Competitions present horse and rider with an infinite number of variables to contend with. There is the transportation, the weather, the footing, the stabling, the warm-up, the flowers, the judge's booth and everyone knows that's just the tip of the iceberg. In most competitive situations, these potential issues are squarely in the "not under your control" camp. Conrad Schumacher, with whom I trained in Germany, always says, "control the controllable, and don't worry about the things that are out of your control."
A competitive rider who wants to ride at his or her potential best must assume control of the important aspects of competing that will facilitate success. One of these controllable aspects, and there certainly are many, is studying the concrete feedback you receive at shows.
Judges often complain that riders appear not to have looked at their comments on the tests between rides. Tests are sometimes not even picked up at all. Video service is frequently available yet some riders will watch their video weeks after the show is over. An evaluation from a casual observer is relied upon as advice for the next ride. All of these examples describe potentially missed opportunities to gain a competitive edge.
The best game plan at the show, assuming that you have more than one ride, is to review your test sheet with your trainer in conjunction with watching your previous ride on video. Arrange to do this as soon after your ride as possible so that the riding details you experienced in the arena are still fresh in your mind. In this way, you can avail yourself of the best concrete feedback available: your trainer's input, the judge's input and the visual image of the test.
After reviewing the test in this manner, your next priority is to set strategies for the next test. Keep it simple, make small adjustments within your comfort zone, focus on one or two judge's comments that seem to repeat and try to show the judge that you can respond and improve. Do this within reason and only if your trainer is in agreement with the strategy.
This worked particularly well with my Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) Junior rider Samantha Garfinkel at the Bayer/USET Festival of Champions in Gladstone, N.J., and at the FEI North American Junior Championships at Paxton Farm in Batavia, Ohio. When supported with a clear visual picture, my feedback, a game plan for the next test and some direction from the judges, Samantha knew exactly what she needed to do. When her competitive focus was primed in this way she seemed to easily achieve success, and did, winning gold medals two years in a row.
Bear in mind that there are limitations and restrictions to contend with. For example, the show secretary will not let you take a test from a class that has not completed the final ride. If you are short on time between your rides, have your trainer come to the show office where you can scan the test together and then, time allowing, look at your video.
Some videographers will have a portable television set up where you can view your ride. If not, bring your own small portable TV set with an extension cord. If necessary, bring a camcorder and view your ride at the show office with your trainer. The ones with the flip out LCD screen are ideally suited for this task. If you have a camera, but no one to video for you, try to set up a tri-pod in a place that can view most of the arena and is out of harm's way. Adjust the camera to a wide-angle view. Your trainer may be very busy with the responsibility for multiple rides and riders so, if possible, schedule a meeting time with your trainer as soon as you know your ride times.
You might not always be able to get your trainer together with your test and your video between your rides, but do the best you can. Most importantly, control the controllable. At your next show, plan to schedule yourself a 15-minute window of time, where you can sit with your trainer, your test and your video and secure for yourself the benefits of concrete feedback.
Shelley Lawder is a USDF gold medalist and certified instructor through Fourth Level. She is a student of Conrad Schumacher and is enjoying riding her horse at Journey's End Farm. Formerly of Agoura Hills, Calif., she now lives in Exton, Pa.