It’s been quite a while I thought yesterday morning when the alarm rang a few hours too early on a bank holiday…
Too many cups of coffee later and in the car on my way to my student’s barn I realised, it had been 10 years!
10 years since I last sat foot on tournament grounds (not counting attendance as a mere spectator).
I must admit, accompanying my student to her first tournament made me quite a bit giddy, despite the early hour.
Her mare, Butterfly, had had her mane plated and tucked up and she was being groomed to a shine, her blows visible in the crisp morning air as she felt her owner’s anticipation.
There’s something festive about tournaments: the uniformed riders in white breeches and dark jackets, shiny boots and slightly nervous smiles as they’re making their first rounds on the grounds, horses whinnying from their trailers and coaches and mums running about making sure their competitors have all their equipment and are on time for their tests.
I had spent a big part of my life in this setting, during the season we’d compete every weekend at some venue or another, so I was in quite a nostalgic mood.
The memory train came to an abrupt halt the minute I walked into the warm-up arena, and my dreamy smile was wiped away. There it was, the thing I missed least about my time as a competition rider:
Humans putting their desires to win, to look good, to be admired above their horses welfare. What I saw in this warm-up pen was young girls and grown women shouting insults at their horses, whipping noisily, spurring every step, and brutalising their mouths.
I pictured the scene in my mind with horses that could scream, it was very loud indeed!
See, this was one of these tournaments where competitive rider careers begin, an entry-level test only event. In this pen there where probably quite a few first-timers, not unlike my own student. The very first time they ride “for something” – and it’s already there, the ambition that often kills all cooperation and harmony between horse and human.
One lady stuck out to me immediately, she was riding a young, seemingly hot Haflinger gelding.
Let me rephrase – she wasn’t riding, she was straight-forward brutalising that poor horse.
Her hands would move 20 centimetres easily, pulling at an already completely rolled-up neck, while – as “good” Rollkur requires – leaning back heavily, pushing on his loins while spiking him with her spurs. For good measure he would get to feel her long whip every other stride or so.
And boy, did he still try to defend himself! Tail swishing, half-bucks, kicking. Whenever he did get his neck free, he’d toss it from side to side with wide, terrified eyes.
Surely in a few years, he’ll shut down and just give up and let her wreck his body.
Looking around in horror, trying to find a face with the same disgusted expression as mine at this sight, I realised just why it’s so hard to end this particular animal cruelty. There wasn’t any!
No, the worst part of this was that people would look on in admiration, commenting on how well he’s going and if she wouldn’t take part outside the competition today, she’d surely win. I don’t know the particular judge that day, but sadly, they might have been right. From entry level to FEI tests, this kind of “riding” gets rewarded repeatedly.
If those people obviously couldn’t see this horse screaming, couldn’t they at least see that he wasn’t “going well” at all? He was tight, his leg movements forced and jagged, his back didn’t swing at all, he carried all of his weight on his forehand, the list goes on and on… hadn’t they at least heard about the sacred rule of dressage never to ride a horse with its nose behind the vertical? Did they need a ruler to see?
Sure, we’re still working on stepping under and gaining contact, but the left horse is happy and trusts her owner. What would the right one say about his?
Looking around the arena again, seeing very few pairs in harmony or at least attempting to achieve harmony together – again, an entry-level test niveau, I’m not expecting to see perfect transitions, flying changes and beautiful travers – I saw mostly young girls using their voices and whips harshly, kicking their disconnected, tied-down horses forward and pulling at reins, I realised that this lady and her poor Haflinger are local stars because she has developed enough seat, routine and biceps power to force a horse into frame.
Her riding had gone completely off track somewhere close to where these girls where with theirs today. And once the side-reigns come off their horses, I can only pray that they accept their fate and go the hard way of actually learning how to ride. Accept the fact, that they won’t look great yet, that dressage is a long way to go and that they decide to go on this journey together with their horses, not against them.
What I wish these girls (and maybe also that lady) the most, is role models that show them what beautiful dressage looks like and what a relaxed, strong and happy horse feels like.
I hope on their way, they find real partnership with their horses and have lots of fun improving their seats, trying to get the contact right or learning more demanding movements together.
Because after having been there, shouting at my disobedient pony back in the day, and ten years as a competition rider – with the luck of having had fantastic role models and incredible partners under saddle, I have only fully realised what it means to ride “together” with your horse in the years after, when my riding life got quieter, muddier and more focused, far away from white breeches.
Now my partner is 25, still quite fit but not immortal – I sometimes wish I would have gotten there earlier.
This is why it makes me all the happier to see how my protegee student and her mare mastered the three tests at their first tournament together. Despite of nerves, they showed a very harmonious, if not perfect, dressage test in the morning.
They would have won the following style jumping competition with the highest mark, if it hadn’t been for one little misunderstanding, and ended up winning the last time jumping test together.
No whipping, no spurring, no side reigns – just trying. Together.
I walked off the tournament grounds a bit taller than I had walked in, very proud of the two for showing what all riding, be it competing or not, is about: riding together to the best of your abilities!