Lots of love, X: the anatomy of a blind dressage test

Calm and collected... Natalie at Regionals. The white arm band signifies that she is a blind rider. (Photo credit: Darren Woodlow)

I support Natalie, a young blind rider, in her RDA sessions each week. Although I am not the coach of her class, I spend so much time working with her I have become very closely involved in her coaching. This year, she competed in RDA dressage for the first time at regional and national level. When I posted a picture of her on the Abingdon RDA Instagram feed, another young participant messaged me to ask "but how does she see where she's going?".

The answer? She doesn't.

But this is how it works.

First, take your rider...

Natalie is Totally Visually Impaired (TVI), or "completely blind" in layman's terms. Her eye condition, Leber's Congenital Amaurosis, means that she has no sight at all; even perception of light and dark. She is nine, very clever, and already inclined to be her own worst critic. For this reason, we had to work hard to make sure that her first competitive experiences were as fun as possible, and that she knew that we had no expectations of her. Natalie's main coach and I worked with another TVI rider some years ago, so knew a bit about how to go about things. Unlike our previous rider, however, everything we were doing to do with dressage was a first for Natalie.

We got a resounding "Yes!" when we asked Natalie if she was keen to compete for the first time, so that was it: time to get stuck in. As the first TVI dressage rider I had worked with since qualifying as a coach, I was ready to learn, and learn a lot, from the whole experience. This week's blog post, from my entirely non-expert viewpoint, charts what we did and what I learnt. I hope that it will be interesting reading, because blind sport is interesting, and perhaps helpful for other RDA coaches who start off on similar journeys in the future.

Give me a call

Whenever I am asked how Natalie finds her way around a dressage arena I am forced to give an oversimplified explanation: "people stand at the letters around the arena and call them out". This actually does a huge disservice to what her callers do, either as a competition-day sat-nav or as a training aid at home. 

Natalie has nine callers; one for each letter on the outside of the arena, and one inside. In the future, I would love for her to be able to go into the arena with a single caller, like the amazing Nicola Naylor who was featured by the BBC earlier this summer. Rome was not built in a day, however, and Natalie has never had the experience of competing as a sighted rider to inform the senses she uses for dressage. Her callers are, for now, a very necessary part of the landscape of a dressage test at home and away.

The basic premise of calling for a VI rider is thus: the rider approaches a letter, and the letter is called repeatedly until they reach it. The next letter in whichever pattern or shape is required then begins calling. We take "reaching a letter" to mean the rider's body drawing level with the marker. At the moment, we are adopting the approach of calling the letter ("A, A, A, A") with a final "and A" as Natalie's body passes the marker. This is permitted in RDA competitions, although not in Para; whether she reaches this stage or not, the "and"s are a bit like having the security of stabilisers on a bicycle, and will be removed when she is ready to "cycle" without them.

As the letters are in a fixed order, Natalie's regular riding lessons helped to cement her understanding of the arena layout. She also has a 2D Braille diagram, made for her by a key helper in her previous class, which enabled her to prompt her memory at home. I also took the advice of a more experienced coach and started her off with some work on the ground, walking between letters and pacing out the movements she would need to ride.

A 20x40 dressage arena, as used for RDA competitions

The line up

Finding enough callers, and training them, is one of the most time-consuming parts of coaching a VI rider. With six years between Natalie and our last competitive blind rider, I was the only remaining caller from the last time our group fielded a TVI dressage test. As it happened, we were very lucky with the cast of callers (and their understudies!) who came together to make it work for Natalie. The most basic prerequisite for being a caller is having a loud (enough) voice. A dressage arena is 800 square metres; not enormous when you can see all of it, but infinitely huge for Natalie if she is struggling to hear her essential points of reference.

At competitions, VI classes are held in full sized indoor arenas to minimise distracting outside noise and assist riders and their callers. At home, our indoor arena is undersized. This means that if Natalie's training is going to be a fair representation of what a competition arena will feel like we have to use our outdoor arena; battling the elements, and traffic noise from the busy A road that runs parallel to our yard. "Feel" is essential to a blind rider's development; the differences between a straight line and a wobbly one, or the number of steps the pony needs to take before turning the corner of the arena. On top of this, of course, are all the elements of riding which any sighted rider has to concentrate on too; position, aids, the rhythm of the horse's paces, and the precision of the test movements. We knew from the start that Natalie's job was not going to be an easy one.

Once the basic calling technique (voice projection and all) was established, the callers started to apply the technique to the various elements of Natalie's dressage test. Knowing that this year would be an opportunity to set the benchmark for any future competitions, every one of us had to be open minded and receptive to feedback (mainly from Natalie herself) to make everything work. We experimented a lot with volume as a training aid to help Natalie to correct herself, getting slightly louder if she strayed off course to encourage her to refocus on our voices.

Where possible, we tried to keep callers to the same marker or type of marker. This consistency means that each of the callers (although they would probably refute this out of modesty) becomes an expert in their letter, and the parts of the test in which it is involved. Natalie knows exactly who is calling what and was unfazed by the odd letter swapping from week to week during training sessions, but I do think that knowing exactly whose voice would be coming next in a competition arena helps her keep her cool on the day. Having a letter of your very own also helped to cultivate a real sense of team spirit. I regularly found myself signing off messages to our "Team Natalie" group chat with "lots of love, X".

