Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How to prepare you and your horse for competition

Pauldary's Bobby's Girl at Badminton
Pauldary's Bobby's Girl at Badminton
We are currently on the way to Badminton with two horses for the Burghley Young Event horse class and I thought it would be suitable to write about preparation for competition.

I am exceptionally lucky to be based at Boomerang Stables, one of the busiest schooling centres in the country which incredible facilities, so you can school in the peace and quiet when you need to (early morning or late night!) or practically in an event scenario during a busy day, which is such good practise for young horses. I love just flatwork schooling out on the XC course when there’s 50 horses out there galloping past from every direction, much cheaper event acclimatisation than an event entry!

It is really important you and your horse are well prepared to compete, partly for safety reasons but so you can enjoy it and hopefully be successful – so, here are a few tips which will hopefully point you in the right direction.

Enter competitions at a level below your work at home

If you are comfortable jumping 1.05m consistently, but not a lot higher, enter a BE90 or a British Novice/Discovery class. This way, when you arrive at the competition, you should feel calm and confident as the fences will look small. You will be amazed how fast you will improve taking this approach; I’ve learnt the hard way and picking up the pieces is not fun – losing your confidence is a very long process to fix. This also means if the ground is bad, sloped or wet you know it is well within you and your horse’s capabilities as you’ve been jumping bigger at home on a surface or ground you know.

Take your horse to clinics/quiet shows/go schooling


Take your horse out and about to see different venues, particularly if you are on a young horse, you’re a new partnership or it’s the beginning of the season and they’re feeling a bit rusty and excitable! Make sure your eventer has been cross country schooling at least once but ideally twice at different venues, or your dressage horse has been to a clinic or at least a lesson in the lorry. It is very stressful to turn up to a competition not knowing how your horse is going to behave, and at least by taking them to a lesson or a clinic or even clear round jumping, they’ve had an ‘outing’, hopefully with other horses around so that when you turn up to a competition, they are not expecting super overexcitement!

For example, this year my 5yo’s have done Jumping and Style competitions, (fast and exciting), dressage competitions (which they find very boring but are imperative), a few events, some show jumping competitions, and a few Burghley Young Event Horse Classes. They’ve also been to a few quiet lessons in the lorry. They are being produced with a future in eventing in mind, but this way they are not expecting to turn up to a new venue and go cross country, and don’t associate new venues with going fast and being over excited, as they are not sure what I’m going to ask them to do. Also, by varying your competitions, you end up focussing on each individual discipline, which should improve their overall performance faster than trying to focus on all three all the time.

Be organised well in advance

Find out the format of your competition and how the whole thing works. If you are new to competing, it’s well worth asking around, either knowledgeable friends or on forums, as well as reading the schedule and rule books! For example, for Burghley Young Event Horse classes, there is an interesting format which can be a bit intimidating until you’ve done it before, which involves a trot up and a gallop.

It’s important that you practise the trot up to give your horse the best chance of understanding you on the day, as well as you being in control, and also the gallop, so, particularly with a young horse, that you know you can stop and know you won’t be bucked off. Practise this at random, and not always in the same place.

For example, for the trot up, sometimes I would practise on the hard (e.g. concrete) as a more formal ‘practise’; other times, I just trot to the field with the horses. Again, don’t do this every time or they will learn going to the field = RUN! But by doing it randomly you know they are doing it on your command, not by their choice. Remember that at a competition they may be different or more excitable, so try and practise on the day if there’s enough space in the lorry park without winding other horses up.

If you have a backward baby who seems to be a hopeless galloper, see if you can borrow a friend who is happy to let you race with an older, more experienced horse. It is really important to get the balance right of making your young horse canter quietly behind or in front on a hack, but similarly if they need to learn to gallop at some point in their career, racing with another one (on very good ground or hire a gallops) is a good way to teach them to get competitive. By running them up sides the other horse so they can look each other in the eye and then making your young horse over take at the end, they soon find their inner ‘competitiveness!’ By doing this they forget about worrying how to move their legs faster and just think about keeping up. I would usually do this once every 2 or 3 weeks with lots of quiet hacks in between and a quiet canter with my horse a fair way behind either side of the gallop as a warm up and a cool down.

