Triumph In Competition Begins With Training At Home

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You’ve decided that it’s time for you and your horse to be part of a training program, so you make appointments to go meet two trainers not far from your home. But you’re in for a surprise.

At the first trainer’s busy barn, the barn manager informs you that you’d spoken to the trainer yesterday on her cell phone, because she’s been at a show circuit 500 miles away for the last month. She’ll be home next week, but then she’ll be gone again for another two weeks.

The next day, you visit another trainer, who invites you to observe him teach a lesson. This trainer certainly seems knowledgeable and kind, but you notice that the entire lesson involves the student attempting to perfect the 20-meter circle at the trot. When you try to discuss his competition schedule, the trainer informs you that none of his students are ready to show. He adds that he thinks showing is mostly a waste of time and that the results are rarely indicative of a horse’s or rider’s training.

These are the personality extremes of the riding world. You’ll find riders and trainers who compete almost every week, somewhat like addicts looking for the next show. And you’ll find riders and trainers who rarely compete, spending their lives pursuing of a state of perfection that can never be attained.

We won’t try to analyze the psychological or emotional reasons for either personality, but we’ve long found that, as in so much of life, there is a broad and happy middle ground.

On The Road Again

All of today’s equestrian disciplines offer more competitions than ever before. In fact, on many hunter/jumper circuits, trainers and their horses hardly ever see home, spending five to nine weeks at circuits in Florida, California, Arizona, New England or New York, then moving to the next circuit. So the temptation to always be competing, competing, competing is greater than ever before.

It hasn’t always been that way, though. Until about 30 years ago, all horse sports (even flat racing) had off seasons in the winter, during which riders and trainers actually stayed at home and trained. Their seasons would end before Thanksgiving and resume in late March or April. In that time, they’d develop new horses, teach horses who were already competing the skills they needed to move up to the next level, and train riders on position and technique.

Now hunter/jumper and dressage shows go year-round, and eventing has barely an eight-week break from mid-November until mid-January.

Training Goals At Home

Competition gives you a great reason — a definite motivation — to further your riding and training experiences and education. It pushes you to do new things with your horse, to develop him or her as an athlete and as an individual. And it allows you to test or demonstrate your work, your system, to find out how you and your horse are progressing in your training.

But three goals, which often overlap, should shape and direct the training that you do at home to prepare for those competitions.

The first goal is basic, and everything else builds from it: To improve and enhance your horse’s and your own fitness and strength. Why' Because neither you nor your horse can perform any athletic endeavor if you’re not fit enough or strong enough.

Note: Improving your horse’s fitness doesn’t mean he has to be ready for a 100-mile endurance ride. But every discipline — including dressage and show hunters — requires a specific level of fitness, or strength, that can only be achieved or improved by regular and correct training.

The second goal is to improve your skills (along with your fitness) by performing a progressive series of exercises regularly over weeks, months and years. Whether it’s shoulder-in for dressage, the ability to find the correct distance to every jump for show jumping, confidence at cross-country drops or bounces for eventing, or a better slide for reining, it comes from practice and schooling.

Your skills will only improve as the result of correct repetition of a series of exercises. Remember the axiom: ”Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”

Improved skills are also a direct result of developing strength and fitness. Neither horses nor riders are born with the ability to perform a shoulder-in or to jump neatly from a deep distance. Therefore, the primary goal of your training at home is to expose your horse to a progressive series of new questions, challenges and experiences to develop him physically and mentally, thus making him increasingly able to perform in a wide range of circumstances. This is, essentially, the difference between a ”green” and a ”made” horse, although there isn’t a made horse alive who’s reached the end of his training.

The third goal is to improve your horse’s and your own confidence. Correct and frequent repetition of an exercise develops a very important ingredient in training — muscle memory. It’s what allows you to think ”shoulder-in,” ”compress the frame and stride,” or ”find the deep distance” and do it without thinking about the six things you have to do with your own and your horse’s body to achieve them. Muscle memory brings with it an inherent confidence in the ability to replicate an act — anywhere.

And that’s really what competition is all about — replicating a series of exercises you’ve done before, preferably even better than you’ve done them schooling at home.

Goals At Competitions

If you want to either be competitive at your level or move up to the next level, you should expect to achieve at least one of two training goals each time you enter a competition.

First, to perform correctly in new experiences and situations you can’t find anywhere else. You can’t get crowds of people to watch you and make noise around your ring at home. And you probably won’t have banners, flags, P.A. systems or hundreds of other horses there either. The only way you and your horse can become practiced at performing in front of these distractions is at a show.

A key difference between training at home and training at the show is that, at the show, you have to get ”it” (the jumping course, the dressage test, the reining test) done the first time. You don’t get a second chance — at least not without paying to ride in another class. And getting it done right the first time requires that you’ve developed a true and trusting relationship with your horse.

Second, expand the envelope. You cannot — and should not be attempting to — learn new skills at the show. But the show is generally the place you’re most likely to expand the envelope of skills and confidence that surrounds all of us.

The reason is that there are some things you can only do ”with your blood up,” with adrenaline pumping through your veins. Eventers school their horses over cross-country obstacles like ditches, drops and water jumps, but rarely do upper-level riders school over the most difficult combinations or the biggest fences.

And show jumpers regularly practice making jump-off turns, but not at the speed they’ll actually go in the jump-off. You save those things for competition, where your mind (and hopefully your horse’s mind, too) is fully focused, along with your other senses. When you’ve done them in competition, you’ve further expanded your envelope.

Bottom Line

Nothing pushes us to improve our riding or our horses’ training better than competition. Whether it’s to be more competitive at our current level or to move up to the next level, competition gives us a specific goal to work toward.

To do either, the best training philosophy could be described as ”train over exercises at home that are harder than you’ll see in competition so that when you get there everything will all look easy.”

But there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, know what you and your horse can do so you don’t attempt an exercise that you’re simply not prepared for. All exercises, whether on the flat or over fences, need to be progressive and sequential.

Second, know when to push harder and when to work on doing something you’ve done many times more perfectly than you’ve done it.

Third, don’t be surprised if you’re wrong. It’s OK to finish a schooling session thinking, ”We could have done more today.” Remember why you felt that way, and push yourself the next time you feel that way to get it right during schooling.

It’s tougher when you realize you or your horse weren’t as ready for a more difficult exercise as you thought. That’s when you have to decide how far to backtrack today or tomorrow, to build back up.