“Well you can buy a good and well trained horse but, as you know Sandy, you’ve got to be able to ride it.” Carl Hester said this a decade ago when commentating with Sandy Phillips during the Grand Prix dressage at London’s Olympia horse show.
You’ve got to be able to ride it. That’s the tricky part.
Dressage horses take several years to train. They are not ready for the advanced levels until they are at least 8 or 9 years old. My horse Biasini was 9 when I bought him. Canadian Olympian Belinda Trussell had trained him from a four year old youngster. He could not have had a better start. He had competed with Belinda at the Prix St. George level.
With my horse Tommie we had come up the levels together starting with first level and in the last year I had him, before he became ill, we competed in Wellington Florida in the Prix St. George. So….I should know how to ride a Prix St. George horse right? Not necessarily.
I was lucky that Belinda took me on as a student as she knew all about Biasini. For the first couple of weeks it went fairly well. But, and it is a BIG but, I had trouble with the flying change of lead. In the Prix St. George test there are two diagonals across the arena that require tempi changes (changes of canter lead every fourth stride and then every third stride). Heck, never mind tempis, I was struggling to get a single change. I would ride across the diagonal, give the aids for the flying change, and sometimes I would get one and most of the time I would not. I felt like an idiot.
Was I one of those people who had bought a really good and well trained horse but could not ride well enough to ride it? Oh dear. This was the moment when I knew I would have to step down from any pedestals I had put myself on and swallow a dose of radical authenticity. Be honest with myself. Ask for help. I asked Belinda to explain to me in detail what aids she gives for the change. She described exactly what she did with her hands and legs to ask for the change. It was the exact opposite of what I was doing. No wonder Biasini did not know what he was being asked to do. Muscle memory is not so easy to change so I went home and for several days I sat on a kitchen chair and closed my eyes and rode the changes with the different aids. Then I tried it on Biasini. It worked!
That was one hurdle down.
My next problem was that as soon as we turned onto the diagonal to cross the ring Biasini would take over. Not bolting or running away just tuning me out, getting the bit between his teeth and not listening to a thing I had to say. We tried a lot of things to get him back to me. I would halt, rein back, ride a small circle and all of those things would work. Until the next time! Then we would be back to square one. Oh dear! Was I just a feeble rider? Too feeble to ride a horse as good as this?
I was still struggling with my ‘overdrive’ Biasini when I went to Florida for the winter season. In Florida I train with Luis Reteguiz Denizard (Lou to his friends) who has considerable experience riding and competing at the advanced level. It was decided that I should not show Prix St. George and I was relieved about that. I knew I’d never get through the test! We started by taking him to the Global Dressage Festival and just schooling.
Then we chose Fourth Level test 1 for a show at White Fences. This test has three changes going across the diagonal but you do not have to execute them on a particular stride.
As the winter progressed I began to find the answer to the diagonals. It lay in the corner. If I did not have Biasini exactly where I needed him to be, shoulder up and light in the contact with the bit and reacting to my leg aids I would be in trouble. Just ride the corners properly! Sounds easy doesn’t it?
On weekends I would work on Tellington exercises to help Biasini get over his nervousness and to learn that he could trust me.By the end of the four month season in Florida and a good deal of effort and energy from Lou things began to come together.
When Biasini and I returned home we continued on with Belinda and that summer we competed the Prix St. George at a local schooling show.
I have often heard that it takes a year for a horse and rider to form their partnership. It had taken a year for me to be able to communicate with this talented and well trained horse. Of course this process never ends. I still have days when I think I’m an idiot or I’m too old or too feeble but at least now I know that this is just what I’m thinking on that day. I will recover. I will ride better. Biasini will not give up on me.