Competing our horses gives us a great reason—a real motivation—to further our riding and training education and experiences. Competition pushes us to new heights with our horses; it pushes us to develop them as athletes. And it allows us to test or demonstrate our work, our system, to find out how we and our horses are progressing in our training.
All of today’s equestrian disciplines offer more competitions than ever before. But until about 25 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 mid-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 December is the only month with no eventing competition. So the temptation today is to always be competing, competing, competing, and training opportunities are often limited to a precious few days, because riders and trainers are always on road. The result can often be stagnation because all you ever do is prepare for the next show.
Here in California, our eventing season is takes only a brief holiday break. It seems like only last week that we rode in the concluding event of the 2013 season, at Fresno in mid-November, and last weekend we took seven horses to the first competition of 2014, an unrecognized combined test and cross-country school at Twin Rivers (both locations are about 250 miles south of us). In a month, we’ll return to Fresno for the year’s first recognized horse trial for us, but by then the folks in Southern California could have already started in two horse trials.
With so much competitive opportunity around us, I think that we always need to be guided by three goals, which often overlap. These goals should shape and direct the training that we do at home to prepare for those competitions.
The first goal is basic, and everything else builds from it: To always be working to improve and enhance our horses’ and our own fitness and strength. Why? Because neither we nor our horses can perform the athletic endeavor required by any horse sport if we’re not fit enough or strong enough.
I’m not suggesting that a horses needs to be fit enough for a 100-mile endurance ride. But every discipline—including dressage and show hunters—requires a specific type of fitness, or strength, that can only be achieved or improved by regular and correct training.
The second goal is to improve our skills (in concert with our fitness) by performing a progressive series of exercises regularly over weeks, months and years. The shoulder-in for dressage, the ability to find the correct distance to every jump for show jumping, confidence over cross-country fences for eventing, or a better slide for reining—these are all the result of consistent, progressive practice.
Our skills will only improve as the result of repeated 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 our training at home is to expose our horses to a progressive series of new questions, challenges and experiences to develop them physically and mentally, thus making them increasingly able to perform in a wide range of situations.
The ability to perform exercises anywhere is, essentially, the difference between a “green” and a “made” horse, although a there isn’t a “made” horse alive who’s reached the “end” of his training.
And the third goal is to develop our horses’ and our own confidence. Correct and frequent repetition 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 then to 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—at home or at a show.
And that’s really what competition is all about—replicating a series of exercises you’ve done before, but preferably even better than you’ve done them at home.
In a jumping competition, you experience confidence from recognizing (before you enter the ring) the similarities between the course and others you’ve done correctly. It’s similar for your horse, who jumps into a line and understands from your aids and from his previous experiences how to respond to the questions asked. In dressage or reining, the horse’s confidence comes from understanding and responding correctly to your aids for each movement and from recognizing the movements and patterns they’ve done before.
Lack of confidence is why green horses are generally noticeably more anxious than experienced horses. And confidence in the partnership between you and your horse is why, in competition, you can make shorter turns in jump-offs than ever before, why you can jump that daunting bounce into the water jump, or why you can get a bigger extended trot.