Competition days are all about performance; these are the days when we need to be at our best, NOW.
If we ride every day as if it is an actual performance day, horses (and riders) can get burned out from the pressure, and may have nothing left when the added pressure of the competition comes around.
If we never practice riding to the standard we will need during performance, our horses can be shocked when we suddenly start riding differently.
Your horse needs you to be his reference of safety when away from home. It takes conscious practice to be both a performer and a partner to your horse.
Some things to consider in order to perform at your best are:
Practice Performing at Home
When I create my weekly plans for my horses I pick one day of the week to be a ‘Best Day’. This is where I am in performance mode, and whatever movements or tests I decide to do, I do them to the quality I would want to do in competition. This doesn’t have to be a difficult day, just a ‘show it to our best’ day. This will build you and your horse’s confidence and will help you understand the many stars that need to align to actually perform at your best.
Does your horse go better after a day off, or after a certain kind of ride the day before? What times of day are you at your best? Over time you will find the rhythm and patterns that lead to success, and you will have more chance of re-creating that success on the day of the competition!
Doing this improves your own emotional fitness around performance. Do you get tense every time the test booklet comes out? Use these days to create calmness even when you are performing. Do you have a hard time getting into performance mode? Ask a friend to watch you. I may tell myself: ‘This is the most important trot a horse ever did!’ It helps me know I am now in performance mode.
Don’t wait until you are at a show to suddenly raise your standards. Your horse will not know who you are and may get defensive, checked out, or anxious.
Keep the Balance
During competitions it is easy to get over-focused on the test. I see many riders over-schooling the same pattern, or jumps, or tests they need for the show. If the horse doesn’t perform well, the tendency is to school it some more, but that kind of direct-line thinking doesn’t give the best results, and in the worst case scenarios it creates a cycle of drilling and punishing leading to poor performance, which only leads to more drilling and punishing.
If you catch yourself going into this mode – STOP. Take a breath. Get to the root of the problem. Pick one missing piece, and find a more clever way to improve it. Sometimes the wisest way to improve your horse’s performance is to do nothing. If the thought of doing nothing during show season makes you panic, then you definitely must do it. Getting stuck in a cycle of pressure always backfires. Balance pressure with release. Competitions can be the only time riders spend all day with their horses. Maximize that opportunity.
Stay Clear on Your Goals
Get clear on your goals. Why are you competing? Are you going for championships? To expose your horse to new environments? Are you there just for fun? Do you simply want to improve your performance from last time?
You need to know what your goals are so you can manage your experience appropriately. For example: Many riders go to shows ‘for fun’ but they end up stressed out because they didn’t take their preparation seriously. Because of that, they have a poor performance, and then take it out on their horse. That doesn’t sound like fun! Ask yourself: ‘What do I need in order for it to actually be fun?’ Then set yourself up to do just that!
Manage Your Expectations
Your horse needs you to appreciate him exactly as he is. Have realistic expectations for your performance. Don’t sell yourself short, and be careful of unrealistic hopes. Your horse doesn’t know how he did compared to others and he doesn’t care. What matters to him is the experience he has, and how you feel about him. Yes, he can feel when you aren’t happy with him.
Be healthy in how you think about your horse, yourself and your performance. If you walk around thinking ‘I’m terrible’ your horse (and everyone else around you) may not know if you are thinking this about you or them. You will just be a ball of ‘terrible’ energy. Usually this negativity can be traced to a mismatch of expectation, or a lack of being able to deal with disappointment. If your goal was to just stay in the arena, and then you are upset because you didn’t win, you are not managing your expectations.
Focus on doing your best, seeing if you can get your best to be a little better than the last time, and know that your best isn’t diminished if someone else happens to do a little better that day.
Keep Aware of the Big Picture
Try to see your horse’s experience through his eyes. Know that a competition schedule is far from a natural environment. Even if they are ‘used to it’ they may need some extra care and attentiveness in order to keep them at their best. If they can’t have turn out, take them for walks. If they don’t have their herd mates find other ways to let them socialize. Know your horse and what creates calmness and confidence for him and bring that with you no matter where you go.
Bottom Line: Help your horse to feel like a champion no matter what. Practice acting like a champion, and you have a better chance of becoming one!
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