The build up to Regionals has been gathering pace since we completed our qualification at Moulton College last year. I have been thinking about the two tests, E59 and my new freestyle floorplan every day and included elements of both tests in my regular training sessions alongside several trial runs to Addington to give Neptune a feel for the venue.
Last Friday , I had one of my best rides on Neptune to date. He was attentive and responsive as well as friendly and expressive. What more could a Dressage rider ask for? We had a fairly quiet weekend training wise and on Monday I saw a gap in the weather, a hint of sunshine called me outside and I rode through both tests. Normally in winter Neptune and I prefer to hang out in the indoor arena as neither of us like confronting rain or blustery weather. I was still feeling on a high from the previous ride and was delighted to complete both test patterns with Neptune confident and on side. On Tuesday I lunged Neptune indoors and we basically had a chat whilst he stretched and played and enjoyed his workout. By Wednesday things were coming into serious focus as I rode a simple plan of transitions and movements to check our communication. Neptune felt good and happily accepted having his socks and tail washed and a trim so he looked fabulous. Good luck texts began to arrive along side notes to be careful in the bad weather. My head was full of E59, remembering the medium trot markers, thinking about softness and clarity in the canter trot canter, remembering the give and retake at A....
We were finally on our way and if the weather system was building to an unusual intensity I hadn't paid much heed, I felt the tension and spied dark clouds and settled down to listen to my music routine again, mentally riding the routine for the four or four thousandth time before accepting it was going to be ok. The weather at this point seemed a minor irritation and I was unfazed even as we were confronted with our first large fallen tree near Padbury. We passed safely and calmly and arrived at Addington praying for the rain to hold off. I saw with relief the familiar arenas and horses working in arena one. It was time to compete. The noise which greeted me as I got out was off the scale. I had a moment of concern and doubt for Neptune and when I opened the door his expression mirrored mine. Getting him ready we allowed him to choose where he wanted to stand. There was no shelter from the wind it was all around. Neptune settled on standing in his usual place by the box where he could see other horses.
Dressing us for competition took way longer than usual however he remained steadfast and braced himself against the wind that was noisily gathering in intensity and mischief. Once ready I got on with a little trepidation. Neptune and I gained courage from each other and as a rather introverted partnership we made the expedition towards the work in. My Mum lead the advance party and Neptune clung to her as we braved the wind tunnel that was the wooded walkway from car park to warm up arena. Here the noise was nearly unbearable and the gaping mouthed wheelie bin monsters were dancing along with the sponsorship banners flapping in an unfriendly chorus.
Still I focussed on E59 and my need to work in a familiar pattern. As a whirlwind of leaves whipped themselves between Neptune's legs nippy at his tummy and rising to smack us both around the face I wondered if this was a good idea. These thoughts were replaced by survival instinct and I asked him to relax and move calmly forwards ... As he responded working into the contact and seeking my rein I was filled with love for this brave horse and thankful for the hours I had spent teaching him to relax. I was relieved too to feel confident about remembering the test recognising that today was not a day to be wondering where to go next...
The test itself was not without drama. Neptune felt introverted and his trot and walk work were modest. We were accurate and he accepted the aids. He had to contend with a lot of noise and debris swirling across and around the arena along with a large crack that sounded like another tree succumbing as he made his way towards it! The canter tour was a real highlight for me and I was starting to enjoy myself. Neptune offered me the most accurate simple changes to date in competition and I felt him grow in stature and confidence too. We were not just surviving together we were performing. There are so many areas of that test that I want to develop, improve, perfect. All of this seems possible in the weeks and months of training we have ahead of us.
We posted 62% which is one of our best E59 scores to date. It's a four percent improvement on our average and in terms of rideability it's one of the best tests he has shared with me. There was no sense that I had placed him in a straight jacket and insisted he complete the patterns (knowing Neptune and my riding style that was never a likely scenario) there was a sense for me that he had found a new level of courage and his huge heart and kind nature were the reason we were out in a storm finding the next level of connection. Still we were both emotionally drained as we made our way back. Neptune sucking a mint thoughtfully and enjoying the praise and gratitude I felt to have completed.
It was time to face the wind tunnel again. He made it through with every muscle braced and his pulse racing. He had adrenaline overload and tentatively, plaintively called to any horse in the neighbourhood. Several kind souls returned his call and his next response sounded to my ears like a world weary warrior relieved to find a safe haven.
Now covered in a warm rug, his tack safely stowed Neptune began to enjoy a small feed of grass chaff, grass nuts, a little sugar beet juice and a dash of oats. He chewed his way delicately through this feast in a howling gale, feet planted four square whilst I did my best to prevent his bucket dancing away with the leaf army and a long forgotten plastic curry comb stampeding off into the distance. With the horseboxes gently swaying Neptune happily loaded and tucked into his Haynet.
I was pleased with our score, preparing for the Regionals I recognised the challenges we faced presenting both tests well in a Championship setting, I knew that we were unlikely to be placed in the top ten. I hadn't factored in Storm Doris, if ever there were a time to be thankful for the growing bond and understanding between Neptune and I it was now.
Neptune gave me an old fashioned look as we unloaded him for the freestyle. Back on board and I was pleased that this was the second time we'd faced the challenge. To my ears the wind seemed to be even angrier. Then with a loud crass another tree tumbled down. Neptune takes dislikes to trees on sunny days when they are minding their own business. Now he watched with incredulity and rising fear as it lost its life. My Mum and I ignored the tree and reassured him that the column of trees we were wandering through were perfectly safe... we rounded the corner to go up the slope to the indoor to be met by the candy stripe wind break losing its battle and Neptune trembled with no where to run. Some very kind ladies walking past joined our chorus of reassuring good boys and walk on just breathe your fine sing song and he made a heroic effort to reach the safety of the indoor waiting area. Meltdown averted with a celebratory mint and huge praise.
By now I was in a very practical frame of mind. These days make or break a partnership and I began a warm up of slow steady walking and trotting until he was ready to canter. He was breathing correctly now and it was our turn to start the class. Neptune made it inside before completely losing his confidence seeing three judge tables and the cafe. He went backwards and said no I can't. I've been in this situation before with the giant Champagne bottle at Keysoe. I appealed for calm and forward and talked to him before he made the decision to be brave. A further meltdown by a giant banner ironically for a calmer supplement and we had made it to the other side of the arena. I was so relieved to hear the bell. I patted him and asked for the music. As it started I felt Neptune recognise his music and his job and we were off. Again there are lots of elements I want to develop and improve however it was fun and he did everything I asked him too and even started to enjoy himself . I was so very very proud. I walked him back to the horsebox understanding that his nerves and mine could take no further battering and fed him on mints and let him call out to his new horse friends.
Back at the box, Neptune took a long calming breath as his plaits were taken out and I told him how wonderful he was. He reached into the horsebox and fetched out his feedbucket with his teeth before finishing his earlier meal, the picture of a confident happy horse, relaxed and with an air of self determination I have not witnessed before. It was a very special moment.
Finally back home, Neptune was quick to return to his stable, comfort break attended to he said a cursory hello to his stable companions before settling for a brief power nap. Refreshed he began his tea time haynet, enjoyed another long drink and was quite sociable whilst his stable was prepared for the evening. I was pleased to see a confident horse, happy to be home. His regional stable plaque has pride of place and I'm delighted to report he has graduated to an Elementary Championship Contender.
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