TWO MINDS and two bodies enter the dressage arena to produce a test. Working as a co-operative unit they will perform to the best of their ability and tick all the boxes they need to tick to achieve a good mark from the judge. But if there is a problem, when is retiring the best option?
The word ‘retiring’ smacks of failure but it can be the right decision for the horse, for the rider — or for them both. Welfare is paramount and if the rider thinks there is something wrong with their horse, then retiring is the only right decision. Continuing might exacerbate an injury and any discomfort could give the horse an unhelpful memory.
While winning points, or achieving a high score is very nice, it is also important that the horse has a good or useful experience.
Sometimes that can best be served by retiring. Alice Oppenheimer recently retired riding one of the Headmore horses. With Alice’s test riding skill and the horse’s talent they would probably still have got a good score. However, Alice’s experience of training hot, talented horses determined her decision. When asked about her attitude to retiring, she said: “While I won’t ever enter the ring with the intention of retiring, if I feel during the test that it’s better for the horse to take the pressure off and not finish, then I will make that decision.”
Trainer Damian Hallam comments: “I think the idea that many of the top horses in the world have had an effortless glide to super-stardom is wrong. Most of them will have had duff scores along the way where they spooked or made mistakes. Dressage is a process of learning and eventually succeeding in getting all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to fall into place in a competition environment.
Damian Hallam has in his career in horses been both a horse dealer and a rider of many talented horses for owners. He said: “In those situations I was very conscious of the horse’s value. If in a test there were multiple mistakes and the wheels were falling off completely and we were heading for a low score, I would decide that it was best to retire.
“Nowadays, if something goes wrong when I’m competing then it is down to my riding skill to get the show back on the road and keep muddling through. The only thing that would make me retire would be if it was in the animal’s best interest.
“If the horse is getting overwhelmed by the situation to the point where it is no longer aware of my commands, it is better to take them out of it; it is no longer a useful experience.”
What might retiring teach your horse?
NLP consultant and judge Wendy Jago, contributes: “[the famous classical dressage trainer] Charles de Kunffy often reminds his pupils that everything you do with a horse teaches him something. How will yours interpret a sudden end to the test when he knows he hasn’t finished? Perhaps he found a movement difficult, or you failed to prepare him properly for it — and then you didn’t ask again. What might he learn from that?
“Many professionals just shrug mentally and either repeat the movement, as if they were schooling at home, or refocus and move on to the next one. Either way, they’d lose only a few marks for specific movements but might still get a reasonable score overall. It’s quite possible to win on 8s and 2s.”
Tests should effectively be just a different setting for your training, believes Wendy:
“If riders can take this attitude, then they will support their horse much more effectively. The rider will continue having a conversation with the horse and focus on each movement rather than abandoning him because they are concerned with their own anxieties and about outcomes that he can’t possibly understand.”
“My view is, stick with the horse and the test if you safely can. Your long-term partnership is much more important than a few marks.”
Judge and trainer Leanne Wall, who is also a British Youth Team selector, has mentored many young and inexperienced competitors. She comments: “If the rider feels their horse is losing confidence and they are unable to regain the horse’s trust, they should consider the option of retiring. And also they should think about retiring if it is behaving in a manner that they feel could be unsafe for themselves or for the horse.
“Of course, the judge has a responsibility to stop a test if they think the situation between horse and rider has become dangerous. Resistance of more than 20 seconds will lead to elimination anyway. It is at the judge’s discretion whether they will permit a rider to trot or canter their horse around the arena to restore its confidence but it is not a right and it will not be permitted in championships.”
She adds: “Often riders retire and then kick themselves because the marks were far higher than they thought they were going to be! It is always the individual’s decision. If a rider retires at an international they are not allowed to compete on day 2 or 3. Therefore, unless there are soundness or welfare problems, they seldom retire as they have worked hard for the selection and it often costs a lot to travel overseas.
When riding as part of a Team you wouldn’t retire — in case of soundness, welfare, ‘blood’ issues, you would wait for the bell to be rung.”
Leanne says that when riders have problems when they are in the arena, they should afterwards reflect on the cause. Why was their horse not going forward or running through the bridle? Why was he spooking or bucking? The horse should be trained to continue working in spite of adverse weather conditions or distractions. She adds: “Carl Hester has an entire guinea fowl flock and often chickens and dogs loose in his school and the horses just keep their lines with their dancing hooves.”
Damian concludes: “Mistakes are fine — the only way we learn is through making mistakes. If we make a mistake in a test, that’s learning too. If we can pick it up again after making mistakes that’s part of the journey. I’ve learnt much more on the days when it’s not gone well than on the days when it has.”
“I don’t think the whole thing of people selling the story of their lives on social media as relentlessly successful is very helpful. There is a lot to admire in people who just keeping going through difficult times.”
© Celia Cadwallader, 11 October 2020.