We all know that our horses have good days and bad days--and often good weeks and bad weeks. So how can you plan your training schedule so your best performance comes at the right time? A lot depends on timing and conditioning strategies.
I believe that training and conditioning happens in a series of blocks. There are periods when you'll be making harder demands on your horse, asking for just a little more collection or working on perfecting a new movement. These are usually followed by periods of confidence building and strengthening, when you allow your horse to take a mental break and work within his comfort zone. Your horse is likely to be mentally stressed or even get a little sore when you're pushing the envelope of his abilities.
I try to schedule my training so horse shows happen during the confidence period, when my horse is feeling most comfortable in his work. For example, I wouldn't introduce flying changes or begin working on canter pirouettes the week before a horse show. I'd wait until a show-free period before facing my horse with these types of challenges.
Also plan your ride schedule carefully before a show, to make sure your horse isn't tired or sore on the competition day. My last hard training day is usually three days before the show, followed by a day off, and then an easy stretching day the day before we leave.
When I arrive at the show grounds the day before the show, I'll try to do another light ride introducing my horse to the arena and surroundings, I avoid drilling or hard training. I find this is the hardest time for me to stick with my strategy because it's so tempting to work hard on perfecting things before the show. I just try to remember that I'm not likely to improve something in one day, if I haven't perfected it at home, so it's best to put my horse away before he's completely worn out.
Finally, your actual pre-ride warm-up is a critical part of your success. Your horse needs to enter the arena at that golden moment when he's at his peak. Find out what your own horse's optimal warm-up time is by keeping track of them during your at-home rides. You'll usually discover that there's a point during every ride when your horse feels great. Determine when this is during your ride, then plan your warm-up at a show accordingly. With show-ring experience, you'll learn how to adjust this away from home so your horse is peaking at just the right time.
Your goal is for your horse to feel his best when it counts, both physically and mentally. Schedule your conditioning and training according to your own horse's personality and physical abilities, so he'll peak at the moment you head down the centerline.
Barb Crabbe, DVM, is a graduate of the University of California at Davis. A lifelong horsewoman, she has earned her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medal, is a USDF "L" graduate and has competed through Prix St. Georges. Based in Beavercreek, Ore., she is in private practice and owns Pacific Crest Sporthorse.