The most interesting spectator position at a dressage show isn’t necessarily the competition ring. Both competitors and trainers know that a class can be lost or won in the schooling area, and that what happens in the test is sometimes just a reflection of the events there.
The “test” really starts when you arrive in the schooling area. For each horse I’ve brought up the levels, the preparation for competition has been a little different, and it can take several shows on a new horse to figure out what formula works for him.
In general, I have a tendency to favor long and slow warm-ups. It’s because I’m trying to beat Murphy’s Law. Stirrup leathers break, hairnets crawl off your hair, safety pins snap in half, numbers pop off the bridle, and if all else fails, spurs crack and fall to the ground. Some of these things may happen at home, but they’re a hundred times more likely to happen within half an hour of your test. A few extra minutes to set things straight can be a good thing.
I also like to take time to walk the horse for a while to get him comfortable with the surroundings, “oil up” his joints, and loosen his muscles. Often we travel long distances to the shows, and the footing isn’t likely to be identical to the homestead’s, so some time to get used to the way it feels and get rid of the stiffness from travel helps both of us. It also gives me an idea of the “traffic pattern” in the schooling ring.
Once you’re ready to change gears, it helps to know if your horse warms up better at the canter or at the trot. I often start at the canter, especially with horses who tend to tighten their backs in the beginning. After a few minutes of canter in a round and fairly low frame, I’ll go to trot and canter transitions to check on my horse’s throughness and focusing ability.
If all systems are “go,” I start working on achieving the engagement and frame appropriate to the horse’s level. Finally, I work through the movements I need to check.
I like to have the time available for all this, plus a few minutes to take a breather before stripping bandages, crawling into the jacket, and putting on the final touches. All this takes approximately 45 minutes from soup to nuts.
This time period works for most of my horses, but surely not all. The chili pepper-hot horse may need upwards of an hour to settle into the “show mood,” while the laid-back variety can easily run out of steam in 20 minutes and leave all his energy in the schooling area.
Some horses do better with an early dawn warm-up and a short reminder of a few minutes before the test; others need to be worked thoroughly. Once you know your horse and can “customize” his warm-up, you’ll have a good handle on things, unless life intervenes.
Changing weather can easily throw in a monkey wrench. Many years ago, when I rode in a Pan Am Games qualifier in North Carolina, the weather was unusually hot for the spring. I was on a horse named Kristall, and his warm-up routine was to have a single session right before the test. Because it was so hot, I decided to ride early in the morning and then do one more short warm-up.
It was a disaster. There wasn’t an ounce of gas left in Kristall’s tank. Riding down the centerline into the indoor arena, where the temperature was about 100 degrees, I could feel him get farther and farther behind my leg. We dragged ourselves through a seemingly endless row of exercises, while I cursed my lack of judgment. Mentally, this horse was done when his morning ride was over, and I was a fool to have split his sessions at such a critical time.
The opposite happened in Dusseldorf (Germany) some years later. It was an icy winter day, the warm-up was in a tent, and my stallion, Leonardo II, was first to go. A horse was being longed in the very limited schooling ring until 10 minutes before the start of the Grand Prix. It was “get on and go,” and we had less than five minutes to warm up a horse who needed considerably more. In spite of his desire to explode, the generous “Leo” kept the lid on and “winged” the whole thing with me, ending up with a decent test.
At international shows and selection trials, knowledgeable spectators gravitate to the schooling area to try to predict the quality of the test to be, to learn, to admire and to criticize. It’s often more informative than watching the test.
On many occasions, I’ve followed the schooling sessions when Anky van Grunsven and Isabell Werth have schooled their horses rolled up behind the vertical, only to put them up in a proper show frame a few minutes before the bell tolled.
In Europe, there have been recurring complaints over the last 10 years about some of the techniques applied in the warm-up area. Some are considered less than kind, particularly riding for long periods with the horse’s chin on his chest and exceedingly long sessions of piaffe and passage.
Klaus Balkenhol spoke to me about it not long ago. He suggested placing a judge in the schooling area to watch the last 30 minutes of each horse’s warm-up. The judge would then give a score, to be factored into the final performance score.
Although I believe this is more an overseas than an American problem, since we have technical delegates who are pro-active and see to it that schooling issues are usually resolved fairly quickly, it’s certainly an interesting concept.
The perfect warm-up is a rare animal, and, curiously enough, it doesn’t always lead to the perfect test. Many times we can have had “that winning feeling” while donning the hat and coat on because the horse feels so “on.” And then, as you depart from X, he turns into some animal you’ve never known. And in the end the only thing you won was the warm-up!
So, the moral of this story is: Try to deliver a customized warm-up for each horse. But if the warm-up turns out to be less than wonderful, remember the old saying “bad rehearsal, good show.” When everything goes wrong in the schooling ring, pray for a miracle, go for it, and let your horse surprise you.