Debby Lush: “There are no shortcuts”
Debby Lush is a Grand Prix rider, List 1 judge and the bestselling author of The Successful Dressage Competitor and The Building Blocks of Training. She has taken time out from her busy schedule of riding, judging and training to talk about near misses, swapping from eventing to dressage and her “disastrous” first pony.
What made you first get involved in dressage?
Being honest, I’m a failed eventer. Back in the days when I evented, competitions started at Novice level – and that’s not small. I did one full competitive season during which I often led the dressage phase, but I’m not bold cross-country (even though I loved it), and I saw two young horses killed by simple, baby errors, and couldn’t bear the thought of something like that happening to my one and only precious horse.
So I decided to go with what I was good at, and it worked out!
Which horse changed your life and why?
That would be the chestnut mare I evented, Flight of Fancy. She was a real chestnut mare, and not the prettiest conformation, but she could turn her hoof to almost anything – I show jumped her to Grade C, did the season of affiliated eventing, and then she took me to Medium level dressage – and also to the National Side Saddle Championships.
This was a horse with a huge body and short legs (Russian x hunter, we think) but the most fantastic natural extensions. I reckon if I’d settled on dressage earlier in her career she’d have gone advanced, despite her shape. She taught me that even the oddest shaped horse may surprise you, if it has the right mind.
Have you ever scored a perfect 10, and if so what for?
Nope, still waiting on this one. I’ve had 9s, most recently for extended walk, but never the illusory 10.
What do you look for in a dressage horse?
For me, I like a particular shape of horse – naturally round and compact. But, along with what I’ve said above, the most important feature is the mind – they have got to want to do the job, otherwise there’s no pleasure in it for either party.
A good conformation is a plus – then they find the work easier than if they are having to work around their physical shortcomings. The one thing I’ve learned to avoid like the plague is a horse with a big head – the neck will never be strong enough to carry a big skull up in an advanced outline.
Which exercise do you use most often in training?
Variations of leg yield. It’s an amazingly versatile exercise that can be done in dozens of different ways, places and patterns, and combines with other exercises to produce a whole variety of effects on a horse’s body – suppleness, especially over the back, engagement, obedience to the sideways driving aids, and increased ability to cross the legs. Most often I’m using it with bend, not as it’s done in the final competition form, where you have just flexion at the poll.
What was your first big win?
Actually, it was an ‘almost’ win that sticks in my mind – 2nd in the Elementary Freestyle National Championship. It was a huge class, and I led all day until the very last horse. So near and yet so far. More recently, it would be winning the PSG Freestyle Southern Regional at Patchetts.
Have you had any mentors?
Well I guess that would be my trainers – Charles de Kunffy and Arthur Kottas, then more recently also Stephen Clarke.
What’s your next goal?
To make a second Grand Prix horse. Now I’ve done it once, I’d like to get another horse there without making all the mistakes I did first time around!
Tell us about your first pony
Oooh, shudders. My first pony was a disaster. My mother bought him from a friend who owned a riding school in Cornwall. He was a riding school pony through and through – wouldn’t go unless there was someone in front of him, and he dropped me at the same point on every hack with a massive spook and then stuffing his head down to eat grass. Needless to say, we didn’t have him for too long!
What has dressage taught you?
That there are no short cuts – if you want to do dressage properly, you and your horses are in it for the long term. One of my favourite quotes is that ‘the horse will be his own calendar’ – meaning that you can only train him as fast as he is mentally willing and physically able to learn. If only I could remember who said that.
Another is, ‘what you create by force you must hold by force’ ~ Stephen Clarke.
I want to enjoy my sport, and I want my horses to enjoy it with me. Taking the time to get it right also gives you the best chance that your horse will have a long and healthy career – my old boy, Merlin, will be 20 next year, and all things being equal, will contest his fourth year in Grand Prix, as he shows no signs of wanting to give up yet.