Lessons Learned in Quest for USDF Gold

This article written by Heather Black was published in the 2014 Winter edition of Florida Sporthorse Magazine produced by Christie Gold:

The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) has a series of awards called the USDF Rider Awards.  Riders must earn two scores of 60% or higher from two different judges at certain levels to obtain the awards.  A bronze medal is awarded to a rider who earns the required scores at 1st, 2nd and 3rd level.  A silver medal is awarded to a rider who earns the required scores at 4th level and Prix St. Georges.  A rider who earns the required scores at Intermediare and Grand Prix receives a gold medal.  Grand Prix is the highest level in dressage competition and represents the ultimate in collection, strength and precision from a horse and rider.  Seen in the Olympics, the test includes movements such as a canter half pass zigzag, canter pirouettes, one and two tempi flying changes, piaffe, and passage.  A Grand Prix horse needs to have a certain amount of natural talent and receives years of training.  They are a rare find and I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to ride Danish warmblood Cooper V to earn my silver medal in 2011 and my gold medal in 2014.

During my first Grand Prix competition, I just barely scored a 60% toward my USDF gold rider medal.  I was worried I would go off course.  I was afraid I would make mistakes in the dreaded canter half pass zigzag, the one tempi changes, the piaffe, and the passage.  I over-schooled on the Friday before the show, determined to figure out my timing issues I’d been working on for months, in one session.  The session ended with a tired horse, a frustrated rider and no improvement on my timing issues.  During the test itself, I was so distracted by my focus on what was coming up, whether it was where to go or how I could possibly pull off 15 one tempi changes, I gave insufficient attention to the simple details of my ride:  riding a square halt, centering a movement on the centerline, or even preparing for a movement, instead of rushing to get it over as quickly as possible.  The test felt hurried and panicked, one movement followed by the next and the next with no time to think or breathe in between.  My thoughts as I exited the arena were grim.  My only positive thought was that it was over!  This feeling was not why I had dedicated myself to dressage, pursuing my childhood dream and life-long passion for horses.  Here I was, riding at the highest level, earning a respectable score, and I was relieved it was over.  Clearly I was doing something wrong.

One month later, I was back in the show ring for my second attempt at Grand Prix and my final score to earn my gold medal.  This time I scored a 69% and had a fantastic ride during the test.  While the additional month of practice helped, I also changed a few things during the competition that transformed my experience.  The Friday before the show, my schooling session was designed to get familiar with the show grounds and make sure all of my aides were in place.  I walked around my competition and schooling arenas.  While my competitors were drilling their horses on movements as their trainers bellowed instructions across the showground, I did big circles at walk, trot and canter.  I made sure my horse was listening to my legs and seat and was light in the bridle.  I tested a little bit of lateral work and a couple of changes.  Then we took a 30 minute stroll around the show grounds.  Later I returned to the arena alone and visualized riding the test in the arena.  Not just the movements, but every step, the quality of the gaits I wanted, how I would prepare for the entry and exit of each movement, and reminded myself how to actively ride the challenging parts of the test.  During the month before the show, while I practiced improving the individual pieces of the test on my competition horse, I practice the test pattern on every horse I rode.  Whether they could actually do the movements or not was not important.  What was important was that the test pattern became automatic and part of my muscle memory.  Last but not least, I made myself focus on the smallest elements of the test.  Concentrating on each step, rather than fixating on the bigger picture of a complete movement or the test itself.

These changes had a dramatic impact on my test experience.  Focusing on each step and breaking the movements down into their smallest elements created a slow motion effect for the entire test.  I was no longer fixated on getting a movement finished.  Instead, I was focusing and actually enjoying the level of collection in the gait as we went through the movements.  I remember thinking that the short side was taking forever.  I had so much time to prepare because consciously placing every stride allowed me to use the arena more effectively.  I only thought about what I was doing in that moment, allowing total concentration on one thing at a time, like each of the eight strides in my canter pirouette, instead of being distracted by future events.  I felt relaxed and confident and had moments of awe in the beauty and grace of the horse beneath me.  I rode the dreaded canter half pass zigzag with a smile and laughed during my one tempi changes.  My thoughts as I exited the arena were jubilant.  Regardless of my score or the things I could have done better, I had fun during the test and was re-energized in my passion for horses and the sport of dressage.  This feeling was why I had worked so hard!

So, for my next show, regardless of the level I plan to compete, I will keep three things in mind:

1)      The day before the show is not the time to fix or change things.  If a riding pair is still having issues with parts of the test, it will not be solved the day before a competition.  The level of proficiency achieved in the week before the competition is what a pair will have for the show.  Better to focus on making sure all aides are in working order and that the movements already mastered are at their best so those scores can be maximized.  Figure out how to minimize the damage to scores from challenging issues, but be cautious not to focus so much on what a pair cannot do well.  You want a positive attitude going into a competition so build confidence in the rider and horse by having a positive schooling session.

2)      Know the test.  Whether you have a reader or not, the rider must know the test thoroughly so it becomes second nature.  The effort that goes toward trying to hear a reader or straining to remember the next movement takes away from the rider’s ability to focus on the ride.  Instead of riding in the present, moment by moment, the rider is fixated on what is coming next.  That division of focus diminishes the quality of the test and adds another level of anxiety to an event that is already stressful enough.  Practice the test as much as possible on horseback and use detailed visualization exercises to cement not only the test pattern, but the rider’s aides as well.

3)      Ride each step.  A test is not just about each score or each movement.  It is the journey of each step that creates harmony and fluidity, transforming what is a series of tasks into a ballet between horse and rider.  Concentrating on the steps or small elements, allows the rider to build a strong foundation for each movement.  Without quality and accuracy in the building blocks, there cannot be success in the final product.  This focus on the steps also provides additional occasions for the pair to have successful moments, building confidence and a positive outlook on the ride.

These are the lessons I learned on the final phase of my quest for a USDF gold medal award.  I could not have done it without the support of the training team at Matt McLaughlin Dressage and Cooper V’s owners, Matt McLaughlin and Ronald Wright.  Most importantly, Cooper V’s generosity, willingness to forgive my errors for a cookie, and insistence that I get it right before he would perform, made him an excellent instructor and companion throughout the experience.  Horses like him are a rare find indeed!