My 24 days (so far) of forced rest (who’s counting?) has given me ample opportunity to watch our sport from the sidelines. While it is not recommended for one’s mental health as the frustration levels from not being out amongst it all run high, it has certainly allowed me to not just learn from and appreciate the training and riding of my colleagues and competitors but also to watch and listen to what goes on amongst the spectators. And what I’ve learned has been interesting.
Recently, I was watching the live stream from Doha 5* CDI which was a real treat. This event is firmly on my bucket-list to compete at – fantastic facilities, brilliant atmosphere, sun and warmth at the end of a long grey winter and a vibrant culture to embrace – what’s not to love? As I battled with my inner green-eyed monster seeing so many friends, acquaintances and more than one idol both ride and work at this show, I had the great pleasure of watching Carl Hester ride Nip Tuck in the Grand Prix.
Now, Barney (Nip Tuck) is notoriously spooky and having stood next to him I can vouch for the fact that he is truly a massive animal and consequently is more difficult to collect than a more compact model. Watching Carl ride this monumental ball of fizz was a masterclass in skill and tact. Not only did he keep him contained and focused, but he continually asked for all that his horse had to offer. His discreet aids keeping Barney on track when he saw 'dead people' in the flowers at A were sublime and how he managed to produce that second piaffe was a sight to behold; with a lesser rider I’m sure the horse would have done handstands.
I was totally blown away and thrilled to see them deservedly win the class. However, while doing so, I wondered just what a less trained eye would see? Would they appreciate just what an exceptional ride they had just witnessed? Sure, they may have noticed a head bobble on the short side or a slight change in rhythm in the piaffe, but would they have understood what caused it and just what it took to minimize the effects of this momentary straying of focus on the movement, or indeed, the whole test?
Which brings me to the point of this article – what right do people who haven’t competed at a level have to make judgments about a person's riding or training and what can we do as competitors – the ones going down the centerline on any given weekend – to minimize the negative influences of those that are vocal about what we are or are not achieving?
I recently watched a friend compete in the Grand Prix at one of her first shows at CDI level. Her horse is lovely and she has trained him through herself with patience and tact. Like all horses he has his issues and his more difficult movements, but she has quietly persisted and has been scoring exceptionally well at local shows with scores to the low 70% range. They were clearly ready to make the step-up. Unfortunately, in her area there is an individual who has taken it upon herself to video warm-ups and tests of people that she doesn’t like (my friend being one of them) and post snippets of the less attractive moments to the internet for the express purpose of discrediting those riders.
Among her targets has been more than one professional international competitor who has had their career and reputation hugely impacted in a negative way by having a rare off-day, less than stellar ride ripped apart online. Unfortunately, my friend saw this person on the sidelines and felt that, rightly or wrongly, her riding might be interpreted as less than ideal and became mentally distracted by the sight of them hovering with video camera in hand, which possibly influenced her ride and definitely influenced her enjoyment of the competition experience. Not only was she faced with the internal pressure and expectation of performing in an environment that was beyond anything she’d previously been exposed to, she also had the concern that ‘others’ might think that she was doing a bad job.
This raises two points for us to consider. Firstly, what right do those people with no experience riding or preparing horses for this level of work, have to judge what goes on and, secondly, what can we do as riders to protect ourselves from this outside influence? Before I go on, I need to make quite clear that I am not talking about any kind of cruelty to horses. Personally, I am all for transparency in our sport, in having open schooling sessions and warm-up arenas. What concerns me is the misrepresentation of sections of that warm-up or test taken out of context and critiqued by people who have absolutely no idea what an individual combination requires to get the best out of their 6 minutes in the arena.
For some, their horses need to be ridden slowly, more collected than will ever be required in a test, in a frame that might be deeper or lower than ideal. For others many quick transitions are required to make sure a horse is reactive and forward, for some a simple canter and a stretch will suffice and for others they may need to ride through a test’s movements to increase the anticipation of their mount. The truth is, you don’t know what they’re trying to achieve and every time you comment on an unsolicited video online you are making a judgment that has the potential to do incredible damage to a strangers' self-belief. Remember these individuals are only presenting themselves in the competition arena because they believe they have the ability to do the job. They may be there with a specific purpose in mind – whether it be to keep their horse in front of their leg for the entire test, ride through it without an explosion, or to come away with a win or qualification. You simply do not know. Consider that before you post.
As for us as riders, we need to be able to shield ourselves from what other people are thinking and saying. We know why we are at a show and we need to be aware that success comes in many forms. Whether it be a ‘clear round’, simply more mileage, or to have a horse that actually passages right to the final halt - keep that goal at the forefront of your mind and judge yourself solely on that. You cannot control what others will do, you can’t control what unexpected distractions might arise, you can’t control how well your competitors are going to ride and you can’t control whether the judges decided to take their happy pill in the morning. All you can do is your best by you and your horse in any given moment and if you do that and come away having learned something, take it as a win. Don’t let anyone stop you from getting out there – my students will often hear me say that the only way you can learn to compete is to compete and I stand by that.
I’ll leave you with some advice I gave to another friend who was also making a step-up in level recently and who mentioned to me that they felt ‘not quite ready’ for one particular movement. I said to her "Get on and smile. And don’t tell anyone about your concerns. You never know, it might come off and if it doesn’t, just smile and shrug and say, it’s just not our day’’. We only get better by challenging ourselves and, as always, dead last beats DNF (did not finish) which always trumps DNS (did not start)!
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