By Liz Halliday-Sharp
In a sport with three phases to compete in, knowing when you and your horse are ready to step up to the next level in eventing is an important decision to make. This is something that I think a lot about for both my clients and my own horses, and there are plenty of factors to consider as you go through the season and set goals for the future.
First, consider what your own experience is along with your horse’s level of knowledge.
If your horse is very experienced but you are not, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should move up a level before you’re ready. Confidence in all three phases is important, and this should be under constant review before you make the decision to move up. Paul Tapner once told me that his rule was “repeat until boring” at the level you’re in before stepping up. This is a simple yet effective way to gauge how confident you and your horse are together!
Early in the season is a great time to set goals and plan for what you would like to achieve. If your plan is to move up a level at a certain event, make sure that you have ticked every box for each phase so that you’re prepared. For example, if you can get out to some schooling jumper shows where you can compete at the height required, that’s ideal. If that isn’t an option, then at least be regularly jumping courses at home that are equivalent to the level you’re aspiring to.
For the dressage phase, you should take time to look up the tests for the level and practice the movements so that you and your horse are not surprised or under-prepared. It’s also worth test riding with your trainer or at home on your own so that you get used to piecing it all together and knowing where the weak points are for you both. When it comes to the cross-country phase, be very honest with yourself about what needs work and how the results have been at your last few competitions. No matter how big your early season dream was to move up at a certain event, the previous competitions and your schooling at home will define if you’re actually ready or not.
Confident, clear rounds are important—when your last few events have felt straightforward and easy and you’re both feeling confident, then it’s probably time for the next challenge! The week before your move-up event, I would recommend having a quick reminder for your horse with ditches, water and any specific questions that you might struggle with. Things like skinnies and angles can also easily be practiced at home in your arena, so you can still be prepared even if you don’t have a cross-country course that you can readily get to.
Another question I’m asked a lot is when you should move a young or green horse up to the next level. Each horse is an individual, so each situation is slightly different, but I do have some principles that I try to follow.
Primarily, I always believe that the horses will tell us when they’re ready for the next challenge. This is something that I have stuck to for years with all of the horses that I have brought on through the levels, and I believe that it keeps you in tune with where their development really is in relation to your own personal goals. I find that a horse who is ready to move up is showing real confidence at multiple competitions in a row and is finishing each phase (especially cross-country) feeling proud of themselves and a bit cocky.
It’s important to remember that our horses are athletes, too, and the ones that event, especially at a high level, genuinely enjoy their jobs or they wouldn’t do it! I think that it’s just as much a detriment to a horse’s development to keep them at a level that they find too easy for too long as it is to move them up too fast. Listen to your horses and treat each one as an individual—they will tell you what they’re ready for and when.
Liz, riding Cooley Quicksilver at the 7-year-old Championship, said confidence in all three phases is important before you make the decision to move your horse up to the next level.