Enjoy the Ride!

The new show year is upon us. The question we should be asking ourselves is, “How can I build on last years’ experience and make 2024 even more productive?” You notice I did not say, “How can I win more blue ribbons.” Success comes only when you have a specific goal and can map out a plan.

Can you relate to any of these scenarios? Do you get to the show excited and enthusiastic, only to make the same rider errors? Your horse is perfect in the practice pen, only to become a fire-breathing dragon in the arena? Had a perfect pattern except for those darn logs, which caused your horse to fall on his nose? Forgot how to count your spins and went off pattern once again?

None of the aforementioned are a lack of training or practice. It comes from nerves and riding differently at a show than you ride at home. I am going to share with you five things I’ve learned over the years to help you overcome nerves and lack of focus so you can have a successful year, and enjoy your time in the saddle and in the show pen.

Riding the horse you have is the best way to be successful in the show pen. Don’t get to the show and try to ride outside of your horse’s comfort zone. photo by Jeff Kirkbride, Courtesy of Laurel Walker Denton

Know your pattern inside and out. That doesn’t mean you have to practice it forty-five times in the saddle. Once you memorize the maneuver sequence, your next step is planning your pattern in the arena. Sit at the in-gate and look for markers, banners, light poles, anything that will help you plan your placement. I find that this also helps a rider remember to look up and out, not down, which is an absolute recipe for disaster during a pattern.

Visualize yourself executing the pattern. You already know the pattern on paper and where you want your placement to be, now visualize riding your horse every step of the way through it. Think about a right lead departure for instance; sit back, look up, left leg pressure, release right leg, etc. Know exactly what your body should do to elicit the correct response from your horse.

Find a mantra or a group of words that lets you relax and focus. Rather than thinking negatively about a certain maneuver, talk yourself through it. For example, if your horse struggles with lead changes, don’t think about all the times it’s gone wrong in the past; instead tell yourself to keep riding and look up. Or count one, two, three, until you’re at the correct spot to ask for the change. If you’re worried about an upcoming maneuver, your horse will be, as well.

[Stay Positive in 2024]

Breathe. It sounds easy, but we all forget to utilize the greatest form of relaxation and good brain function. Try breathing in and out 15 times without losing focus. Around breath number seven our minds tend to wander, but don’t let that happen. Learn to make it easy and simple all the way to number 15. That way you can call on this skill when nerves start to get the best of you as you walk in the show ring.
Don’t watch everyone else warm up and change your plan. We have all been there and let the thoughts of doubt creep in: maybe my horse will be better if I do it that way, or maybe I need to go faster than I have ever practiced at home. Just say no to those thoughts. This journey is between you and your horse. No one else matters, not your barn mate, not your neighbor who just got a new horse, not the world champion. Ride at the show like you practice at home. If you want to change something, or learn a new skill, wait until you get home to start. This is always the case if you want to be fair to your horse.

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