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Louise Curran on the Highs and Lows of Dressage

Louise Curran and her horse Gandalf thriving in competition thanks to Rose-Hip Vital Equine

Written by Louise Curran

A life with horses is a great reality check. Just when you think everything is on track and humming along, something happens to remind you that horses are totally unpredictable and none of this was meant to be easy!

Gandalf and I managed to qualify, with some rather nice scores, for the Small Tour at the Australian National Dressage Championships to be held at Sydney International Equestrian Centre in October. I was feeling pretty happy about this.   I'd set it as a goal at the start of the year and worked steadily toward it.  Preparation went well, Gandalf was working like a super star and I got more and more excited as we got closer to leaving.  We had a great crew going from Victoria and it was going to be a lot of fun being part of the team.  We were packed, all that was left to do was to load up the next morning and set off.

Then, late in the afternoon before we were to leave, Gandalf somehow managed to knock his leg in the paddock.

It's times like these you seriously contemplate the practicalities of wrapping horses in bubble wrap.  Gandalf's paddock is safe and clear of anything that could do him harm but he does love to hoon around and somehow he ended up with a knock, a swollen fetlock and we were out of the competition.  Just like that!

What's worse than unpacking after a big event?  Unpacking when you didn't even get to go!

Needless to say, it was a bit of a blow.  I got some small understanding of what people go through when this happens at an international level.  Imagine being ready to represent your country and then, at the last minute, having to pull the pin.  Totally devastating.

Mine was a small drama in comparison and looking at everything in perspective, was not such a big deal.  It didn't feel like that at the time!!  I have to admit I was a little bit horrible to live with for a couple of days before I managed to get a grip and restore some equilibrium.

One thing that was never in question, however, was doing what was right for Gandalf.  After we made the decision to scratch so as not to risk his welfare and our wonderful vet left late that night, Gandalf got some extra carrots, a big cuddle and was tucked up in his warm stable, carefully and with lots of love.  He was quite happy not to make the long road trip to Sydney and to stay warm and relaxed at home.  As far as Gandalf was concerned it was a perfect outcome!

So, with Gandalf temporarily out of work, the spotlight turned to young Fiodore, the stable clown and juvenile delinquent.

I haven't shared much about Fred because Gandalf has generally taken centre stage with his exciting progress and achievements.   This has very much been the case at home too.  As a five year old, Fred is ticking along nicely, not doing anything particularly spectacular in terms of performance but slowly improving all the time.  He's always the second horse ridden and although I'm careful to focus on a very high standard of work from him, his work sessions are fairly simple and there's nothing of great note to report.

Fred, however, has his own way of getting attention.  He's the dorkiest horse I've met and although he drives me round the twist at times, his goofy, affectionate nature ensures that he gets his share of the limelight.  Who can resist a horse who loves to put his head in your arms and close his eyes for a long, quiet cuddle?

At a clinic at Boneo Park a few months ago, we met someone riding a horse that had been Fred's foal mate.  The two horses were bred at the same place and grew up in the same paddock.  When we realised this and she'd recognised Fred she gave us the quote of the year.  Oh my goodness, that's Fred!  He's huge!  He was the most annoying foal in the world!

Yep, nothings changed!

Fred gets bored very easily.  Very, very easily! While other horses will be content to stand quietly in a stable, or tied to the truck, Fred needs to entertain himself constantly.  This could mean eating his lead rope, or trying to strangle himself in it; trying to deconstruct his stable, piece by piece; seeing how far he can throw his water bucket, after he's somehow undone the straps holding it in place; or generally fiddling with anything left close enough for him to reach or not firmly nailed down.

Fred's stable looks like a cross between a maximum security prison cell and a play pen for a baby giant.

Playing is something Fred loves to do and he's remarkably good at a version of paddock football.  He has a rubber ball with a handle that he throws around and he loves it when we play with him.  I kick the ball, he chases it, picks it up, does his best to kill it and then tosses it as far as he can with a flick of his very long, strong neck.  He hasn't grasped the concept of throwing it back toward me yet but we're working on that.  Needless to say, this is a game I get tired of much faster than he does!

