Equitation: Improving Your Skill and Scores Part Two
Renee Swanepoel N Dip Equine Science SANEF Level 1 Instructor
In this part of the article, we will be taking a look at an example of a Novice equitation test with pointers on how to ride, what the judge is looking for and how you can improve, plus I will include a video of the test being ridden at an actual event so that you can see what it should look like. The test we will be using as our example will be the SANEF 2011 EQUITATION NOVICE TEST 8, as ridden at the 2011 Gauteng Finals in July of this year. The test is as follows:
The first thing that I do with a pupil when we look at a new test is to break it down into its movements and discuss what we think is being tested with each question. In this test we start with a walk, no stirrups. What the judge would like to see is the walk and the position of the rider without stirrups – heels down, quiet leg and steady contact. The test commences the second the rider takes the feet out of the stirrups. The walk should be athletic and marching and the horse should at all times be between hand and leg, ready for the next instruction. Important too is that the walk is shown in a place where the judge can see the movement. Remember, a judge can only mark a movement that they have actually seen, so make sure that you never work towards or right in front of the judge. The walk needs to be 10m, so make sure that you have paced out the distance and are sure of how much you need to show. At this venue we realised that the brick posts were 10m apart after pacing them so we planned to start and end at a pillar and in that way the walk was accurate. From the walk movement we proceed into the trot 15m circle without stirrups. Again, the judge is checking position – keeping the body quiet, keeping the leg relaxed and the heel steady and low. The circle is very important – when we walk the course, I have the rider pick a start/finish point on the circle so that we ensure that the dimensions are correct and that the circle starts and ends neatly into the next movement. In this test we used the brick pillar again as a marker to make sure the circles were accurate.
Our next movement is a 20m canter on the circle with stirrups. There are a few things that need to happen into this movement – firstly the circle size increases by 5m. When walking the course I have the rider walk 5m away from the far point of the 15m circle we have just paced. In that way they know where to increase to. The biggest problem you will see with riders in this test is that they do not show a difference in size in the two circles. The first circle is often a little too big; they then proceed to canter the second circle exactly where they have just ridden the first. The judge is looking for a difference in size on the circles. Another problem is that the start and finish of the circles needs to be in exactly the same place, hence the marker you have chosen as your start. This often happens when riders do a figure of eight in their tests as well – they forget to start and finish on the same point and often don’t close the figure. At the exact start point of the 20m circle, the rider puts the feet neatly back into the stirrup and asks for canter. This is a movement that has to be practised as it should be smooth, effortless and instant. There should be no looking down, hesitation or legs moving around when finding the stirrup. My one criticism on this movement was that the pony was a little above the hand and was not bent in the direction of the circle all the way through.
Our next movement now that we are in canter is to show a change of leg through trot. Again, never do your change coming towards the judge if there is only one as they cannot see you or your horse properly and you will lose marks because they cannot judge the movement. A change across the diagonal ensures the judge sees you and gives you time to prepare the change. I also feel that a change on a straight line shows more riding ability than a change on a figure of eight or bend, so we practise changes of leg on straight lines with all our equitation horses. They also need to be able to lead off on any leg on a straight line which tells us that they understand the aid and are not using the bend to decide what leg to strike off on. Important in the change is maintaining rhythm – not letting the horse run in to the change but keeping it slow, balanced and straight.
From the change we ride the gymnastic. In the course walk, we would have paced the distance, discussed how we should ride it on that particular horse and decided how we would like to approach. In equitation, we are always looking for a rhythmical balanced approach in the centre of the fence. We want the horse to maintain rhythm throughout the gymnastic, as many will tend to speed up as they go through. Important also to note the going and riding surface on the approach – harder surfaces tend to ride a little shorter than the deeper sand going, so you will need to check for that. Also this particular gymnastic was on a slight uphill, so care was taken to make sure we did not push too hard going through as the pony would already be opening the stride since it was uphill. On this particular course we had to change the rein when going on to jump the course as the gymnastic was on one rein and fence 1 on the other. Again, a neat balanced change on a planned route is much better than coming round the corner on an incorrect lead, breaking a mad trot and kicking on again. We planned the change on a convenient spot and kept it sort and balanced. This particular pony is quite adept at flying changes and you will note in the change that she in fact did the flying change before Gerdi asked for the trot. We decided before the time that we would do the trot irrespective of whether she did the flying change as firstly it was directly away from the judge which meant seeing what was happening was unlikely and secondly in case she misunderstood the aid for the change, we rather wanted to be sure she did it. This pair is a relatively new combination, having only been riding and competing at equitation this year, so as she gets to know the pony, so the risks they take can get bigger.
