Stepping into freestyle.

I’ve always wanted to try dressage to music, right from a young age after watching Jennie Loriston-Clarke give a music masterclass at Goodwood. There is something about a horse moving in time to music that is particularly magical. It gives me goose bumps!

Rather than just being reserved for people who reach the top level of the sport, dressage to music has become increasingly popular and it’s now open to all levels from Prelim, so everyone can give it a go. Many more venues are offering freestyle classes, at unaffiliated and affiliated competitions, so it’s much easier to get involved. Plus, there’s a new British Dressage music championship to aim for in 2018.

Even though my horse has only just started out at Novice level, I thought it would be fun to give music a go. It’s something different to do and it can help relax nervous horses (and riders!) if they are a bit tense and spooky. So, I’m on a steep learning curve as I explore the world of floor plans, compulsory movements and beats per minute!!

How do you go about it?

It is possible to create the floor plan and music yourself, if you know what you are doing and have some music editing software. But if, like me, you don’t know where to start, you might want to enlist the help of a professional who can guide you through the process and create the right freestyle for you and your horse. You can send a video of your horse’s paces to a professional, or attend a music clinic so you get to try out different types of music. I opted to develop a floor plan with my trainer, as she knows my horse’s strong points, alongside a music expert, and was lucky to be able to arrange a session with them both at the same time so we could build it together.

Whatever way you choose to do it, here are some key points that I’ve learnt so far:

  • Getting the basics in place: Each level has a set of compulsory movements which are available on the BD website. Obviously it’s vital to get those basics in place and develop the rest of the floor plan around those movements, so that you have a nice flowing test.
  • Playing to your strengths: You want to show your horse off to the best of its ability, so it’s a good idea to get advice so that your floor plan plays to your strengths. For example, if you know your horse has a better canter than trot, bring the canter in early and use as much of the time as possible to show that off. Or, if your horse is weaker on one rein, start with the other rein so they are more relaxed and supple by the time you get to the same movement on the other side. The great thing about freestyle is that it’s your opportunity to create a test that works best for you and your horse.
  • Matching the horse’s paces to the music: The starting point to choosing music is knowing the beats per minute of your horse’s paces. This means counting how many times one foreleg hits the ground within one minute, in walk, trot and canter. A good tip is to use a white bandage/boot on that leg so it makes it easier to spot. You can ask someone to video this for you and count it out at home, or ask a professional to do this.
  • Choosing the music: Once you have the beats per minute, you can start searching for music which fits your horse. You are going to have to listen to it a lot, so choose something that you really like! It’s good to be creative but the most important thing is that it suits your horse – not only in terms of tempo but their personality too. I really liked the sound of an Ibiza club mix, but it just didn’t suit my horse at all!! You can choose something with vocals but they shouldn’t be distracting, so most people opt for instrumental versions. It’s good to have a theme which links the music in each pace – such as songs from a particular artist, musical, film or TV programme.
  • Perfecting your freestyle: Once you have your music and floor plan sorted, you’ll need to practise it to make sure the music fits. You’ll find that some days you’ll ride it quicker than others, depending on your horse’s mood, the surface of the arena or the CD player! That’s why you need to know the music inside out, so you know when to get a wriggle on if you need to make up time, or pop in an extra circle if you are ahead of the game.
  • The official bit: You need to have a license to play music in public, which you can do through British Dressage. They will send you some stickers which need to be placed on your CDs (or CD covers to avoid them interfering with the CD player). To compete in BD music classes, you will need to be at least a Club member – for more details visit

I took Rupert for his very first freestyle outing a few weeks ago, armed with my fabulous Bake-Off music designed by Ros Kay. I was a bit distracted because he was very spooky down one side of the arena, which meant I missed a movement on one rein and ended up with loads of spare trot music. Rather than styling it out like I should have done, I just hung around A for what seemed like forever until the canter music kicked in! This was a great learning experience. I know I have to practise it a lot more before the next outing and listen to the music at home, visualising exactly where I want to be – just to make absolutely sure I know where I am going and that I don’t get knocked off course if something goes wrong.

Most of all, we are aiming to have fun with our music outings. It feels a bit less pressurised somehow and it helps me relax as I’ve got something else to think about! So why not give dressage to music a go? Even if you can’t get out competing, you can still use music at home by playing it while you are schooling. It’s fun to do something different and a great way to practise keeping in a consistent rhythm.


Your centre line face

Beaming smiles, frustrated frowns and visible sighs of relief – you’d be surprised what your final centre line reveals about you and your horse.

