The first National Squad clinics to be conducted under the new programme, with Dressage and Para Dressage altogether took place in July. National Coach Ton De Ridder came from Germany, and team vets Kirsten Neil and Robin Bell and SSSM consultant Vic Khan have been going from state to state, with National Dressage and Para coordinator Julia Battams.
The emphasis is different from previous years. There is a longer term focus. Dressage has been set the goal of a medal in 2020, with clear improved performances on the way. So the squads include the talent squad,with horses aged from 4 all the way to the elite squad combinations which are team prospects for WEG next year. Not all the riders are FEI riders, yet, although all combinations are seen by the selectors as having the potential to develop into elite combinations. The squad clinics are aiming to build a culture of team membership, with an emphasis on attention to detail not only on the training and riding of the horse, but veterinary management including preventative veterinary management, rider fitness both physical and mental, rider adherence to ASC policy regarding medication and drugs.
In some ways riding is the ultimate team sport, team of horse and rider competing as one. However equestrian sports have struggled at times to form a team identity. It seems that Para Dressage succeeded better at this in London and we are learning from their success. Two busy days is not enough to even get to really meet everyone, but a start has been made.
Ton de Ridder is a very experienced coach and a veteran of several Australian campaigns. He impressed with how quickly he picked up teaching each combinations, moving fluently from horse to horse in the group lesson (two at a time for talent squad members, one at a time for higher riders). He did not try to change anything and of course most of his training is very conventional. As we have come to expect the good trainers stick to the classical principles. Ton wanted to see horses warmed up properly. Long necks, going forward, coming back, being made more through by use of transitions. He wanted bend. Lots of bend. More than most of us are accustomed to. We must use bend to make the horse supple, he explained time and again. Bend in the corners, bend on circles and sometimes bend on straight lines.
Take the leg off and he must keep going. In training always using the lines from the tests, eg transition to walk at A, free walk on the diagonal. Make sure you know the tests you are riding or working towards. If the two tempis are on the right rein then train them on the right rein.
If your horse is young give him confidence by being happy with good effort, not demanding too much. Use easier versions of the hardest work until he thinks its easy too. For example don't do lots of passage-transition-piaffe -transition-passage. That is too hard. He wont like it and he will be resistant. Make it easier. Trot-transition-half steps-transition-trot. Keep the rhythm and straightness. Let him think its easy and make him confident. Don't do endless repetitions. Be happy and do something else. Ton talks about spaghetti. Even if you like spaghetti you don't want to eat it every day. Horses also want some variety in the work.
However near enough is not good enough. You want 15 one tempi changes and he does 11, don't just forget it, get him to do some more. ''My father taught me to always finish my homework. Your horse must learn this too" he says. You must try to complete each exercise even if there has been a little mistake. You ask for pirouette canter, he must learn to do it quickly.
He must always stand still and stay on the bit in the halt. He must not take the bit /reins out of your hand. Praise him with your voice without losing the contact ( which you will lose if you pat him when he is good).
The main message from the vets was the benefits of working with your vets including prevention. Pentosan and Hyaluronic Acid (HA) are beneficial in preventing joint degeneration (although they are expensive). The anti ulcer drugs eg Omeprazole (also expensive) can be used in smaller doses if you are using it to prevent ulcers in horses who tend to get stressed at horse shows. Working with farriers to ensure foot balance is correct, even Xraying feet to really check the position of the pedal bone and showing the farrier.
We all had a session of SSSM. What is this? Nothing to do with Shades Of Grey. Sports Medicine Sports Science. Vic Khan is a physio who talked to us about fitness, encouraging more than just riding to prepare for riding! she told us ways to optimise show performance by attending to details such as hydration (use supplements before and after competition), good sleep practices. something we hadn't thought about was using compression tights after competition and hot and cold alternating showers to assist muscle recovery after competition (start warm, finish cold).
There was opportunity to offer feedback about the selection criteria. Riders were encouraged to think about a "give back" to the sport, mentoring, coaching at a club for free, talking to groups etc as away of repaying some of the benefits of being on the squad. There was also discussion about how we can help our owners enjoy the sport, and of the importance of upcoming fundraising to support the reducing Australian Sports Commission grants. There is a change of culture in High Performance Dressage and Para Dressage towards more inclusivity, more social responsibility and more self reliance. I for one am excited that these are all changes which will really help us achieve our goals. I am looking forward to the next camp in October.