Everyone wants to win. You can want it all day long, but if you’re not preparing to win, wanting to win won’t do you a bit of good. When it comes to winning, nothing replaces hard work and solid preparation.
Here are five pieces of advice to help you and your horse be sure that, when you go compete, you’re ready to win.
Non-pros who win a lot are non-pros who ride a lot. The more you ride, the better off you are. If your horse is in training, make time to go ride a few times a week. If you keep him at home, you’ll need to ride more often than that to keep him physically ready to compete and win.
I see the pitfalls of irregular saddle time at my barn regularly. A customer comes to ride for two to three weeks, and they start to make real progress. They achieve a goal at a show. Then they don’t come ride for another two weeks, and it takes them even longer to get back on track. It happens to me when I miss saddle time, and I’m used to riding horses every single day. If I go on vacation for 10 days, I come back rusty. I get back in the routine more quickly because I ride so many horses every day, but it still affects me. That’s tenfold for a non-pro rider who can only get in the saddle on one horse a few times a week. Nothing replaces riding.
Another benefit that comes with riding a lot is more time with your horse—grooming, wrapping legs, saddling, unsaddling, hosing off after the session. All of that time with your horse exposes you to his personality. Use that time to get to know his quirks and how to work with them.
If you keep your horse in training, then you’re probably already getting lessons when you ride. It’s one of the benefits of that boarding situation. But not everyone can afford full training, or they simply want to keep their horse at home. DIY riders especially need to seek outside input on their horse, their riding, and their progress. When you ride by yourself, you might think you’re doing good. But then you get to the show and someone says, “Wow, you need some help with that!”
Part of my longevity in the horse business is that I surround myself with talented people who work for me. If I have a problem, I can ask an assistant what they see, and then I can try to fix it. Or I can put him on the horse and watch what’s going on for myself. I always have an extra set of eyes to identify potential problems and train my horse to his best advantage.
Set Up to ‘Fail’
There’s always something unexpected at a horse show. Kids playing in the stands, bad ground, banners on the fence, loud tractors, screeching microphones—the possible triggers for your horse to lose his mind are endless. Prepare for those spooky situations at home by setting him up to deal with the unexpected. With that experience plus knowing your horse from spending a lot of time with him, you can make it easier to deal with those variables at the horse show.
I have banners tied all over my arena fence. Yes, they’re my sponsors, but I know that just about every show I go to will have the same types of banners. By accustoming my horses to them at home, they’re no big deal at the show. I’ll have the neighbor kids come over and play right outside my arena to expose my horse to those distractions. I haul my horses to small shows before the big ones to experience other unforeseen elements. With a little effort on my part, I prepare my horses for everything possible.
Put Your Horse First
Especially at the big shows, you’re putting your horse in living conditions that don’t fit his usual routine. The lights are on all the time in the barn, whereas at home they get to sleep in the dark. The stall footing isn’t as comfortable. You have to ride at 2 a.m., when he’s used to being ridden at 4:30 p.m. Do everything you can to keep your horse comfortable, even in less-than-optimal conditions.
At shows, I put extra lights in my horses’ stalls that I can turn off at night, so they have some change in lighting. This makes the overhead barn lights seem more like ambient lighting, so the horses can sleep more easily. I also keep my feeding schedule as close to the same as it would be at home, rather than adjusting for time-zone changes.
Do Try It at Home
If you’re going to try something new—a bit, a piece of tack, a schooling technique, or a cue—try it at home first. Every time I’ve tried something new at a show, it comes back to haunt me. Earlier this year, I had my 3-year-old prepared to show one-handed. Everyone else was still showing two-handed, so I decided to go back to riding with two hands. It made my horse tense and he thought he was in trouble. My decision didn’t help my horse at all. I should’ve stuck to my program.
Try everything you’ll use at the show at home first, down to the squeaky show saddle and the splint boots. It’ll teach you a lot about your horse, prepare him for his new circumstances, and put you both closer to being ready to win.
A multiple AQHA world champion, Avila has also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles. He received the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is in Temecula, California. Learn more at bobavila.net.