Having recently spent some time writing for a dressage judge, I was fascinated by people’s facial expressions after they performed their final halt and salute. The judging may be over by that point but those few seconds at the end of the test give so much away about the weeks/months/years leading up to that moment and the relationship you have with your horse.

Most of the time it is easy to tell whether the rider is relieved, upset, delighted, disappointed or furious. When I was writing, I felt those emotions through the glass of the judge’s box and I desperately wanted to acknowledge that I understood how they felt. Having ridden countless centre lines on a range of horses from lazy ponies to ticking time bombs, that final halt can be an emotional experience! In that split moment you can either feel like all the years of hard work have been worth it, or that you’ve had enough of the humiliation and are going to take up basket weaving instead.

Of course, the judge can only score what they see in front of them at the time, but how often have you wished you could give some extra context to your test? At the last outing with my horse, I wanted to say to the judge “Think that was bad? You should have seen my last test!” I’m not sure what my face looked like at the end but I tried to telepathically communicate with the judge that I was delighted with the improvement.

So, it got me wondering what else our facial expressions might say about us when we perform that final centre line. Here is my top ten:


  1. The ear to ear grin: Yes! We smashed it. Next stop, the Olympics.
  2. The sigh of relief: Hoorah – we stayed in the arena for the first time in months AND I remembered the test. Result.
  3. The confused expression: We’ve practised those transitions for months and suddenly he’s forgotten how to walk.
  4. The grimace: What a total arse. That is all.
  5. The wry smile: Yes, I know flying changes weren’t required – but wow what potential!
  6. The knowing look: Hit me with your lowest scores, I’m ready.
  7. The apologetic exchange: Mouthing the word S-O-R-R-Y to the judge.
  8. The quivering lip: You have no idea what we have been through to get here. I’m so proud, I love my horse (sob)!
  9. The final frown: That’s it I’m throwing the towel in and trading the lorry for a campervan.
  10. The nod to the stars: I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive!

Undoubtedly, there are many other stories being told as you reach that final halt. I’d love to hear what your centre line face says about you!

Flower pot monsters – and learning to deal with them

It’s been nearly a week since we ventured out to do our first Novice tests last weekend – I’m not sure where the time has gone! Here’s a quick run through of how it went:

I had a very civilised start time, so I was quite organised for once and arrived with plenty of time to spare. It was a very hot day but I wanted to give Rupert enough time to settle, so he would be nice and relaxed for the tests. But in the boiling hot indoor arena, it felt like we were warming up for ages and Rupert started to feel like he was flagging.

Eventually we were called for our test. I  did a little dance inside when he walked through the barriers and past the giant champagne bottles, bins and other ringside gremlins which have been an issue in the past. But I wasn’t prepared for the new monsters which had suddenly appeared in the form of FLOWERS which were neatly dotted around the arenas. Because there is very little room around the edge at Keysoe, we spent a very embarrassing few minutes (seemed like hours) reversing into white boards and demolishing the arena as I tried to persuade Rupert that the horse-eating blooms were nothing to worry about!

Eventually, with a change of direction, some swift repairs to the arena, and a huge pony club kick, we somehow made it down the centre line. But his mind was not on me at all and he spooked his way around the test. If swerving were a real movement, we’d have got 10s!

In the lead up to this outing, my main worry was how difficult the second test was. I soon forgot about that as I was faced with a much more basic problem of actually getting in the arena and going anywhere near the outside track! I wasn’t really looking forward to going back in and Rupert felt very flat in the warm up. But I was relieved when a kind lady agreed to read the test for me, as it was one less thing to worry about if we had navigation problems!

Surprisingly, Rupert was a lot braver about the flowers this time. They were still terrifying but we had more space to get round them in the second arena, so he didn’t panic. The test felt 100 times better than the first, still spooky and behind my leg but I was absolutely delighted with the improvement. I did ask for medium trot and canter but there wasn’t much gas left in the tank by then, so the marks reflected that. I didn’t dare let go for long in the give and retake the reins, as the flower pots were looming up ahead, but the counter canter was easier in the big arena than at home.

All in all, I felt it was a massive learning experience for us both. I warmed him up for too long because, although he was nice and relaxed in the warm up, that all went to pot (literally) when we went to the test arena. He was then behind my leg and not really listening.  I was pleased with how Rupert improved for the second test, as he started to accept my reassurance that the flowers were not out to get him – something to practise at home I feel.

