Competition Breakthroughs Begin With Training At Home

It’s a strongly held belief of mine about competition that, “If you didn’t bring it with you, you ain’t gonna find it here.”

Yes, very often you’ll have training breakthroughs at competitions—no time faults on cross-country, a clear jump-off, faultless flying changes—but those things will only happen because of the strides you’ve made while training with your horse at home. Honestly, these things can only happen because of improvements in technique and fitness that you achieved in your work before you got there.

At shows, you often hear coaches giving detailed instructions to their students, especially the day before a competition begins. It often sounds as if they’re trying to teach a half-halt, how to shorten or lengthen stride, how to jump a certain kind of jump, or to correct basic or important body position issues.

But I don’t think that’s what should be happening. Warm-up at shows should be a loosening-up and confidence-building situation, because it’s no more than a repetition of familiar exercises. Competition grounds are lousy places to try to fix the things you don’t do well. Instead, you should be concentrating on doing the things that you do well.

Yes, competition is often the guide for training—it certainly has always been in my work. The date of a competition, especially of major competitions, will largely determine when you work on fitness, when you do jump schools and what kind of exercises you do in them, or when you begin to practice newer or more demanding skills.

But I’ve always found that, until you reach the highest levels of your discipline, the challenges that you meet at a competition should seem less demanding than the exercises you’ve done at home. By the time you get there, what you see in a course or what you have to do in a dressage test should seem at least matter-of-fact. I like to be able to say, “We could have done that in one fewer stride” or “The corner we jumped two weeks ago was bigger than that.”

My training philosophy, which I adopted from more experienced and accomplished people than me, could be best described as “train over exercises at home that are harder than you’ll see in competition, so that when you get there it will all look easy.”

 Then, after each competition, I like to be able to honestly say to myself that I completed at least one of two training goals with each horse:

First, I want the horse to have performed correctly in either a new experience or a new situation that you can’t replicate at home. This is usually the case with young or inexperienced horses. You can’t get crowds of people to watch you and make noise around your ring at home. And you probably won’t have banners, flags, P.A. systems or hundreds of other horses there either. The only way you and your horse can become practiced at performing in front of these distractions is at a show.

Second, with more experienced horses, I want to have expanded our envelope. You cannot—and should not be attempting to—learn new skills at the show. But the show is generally the place you’re most likely to expand the envelope of skills and confidence that surrounds all of us.

That’s because there are some things you can only do “with your blood up,” with adrenaline pumping through your veins.

All of us eventers school our horses over cross-country obstacles like ditches, drops and water jumps, but rarely do riders school their upper-level horses over the most difficult combinations or the biggest fences—because they’re not something you don’t want to attempt “in cold blood.” And show jumpers regularly practice making jump-off turns, but not at the speed they’ll actually go in the jump-off. You save those things for competition, where your mind (and hopefully your horse’s mind too) is fully focused, along with your other senses. So, when you’ve done these things in competition, you’ve expanded your envelope.

But you do the groundwork for being successful despite all these distractions and for expanding your envelope at home—by training your horse to focus on your aids and by your use of flatwork and jumping exercises that develop your horse’s skills, fitness and confidence so that he can perform anywhere.

Remember, “If you didn’t bring it with you, you ain’t gonna find it here.”