Hawke's Bay rider Willa Aitken has a slogan to help during dressage events: "Keep calm."

Willa is the captain of the Hawke's Bay dressage team competing at the National Pony Club Championships today and tomorrow at the Dannevirke A&P Showgrounds.

"I get very tense because I try to be perfect," Willa said.

Willa has chosen to specialise in dressage rather than eventing or showjumping, after previously competing in all three equestrian disciplines.

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"Whenever I went eventing I'd come home on a double clear, but I knew I needed to get my dressage better. I thought there's no point going out there until I've got it better. I'm still working on getting it better."

Describing dressage as dancing horses, Willa said the appeal is setting achievable goals and working to achieve them and then setting new goals.

"I really like bringing on the young ponies. You can look back and think, I taught you that."

Willa's mother Lois Robertshaw said her daughter is one of a handful of kids in a class, so she's not often competing against people her own age.

"These National Pony Club Championships are such an amazing opportunity for Willa to ride with her peers, against her peers," she said.

Willa agreed. "Competing in the Pony Club championships lets me warm up with other kids. Instead of there only being a few kids doing dressage, every kid here is doing dressage and it's more fun."

Willa said her most significant achievement so far in dressage was last year at the Pony and Young Rider national dressage championships at level 3 on Ted (Kirkwood Greenlight).

"It's one achievement I'm the proudest of," she said.

And competing is a family thing, Lois said. "When Willa is doing up to nine tests a day, it becomes a family thing. I go out with the jet planes and the water and the dressage test book and Tim (Willa's father) ferries the ponies back and forth."

Willa and her team-mates prepared for these national championships at a training camp and all had two lessons, working with trainer Anna Williams. Williams rides to level 5 dressage at national level and is a past competitor at dressage championships.

"Ana Arnott, our team manager, keeps us all organised and makes sure everyone has their training sessions," Willa said.

Highlights for spectators:

* This afternoon: classes 29 and 31 - level 5 and 6 tests.
* This evening: class 35, Quadrille, teams of four riders riding together about 5.30pm.
* Tomorrow: 11am-1pm, classes 52 and 53 pairs competitions, senior and junior pairs.
* Tomorrow afternoon: classes 49 and 50 - level 5 and 6 tests.