1. Plan, plan, plan
The first step is to work out when you need to get on your horse to warm up, based on your test times. If Vanessa is riding late in the day at a show, she will probably ride her horse twice, with some stretching work in the morning. If you’re staying overnight away from home, get your horse out of the yard as much as possible with plenty of hand-walking. “That’s really important with older horses because their joints aren’t as supple and also with hot horses, so they don’t bottle themselves up into a frenzy.”
It’s really important to have time up your sleeve when it comes to your warm-up, says Vanessa. It’s about not ‘over-baking’, which is a huge mistake, but peaking. “That is an art and you have to know your horse. I like to think of spending no more than 30 minutes in the warm-up arena, and with a horse like Arvan, who was older and not as robust as he used to be, it would be less.”
2. Prepare at home
Make sure you’ve done your homework and know your dressage tests well, so you can relax during your warm-up instead of frantically trying to remember which movement comes next. Learning them on the way to the show is not advised!
“Test rehearsal is one thing Carl (Hester) nailed me on,” says Vanessa. “Things come up much faster in a test than they do in training. Of course you can’t run through the test from A-Z repeatedly, but you have to do bits of it all the time. You can’t ignore it. A common complaint from the people I teach is that their horse starts to anticipate. My answer to that is that their horse is not on the aids. If the horse is doing something you haven’t required, it’s not listening to you.
“Another thing Carl was really pedantic on was practising centreline-halts. We did thousands of halts. Every halt has to be correct, forward and straight and obviously if it’s really bad, we go off and do it again. Don’t neglect your halts!”
3. Walk it out
A good free walk before you start work is everything, says Vanessa. She gives all of her horses, regardless of age or experience, a 15-minute walk on the buckle to start. She doesn’t go near the arena for this first phase of the warm-up, but goes for a good hack around the showgrounds. “I think it’s really important for the horse, physically and mentally.”
The free walk is just as important once you get into the warm-up arena and start proper work. Always give the horse lots of walk breaks, so the muscles don’t get sore.
4. Pick your movements
Vanessa always aims for a soft, forward warm-up, to get the horse round, supple and through. She often does leg-yields or lots of trot-canter transitions to start, riding the horse quite forward and free “because you’ve got to remember collection is a compression of energy.”
After about 10 minutes of loose, forward work, Vanessa moves on to a few minutes of making the horse reactive, basically checking the horse is responding, in the correct frame and engaging. Once the horse is adjustable, you can then move on to working on specific exercises, which is the final part of your work-in before you go into your test. Obviously you can’t cover everything, so pick what you need to do – for example, if you’ve got a halt and rein-back in your test, you might need to remind your horse of those. But don’t be tempted to thrash it out; if your horse performs an exercise well, move on.
5. Ride what you’ve got
The best laid plans might have to be altered, according to how the horse is feeling. This happens even to the top riders, including Vanessa, who had to completely ditch her own strategy with her horse KH Allandro at one Horse of the Year Show. With mounted games competitors popping balloons next to the warm-up arena, Allandro became so tight and tense Vanessa couldn’t consider riding flying changes for one second. “I had to change my plan and abort riding the test movements. I spent the whole time trying to get him to trust me and relax.” Incidentally, they won the test, and also the Level 6/7 championship!
6. Know your horse
The perfect warm-up plan has to be tailored to your horse: for example, Vanessa would always have a slightly longer warm-up for Allandro than for her seasoned campaigner KH Arvan. “Allandro was super-sensitive and hated noise, but he’s was very generous and hot. Arvan never had the super-energy of a real athlete; he was a bit like a sponge, I had to squeeze a lot! But on the other side of the coin Arvan was always reliable, whereas a horse like Allandro found things more distracting.”
7. Eventing dressage vs pure dressage
The main difference for eventers doing dressage is they are dealing with a much fitter horse, which can come with its own problems, especially in a big atmosphere. However, a hotter horse shouldn’t equal a much longer work-in, says Vanessa. With her eventing pupils she instead concentrates on keeping the riders confident and the horses supple, still in that 30-minute time frame. “As a general rule, I work on looseness with the thoroughbreds,” she says.
