Louise Curran and Cil Dara Gandalf
© Gone Riding Media
Written by Louise Curran
Well, we did it!
A couple of weeks ago, Gandalf and I took a huge leap forward and made our Grand Prix debut. It was a wonderful weekend filled with emotion, a fantastic sense of achievement and an element of surprise that we should find ourselves at that point. This dressage caper is taking us on one helluva journey and I’m loving every minute of it!
After our “interesting” Inter 2 performance at the Vic State Championships last December, it was back to the drawing board for some months of fairly intensive training with our very talented coach, David Shoobridge. Movements were deconstructed and, it seemed, learned all over again with a new concentration on perfection. Stepping up in competition means stepping up in training too and there were some sessions where I really didn’t think I was going to master it all. Simple things like straightness – which it turns out are not really simple at all if you want to achieve perfection – took on a whole new meaning. Each time, just as it was all seeming impossible, the light bulb moment would happen and we’d take that next step toward being ready.
For most of our journey together, Gandalf has been a rather fragile partner. When he was given to me by a very dear friend, who owned him but had had him ridden by others, he was completely switched off to the world and it was thought that his competition days were well and truly over. He came to me simply because, as she said “he needs to be loved and I just think you belong together”. When we realised that he and I share our birthdays, it seemed like serendipity.
It took a year of love and patience to get to the point where we could even think about loading onto the float and getting out. Once Gandalf started to engage with the world again he was terrified of everything. But this was something to be celebrated – at least he was reacting!
By this time I was training with David Shoobridge and decided to have a lesson on Gandalf. Our first lesson lasted for a whole 12 minutes! David had been well briefed on Gandalf’s history and, after I finally managed to mount this snorting, terrified animal who wasn’t coping at all well with the new venue, we warmed up and then got some really good quality work. Just as I was thinking it was feeling super, we got the instruction to “Stop and pat him! Get off right there, don’t even walk to the gate. He’s done a great job – we finish on that.”
So began a training partnership with a coach who understands a fragile horse and what he needed, a rider who loves that horse to bits and is prepared to make progress at whatever speed he needs, and a very special horse who rewards the love and patience with trust and a beautifully gentle nature that still needs so much understanding and nurturing. And talent; it turns out that this horse has talent!!
In the early days there were many people who thought I was completely mad to persevere with such a damaged mind. Comments like “you’re mad wasting your time – you could put all that effort in and still get nowhere” were very common. I got very good at smiling and saying nothing. Thankfully, there were more people who were supportive – there is a group of people who were there at the start, have watched and quietly supported our journey and are now celebrating with us.
Over the last few months, we’ve turned another corner with Gandalf and he finally seems to have developed a mental strength that allows a very strong opinion. We discovered it at the State Championships when he morphed from an “I don’t think I can, I’m not sure about all this” attitude to an “I’m not going to, and you can’t make me” frame of mind. It wasn’t convenient that he chose that moment in a major competition to metaphorically flip me the bird, but it did signal a new strength and capability, both of which we would need if we were going to progress to the top step.
After months of very intense training – mixed up with trail rides and fun sessions on the arena because we still don’t do super intense with Gandalf, even if he is mentally stronger – we finally got the nod from David, who we agreed would be the final arbiter of when we were ready for a Grand Prix test. The words “I think we can start looking at some competitions to enter” were music to my ears. At that point, we’d passed the first big test.
The competition we chose was the Autumn Dressage Championships at Boneo. The timing was right and it’s a venue that Gandalf is very familiar with. This increased (but didn’t guarantee) the probability of him settling in, feeling comfortable and eating and drinking enough to perform with energy. Apart from anything else, it’s always a lovely place to compete. The real drawcard, however, was that they had a GP test running on both days of the competition. The theory was that if I completely stuffed up the first one, I would have a chance to redeem myself on the second day.
The other reason for selecting this competition was that so many of the team who train with David were going to be there. Our team makes any competition a positive experience, no matter what the scores or the outcomes, and to be able to share this one guaranteed that it would be something special.
Throughout the weekend I managed to surprise myself with how calm I was. I expected to be a bundle of nerves but, strangely, at this point that I’d worked so hard to reach, I was actually pretty relaxed. How weird is that?! I’ve had times when I’ve been so nervous I’ve been nearly hyperventilating before a Prix St Georg test. Now, when I’d actually made it to the top level of our sport, I was remarkably together. Go figure!
Instead of being a basket case of nerves, I was excited. Gandalf felt great, I had my coach there to warm us up and share the experience, the team were part of it all, the sun was shining, the judges looked quite friendly and we were set for anything.
The first test is a bit of a blur in my mind although I do remember thinking half way through “we can do this – it feels right to be here”. What I do remember very clearly, and will cherish for a very long time, is the team cheer as I did the final halt – it would have lifted the roof if we were indoors! My final centre line was ridden in a haze of tears and the comment of the day came later from one of the judges who commented “you were crying all the way down the centre line – I could hardly judge for laughing!!”
In other words, I was calm but very emotional!
The second day of the competition presented us with a very different scenario with possibly the worst weather I’ve ever ridden in. The storms and gale force winds actually caused competition to be halted at one point and the draw was constantly changing as competitors scratched and headed for home.
We were there to ride a Grand Prix test though, and there was no way we were wimping out of that, even if it was a bit breezy!
That day was a highlight for a completely different reason. In the extreme conditions Gandalf was right on the edge of not coping but, even in all the madness the elements dished up, he stayed with me. He was on the job, tuned in and I was incredibly proud of all that said about our partnership and the trust we’ve built together.
We came home from that competition with two very respectable GP scores, two rosettes and a huge sense of achievement. We also discovered a new, calm, focused motivation to now take our good starting scores and to improve them, bit by bit.
I’ve often heard people say that getting to Grand Prix is one journey and that riding at Grand Prix is a completely new one, almost unrelated to anything that went before. I was always a bit sceptical about this – how could it be that different? Now that I’m here I realise that it’s true. I’m starting on a whole new exciting path that is going to take every bit of commitment I have. Now I’m a Grand Prix rider – next I’m going to be a really good Grand Prix rider. At least that’s the plan!
Perhaps most excitingly of all, I’m doing all this with a partner who was once broken and is now a powerhouse of muscle, talent and attitude. Getting to Grand Prix is a real achievement; getting to Grand Prix with Gandalf and starting on this next journey together is something very special indeed.
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