I’ve heard it said that the Saddleworld Dressage Festival brings the worst weather; either boiling hot or pouring rain; and this year was no exception.
On Wednesday 5th December I went down to Werribee Park National Equestrian Centre with Jenny Bray to set up camp (and stable) for what would be an intense five days of all things dressage. This first day was about washing and plaiting Michaela Bray’s Acacia Ridge Vivaldi in perparation for his Advanced Championship ride on the 6th and working out the new stabling system at Werribee Park. A new stable renovation had seen all stables provided with concrete flooring which meant that the usual bedding systems would no longer be suitable and we had to look for new ways to insulate and pad the stable floors. We were able to solve this by using rubber matting to line the stable floor under a bed of shavings which proved very effective. It was great to catch up with Allysse and Annette Smith, local mother-daughter team, for dinner and to watch the complimentary Revelwood Warmblood Stud Stallions DVD which was provided to each rider upon registration.
On the morning of the 6th everyone was up early and by 6:30am Werribee Park was buzzing with the sound of horses being fed, plaited and walked and riders going over their dressage tests and trying to control their pre-test nerves. I gave Acacia Ridge Vivaldi a once-over and checked that all of his plaits were still in place which, thank goodness, they were and then had Allysse hold him while I plaited his forelock. After a lesson in fixing forelocks with bobby pins (thanks again Allysse!), Michaela’s mount was ready to go and it was time to saddle up for the first of her tests.
Michaela did an amazing job in controlling her nerves in such a high-intensity competition and held her own in an extremely strong field including a number of professionals and imported horses. This young rider demonstrated exactly what young rider dressage is all about, finishing the day smiling and proud of her little horse and conducting herself admirably at all times. What a bright hope for the future!
On Friday afternoon I pencilled for my first class of the championships: the Pacific League World Cup Final Grand Prix. In this class I pencilled for Helen Hughes-Keen from New Zealand and it was great to talk to her about the finer points of the harder movements as we watched some fantastic horse and rider combinations show us how its done!
After the grand prix concluded it was time to prepare for my big event for the championships: the Canine Capers. This year, as I was not riding a horse, I turned my attention to training my two dogs Honey and Sausage up for the canine events on the Friday evening. My two girls proved extremely successful and the training paid off!
We were off to a slow start with no placings picked up in the fancy dress ‘santa’s little helper’ themed class and so, after a quick change, we returned to the competition arena for the sprint events. First up was the Daschund Dash. Sausage was off to a flying start and well ahead off the competition but sadly, at the half way mark, she was distracted by John Thompson’s skin-tight lycra lion suit, running to the right instead of forwards and jumping out of the competition arena. She still managed to pick up third place after some confusion in the placings but we were a little disappointed after the hard hour’s training we had put into this event.
The next race was the Large Dog Sprint with Honey. Honey was more interested in playing with me than actually racing the other two dogs in the event which meant that we were trailing considerably for much of the race. However, in a crazy turn of events, the two dogs at the front of the race stopped to have a fight just a metre away from the finish line and so Honey and I were able to sprint past them and claim first place! This was a very exciting win and I was very proud of Honey for proving the old saying – slow and steady really does win the race!
Then came the Daschund Jumping Race. This was a thrilling event in which I attempted to jump Sausage with her collar and lead attached so that I could this time prevent distractions stealing our winning lead. Although this was a good idea in theory, in practice the collar slipped over her head during the race and I was left running with just a lead in my hand and a small black dog trailing behind me! However, she was still fast enough to claim second prize of which I was very proud.
Last but not least came the Large Dog Jump Race. In this, Honey ran another great race to claim third prize. Again, I feel our downfall was that she was too interested in playing with me and trying to eat the Goodos in my hands than running the actual race. But, overall, I was very proud of both my girls’ efforts and feel that our intense last-minute training session really paid off! I won more ribbons in this evening than I have ever won collectively at previous Saddleworld Dressage Festivals!
On Saturday we had a relaxed morning getting Archie and Jenny ready for the Elementary Championship. After the Elementary Championship was over I pencilled for Moya Jess in the Intermediate 1 Freestyle. This was a very exciting class to watch and Moya’s knowledge of music and horses combined to provide a great insight into the art of the ‘perfect’ freestyle. I can’t speak higher of pencilling as many classes as you can when you get the chance – no matter how much experience you have with these things they can teach you unparalleled things about what the judges see and look for and broaden your dressage knowledge.
Sunday was the last day of the festival but certainly not the least exciting. I began the day pencilling for Deb Hamid in the Grand Prix Special. I had never pencilled the Special before and this test certainly poses some different challenges to the riders than the normal Grand Prix test, with a particularly strong focus on transitions. I learned a lot from speaking to Deb about how the extended walk is judged and also about how to score sequence changes with respect to a particular horse’s movement. I feel that this knowledge will certainly be of great benefit to me when I ride these movements myself in competition and look forward to pencilling for Ms Hamid again in the future!
The last class I pencilled for was the one all of the young riders were itching for – the Aachen Challenge Final! This prestigious competition is the pinacle of many young riders’ dressage careers and something many dream about competing in. It was magical for me to compete in it last year and so I was extremely excited to pencil for the final this year. The final of the Aachen Challenge sees the top three ranked riders from the first round swapping horses and, with ten minutes warm up, riding a special test at Prix St Georges level on each horse. This is a huge ask of any rider, especially young riders, and a very daunting task.
This year the three riders in the final were Morgan Duell, Lilah Nieuwland and Shanon McKimmie and they each did a superb job to battle it out to a very close finish with Shanon winning by just two per cent. In this class I pencilled for Susie Hoevenaars who was one of the founders of the Aachen Challenge and gave me a fabulous insight into its creation and where the idea came from. Ms Hoevenaars has a contagious passion for dressage and supporting our young riders which was amazing to experience and reassures me that the future of our sport is in good hands.
To finish off Sunday with a bang, I was lucky enough to win the Volunteers’ Raffle Cash Prize of $250 which was a great surprise and was immediately walked over to Mal Byrne Saddlery and paid as a deposit for Danson Wolkenaction’s competition bridle.
All in all, the Saddleworld Dressage Festival 2012 was a fabulous experience with much to offer for all involved. For me it was about soaking up as much expert knowledge as possible and absorbing the wonderful atmosphere that surrounded the event despite the ridiculous combination of blistering heat and pouring rain that we experienced in our five days down at ‘the Werribee Hotel’. It ws great to see the Young Dressage Rider Squad members both competing and supporting their peers and they represented themselves and dressage in Victoria very well. I can’t wait for next year!
I hope you all have a lovely break over Christmas and New Year and come back to 2013 re-energised and ready to return to the competition circuit.
More photos and video footage coming soon