Donna Richardson remembers the moment when one glaringly obvious pony kick saved her Grand Prix test. The San Diego based trainer was competing at the 1999 Pan American Games on her Dutch Warmblood, Jazzman. Under the relentless summer heat the horse began to fade, and Richardson knew she needed to do something as he lost momentum during what was arguably the most crucial test of their lives.
"He was tired, and it was a very hot and humid day. I could see him start to falter in the pirouette and if you lose the canter then you get a four. And I really, really wanted to get a good score so that I could go on and ride the freestyle - by then we had already secured the gold medal for the team so it was pretty much just going for individual placing at that point. I realized that my horse needed more gas so I gave him a little squeeze and that didn't do anything, so I took my legs off and give him a big old cowboy kick! He even grunted. But that was enough to get him to pick his legs up for two more strides to get out of the pirouette - that's all I asked."
Richardson's score hinged on one split second decision. Luckily, the gamble paid off and that cowboy kick helped secure the score she needed. By daring to risk one "unharmonious" moment the remainder of her test was salvaged. Not surprisingly, Richardson who has experience as both an international competitor and a "S" judge, believes a major correction or aid made mid-test is well worth it, so long as it's appropriate.
"It depends on whether the correction is a fair correction or whether it's abuse. If the horse takes off because he's spooking at something and the rider sits down and uses her core and get the horse to stop and then goes on, then of course as a judge you are going to take points off for the movement but you probably won't take it off in the rider score. However, if that same rider gets run away with, sticks her hands in the air, leans back, and sticks her feet out in front of her while sawing the heck out of the horse's mouth then, yes, you're going to lose points on the movement as well as the rider score! It's about appropriate correction."
Knowing when to make a correction though, and then having the guts to do it under the scrutiny of a judge can be easier said than done. Richardson says the tendency to freeze up is not at all uncommon in the dressage ring.
"It happens a lot when riders go off course. They get this deer in the headlights look instead of regrouping and just going over to the judge and asking where they should restart, and then going on as if that little mistake hadn't happened. A lot of people when they go off course get really freaked out and start to rush. Then one mistake gets compounded. People make a mistake and they let that ruin the rest of the test. In dressage you have to be totally in the moment. What's happening is happening and you're paying attention to it. It really makes you zen."
Unfortunately, "zen" isn't something you can just slip into like a pair of yoga pants. According to Richardson the gift of "being in the moment" is one that is honed over time.
"Everybody can get better at it. The more times you go down the centerline and the more focused you are in the moment I think the more that you can make quick corrections."
However, Richarson is a firm believer that to improve one's showing ability, not all practice needs to be done in the saddle.
"I think mental preparation is exceedingly important. Before I ride a test I think I've probably ridden that test 20 or 30 times in my mind that day. There's a couple of ways to do it. One is that you can just visualize the perfect ride, which is probably the most positive way to do it. If you think your horse might spook at the judge's box, stop, rewind to the halt - see your horse coming confidently through the corner, not being shy. The other way to do it is to go, 'Ok, maybe he's going to spook - what am I going to do?" Practice bending him away, maybe turning a little bit early, having a lot of inside leg and a nice long outside rein and run through scenario in your mind. You can run through the good ones - which I prefer to do - but if you're pretty sure a horse might have an issue then just run through what might happen and how you're going to handle it. Your brain is powerful and your mind doesn't always know the difference. You can practice a lot more in your head than you can on a horse because the horse wears out, but your brain doesn't wear out that fast.
Richardson's other great secret is to school the tough stuff at home and not push her horse's training at shows. Between dodging other horses in the warmup and finding one's place of zen, the competition environment is a challenge in itself.
"You should be riding a test that the horse thinks is easy. If you're schooling second level at home and he's really struggling still with the haunches in and the shoulder in then you shouldn't really be showing that. The horse should really go to a show and think 'oh this is so easy, I really like showing because I don't have to work as hard as a I do at home!". So the first thing is to make the horse really, really comfortable with the movements. This goes for the rider too. And if you ride the horse a little bit differently at the show that's not unexpected. Maybe at home you're a little bit braver and ask for a bit more in your lengthenings, but if you feel him coming out of the corner and he's a little tight in the back and you know if you push as hard as you push at home then he might get irregular or break into the canter then of course you play it safe and save the seven or eight for another day. So there is such a thing as test riding. It's not completely the same as you ride at home. It should always be easy for the horse - until you get to Grand Prix and then there's no more easy!"
When "easy" goes awry though Richardson says "the secret is not to lose your composure".
"Regroup as quickly as you can. If it involves coming back to the walk, regrouping and taking an error, that's better than forging on with the horse inverted and not paying attention to you. Get your horse back with you, that's the most important thing. If you're riding confidently and the horse trips and he does as well as he can then great, and if someone else scores better I think, 'well more power to them'. You still achieved your goal by being correct and kind to your horse, and he will reward you next time you go out. The score in my opinion is never as important as the good riding."