I was lucky enough to attend the USEF High Performance training camp for event horses in Ocala, Florida, in early February this year. To be quite honest, it’s one of those things where initially I moaned and groaned about going, and then once I made the trip down there with my top horses, I loved every second of working with the coaches and spending time with the other riders.
Obviously, the main focus is working the horses with some of the top trainers: This year our chef d’equipe, Erik Duvander, led the charge and he also brought in legendary show jumping champion Peter Wylde to help us train and improve our horses. I absolutely love the sessions with Peter; he’s a brilliant rider and awesome trainer. He’s a wizard with the horses and, lucky for me, he has a similar body type to mine, so he really can relate to how it feels when I’m on the horse.
The Dress Rehearsal
One evening Peter was invited to give a bit of a talk, and he gave a great speech about what he calls a “dress rehearsal” for your performance. He said that in all the years riding and being present at big events, he’s observed that riders often get nervous and edgy and in their most important moment, try to do something different than what they usually do. When it really counts, you need to make sure you execute the best performance possible; when we get to our big event at Kentucky or potentially the Olympics, everything should have been dress rehearsed before we got there. He made good points that we shouldn’t use a different bridle or bit or warm up in a different system. Everything we do in this moment should have been practiced before at one of our lead-up events.
You’ve got to stick to what has worked in the past. It’s easy to want to push yourself that bit harder, but don’t all of a sudden use a new coach or walk the course with a different person or try a different feed or supplement on your horse. This is not the moment to try something new. I think that bit of advice relates to all of us, whether you’re trying to get to the AECs or Kentucky, or targeting a big event like Fair Hill or Stable View. Even the best riders in the world get a little nervous and on edge and can fall into the trap of trying something different when they should stick to what already works.
First Event of the Year
I’ve just been to the first event of the season here in Aiken, South Carolina, with a number of my horses, and observed that they felt quite a lot different than they did at the final event of last season. It’s likely that for every horse and rider, the first event of this year is going to feel a lot different from the last event of last year.
Back then the horses were fit and had a string of events building up to that final competition. Depending on where you are in America, due to weather they may have had a long rest after their last event and then spent the winter going round and round in circles in an indoor arena.
I must say, this feeling of having a different horse under you is something you must be careful doesn’t catch you off guard. Usually the horses are pumped up to be out and about again. They might be fresh and full of energy and nerves, compared to what we got used to last year.
One thing that helps a lot is to get out cross-country schooling away from home once or twice before that first event of the year. The horses are going to demonstrate a lot of that nervous energy and excitement just getting off the farm, and if they can get through some of that nervousness it’ll be out of the way for their first event. Another great idea is to go to a dressage or jumper show that doesn’t have a lot of weight in your schedule. Especially at a local schooling show, you’re not too worried about the result, there aren’t a lot of people watching and it costs less money to enter. That bit of less pressure is a wonderful feeling and can ease the rider’s nerves as well.
Mainly you don’t want to get caught off guard. You can’t show up in the spring of 2021 expecting things to be like they were in 2020. You also might want to get to the show a bit early or run the horses in a class slightly easier than what they’re capable of doing, rather than going for the hardest level they can do. I might take a Prelim horse back to Training for that first event; if something little goes wrong, it’s easier to get through it if the jumps are smaller or the dressage test is a little more simplistic.
As a rider, don’t be too obsessed about the results of this first competition. I don’t go for broke and try to make the time cross-country at the first event. Obviously the horses are a little fresh and wild, and probably not quite as fit as they were. On top of that, the riders themselves might not be as fit, sharp and tuned up as they could be. Keeping it simple at this event gives you a leg up for your long-term plan for the competition season. Everyone is excited and fired up to be out and competing again, but it’s a long year: I think all the events will run this year, so you want to have the mindset that there are bigger and better events coming up as the year goes on. Think of it as a preseason game to get yourself ready for the big ones.
Before entering the ring, stick to what you have rehearsed.
Photo by Isabel J. Kurek