What we discovered very quickly was that it was near impossible for Natalie to make any real headway with her training unless she rode on her own. Usually the youngest in a class of five riders, she gains a lot from her group lessons and enjoys being able to chat to her peers and helpers. For the calling process to work properly, however, the focus had to be singular for her and for us. We created a new slot for her at the end of the day on Saturdays, and started shouting out those letters...

Easy as ABC(?)

When work starts on a dressage test, there is also a lot more to it than merely "shouting out the letters"...

Middle markers: A, B, E, and C

The middle markers have to be precise and assertive, as they are where any right-angled turns will happen in Natalie's dressage test. On our caller team, C also covers G (for the final halt at the end of the test), and usually has the undignified job of squatting in front of the judge's table to get the job done. A is a key player, taking charge of lining Natalie up for the beginning of the test (any last minute micro-pep talks will come from A) and generally taking charge when she exits at the end, too. 

Corner markers: K, H, M, and F

Where middle markers have their assertive right angles, corner markers are queens of subtlety. Corner markers have to handle, well, corners. Working out when to call letters and give Natalie the right instructions to ride her corners correctly was one of the most trial-and-error parts of the team's learning process. Corner markers also find themselves involved in such things as diagonal changes of rein and circular movements, so their calling techniques have to be flexible to accommodate approaches from all angles.

Centre marker: X

Floating in the middle of the school, X is my job. As X does not have the luxury of standing on the other side of the arena boards, they can often be found doing a strange little dance to try and keep the rider on track, whilst avoiding being mowed down by the horse during circles or changes of rein. I keep an eye on everything, whilst not actually being responsible for the start or end points of many, if any, of the movements. It is X's voice which helps the rider navigate the slightly more uncertain waters of the middle of the arena, where there is no wall or boards to keep things on track for rider or horse.

"Team Natalie" at Nationals; all 9 callers, coach, and Speckles the pony

Team Natalie on tour

Just in case our callers thought they had given enough of their time, energy, and concentration, they also had to do their thing at a regional and national competition. Regionals was rocky due to out-of-character unsettled behaviour from Natalie's pony, but still gave her the qualifying score she needed. Not too shabby for someone competing in her first ever dressage test.

At Nationals, the whole team took the raised stakes in their stride. Natalie did keep an impressively cool head in the warm up, although she couldn't quite convince me that she wasn't nervous. I found that silence was what unnerved her the most, and realised shortly afterwards that this made perfect sense. Hearing is, of course, the sense she relies on the most to keep herself on track when in the saddle. This is where having a small army of callers with loud voices following you round a competition comes in very useful: all the lighthearted, nerve-squashing chat one could possibly wish for.

Natalie did everything we wanted from her in her test: to improve on how she rode at Regionals. The energy I felt from the callers was more settled than at Regionals, too; we were by that stage a team, a well oiled machine. Every rider who goes out into an arena at Nationals is the product of a huge team effort, but for Natalie the team work involved is so clearly defined, right before our eyes (and ears). It's going to take a while before I'm able to stay dry-eyed at the end of one of her dressage tests.

Natalie went on to win the overall class champion title for the TVI walk dressage class at the 2019 National Championships. 

When the plan comes together! Natalie (right) with her prizes for winning the TVI Walk overall championship at Nationals 2019. She is pictured with Ros, who also won a National Champion title that day in the Grade 1-6 Walk & Trot class.

What next?

With a (still slightly disbelieving) National Champion on our hands, we are now contemplating where we go next for Natalie; after a good few months of fun, of course. Acting on advice from another coach, a colleague of my dad's has very kindly made a scale model of a dressage arena out of wood, which when finished off with Braille markers and filled with play sand will be a tactile training aid for Natalie's next dressage endeavour, and anything new she tries in a riding lesson. (Thank you, Robin - I can't wait to show her!) This will mean that we don't have to rely on "how it feels" to show Natalie the difference between an accurate and inaccurate manoeuvre; she can follow a path in the sand or draw one for herself, using the Braille letters for reference.

We are also keen to push Natalie's memory next year, and have her ride her test without a caller. We hope that this will enable her to focus even more on the letters, improving her accuracy. This will be aided partly by her prior experience, partly by the new model arena, and partly by an audio recording of her dressage test which I will have ready for the beginning of next year. This is very easy to record using a smartphone, although I will have to swallow my dislike of hearing my own voice played back! It can be hard to manage expectations off the back of a big win, but I think that Natalie will respond the best to knowing that her aim is to beat herself; pushing to be better than the rider she was a year, a month, or a week previously.

As for our team of callers, I am hoping that many of them will have the time to join Natalie for her second year of competitive dressage. I also have a much clearer idea of how to train new callers for when letters might be left empty in the future. Every time she rides, of course, Natalie will be building her strength, technique, and horsemanship ready for her next challenge. And for those of us interpreting, challenging, and supporting her? We'll always be ready to step up, to lend a voice and a pair of eyes.

With thanks to the whole of "Team Natalie" for their love, support, and loud voices. Thank you to Sara Jones-Williams and Shannon Duross for their encouragement and ideas via the power of social media, and to Clive Milkins for his in-person advice. Finally, thank you to Natalie's mum, Karen, for trusting us with her daughter and accommodating all of the extra lessons whilst we tried to work out the best way of doing things!