Horse Show Game Plan: Practice

Here’s how to practice and strategize your weakest areas before you walk through that horse-show in-gate.
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Patrick Flaherty on horseback instructing a female on horseback.

To be a confident, effective rider in competition, strategize with your riding coach in advance how best to practice and deal with your weak areas. Don’t think you’ll just bluff your way through them—you won’t.

Do you have a game plan that delivers confidence in the show pen? I do. It’s called dealing with reality, and it’s something I recommend for everyone who rides with me. Simply having a can-do attitude is important, yes. But in order to be the most confident, effective rider possible, you need to know you’re ready to deal with your weakest spots.

[More On: Confidence]

A lot of folks don’t get this. They try to mask or sugarcoat their weaknesses, thinking they’ll somehow bluff their way through. At home, they work most on what they and their horse do best, hoping everything else will somehow come together in the show pen with a simple, “I can do it! I can do it!”

But without the right kind of practice, that won’t happen. More likely, something will go wrong that everyone knew was coming.

My way, by contrast, is to deal with your most dreaded weaknesses before you go into the pen, by bringing them out during practice.

I’m going to explain how to do this, using two specific examples of common weak spots.

Weak Spot: Won’t Stand

[More On: Standing Still]

A horse that jigs and jags when brought to the center of the pen is anticipating the run to come. Riders sometimes think avoiding starting their practice run at the center is the solution, so as not to reinforce the connection between the center and starting the pattern.

I do the exact opposite. For a horse that jigs, I have the rider take him to the center frequently—but seldom to start a run. Instead, they go there to rest after going hard-and-fast practicing something else. I tell the rider to take out his or her phone and browse, or chat with friends on the rail. In other words, relax completely. If the rider sits there quietly, the horse will eventually stand quietly.

Over time, this overrides the horse’s notion that the center is the starting point of something exciting. Instead, he regards it as a nice place to stand and rest. And that gives you confidence when you’re about to begin a real run.

Weak Spot: Lead Change

[More On: Lead Changes]

This is a similar situation. During practice sessions, many riders avoid that lead change in the center of the pen because they know it’s a favorite place for horses to anticipate—and thereby mess up the change. So they ride through the center multiple times without changing, then change leads there just once at the end of practice.

That’s wrong. You need to bring out the potential problem, then deal with it. So I have my riders start with a change or two, then go through the center multiple times without changing, focusing on what they must do with their hands and feet to head off an attempted change. That gives them confidence that they can handle it in the show pen.

Apply this same approach to all of your weak spots and your confidence during competition will soar.

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