The first test was a bit of a disaster but the judge’s comments were really supportive and encouraging, particularly on how I had ‘coped with the situation’! The second test was better for 62.8% but I felt a little disappointed with the marks and comments. I guess, to me the difference between the two tests was so immense I was expecting an award for actually doing a 20m circle! But it was a different judge and they have to mark what they see in front of them – there are no prizes for lack of swerving. I felt a little better seeing other people having similar issues getting into the arenas and riders exchanging supportive tales of woe – it meant we weren’t the only ones overreacting to the decorations!

With a qualifying score for the Petplan Area Festivals, I have been debating whether to rush out again in the next few weeks to try and get another two sheets before the deadline. But I’ve decided to take the pressure off a bit. It’s not so much the qualifying, but the Area Festival is the week after the Regionals and my husband will be away for both – making it more tricky with home, the kids, work and everything else. So, I’m just going to focus on the Regionals for now and plan ahead a bit more for our next Novice outings. Sometimes you have to think about the bigger picture, and I never even dreamed we would qualify for anything this summer. I’m delighted that we’ve come such a long way since our first competition back in April and thankful that all the things I worried about then, are not as much of an issue now. Onwards and upwards as they say…..

Bitten off more than I can chew?

Still experiencing the euphoria of Glastonbury, I decided to enter our first two novice tests next weekend. The reality of the situation hit home today when I practised the tests. Rupert has had nearly two weeks off so he doesn’t quite know what has hit him. Novice 37 is a bit of a slap around the face after the relative ease of Prelims – with a quick succession of movements, including counter canter, give and retake the reins, medium trot and canter, three halts, square serpentine and 10m circles. I know Rupert can do it but it’s a real step up and it will be a miracle if I can remember the test as well as Novice 23, which is a lot kinder!

Instead of stressing about how crap it might be, I am trying to take a more practical approach. I think I’m still tired after Glastonbury, as I am not panicking yet. Maybe that’s the answer – more festivals?!! Anyway, I’ve got a lesson tomorrow with the wonderful Tahley, who I’m sure will whip me into shape and I will practise as much as I can, on and off the horse. You Tube will be my friend this week!

Points, prizes and Petplan preparations

I snuck out to Keysoe earlier this week to do a couple more Prelim tests. I was hoping to gain one decent score so we could qualify for the Petplan Area Festivals but as ever, my mind was more focused on not making a complete idiot of myself rather than winning any prizes!

Rupert arrived pretty chilled and only needed a little stretch on the lunge before I got on. It was lovely and quiet, so we went straight outside to warm up and get used to the usual spooky monsters. He felt very settled, even to the point of having to get after him a bit – which was a reassuring feeling! We still had trouble getting past the banners entering the arenas but with lots of leg and a couple of taps on the shoulder, we body swerved enough to get past them and up the centre(ish) line.

In the first test, Rupert broke into canter a couple of times when I asked for a bigger trot but the rest was OK so I was really pleased with him. Our second test was only ten minutes later, so just enough time for a quick stretch before picking him up and going back in. He felt a little behind my leg but there were no major hiccups and it was a really positive step forward.

Our scores were way above what I had hoped for – 66.8% in the first test and 71.79% in the second! As long as my calculations are correct, and maths isn’t my strong point, that means we have qualified for the Regionals – something I had never thought possible a few months ago. Now I have the dilemma about whether to go out and do some novice tests to try and qualify for the Area Festivals as well. That means getting out a few times between now and the end of July to get three scores above 62%. And I was only just starting to remember where I was going in the Prelim tests!

Rupert is having a well-earned week off next week when I go to Glastonbury. Time for us both to let our hair down! When I get back, I’ll need to have a plan of action about what we do next. It just goes to show that a few positive experiences can really help boost your confidence, as I am starting to think ahead to the next goal.

One other thing on the priority list between now and then is to sort out his mane, as it was a flipping nightmare to plait!

The value of volunteering

I’m too busy. I don’t have the right skills or knowledge. I won’t know anyone. These are just some of the reasons why you might decide against volunteering. But even the smallest amount of support can make a huge difference to organisations which rely on volunteers to help them.

In the past I have helped out on school and local community centre committees but more recently I have joined British Dressage’s Eastern Region as the marketing representative. This was an ideal opportunity to combine my skills with my passion, and to get to know more people with a love of dressage in the region. I was worried about the time commitment and how I would balance that with managing my own business, but I was reassured that any time I could give would be gratefully received.

