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Tracking Progress

Remember the post I shared on our Facebook page last week ‘If you are riding a horse you love, you’ve already won’… As the results come in for the ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ May Dressage, I thought it would be interesting, especially for those who have competed more than once, to discuss that big word ‘Progress’.

First of all, what IS ‘progress’? Dictionary definitions say things like “forward or onward movement towards a destination”, “a movement toward a goal or to a further or higher stage” or “growth or development; continuous improvement”.

It is natural, therefore, to feel like ‘progress’ in dressage means getting a higher score each time. But it really isn’t that simple! Progress comes in many forms, it’s rarely linear (low score, higher score, higher score….) and, importantly, includes plateaus. Those plateaus are essential (especially in children) – periods of consolidation that lay the foundation for the next stage. You know the saying ‘Don’t run before you can walk?’ That really does apply here! That’s not to say we don’t want to see gradually increasing scores, but it’s not the be all and end all – you can show massive progression but have a lower score – more on that later. It’s also important to consider where you are in terms of the range of scores in a class. If one month you place 3rd out of 6 riders, it doesn’t automatically mean you’ve done worse if the next month you place 5th out of 10 riders – in actual fact, you’re in pretty much the same place in the class. The score might vary a bit, but look at the range of scores across the class – how far behind the winner are you compared to last month, how far ahead of last place were you? (It goes without saying that someone has to come last every month – and that’s fine too! You’re out there taking part so you’re already winning – no one gets any better by not doing anything! I’m one of those people that doesn’t have a competitive bone in my body, so I mark ‘progress’ in terms of understanding and feel – and of course enjoyment!)

You might also think of progress in terms of moving up the levels – and that’s definitely a good aim. But how quickly that happens is incredibly individual. One of the main reasons the Demi Dressage tests have a different theme each month is to accommodate those who might stay at the same level for a period of more than a year. Let’s take Yellow Plus for example. Moving from Yellow Plus (extended walk/trot) to Blue (introducing canter) is a BIG step. We’ve made it smaller – child-friendly – compared to the BD jump from Intro to Prelim, as Blue tests only have very small sections of canter. But not only does it involve a trickier gait, the demands on the rider are higher – we’re looking for a greater degree of accuracy, a rider not hindering the pony’s way of going, an increase in understanding of the correctness of school movements and shapes and the Scales of Training…. So you can see how someone starting out at Yellow Plus may show considerable progress developing all those skills whilst remaining at the same level for some time.

Which brings me back to the subject of scores month on month. Of course it’s natural to want to see a higher score each and every month. But that rarely happens, and here’s why: This may be stating the obvious, but each test is different. The requirements for each test are different. Of course we’re looking for broadly the same things at each level each time. But there are elements within each test that demand more in some ways than they might in others compared to a different month’s test. Take the May tests for example. It is nigh on impossible to ride a good shallow loop if you have not ridden into a good corner. So where in the Easter Circles tests you may not have been penalised in the marks quite so much for lazy corners because it did not impact as much on the next movement, in the Rainbows test it will have a massive effect on your shallow loops, and as that is the movement that is being marked, you can see how it would be easy to drop from a 7 for a movement to maybe a 6.5 or a 6. This then gets reflected in the Collectives (Use of Arena/Accuracy) and as these are double-weighted, even half a mark there can mean a whole % difference to your final score.

But have you still progressed? Yes – absolutely! You’ve ridden a test with a whole new movement, introducing you to new concepts of riding that will lay good foundations as you continue to ride and compete.

If a rider stays at Yellow-Plus for two years and scores lower in their Rainbow test in the second year, I’d start to question what was going on, as you’d hope they’d have taken on board their marks and comments from last time. But if they score worse in their August ‘Back To School Squares’ test than their May ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ test, this wouldn’t concern me – it is probably as simple as not quite grasping some of the movements used in the different tests – perhaps not being quite as accurate in a test where the movements start or finish AT a particular letter rather than between letters.

We also have to remember ponies themselves have ‘off days’ – and so do riders. Many people forget that young riders are constantly growing. It affects their balance and coordination more at times than it does at others. Many of the Demi Dressage tests include balance exercises – jump position, sitting trot etc. These are essential to help develop a good seat and independent hands/legs, but if a rider is having a ‘wonky’ stage (and it happened to MiniD last year – her rising trot suddenly started looking like a flailing monkey!) they’re going to struggle with those balance exercises and that will affect their marks. Don’t get disheartened – the test the next month may suit them (and/or the pony) better! That’s precisely why we use such a range of tests rather than cycling the same few over and over again (that and it helps teach them so many new movements over the course of the year – which is in itself ‘progress’.)

What do you think, what does ‘progress’ mean to you? Are you all about the numbers, or can you step back and take a look at the bigger picture too? Are you driven by competitive success, or maybe you’re a bit like me and you couldn’t give two hoots about your scores at all, as long as you’re enjoying your ride!

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