“It’s a bit like synchronised swimming with more clothes, less water and horses.”

It seems like both a lifetime and just five minutes ago that we were trapped in our homes unable to go out due to all that snow. On the one hand, I’ve never had so many early finishes and late starts at work, but on the other, our horses were given an enforced break and there was very little we could do to exercise them. As February drew near, we started looking at the possibility of training up for the Rural Riders dressage test. I appreciate that this won’t mean anything to about 95% of you, but I shall endeavour to explain it. As I told a friend of mine, it’s a little like synchronised swimming. But with more clothes and less water. Oh yeah, and horses. So perhaps nothing like synchronised swimming afterall. If you imagine that a normal dressage test is a little like a gymnast’s floor routine or a dance routine; you are given a set number of moves for you to complete atop your horse and as well as the marks you receive for the individual movements, you are marked for riding, suppleness, submission, paces and a number of other attributes. Rural riders dressage is exactly the same, but with 6 horse and rider combinations performing it at the same time in the same arena. Piece of cake?

Well, initially it seemed like a great way to get our horses out and exercised without having to worry too much about how they behaved as teamwork was the key. We were also very keen as we know that very few teams take part in this competition, so we were bound to come home with a rosette; afterall, if you can’t win fairly, you have to boost your chances at success. Our early attempts were hilarious as we attempted to ride 6 excited horses next to each other with no more than 6 inches between us. It doesn’t sound difficult, but we spent more  time giggling and all cantering in opposite directions than we did trotting together.

When we began, I took up the last spot in the group and it was quite an experience as tail end Charlie. As the ride were trotting down the long sides, you had to go like the proverbial wind to keep up and then everyone would bunch up in the corners, so you would have to subtly have to apply the handbrake and go at the pace of a drugged snail so the judge would not notice the anticipated crash. However, at the back there was no real worry about having to know where I was going or concentrate on riding the test accurately as we just followed the horse in front.

Unfortunately, I was soon moved from the back to the lead horse. This had its pros and cons; Bea discovered very quickly that if she was naughty or spooked, the repercussions were huge! Six horses all jumping and bucking at once, one laughing and the other five having no idea what was going on was highly entertaining, if perhaps less appropriate for the actual test. Another terrifying part of this role was being the leader; this meant that I had to not only learn the test, but ride it accurately. If I went wrong, there wasn’t a hope in hell for anyone following. I had the definite advantage of not worrying about spacing between the horses, but this was offset by acting as the pacemaker for the group. If I went too slowly, or (more likely) too fast, everyone suffered. It’s this sort of stuff that keeps me awake at night…

Our cynical search for success was amplified as BRC decided that we should go straight to the Championships as we were the only team wanting to take part from our area. Forget long and complex qualifying competitions, this is the competition to do! As the reality of what we were throwing ourselves in to began to dawn on us, we asked to have a practice run at the qualifying competition afterall this was a higher standard of dressage than any of us were used to and we had to do it as a team.

Our team changed fairly frequently in the run up to the qualifier, but none of our horses matched one another that well; we had two black horses, a piebald, a skewbald and a chestnut. The more observent of you will have noticed that we did only have five horses and this was something of an issue. We searched high and low for that elusive sixth horse. In the meantime, we had a variety of horses coming and joining us whilst we practiced.

Upon arrival of the competition, we busied ourselves with the important things in life; making sure we were all dressed the same. Perhaps we should have spent more time warming up and less time tying our stocks identically, but in this, appearance is everything. After rereading the test several times and dressing in the identical clothing, we were ready. We found our horses and a spare (Jess borrowed Orange) and it was time to warm up. Whenever we have practiced before, we have been in an arena and it hadn’t really occurred to us how difficult it would be without a marked out space to practice in. For a start, my spacial awareness is terrible; I couldn’t imagine a 20m x 60m area if it jumped up and smacked me in the face. So practicing our half ten metre circles and inclines in medium trot were absolutely impossible with me leading the gang. The harder I tried, the more mishapen and wonky my lines got.

I haven’t mentioned until now that the test itself is 14 minutes long and we were required to do all 14 minutes in sitting trot. Few of us compete at dressage to a high level, so sitting trot is somewhat alien to us and we had decided not to practice it too much until the day so as not to strain our horses backs. (Or that’s what we said anyway.) So with our bladders as empty as they could possibly be and our stomach muscles warned, we attempted that sacred sitting trot. It’s all very well to be able to do some sitting trot when schooling, but my muscles all seem to work against each other, becoming tenser and tenser as I attempt to breathe and look relaxed.

Finally it was time for the test. By this time, most of the people at the competition had gathered to watch our spectacle, (mostly because we looked so bizarre I think.) The two(!) dressage judges arrived and off we went trotting around the arena. We started off slowly (my muscles wouldn’t allow too much speed until they warmed up a little) and soon we were going down the centre line. There was no point being stressed or worrying about how it was going because I only knew what was happening to my horse. There were some exciting moments; most of us cantered across the first medium trot and down one long side we had a clash with the dressage markers, which each horse took great joy in kicking and jumping on. But on the whole, it was ok. I know I have areas to improve on (going backwards in the reinback for a start!) but there were some promising bits and we’ve had so much fun along the way. Lincoln, here we come!

If you fancy a gander at our attempts, they are all on my youtube account, right from the very first training right through to the qualifier. The qualifier can be seen here –> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2U58yGiQOgg