The course was quite straightforward for this class, however there were many turns where riders had to be careful to come in straight in the centre of the fences. Also important which many riders struggle with is picking up the correct lead after a fence – this is something we drill at home from the very beginner riders. Although not marked as strictly in the lower welcome classes, I feel the horse and rider should ride the correct leads from the start of their training as it is very difficult to try to fix a horse that has learned to ignore the canter leads than teach it correctly from scratch. Teaching the flying change is also done early as it is vital when riding equitation that the horse understands how to stay in balance and be correct around a course of fences. Important too to use the whole arena – often the younger riders will try to squeeze their test into a small area of the arena – use the space you have so that your test looks neat and polished and that the judge can see you. Vital in the course is keeping the rhythm. This is where a good horse with a steady rhythm makes it so much easier for the rider in a class. The judge is looking for a horse that goes around the course without speeding up or slowing down or needing to be checked every few strides by the rider. The ride must look effortless, calm and polished. Position is vital – maintaining a good foundation that has been drilled at home is so important. The riders who go far are the ones who are willing to do endless hours of sitting trot, jumping without stirrups and learning tests and doing the homework I give them every week. There is a lot of hard work that goes into the sport and the good riders are the ones who put in the time and the effort – not always the ones with the best horses. Feel for the track is important – riding steady corners and looking ahead to the next fence is vital. Meeting every fence on a good stride in the middle and out of a rhythmical canter is key.
A short word on turnout for competition. Do not forget that you make a certain impression on the judge in the way you are turned out for your test. While there are fashions that will come and go, a classical approach to your turnout will achieve the polished look you are aiming for. Tack should be clean, polished and not too bling. (while a little bit of sparkle here and there is fine, don’t go overboard on the fairy dust – you will end up looking like a Disney character, not a rider to be taken seriously!) Make sure that martingales, boots etc fit well and are fitting with the entire look you are presenting. A fitted numnuh is more correct, although at School level most numnuhs have the school logo on and are square. Sheepskin numnuhs present well providing they fit well and are clean and in good condition. Plaits are important. If you are not able to plait well, find a friend who can help you or practise as much as you can. There is nothing worse than a lovely little rider coming in to do a great test but the pony they are riding has bits of hair sticking out all over the place with plaits that are falling out, a scratched up tail and dirty tack. Hairnets are another bugbear of mine – I cannot abide bits of rider hair all over the place or riders who have messy ponytails hanging out behind. Hair should be neatly pinned up and in a proper net. Gloves are a must - in any show ring! Your turnout is vital in the overall presentation of your test and should not be underestimated.
In conclusion, if you are not scoring those extra few points that mean the difference between a good test and a brilliant one, you may need to look at the following:
- Have you planned your test well to flow from one movement to the next without extra bits in between or interruptions in the movement?
- Are you showing the movement that is required?
- Are your movements accurate according to the test being asked?
- Is your technique over a fence perhaps lacking? (Video yourself over some fences and have a look for yourself – be critical – the only way to improve is to understand what you are doing wrong!)
- Is your rhythm exact and flowing?
- How was your turnout?
- Did you enjoy yourself?
Equitation is a wonderful sport for bringing along talented youngsters and teaching them to ride correctly. Many of our top Showjumpers today came through the ranks as talented junior equitation riders. It is possible to achieve great heights with lots of work and focused schooling at home. Get out there and go ride!