competition training

Working towards a goal in competition requires focus, but for your horse’s well-being, it’s important to also maintain balance in his life.

When it comes to competing with your horse, it can be all too easy to develop “tunnel vision”. You can become so focused on your competition goals that you lose sight of what makes you and your horse happy.

Here’s a too-common story….

Things are going well with your horse; you have been learning and progressing. He is sound and you are confident, and you are both happy. You decide to put some competitions on the calendar. You are excited and become laser-focused. Your rides get more detailed and precise.

You spend many weekends at shows, and start keeping your horse in a stall more so he doesn’t play around and get hurt. You are doing well so you start entering more classes and going for championship or year end points. Your instructor suggests some different equipment to make it even easier to get a better result. Your horse is feeling a little tired so you add some supplements. He starts kicking out when you pick up the canter, and “getting after him” doesn’t seem to work so you try a chiropractor, body worker, and then a new saddle.

In a competition, your horse can’t get away with bad behavior so your instructor starts getting on to “tune him up” for you before your class. At the next show, your horse colics. You are losing confidence and doubting that he is the right horse for you. He starts pinning his ears when he sees you, and you are working harder and harder to get less and less out of him. It’s not fun anymore.

At the end of the competition season, your horse is sore and has ulcers. You feel as if you can’t ride and wonder what went wrong.

Losing sight of the big picture

Don’t let the above scenario happen to you! It can, if you lose sight of the big picture. The highly specific focus you need for performance can work against you unless you remember to balance out your horse’s life.

The highly specific focus you need for performance can work against you unless you remember to balance out your horse’s life.

If you are advancing your training in a specific discipline (whether or not you are competing), you have to remember that your horse was born a horse. Horses just want to be safe, comfortable, able to move, graze and be social, and have enough variety in their lives to keep things interesting. We humans are the ones who decided they must be jumpers, dressage horses, reining horses or driving horses.

Having specific goals is a great way to measure your progress. But the goal of a horseman in any discipline is to have a happy horse that understands and can be successful at what we choose to do with him.

Top training facilities often model a very narrow focus. They may even call themselves “jumper barns” or “dressage barns”. Horses get little or no turnout, and always alone. They go from the stall to the grooming stall to the arena and back to the stall. The only thing they “do” is the sport they are in. Problems such as weaving or cribbing can become commonplace. Some horses get anxious when turned out. Sadly, this can be seen as “normal”. Students assume this is the best way to keep horses because the top professionals are doing it this way.

This is not a normal life for a horse. It may be a short-term scenario, but it’s not a long-term management style.

Creating a happy athlete

As a horse owner, you need to take responsibility for preserving balance in your horse’s life, and your laser-focused competition training sessions should be just one small part of that life.

Your horse cannot balance his life himself – you need to do it for him. It’s helpful to have some guidelines:

Start with happiness. Know what makes horses happy, and what makes your particular horse happy. All horses, by nature, want to feel safe and comfortable. They want to be able to graze, socialize, wander, and investigate things.

If you and your horse are happy, you can better harmonize. Take care of your partnership. Solve the areas where you and/or your horse feel tension or anxiety around one another. When you do that, you’ll experience higher quality communication, which will enable you to better apply the techniques necessary for your specific sport.

At the end of the day, you want your horse to feel happy, and to understand and get along with you. You want to be successful doing your exercises so you can be confident and progressive in your sport.

The happy athlete training scale

Solve every problem by asking: Is there a way I can better meet my horse’s most basic needs? Look at how happy (or not) you and he are, and work your way up the scale. Not every jumping problem is a jumping problem. Not every dressage problem is a dressage problem.

  • In Figure 1, you can think of Happy and Harmony as being related to how your horse is kept, and your attitude about him.
  • Communication is about the basics every horse needs. These basics are things that make it easy to get him from Point A to Point B, and cover basic handling, leading, groundwork, and riding. It’s about your horse being “comfortable transportation”.
  • Technique is where you take care of the sport-specific exercises that will build your and your horse’s ability to successfully complete the “tests” of your sport.

The top priority is the base. The lower priority is the competition. This doesn’t mean you aren’t serious about your sport, or that the sessions aren’t intense or progressive or amazing. It just means you are keeping things in perspective. If you don’t think of it this way, then you can’t be surprised if your Grand Prix horse develops behavioral, performance or health problems.

Seeing things from your horse’s perspective

Pretend your horse is writing his autobiography. What would he say? How would he describe his life with you? Would it be a comedy or a tragedy? Would it be an amazing story of personal development? I know we are not “supposed” to anthropomorphize our horses, but sometimes we can play this little game in order to take a best guess at what life must be like for them.

Every horse’s basic needs

No matter how advanced or specialized your horse is, these needs must be met:

  • Safety
  • Comfort
  • Forage-based diet
  • Movement
  • Play/socializing
  • Variety

Your particular horse’s needs

Know your horse’s particular preferences and take time to do them to keep him happy and your connection strong. These preferences could include:

  • Trail rides/hacking
  • Gallops
  • Jumping
  • Grooming
  • Playing with toys/obstacles
  • Non-demanding time together
  • Playing at liberty
  • Playing in water

What does your horse like to do? See if there is a way you can do more of it together!

At the very least you will discover what you already know, deep down – that you need to change or improve. You are your horse’s life manager. He cannot do it for himself. It is very possible to have a happy, healthy horse that loves his life and excels in his sport. You just need to keep your – and most importantly, your horse’s – life in balance!

Karen Rohlf, creator of the Dressage Naturally program, is an internationally recognized clinician who is changing the equestrian educational paradigm. She is well known for her student-empowering approach to teaching, her ability to connect with a wide range of horses, her virtual courses, and her positive and balanced point of view.