Just after Fred joined our team, his breeder asked me if I'd seen him do that thing where he screams around in ever decreasing circles until he falls over?!  Ummm, no, thankfully I haven't actually seen that and I'm really glad he appears to have grown out of it!

Fred is a very confident and self-assured youngster and nothing much fazes him.  New venues are interesting rather than disconcerting and new experiences are approached with pricked ears and a well, what do we have here? approach.  Anything or anywhere new is a good thing according to Fred.

High winds don't worry him in the least and I've ridden him in howling gales where his tail is blowing out horizontally, with debris blowing across the arena and he seems to think it's all great fun!  A normal horse would be worried, Fred just wants to play!

We can trail ride out around the property we live in the middle of a forest and have lyrebirds, wallabies and the occasional deer jump out at us and he doesn't turn a hair.  It's all approached with a well, well, will you have a look at that type of interest.  We actually use Fred as the sensible lead horse when we're out; Gandalf is a big chicken in new places but as long as he can follow Fred, he's fine.

So, generally, Fred is Mr Sensible... until it comes to rocks and mounting blocks!  Rocks are solid, they don't move, they're not going to jump out at you and they make no noise.  Big, black, closed in mounting blocks are pretty much the same.    According to Fred, however, they represent extreme danger and should be treated with the utmost suspicion.   I suppose the thing that rocks and mounting blocks have in common is that they lurk, potentially waiting to do dreadful deeds.

When he encounters a lurking rock or mounting block, Fred snorts and dodges and gets ready to leave.  If it's a mounting block, he sidles up to it with the utmost suspicion as I get on and from then on he keeps one eye on the monster just in case.

Given his general steady brain however, I'm happy to deal with rocks and mounting blocks.

So what does the competition future hold for Fred?

So far he's been doing well at Preliminary level and our plan for the new year is to step up to Novice and then work on through the grades.  Unlike many young horses, we don't have a great need to expose Fred to lots of competitions to settle him down in fact, in many cases, he's nicer to ride at a competition than he is at home!  He'll therefore continue to go to each of the comps I take Gandalf to and just be part of the general team.

Our focus will instead be on training and under the watchful eye and supportive guidance of our coach, David Shoobridge, we'll continue to work on helping Fred to achieve his potential, bit by bit, without rushing it.  Fred is bred to be a superstar and I have a feeling he'll be a rather special performance horse one day.  At the same time, I don't want him to lose the special dorkiness that makes him such a unique and lovable individual, so we'll take it slowly and enjoy the journey.

As for the plans for Gandalf. Thanks to Rose-Hip Vital Equine, Gandalf has made a quicker than expected recovery and is now back in work feeling better than ever.  We'll take it slowly and build up his fitness again to the point where he can get stuck into the higher level movements but until that point, I'm surprised at how much I'm enjoying concentrating on the basics with this very talented horse.

One of the unexpected benefits of bringing Gandalf back into work gradually and carefully has been the chance in fact the need to simply focus on those all important basics.  In a session where I don't have the distraction of working on the fancy moves, fundamentals like straightness, rhythm, throughness and correct bend and flexion become the only focus.  They're all qualities that we know we need to consider all the time but when you can only focus on these, it's a great reality check to see how well established they actually are.

After his unscheduled but very beneficial holiday, Gandalf is approaching his work with a new interest and sense of liveliness that has me rather excited for the future.  I think that the break was the best thing that could have happened to him (although if anyone had tried to tell me that when I was in a meltdown about not getting to the Nationals, they may not have lived to tell the tale!).   He's had an incredibly intense year, rocketing up through the levels, with all the concentrated training that made that possible.  It's been perfect to take all pressure off and to have the chance for both of us to start again with a more chilled mindset.

So now, when we get back into competition in the new year, we'll be aiming for a Medium Tour start but we won't be rushing it.

I'm loving the journey with both of my horses so totally different and both wonderful in their own special way. There's no questions however, that Freddie has very big footsteps to follow along in!

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