You’ve put in the work at home, you’ve memorised your tests and you’re ready for competition day. Your horse happily walks on the float and all is smooth sailing until you arrive at the competition venue, unload, and suddenly you’re dealing with a different horse!
This is one of the most common problems riders have at shows. We hear about it all the time that the horse works well at home but underperforms at competitions.
Let’s work through the most common ways and reasons things might be going wrong for you at competitions, and how to deal with them.
Your horse is acting a little crazy
If your horse gets off the float and is spinning around with his head up high and isn’t listening to you, he’s adrenalised by the environment and you need to get onto mission reellaaaxx.
First things first, make sure you’re safe and in-control, with the right equipment. I like to use a halter with a chain either over the nose or under the chin, plus a nice long lead like a lunge line, so the horse doesn’t get away from you.
If you know your horse gets adrenalised at a show, think ahead and arrive early. Plan to have a few hours up your sleeve, it’ll make a huge difference.
Walk your horse around and get him used to the surrounds. Let him graze. Your goal here is to get his head and neck down – as soon as you do that, the adrenalin will start to dissipate.
Try to have the horse listen to you – get him to stop, stand, and not push you around, and eventually, you can come back to the float or the stable.
If your horse is hot when you get on, try to get him moving, trotting usually works well. If he feels out of control, put him into shoulder-in and give him something to think about. The more you can make him think about the work, they more he will relax.
At Parbery Performance Horses, we often ride horses that are hot and sensitive, so we do this a lot – as soon as they feel fresh, we put them into (sometimes a steep) shoulder-in and get that connection between leg and hand.
It’s vital that you keep going to competitions and keep exposing your horse to these situations. It can be tedious with a hot horse, but with persistence, you’ll get there in the end.
Your horse is dull and lacking energy
Some horses have the opposite problem, and feel completely lacking in energy at the show! Ironically, it can still be because of nervous tension, or sometimes the travel gets the better of them.
With this type of horse, aim for a shorter and less energetic warm-up, it could even just be 15 minutes, then hop off and hop back on later. That can work very nicely.
As it gets closer to test-time, you want to think about adrenalising the horse to achieve the right amount of positive tension before the test. Try lots of transitions to get them listening and reactive.
Your horse (or you) gets worried about the horse-traffic in the warm-up arena
This is a very common issue and firstly, let’s address the misconception that some riders have more ‘right’ to space in the warm-up arena than you do. This is completely false! I don’t care if you’re on a home-bred pony and you’re warming up in an arena with the latest flash European imported horse, it all boils down to everyone following the arena rules.
It’s vital that you’re familiar with the arena rules:
- left shoulder to left shoulder
- walk on the inside track
- give way to lateral exercises on the diagonal
- come off the track (or head out of the arena) to remove boots/bandages
A common problem I see is that the rider on the left rein doesn’t use their corners as well as they should – therefore restricting the horse and rider on the right rein. So, if you’re on the left rein, make sure you ride in to your corners.
A good tip in the warm-up arena is to ride predictably. What I meant by that, is that rather than riding random lines around the arena, ride lines from your test.
I always find the smoothest and safest warm-up arenas are the ones in Europe full of Grand Prix horses. There can be dozens of horses in a small space, but everything works perfectly, and it’s all due to the Grand Prix riders riding lines from the test, so at a glance, you can see where anyone is going and what they have planned at any stage.
If your horse is horse-shy, you need to ride with a lot of foresight and if you think your horse will overreact, then walk or halt, so that you don’t interfere with other horses. Always be respectful of the other competitors, and of others with horse shy horses.
In summary, when you’re in the warm-up arena, stick to the rules and remember, you have as much right to be there as anyone else.
You feel different in the saddle
We all know that feeling, you spring into the saddle at a competition (that’s if you can actually bend your knee in your show breeches, enough to get your foot in the stirrup!) and suddenly your reins are slippery, your saddle feels odd and your stirrups are two holes too long!
It seems silly, but putting on your show boots and show bridle can make enough of a difference to really throw you off your game.
At Parbery, we ride the final two days before a show in our show gear. If you don’t regularly ride in the same clothes and gear you use at a competition, I recommend you go ahead and start doing this! Consider it a dress rehearsal.
Remember that you’re not doing a turnout class! Don’t class your gear until it’s slippery.
Another thing that can make you feel uncomfortable in the saddle on show day, is tension. There are many reasons for tension at the show and we all feel it to some extent, so it’s important for you to put some time and effort into recognising this tension in your body, and figuring out what the ‘triggers’ are for you. Try to work through the question ‘what am I worried about?’. Then you need to develop some techniques to deal with the tension, which might include breathing, stretching or mindfulness exercises.
One of the common reasons for tension is that feeling of a ticking clock leading to test time, that you don’t have enough time to prepare as you’d like. If you accidently end up in a short warm-up, my advice is to think about the nuts and bolts of the test – halt, trot, track right etc. Think about the set-ups for movements, rather than riding the whole thing.
I like a 35-minute warm-up, which works well considering we usually train at home for around 45-minutes. Sometimes things go wrong but a rushed warm-up doesn’t have to ruin your day.
I remember at one competition, I got a very cold-backed horse off the float and needed to go straight to the arena, with no warm-up whatsoever. I hopped in and of course his back came up and I thought ‘ok what’s going to happen here’. We went through gear-check, walked past the judges, trotted a few steps with him feeling he would buck at any moment, into canter and up the centreline. He relaxed somewhere between X and C! At the end of the day, the judges have zero idea what’s happened before you show up for a test, so put a smile on your face and go for it! It makes for a good story later.
Your horse gets ‘arena-smart’ and stops listening during the test
I don’t think horses necessarily learn the dressage tests as such, but I think they read from very subtle clues us riders sometimes inadvertently give them – like ever-so-slightly changing your body for an upcoming turn, for example.
If you find your horse is starts to anticipate, or completely stops listening to the cues you’re giving during the test, you need to find a spot to create a reaction and remind the horse to listen. On the short side, or at the end of the movement is often a good opportunity.
If you’re having recurring problems with your horse during the tests, at some point you have to reframe the test as a training exercise by making whatever correction is necessary, despite sacrificing the movement. An experienced judge won’t be offended by you making a correction with the view to training for another day. You’re not being disrespectful to the judge and chances are, he or she will fully understand.
Sometimes people ask me about when to retire from a test. You know, things go bad in a test for everyone at some point. Even though I was always told ‘you don’t want a bad score against your record’, I’ve got to tell you that I have never retired and not been disappointed with myself.
On the other hand, I’ve watched a lot of great riders have bad days and push on to complete their test regardless. I think it’s honourable, and my thought about this now is that you should only retire when you simply cannot go on, and cannot complete a movement. I remember one competition on Good as Gold at which, despite my best efforts, I could not get him anywhere near one end of the arena. I did retire from that test!
My advice is, if you’re simply having a bad day, suck it up and do the best you can.
Feeling like you’re dealing with a ‘different’ horse at a competition is a common complaint, and I hope one (or maybe more) of these five common reasons has resonated with you, and you’ve got some new strategies and motivation to deal with the problem and push through to reach your riding goals.