do the job nicely. Personally, I prefer white breeches, but others favour cream or beige. Gloves, plus a tie or a stock with a pin, finish off the look nicely. Your own personal presentation says a lot about the time and care you have invested in getting ready for this fixture. First impressions do count.
5) Follow the British dressage rules
There are several things that you aren’t allowed to have at a dressage competition, such as a martingale. Brushing boots, which can be used for warming up, should be removed once you have finished working in. You can ride your horse in a fly veil if the tests are held outside, but ensure that he has no ear plugs underneath.
Bitting is a complex issue, so check BD’s rules if you are heading for an affiliated competition, or the show’s own rules for unaffiliated competitions. For a horse with no issues, my preferred bit is a thin, plain loose ring snaffle with a lozenge, which is kind on the mouth and well within the rules of any show.
Be courteous at all times — even if you don’t agree with your dressage mark, the judge’s decision is final — and ensure that you are on time. If you arrive very late, you will probably be eliminated.
6) Focus on three key aims
Nerves at your first dressage competition are only natural, but a good way to alleviate these is to concentrate on a three-point plan — that’s three things you want to achieve in the warm up and three things you are aiming for in your test. If you have someone with you, get them to remind you about your three aims, which will help to keep your mind focused on yourself. It is all too easy to be distracted by horses around you who look to be going better than yours.
7) Be prepared
I pack my lorry the night before a competition. This gives me time to cope with the unexpected. I tick things off from a checklist as I put them in and I always pack spares, especially reins and stirrup leathers, which have a habit of breaking.
I also make myself a timetable for the day itself so that I have a rough idea of when to feed my horse, plait him, what time to leave for the show, what time to get on at the venue and I even factor in a little quiet time for myself.
8) Feed your horse for dressage success
If your horse is used to a hard feed in the morning, make the effort to get up early and stick to this routine — he needs the fuel like you do — but allow enough time for him to digest the feed prior to the competition.
Always use a hay-net while travelling. It helps to keep the horse calm. And on a hot day remember the electrolytes to rehydrate him if necessary.
After the competition, I unload and unpack the lorry and then feed my horse. I will only wait a little longer if he’s a stressy traveller.
9) How fit is your horse?
A horse that is fit enough for a 30-minute schooling session has adequate fitness for a lower level dressage competition. Competing at the lower levels isn’t too strenuous for the horse and you certainly don’t want one that is so fit that he needs working in for at least an hour before he starts listening to you.
10) How to warm up and cope in the arena
• Focus on yourself not those around you.
• If there are a lot of people in the warm up remember to pass left to left.
• When walking around, always walk on the inside track to let others work their horse.
• Think ahead — be aware of others around you, but don’t constantly stop your horse for them or your warm up will be badly affected.
• If you school at home for 30 minutes, don’t do the same at the competition. By then, you will have a tired horse who will have peaked in the warm up and not in the arena.
• Take your time. Too many people rush their test as though they are in a hurry to be somewhere else. Make the most of your time in the arena and show off. Don’t give marks away by rushing because of nervousness.
• Relax and keep breathing.
• Go in with a personal aim. It may simply be to get a great walk from your horse. Make your aim simple and then you won’t be disappointed.
• Don’t panic when things go wrong. They will, but there is always the next movement — and another day.
• Be proud that you are there and don’t feel outclassed. You have as much right to be there as anyone else.
• Don’t let a disappointing mark affect your judgment if you felt that your horse performed well — marks are always subjective so go with your gut feeling.