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Top Tips to Improving your Working Equitation Scores

Seasoned equestrian LINDA SHORE knows that if you want to improve your working equitation performance, attention to detail and practice are key. 

What is Working Equitation?

There are four phases in a working equitation (WE) competition: dressage; maneability, in which horse and rider are judged on how calmly and stylishly they deal with obstacles; a speed trial to assess agility and athleticism around obstacles; and a cattle test, the only non-compulsory phase, which assesses the ability of horse and rider to work with cattle.

But as Linda Shore will tell you, while this discipline is a lot of fun, it’s definitely not a ‘let your hair down and go for broke’ kind of sport, quite the reverse. Linda has trained dressage horses right up to Grand Prix level. She promoted Western dressage in Australia, twice presenting at Equitana, and for the past two years has focused on working equitation, taking her part-bred Morgan mare Boulevarde Gabrielle (Gabby) right up to Consagrados 1, the second highest level in the sport.

Based for the past 18 years at East Greenmount near Toowoomba in Southern Queensland, Linda operates the River Range Warmblood Stud, trains horses and riders, runs Darling Downs Western Dressage Club, and has been on the Toowoomba Dressage committee since moving to the area. She was also the Event Director for the 2007 Brisbane CDI. Busy? Yes, she certainly is!

In this article, Linda kindly takes time out to share some invaluable tips that will help you make some serious improvements to your WE scores:

Breaking it down

First, understand that WE is based around dressage movements. This calls for refined communication between you and your horse. There’s no room for confusion with your aides, especially around the obstacles. I find that it’s a level of collection that many riders don’t understand. Even at the introductory competition level, collection in the trot is required to comfortably and easily manoeuver around obstacles.

Having a horse that’s adjustable and manoeuverable is critical. I’ve noticed that most riders focus on just getting around the obstacles, but, like dressage, you’re judged out of 10 for your style and competence. So for each obstacle, break down the dressage movements you’ll need to successfully negotiate that particular obstacle. Then, before putting them together into the required sequence, practice the individual movements until they become easy. And that will enormously improve your marks overall because you’re not just concentrating on getting through the obstacles, you’re focussing on how well you can control your horse and keep them round, soft, and flowing.

Your aim should be to have your horse participate as you go around the course, rather than just reacting because you’ve pointed them at an obstacle. With training, you’ll develop a horse that knows what’s required because you’ve broken down the different dressage movements and put in the necessary practice.

For example, going through a gate and getting it closed properly requires you to approach it, transition to walk, turn 90 degrees and come to a nice halt. As you open the gate, you have to ride one-handed while you rein back for a couple of steps, then do a quarter turn on the haunches followed by a quarter turn on the forehand, another couple of rein back steps, and a halt. They’re the movements that make up the gate. I see riders focussed on hanging onto the gate while randomly moving their horse because they haven’t realised that if you break down the movements and teach them to the horse, it makes the gate, which is quite a complex manoeuvre, very, very simple. When done correctly, it’s almost as if the horse is working on their own. They know what to do and are simply waiting for the rider to indicate when to move.

And as you progress up the competition levels and start negotiating obstacles at speed, that’s where all the extra training will come into play. Although you’re approaching the gate at speed, you’ll still have that fine-tuned control to get through the gate quickly and calmly.

A custom fit

Breaking down the moves required for an obstacle before practicing the complete pattern is something I often teach in clinics.  For example, obstacles such as the barrels and slalom require a lot of changes in direction. Say the obstacle is three barrels. That requires a circle and a quarter around the right barrel, three quarters of a circle around the second barrel, and a circle and a quarter around the last barrel to create a clover leaf pattern (see diagram).

Riders tend to complete a circle and then head straight on to the next. Instead, come into your first barrel and sit on your circle until you establish the precise size the circle needs to be for your horse to give you good collection, while maintaining their rhythm, bend, balance, relaxation and suppleness. Then you go to your second barrel and repeat the process until you get the perfect size for that one before going on to the third barrel and doing the same.
The number of circles you do in training doesn’t matter. It’s all about staying on the circle and getting the horse to understand exactly what it needs to do to maintain the circle with precision. The required size of the circle depends on the competition level. In the lower levels the circles around barrels are quite large, while at the higher levels they’re considerably smaller. So taking the time to establish the size that your horse can comfortable maintain, while making the whole thing look effortless, should be your goal. Practice your circle, then change direction and get the next circle right, and then when it comes to riding the pattern you suddenly realise that you hardly need to touch your horse because they understand what to do and can maintain the circle at the appropriate size.

I can’t stress enough the importance of breaking everything down and learning what’s best for your horse. Another horse might need a larger circle, while yours might be able to do a smaller circle and still maintain its roundness, collection and balance. So don’t just ride a particular size because that’s what everyone else is doing. Instead of fighting your horse’s natural comfort zone and ability, know your horse really well so that you have a harmonious partnership. It’s all about breaking down what’s required for each obstacle and then setting the movements up so that they’re a perfect fit for you, your horse, and the level you’re currently competing at.

Giving you a hand

At clinics, everyone wants to practice with the garrocha! They’re keen to get in, pick it up and ride off. But you still need to break things down and teach your horse what it needs to know for that obstacle. And the first thing to consider is: can I ride my horse one-handed? Because in the garrocha, it’s a must – and that’s where a lot of riders fail. Their horse might carry the garrocha really comfortably, but the rider doesn’t have the partnership they need with their horse to ride one-handed.

And it’s not the only obstacle that’s one-handed: there’s the gate, and the cup switch as well, and these are all included in the introductory level competitions. So you have to be able ride one-handed and control your horse while you’re doing it. Practice riding different shapes and movements, holds, and backups, all while riding one-handed. Then teach your horse to switch from two hands to one hand and back again, because your body changes as you go to one hand and some horses really react to that. Failing to practice this may mean you line up the garrocha only to find you’ve lost the fine tune control of your horse. Your body has suddenly changed, your horse doesn’t understand, and it’s now giving you different answers.

It’s about connection

It comes down to the connection you have with your horse. Watch a really good horse and rider during a WE test and you can see the horse’s participation and their understanding. The rider is hardly asking anything but the horse knows what to do on the obstacle and how to manage itself. It’s in tune with the rider right down to those finer points, and that can only come with practice, and plenty of it.

Linda will be presenting working equitation at this year’s Equitana, or you can find her at www.riverrange.com.au and www.facebook.com/dressage2bshore.