Having recently begun competing again I feel I have been going up a rather steep ladder. I started with national small tour classes at the CDI Vilamoura in my home training country Portugal and went onto my first CDI in Valencia, Spain. Last weekend's CDI Madrid was up another level with full entries. I found the atmosphere to be even more chaotic, but of course more exciting.
This time we were more prepared, but the overall lesson was that to be at the top you need experience and your horse needs to see everything so that nothing comes as a surprise.
Batialo arrived again in top form, lay down for a nap and went out for the familiarisation ride full of energy but still listening to me. I made the difficult decision to geld my horse just 5 months ago and I still notice that the stallion days come in waves. He certainly had his stallion hat on in Madrid, as he was even foofing at imaginary things which he never does on his gelding days.
For our first CDI Prix St Georges test on the Friday he was so calm and cool in the warm-up that I sort of floated around trying to keep him in a good mood. I had relaxed my legs and taken them off and thought that he would stay in that mood for the test. I quickly realised my mistake, as my horse is super smart and I find that at each competition he gets that much more electric in the arena.
Riders often come out of bad tests and blame the horse, saying he was naughty, but was he? Was he naughty or was he more sensitive in that atmosphere and instead of adjusting and understanding what was happening, you as rider just assumed it was his lack of submission? Was he naughty or was he confused or unbalanced by the rider's aids?
Kyra Kyrkland was invited out to Madrid by Portuguese Olympian Daniel Pinto and happened to be watching my test. She stopped me afterwards and told me that she liked my horse, but that I needed him to accept my leg. Because I had taken my leg off in the warm-up, when Batialo got into electric mode in the test, every aid came like a giant bee sting and he reacted accordingly. I had abandoned him and then given him directions, instead of reassuring him and letting my aids come as a direction and not a surprise. Kyra said it’s not about clamping your legs on, it’s about just keeping your calf muscle lightly touching, keeping the horse within your rider’s realm and then from there taking the leg off and giving the aid, so that he doesn’t go, “oh god what’s that?”.
On the second day I kept this in mind and thought about always keeping my calf muscle lightly touching.
By Saturday Batialo was even more excited and as a horse with a enormous ego he truly thinks that this competition stuff is great fun. However, even in the warm-up I was having trouble and having trained alone for the last 6 months I know now that you just can’t do it alone. If you always train alone, you can be riding around thinking it feels great, relaxed and calm, and that is super, but at a competition your horse naturally produces much more power and the key to success in competition is learning how to generate that power by yourself, so you can learn how to ride it.
That does not mean you jump around like a looney stirring your horse up. You must learn in what ways the horse responds and produces that power. For Batialo if you get him really relaxed at home and then start asking the more difficult exercises, he naturally goes into power mode. I often just keep him in picnic mode cause it’s easier for me to ride, but that means that when I come to a competition he is generating the power that I have not yet learned how to control. Again, don’t try for power mode everyday, but your horse must understand that when you want that, you get it. You do the exercises with that power and then you relax. Having someone who can push you, who can tell you when you really have it helps a lot, even if it’s just once a week.
So I was warming-up when Portuguese Grand Prix rider Raquel Falcão walked by. I quickly asked her to give me a hand. She is a rider that I really admire and Raquel seemed genuinely happy to help. I was just so grateful, as it got me thinking and adjusting myself, to keep Batialo listening and in my realm. When Batialo would get distracted we would do travers and try to really get him with very good bend and steep hind quarters. Then the minute I had the right angle Raquel would tell me to go forward, let him flow and that way he was relaxing his back, but with the travers kept in under my control.
Raquel also gave me some super tips on the flying changes, particularly as when I’m more excited I do strange things with my left rein (we all have one hand that is a bit crazy). She told me to use the leg and rein on the left to ask the change to right, and the leg and rein on the right to ask the change to the left.
When I entered the arena for the Intermediaire I Batialo again became three times more electric. I realised that if I can learn to control and then let that power flow forward, I will be really going somewhere. Kyra also made the comment that I must keep the horse always thinking, so this time in the test, I did not allow Batialo to become distracted. I would achieve this by doing little unseen softenings on each rein, a little to the left, a little to the right, sometimes with the corresponding leg, so Batialo was always asking “what does she want, what does she want?” and not, “wow did you hear the glass that just broke in the bar, yeeha.”
It worked and I got him around the test, but it still was not how it will be. For me it was a huge success because even with Batialo in that mode I was able to keep him with me and I felt that if I can achieve that a few more times, I will be able to allow him to flow forward, to show the relaxation we are always searching for and to let his personality come through.
I love my horse, he makes me laugh everyday, but for 23 hours of the day he is pampered, fed, and lives like a king, so for one hour he must learn to respect me and put in the effort. I am completely sure now that I am only allowing Batialo to give me about 20% of what he actually has in the tank. It is now up to me to earn his respect and get my aids and balance exactly right to show his full potential.
If anyone will teach me the correct aids, it will be my horse, because in the test it is up to me to keep his attention, to keep him listening and waiting. If a put my left shoulder even slightly back it’s a flying change, and if I am not constantly making Batialo think on what I am doing, then he is certainly not going to ignore all the wonderfully exciting things happening all around him.