Valegro, you got under my skin
After having read several write-ups in the German newspapers on Charlotte and Valegro's 'grand finale' and Isabell Werth's silver at the Olympics it is obvious that the German equestrian world wholeheartedly embraced 'das Wunderpferd' ( the miracle horse) Valegro as the champion. Apparently Isabell Werth said that even without her mistake she would still not have been able to touch Charlotte and Valegro's performance.
So here we are, Dutch bred Valegro (I have to say that, you do understand!) and Charlotte Dujardin proved that they are worthy Olympic champions by repeating their performance of four years ago. I don't know how she coped with the serious amount of extra pressure after the continental hype that in 2012 it was not such a difficult freestyle composition compared to others and had she therefore really deserved it.
This week I read an opinion on website Horses.nl from Dutch equine journalist Dirk Willem Rosie who decided to hammer the fact that Valegro may now be seen as the best dressage horse, ever. He writes it has nothing to do with sport to keep a super athlete such as Valegro out of the competition routine for a longer spell of time. To put it in context, in his article he wanted to criticize the way judges influence the general public by creating an image which is kept in place by high marks which are basically preconceived before the performance and used Valegro as an example. Quote: 'In order to not win, Blueberry had to make a proper mess of it.' He also questioned Valegro's early retirement.
Valegro apparently is not the perfect conformation. I don't know enough to even go there. Neither am I sufficiently experienced to compare the best with the best in order to dare to make a decision who is actually the very best. However being a professional I tend to keep my eye in when watching these athletes perform their tests, always wanting to be able to spot the tiniest imperfections. Only because it's a good exercise.
But with Charlotte and Valegro it's different. They touch something in me, they make me emotional. I think because of the ease and uncomplicated way, the enthusiasm with which they attack the most difficult moves. His face says it all. He is happy out there. And when Valegro has left the arena I cannot forget about him, he gets under my skin. His sweet and charmingly innocent face and proud front legs stay with me. Only Reiner Klimke's Ahlerich and Totilas with Edward Gal were ever able to leave such an impression, and that over a period of some forty years!
I strongly believe that every rider has the right to work and manage their horse the way they think suits its physique and personality in order to add to its well-being and peak at the right time. If that means competing less for a while then Valegro and Charlotte's performance proved that it was the right decision. And if, after having won all major titles, some several times and the freestyle at the Olympics twice, they feel that Valegro can retire from top competition then I can only say: Valegro, we shall miss you something fierce but good on you! You've done it all.
Even if one felt to have the right to question Valegro's superiority, there is one thing for certain. Carl Hester, Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro are the very best ambassadors the dressage sport could possibly wish for. Turning top horses out in the field well before that was common practice and fashionable. Breaking through the fear of losing a very special bond by securing permanent ownership in a world run by sponsorship; having nearly a year's break from competition and daring to go straight into the Olympics; most riders would look at that as a major disadvantage! And if that's not enough they have made top level dressage look more free and fun than anyone else I've ever seen.
Finally, referring back to what is sport and what is not: what great sportsmanship from the country which won team gold to not only accept but also embrace Valegro as 'das Wunderpferd'!
Picture: Lucy Lloyd having a relaxed moment with Charlotte at the Ballan dressage regionals only a few weeks before the Olympics.
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Competition riding and keeping your world small
For as long as I competed, it was never difficult to perform consistently and in line with my level of training. The longer I have been teaching, the longer I realize what an incredible gift this was. Yes, I would be nervous, but it was always possible to turn this into an advantage, rather than the whole thing forcing me to go to pieces. The only time I ever I didn't get it together was, when driving over to the competition venue, I said to my friend groom, 'I'm not nervous at all, wonder what that will do.' Well, I found out, two mediocre tests! So back to a bunch of healthy nerves.
Over the years I have occasionally come across riders who ride super during their lessons but at shows it all goes basically to pot. This can easily become a rut, the rider becoming more nervous with every next outing with the horse becoming increasingly unsettled and upset as a response.