“When I first started helping the eventers, a lot of them made their horses more crazy because they kept going for so long. By the time they went in the arena, the muscles were so tight and sore they basically suffered from a soreness tension as much as any mental tension. Walk breaks on the buckle are so important.”
8. Get in the zone
Mental toughness is everything when it comes to competing and it’s not something Vanessa always had. “I used to be the one sitting in the truck freaking out because I thought I was going to be last and embarrassed again,” she says frankly. Vanessa then started working with sports psychologist David Galbraith, who she says has been life-changing.
“The top competitors are so in the zone and in their own moment, that they’re riding with total pureness, and nothing else matters,” says Vanessa.
“The biggest mistake most people make is trying too hard and mentally stuffing it by over-analysing everything. You’ve got to be brave and not care what people think – the only one who really cares is you!
“If you make a mistake in a test, forget it, it’s gone. You’ve got to be riding strong enough for a 10 and if you crap it up and get a two, big deal, good on you, keep riding for a 10.”
9. Ride plenty of transitions
No matter what grade you are riding, transitions are your best friend – both transitions from one gait to another, and transitions within the gait. “Transitions put the weight on the hind legs, and they get the horse bending the joints more. They also test the response to the aids and will come up all the way through your test,” explains Vanessa. “The more transitions you can do on the outside, the more you will get your horse with you.
“A lot of novice riders go wrong when they are working in a big space – you see them go for miles and miles without doing a single transition. I have to remind them they’re not interval training! That goes for the eventers, too; they often struggle to do the exercises more quickly. It’s all about being quick. Every stride the horse’s body should be part of us.”
10. Stick to your game plan
Don’t fall into the trap of looking around at everybody else in the warm-up and suddenly changing your ride. Stick to the plan you and your coach have devised.
“I see it all the time with amateur riders and it comes down to a lack of confidence. You see them change their trainer at a show too, and I’ve done that in the past myself. You think someone else has got an answer. Again, it all comes back to believing in yourself.”
11. Walk this way
Every test you ride will have several types of walk, up to four: free, medium, collected, extended. Because of that, it pays to train your different types of walk often at home.
“Some people think they will ruin the walk, but that’s rubbish, because you’ve got to do it in the test. You’ve got to be able to alter your walk. I think a lot of riders don’t practise it enough and then they get into the test and the horse jogs when they go to pick it up. If we have horses that jog in the test, we do a lot at home. If they jog, the correction is a halt. But we collect the horse progressively from the free walk. I think most people shorten the reins too quickly and choke the horse. The front legs stop and the hind legs have nowhere to go so they bounce up, and that’s what starts the jog. We try to balance the horse back on the hind legs with our seat, and slowly climb up the reins.”
12. The final moments
“Don’t just trot around the outside of the arena – ride forwards and back. Keep those transitions coming while you’re waiting for the bell.”
And remember: when you’re riding a test you’ve got to make it look easy. “That’s an art and I haven’t reached it yet – I’m still trying!”
Best tips for a lazy horse:
“Basically you can’t keep using your leg. I find most people nag too much. You’ve got to use no leg in the walk. If you touch with the leg and don’t get a response, you’ve got to let the reins go and gallop. Keep it short and sharp with a lazy horse. Don’t drone on. You’re far better to do a minute or two, test your reaction, then stop, rather than keep going.”
Best tips for a hot horse:
With tense horses Vanessa tends to do a lot more canter work. Plenty of trot-canter transitions are the bomb, and canter leg-yield is fantastic too, because it helps the rider start to put their leg on the horse. “When your horse gets tense or tight, the worst thing you can do is take your leg off. You need to put the leg against the horse so it accepts it and knows you’re there.”
- This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of NZ Horse & Pony