Easing back into show training after time off (due to COVID-19)

Are you and your horse feeling a little rusty after taking some time off? These steps will help you ease back into a successful show training regimen!

The COVID shutdown hasn’t been entirely bad. Without the pressure of competition, it’s been an opportunity to spend time just enjoying your horse. But now that the end of isolation is in sight, it’s time to make a show training plan. Preferably one that doesn’t cause you to lose sight of the enjoyment and relaxation you found when there were no event deadlines!

Ease back into competition training in four easy steps

1. Set your goals and make a plan

Write down your primary goal to solidify it in your mind, and hang it in a prominent spot to keep you focused. Pick a realistic goal – one that focuses on the strengths of your teamwork. For example, picking a competition level that is at least one level below what you are practicing sets your horse up for success. Break the goal into smaller pieces to devise a show training plan. If the goal is to win a blue ribbon in the low hunter division, write down what the prerequisites are to safely get to this point. Your list may look something like this:

  1. Effective response to leg, seat and rein aids
  2. Ability to adjust pace at the canter
  3. Calm and safe negotiation of a 2’6” course
  4. Quiet lead changes
  5. Rider fitness and balance
  6. The ability of both you and your horse to stay focused off the farm

2. Know the requirements of your competition discipline

Most disciplines have rule books and resources online, so spend some time studying these. Watch a competition in person, or on video.

Just as you did with your primary goal, break down the requirements of the discipline into smaller pieces. Avoid the temptation of jumping ahead too quickly. Take #4 on this list above as an example — the quiet flying lead change. Just trying a flying change may result in a scared horse and a frustrated rider. Instead, check your resources and find the prerequisites for a single flying change. Then practice them as follows: a) straightness in the canter depart; b) ability to get a canter walk on a straight line in both direction, c) immediate response to the leg for both forward and sideways in each direction.

Some equestrian sports, such as trail competitions, make the task of breaking things down into smaller pieces easy. For these, you practice one obstacle at a time before putting the whole course together. Dressage competitions are broken down into levels with several tests in each, with horses and riders practicing movements at one level before moving up. Jumping competitions, of course, move up in height increments. These can be broken down even further by beginning with a relaxed horse at the walk, then the trot, then the canter. You get the idea – everything you teach your horse can be brought back further, beginning with a horse that leads and stands quietly.

3. Mark your calendar

Write out the show training schedule, leaving plenty of time before the first event. Once you have a date, look again at your prerequisite list and break things down into smaller pieces for each week. Prioritize the list with the idea of molding yourself and your horse into a healthy athletic team. This process is very personal, since not every horse will need the same things. One might need relaxation techniques and another more jumping sessions. As an example, your weekly hunter-jumper show training plan might look something like this:

  • Monday – Ground work and light riding to supple and review basic transitions
  • Tuesday – Work on timing and pace over simple ground poles
  • Wednesday – Review steps to improve problem areas, and jump single fences
  • Thursday – Course work
  • Friday – Trail ride
  • Saturday – Review of challenging areas, ending with exercises to stretch and relax
  • Sunday – Day off

The plan is not written in stone, so review it daily. The important thing is to have a starting point and consistent warm-up, something to keep returning to when adversity strikes. Sometimes you may have to choose an alternate route, but having a master plan will help you eventually get back on track. The map keeps you moving forward even if at times it is only in baby steps.

4. Practice and dress rehearse

The more you and your horse are exposed to things that might occur at a competition, the better you’ll be at overcoming them. If possible, practice trailering to the competition grounds or a similar atmosphere. Do all the preshow primping such as bathing, braiding, and blanketing overnight, then do a mock ride at the show grounds. If that isn’t possible, recreate the expectations at your barn – you can even solicit an audience and have someone use a megaphone, anything that will reduce surprises on the big day.

As you look forward to showing, emphasize the positive and remember to regularly add a bit of what you discovered during the pandemic – the simple pleasures that bring you and your horse joy. Taking the time for proper preparation will foster relaxation and success. Enjoy the journey together, one step at a time.