Thursday, April 9, 2015

Playing the Numbers

I am not from an affluent background. Without an academic scholarship I would not have been able to go to college. The scholarship covered tuition, but not books and living expenses. I had to keep my grades up in order to renew my scholarship, but I also needed groceries. In addition to school, I worked 30+ hours a week for my rent.  I needed to be efficient with my time.

On the first day of class, when the professors handed out the syllabus, I paid very close attention to the total points needed to get the grade I needed. I carefully tracked my points on each test, and when I got the points I needed in each class, I’d focus more attention on the next class. Using this plan, I kept my gpa high enough to continue to the next semester. I joking called it “playing the numbers.”

After college, when my hobby started to look a lot more like profession than an interlude between undergrad and grad school, I realized that, in order to have a profitable career, needed to once again play the numbers.   

Dressage competition is all about the numbers – he who gets the most wins. So I studied the test to see where I could earn the most points. I quickly realized that the people who knew the most about the tests were the judges, so I would volunteer to scribe as often as I could.  As soon as I met the requirements, I enrolled in the L program. My L earned me access to judge’s clinics and round tables, which are a wealth of information for tallying up the most points I can in my 7 minutes in the sandbox.

I freely share that information with my students. And here, I’ll share some of that information with you.

1) The answers to the question are written on the top of the test and in the directive box. Read the whole thing. You’d be surprised how much information is there.If you have any questions about the test, check out the USEF rule book. It even has a search function. The judges have packed a ridiculous amount of training advice in that rule book.

2) Judges want to see a horse trained to the level they are being presented at, not training at that level. So when I present a horse at training level, he needs to know his leads and be able to steer consistently. Same for first level, leg yield needs to be a sideways/forward movement with hind legs crossing, not a drunken shoulder-crash into the rail.  Shoulder-crashing is a training stage most almost-first-level-horses go through, but should be over it when they are presented to the judge as a fully trained to first level.

3) Judges are hard on riders because they assume the horse is trained to the level, therefore problems in the ring fall to the rider’s aids and presentation. Besides, the rider chose to be evaluated, not the horse.

4) The walk matters. Practice it. Free walk, medium walk, free walk, over and over again, until your horse doesn’t think that every time you shorten the reins they are supposed to trot. Every single test makes the free walk or extended walk a double coefficient. So if your horse knows that when you give the reins, they walk on, and when you shorten the reins, they keep walking, you get rewarded twice. If your horse doesn’t understand this, you get penalized twice.

5) Learn to ride straight centerlines. They show up every test, and the judge is looking right at you. Even if you are not 100% on the bit, be straight. That’s what they can see from C. The judge at E will ding you for not being round enough, but if it’s pretty close, the judge at C will give you the benefit of the doubt.  Although centerlines and walk work aren’t particularly sexy, if you can ride a straight centerline and make a med walk – free walk – medium walk, you can OWN Intro A.  That’s 5 out of 9 movements in Intro A. 

6) The tests have tricky parts in them on purpose. That way the judge can tell if your basics are correct. Usually those movements are the coefficients. If you nail the coefficients and the centerline-halts, you’ll rarely get below a 6 on submission or rider.

7) Corners matter. If you ride one well, flex-bend-straighten in every corner, your horse will pretty much stay on the bit until almost E/B, giving you time to worry about other things (like setting up your next depart or lateral work). Revving a horse on the short side, making a good corner and a hard turn to the diagonal will make the horse want to GO, so your transition to the lengthen trot will be clear. Plus judges will reward good corners in the rider score.

8) Know where the letters are. The distance between the letters doesn’t change, so when you ride a 20m circle at E tracking right, you should always cross the center line looking at the rail 6 1/2 feet from R. If you are lined up with R when you cross the center line, you are making a 24m oval. That isn’t a circle, and it will show up in your scores.  In fifteen meter circles, your outside stirrup should pass over the quarter line. Ten meter circles should not cross the center line.

9) Know your dressage test. You can’t control the weather, or the footing, or the judge’s mood, or if your horse is having a prey-animal day, but you sure can control if you know where you are going and how you are going to get there. And I don’t mean “centerline, circle at B, canter in the corner.” Know how where in the ring you need to flex before each corner. Know how many strides you need to prepare before your canter departs.  Pay attention to that when you practice – flex the same before every corner, sit 3 strides out and grab your core muscles before every canter depart. Those clear patterns inspire confidence in both you and your horse.

10) Smile when you salute. It won’t save a horrible ride, but it won’t hurt either.  This is supposed to be fun.

Bu practicing these things daily, until they become habit, I am able to help my mount earn the most possible points. And that is my goal, not to stomp competition or hit a specific number. My goal is to show my horse well, which means not leaving any points lying around in the ring. By chasing those points, I earn the highest number I can earn. And hopefully a pretty ribbon too.