Learn your dressage test early and run through the movements under the watchful eye of your trainer. Avoid running through the whole test multiple times as horses learn by repetition and start to learn their test and anticipate the movements. Remember to take your time at the competition – you have paid to be there and you should enjoy your chance to prove yourself to the judge!

Make sure your jumping practise has been thorough and you have given your horse a chance to understand what he is to do at a competition. If you just have a field and one jump at home, it may be a good idea to hire an arena and have a jumping lesson, so your horse can see all different types of fillers and practise turns and setting up for distances and combinations as you would be expected to do at a competition. This way, you will feel more prepared and it won’t seem such a big task, you will feel calm and confident, your horse will feel these vibes and you will have a good day!

Make sure your horse is fit enough. Competing a tired horse can be dangerous but is also unfair on your horse. They should be more than capable of doing  the amount of work you would expect them to do on the day, and should find it easy and not finish tired. It may take you a few competitions to get the balance right, if they are too fit they could become naughty, but I would rather my horse finished feeling fresh and ready to go again than tired and blowing hard, putting unnecessary strain
on their body and therefore risking injury.

Learn by watching

It is well worth going to a few events or shows (whatever specific discipline you are planning on doing) and going to watch the level you are aiming to compete at. If you get a chance to walk the course, it’s a good idea to walk it so you can see what you will be expected to jump. Maybe take an experienced friend with you who can tell you how to ride certain fences or when you’re watching they can tell you why that competitor had a stop or why that horse broke in its medium trot. You’ll be amazed how much you can learn from other people’s mistakes, and it’s a much cheaper way than making the mistakes yourself!

Make sure you have all the equipment you need


The general equipment such as tack and a hat and boots are obvious, and many things are optional. However, different disciplines require different equipment, and it would be such a shame to arrive well prepared and be eliminated for not having an essential piece of kit.

Read the rules – for example in British Dressage you have to wear light coloured gloves, and new rules mean that you have to wear a hat with a chinstrap, whereas before you were allowed a beagler. Even for experienced competitors it is well worth checking the rules for any changes!

See if you can groom for a friend competing at a similar level to you (or a higher level if you aim to go up the grades – but be careful because you won’t need all the equipment required for an international event, such as a bridle number or a tail coat, at the lower levels). This way you can get used to the feel of getting ready, know how long it takes so when you come to planning you can estimate accurately how long it will take you to get ready, but also so you can see if there’s any equipment that they are using that you haven’t got!

Question them on it, you may not need certain things but there’s no harm in learning more by asking why they use certain items, you may have a similar horse one day and remember your friend telling you that a certain bit worked for that horse, or that they used tendon and fetlock boots on one horse, but another one needed tendon boots and over reach boots for a different reason.

Try to put thought into kitting yourself out, and not just use something for the sake of using it – and never use something at a competition that you’ve never tried at home! Be minimalistic, most horses don’t appreciate a lot of clobber. Does he really need that martingale? And if so, is it tight enough that it’s actually doing something? Although your fly veil (or ‘horse hat’ as I call it!) might look pretty, especially if it matches your numnah, does your horse really get lit up by noises at compeititions, or is it just irritating the horse and doing more harm than good.

Either way, HAVE FUN – that is why we get up in the dark before work when it’s pouring with rain to muck them out every morning isn’t it?!

To sum up :
  • Enter competitions at a level below your work at home
  • Take your horse to clinics/quiet shows/go schooling
  • Be organised well in advance
  • Learn by watching
  • Make sure you have all the equipment you need

Photo credit : Pictures of the babies at Badminton (Pauldary's Bobby's Girl - Tiny and Lion King V - Leo)