Volunteers are the lifeblood of British Dressage, like so many other equestrian disciplines. Each of the regional committees are run by volunteers and competitions simply wouldn’t be able to run without the scorers, stewards, runners, writers and many other supporters who give their time for the love of the sport.

Giving something back to a cause you are passionate about is a great feeling but there are all sorts of other benefits to volunteering. For example, having written for a judge at a competition, I gained a valuable insight into what the judge is looking for and how to ride tests more strategically to gain maximum points. There is so much you can learn from the people around you, so it’s a chance to improve your own knowledge and riding.

As part of National Volunteers’ Week, we are celebrating the vital contribution that volunteers make to British Dressage. You can find out more by visiting the Eastern Region’s Facebook page.


Learning to deal with nerves

These days, I get really nervous about competing, or doing anything a bit out of the ordinary with my horse. It’s got worse as I’ve got older and it’s held me back at times.

Being nervous isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can have a really negative impact if it starts to prevent you from doing the things you want to do. Many a time I’ve avoided certain situations for fear of what might happen and then been cross with myself for being a wimp. I’ve also found that it can make me ride defensively, with the handbrake on, which doesn’t help my young horse relax either.

The tricky thing is, I’m not ready to hang up my boots just yet! In fact, I’m more ambitious than ever about competing, as I have a lovely, talented horse and a real determination to progress. I’m not aiming for the stars but I’d like to see how far we can go.

Up until fairly recently, I’d just accepted that I’m not a brave rider anymore and that there isn’t much I can do about it. I had got into the frame of mind that it’s best to expect the worst, then if it doesn’t happen, it’s a bonus! But a number of things have happened which have started to change my perspective and I’m learning more about how negative thought processes can have a very powerful impact on what plays out in reality.

Here are a few tips which can help set you on a different path:

  • Don’t listen to the “You should be doing this” brigade. We all know the horse world is full of ‘experts’ and you can be bombarded with advice and views about what is best for you and your horse. Some people find it hard to understand how crippling being nervous can be, and their ‘toughen up’ talk is usually pretty unhelpful. Take things at your own pace and don’t feel pushed into doing anything you don’t want to do.
  • Remember, you are not alone. You may think that you are the only one who feels this way. You watch all the incredible achievements people post on social media and feel like you’ll never be good enough. But believe me, there are many people who really struggle with their nerves competing at the highest level, including professionals. It’s just that they have found ways to deal with it.
  • Invest in training. Find a trainer who you really connect with, who has a positive, encouraging approach. I invest as mush as I can afford into training, as it not only helps us to progress, it helps with self-belief which I try to carry over into a competition environment.
  • Seek positive support. One of the biggest influences on me recently has been some incredibly supportive people who have changed my view on mindset. I am learning how positive thinking can transform your approach and ultimately shape what you achieve. I have been working with a fab coach, who has been helping me with my business, but it’s had a much wider impact on changing my thought processes and believing in the possible. There is plenty of support out there and a growing number of equestrian coaches who offer online courses, workshops and training specifically designed to help build your confidence.
  • Follow some role models. There are some fantastic equestrian role models on social media who are very open about the challenges they face and what they do to overcome them. For example, Olivia Towers does a weekly Facebook live session with valuable advice on a range of issues with a particular focus on mindset and visualisation. Lili Brooksby-Dalby gives refreshingly honest accounts of her journey with her sharp but mega talented horse Fons, and Diary of Wimpy Eventer is a hilarious blog about getting back into eventing. And there are many many more!
  • Little steps gain big results. Sometimes you can feel under pressure to throw yourself in at the deep end. But I have found taking small, gradual steps is the best way to build confidence over the longer term. Rather than plunging straight into a competition environment, I have been building this slowly by going to clinics at a range of venues with the support of fantastic trainers. I’ve also been to an adult training camp which means you have intensive support over a couple of days and plenty of time for your horse to get used to the surroundings. Even simple things like hacking can be a major issue, so getting someone to walk with you on foot for a 10-minute hack to start with, will help you gain more confidence and build trust with your horse. I find that if you take things a step at a time and have a positive experience, you begin to feel like you can tackle the next thing with greater positivity.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m still a massive wimp and I am a long way from being ‘cured’ but I am much more positive now I believe there is a way forward. I know that I’m not going to change overnight, that it’s a gradual learning process, but it feels like my goals are more achievable. The first step is to believe that you can change the way you think and feel – but to make it happen, you have to be prepared to really work at it.