What do you do as a trainer? This can not be solved during lessons as that is when rider and horse obviously feel within their comfort zone even when stretched to a higher level. The advice to go to clinics with different trainers, with several horses in a group and possibly some people watching from the side at establishments where the shows are being organized is a start. This does add another kind of pressure, but still, it's pressure and that is what an insecure rider has to learn to deal with. At the same time the horse gets to see the premises more often and can be taught without the competition stress that this place is not as scary as it thought it was.
Also, the effort a trainer can make to join the rider at competitions occasionally helps. In particular when it turns out that this rider has a problem giving the horse clear aids which the horse is able to rely on in order to feel safe during the warm-up when there are more horses in the arena.
A typical example happened not too long ago when I joined a pupil for her very first affiliated show at Novice level. In the warm-up her horse did a not at all pleasant one-eighty on its hind legs which resulted into some negative comments from the side, such as 'oh, oh,naughty horse' and more. I pulled the rider up to explain how to avoid this behaviour which was only caused by fear for a collision from the horse's point of view. In this case the horse is less flexible around the right leg. When confronted with an approaching horse when on the right rein, having to pass left to left, the rider had to make an extra effort to flex the horse's neck into a shoulder-fore to the right in order to give the horse the secure feeling that it was not on collision course. Problem solved and a potentially disastrous day turned into a second place with 70 %!
Another time I watched a new-ish pupil warming up in just about half the tempo they normally worked in at home. This had been a pattern and one could literally see the horse gradually turning into a bag of nerves with the result a test with several shies resulting into rider and horse leaving the arena very unhappy.
These patterns are not easy to break because, how can the rider become more confident if the horse does not yet know that from now on the pattern has changed and despite the rider doing a better job still feels threatened in competition environments with old ghosts lurking in corners?
It takes time and patience to overcome this lack of confidence but it is certainly possible. The key to this is for the rider to learn and understand how to during the test make their world 'small' as far as what they are doing together. You can make your world small by training yourself not to worry about what 'others' think or say and to think 100% 'inside the arena'; literally, physically and emotionally. You make yourself just as private is if you were in your own arena not worrying about the pussy-cat of the neighbours sitting in the bushes. For a shying horse this means riding it into a productive shoulder-fore during the test. Productive meaning that it has result. If that means the judge comments on it, so be it. Rather a comment on the horse's neck and head being slightly in than losing lots of marks for shying. The horse is now not physically confronted with what's going on outside and starts thinking inside, which is where it is meant to happen. Eventually the horse will grow more confident through this technique and the shying will stop also when starting to ride straighter, promise!
Not to dwell on what has gone wrong during the test but thinking forward at all times. This is equally as important and gives the horse a proper chance. It takes practice to consistently prepare the horse for what's to come when it is not a natural gift and the only way to practice is to learn to do it...at competitions.
However, I do want to point a finger. This involves fellow competitors and others watching. Every one competing probably loves their horse and has worked incredibly hard to get there. They have only one goal, which is to show their beloved animal in the best possible way and there is not a better feeling than when someone tells you you've got a lovely horse. Equally there is no worse feeling than when there is a bit of 'oh, oh, naughty horse' going on. It really hurts and is not necessary. Let's be good sports and think twice before we comment. It will really help those suffering from insecurity to up their game.
Finally, being a bit of a 'hippie', I quite like the the thought of a mantra, a simple repeated sentence which expresses what you aspire and want to achieve. This you do regularly and gradually it becomes part of you and you start to believe it. Honestly, for me it worked!
Top Picture: Jen Unwin on her lovely Flora. Jen is a typical example of how to 'rise to the occasion' and able to use her nerves to her advantage.
Bottom: Rachel Wood who had a difficult start with her home bred Jazz but changed it around showing great determination and is now regularly placed at Novice level with consistent scores between 65 and 70%.
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About Liz Barclay
Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.
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