Louise Curran and Gandalf © JA Photographics
Written by Louise Curran
As those of you who have been following these blogs will know, over the last year Gandalf and I have been having a lot of fun as we’ve moved from Small Tour into the rather daunting and star studded field of Big Tour dressage. We’ve moved ahead in leaps and bounds and it’s been a year of jumping off into the unknown. Each new level is a first for both of us and we’ve really stretched the boundaries of the comfort zone.
A couple of months ago we decided to take the pressure off a bit and to consolidate at Intermediate 2. Time for some breathing space and a chance to stop relentlessly pushing for the next achievement. The idea was that we’d actually be able to relax a bit.
I think I had visions of being always calm and elegant with every training session being relaxed and harmonious as we tweaked and improved, making what was already good even better. How hard can that be?
I have no idea why this delusion of dressage being a case of floating effortlessly around the arena persists in my mind when I know full well that to produce anything worthwhile is a whole lot of physical effort and usually entails an awful lot of sweating!
The reality is that while the pressure to move to the next level was off, the amount of effort in our training has doubled. I actually enjoy the training more than the competing which is just as well because the training has suddenly become very intense. I’ve had to become more focussed and much more exacting as we drill down to really understand the mechanics of each of the higher level movements and I work out how to ride them correctly.
In December last year we rode our last Inter 2 test at the Victorian State Dressage Championships. Next stop, Grand Prix! A perfectly logical and well timed progression until you consider that the performance at the State Championships was arguably the worst test I’ve ever ridden! And now I’m planning on a Grand Prix start? Am I mad?
Louise and her boys Gandalf and Fred
© Gone Riding Media
Well, possibly – but our disastrous performance was actually the best possible thing that could have happened at that point. It was the kick I needed to make the mental leap from “aren’t I lucky to be here and I can’t quite believe it” to “damn it, I’m going to make this happen and it’s going to be great!”
So, what went wrong in that test? Well, the easy answer to that is “everything”!
Gandalf can be difficult in the performance arena – he’s easily overwhelmed by the atmosphere and can become tense and very hard to connect with. In the early days of our partnership he could check out completely and disappear off to la la land so that even getting around a dressage test and actually completing all the movements was an achievement. These days, he pretty much stays with me – he can be tense but I can now trust him to be on the job.
At the State Championships, we entered a new phase. Gandalf was worried in the indoor arena and particularly concerned about the corner where people were coming and going through the spectator entrance. Nevertheless, he was handling it and all seemed fine until just before we entered the arena when he metaphorically flipped me the bird!
It was a very clear message of “Nope, I don’t want to” very quickly followed by “and you can’t make me”.
Wow, Gandalf, where did that come from?!
With Gandalf I’m used to “I don’t think I can, I’m really scared, I’m trying really hard”, and I simply wasn’t ready for “Nope!” coming out of the blue.
In the test it started with the first centre line. We consistently get 8s for our entry – this time we got 4s. It’s a simple canter down the centre line with a halt at X. It doesn’t need random flying changes added to create interest, thank you Gandalf!
Of course, in usual style, I instantly took responsibility. Did I inadvertently give a change aid? Was I unbalanced in the saddle and somehow caused it that way? I don’t think so, but maybe – who knows?
And that was the pattern of the test until we got to the passage / piaffe tour where it went rapidly downhill!
To execute these movements the horse needs to be genuinely in front of the leg and you need a whole lot of impulsion. A horse who is sending the “no, I’m not going to” message has about as much chance of doing a good job at this point as a chocolate teacup.
To say this part was ordinary would be an understatement and I’m not going to go through it – it’s not actually something I want to relive!! Suffice to say that if you’re familiar with the fabulous work of Brett Kidding (and if you’re not, have some fun and google him) you’ll have a good idea of our performance.
There was a point during the test where Gandalf had actually halted in the middle of what was supposed to be piaffe – and I was still piaffing – that I very clearly thought “at this moment in my life I am the female version of Brett Kidding”. Which turned out to be a very dangerous thought because I then got the giggles and the rest of the test was a forgone conclusion.
What a disaster! I probably should have been devastated but I can’t remember ever laughing so much at the end of (and during) a test.
The good thing about all this is that there is nowhere to go but up!
Since then, our training has entered a new phase. Gandalf seems to have found a new confidence and developed some real attitude. Although the State Championships wasn’t the ideal place for him to let me know this, it’s fantastic that he’s turned this next corner. We’re finding new gears and discovering even more talent and we now have the makings of a real dressage performance horse.
I’ve developed a new sense of purpose and determination – with a horse who is no longer fragile, it’s possible to ask for more and to demand excellence from myself and from Gandalf.
This is such a step by step journey. It’s easy to look back and think “maybe I should have been tougher earlier” or “maybe I’ve just been too soft and haven’t asked for enough” when I’m now riding a confident powerhouse of attitude and muscle. The reality is that before this, Gandalf was still too fragile and tentative – asking for too much would have put us back three paces rather than propelling us forward.
We work with what we’ve got. In the beginning, it was a horse who could barely leave the paddock, let alone go out and compete. Now, it’s a horse who has the talent and the ability to potentially perform at the highest levels.
Even if I had a crystal ball I wouldn’t have believed that we could have come so far, so quickly. I’m not even going to try to predict the next step but I do know that we’re going to have a crack at Grand Prix some time soon. As for the outcome – who knows! I’ll keep you posted.
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