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How to best prepare for a competition

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

I am sure you are all as excited as me at the news that competitions can now begin again after 28th March. So what better time to talk about how you can best prepare for competitions. Preparing for a competition is all about finding what works for you. Every horse is different and every rider is different so what works for one person might not work for another. By all means get ideas about what works for others but don't automatically assume just because one successful rider is doing it that it is going to work for you too.

Instead, find out what makes you and your horse perform at your best and work with that. Its all about controlling those controllables, all those things that we can and are able to control we need to look at and all those things we cant control like the weather, traffic and so on we need to put to the back of our minds.

So i have 7 things that i want you to think about when preparing for a competition. They are things that will make such a difference to how you and your horse feel going into that arena.


1. Plan your week before the show

This is really important in helping you get both you and your horse ready to perform at your best. I always say its best to work backwards so start with the date of your show and then work out what you need to do the day before. It might be that your horse goes better when they've done a proper training session the day before a competition or perhaps they're better if you've taken them for a nice hack.

Then you need to work out the rest of your week from there. Work out what you need to do to have your horse performing at their best.

- How many training sessions do you need to do before the show?

- When should they have their day off that week?

- When would be a good time to hack them or give them a lunge?

- Are they due the farrier or dentist or physio that week ?

- Are there any days you aren't able to ride because of work or other things?

All these questions will help you plan out what you need to do with your horse. It will help give you piece of mind that you haven't accidentally booked the physio for the day before and that you and your horse will be ready to go.

2. Plan your training sessions for that week

Now you've worked out what days you're going to train on, you need to work out what you're going to do in these training sessions. Again, this is about knowing what works for you and your horse.

- Do you want to run through the test and work on your test riding, if so is it best for you to do it the day before to help you feel confident or further back in your week (especially if your horse likes to anticipate the movements)

- What parts of the test do you feel might be good to work through. There might be certain parts of the test that are more difficult than others so you can choose to focus on those parts in a test.

- Don't forget about your basics. Make sure you still dedicate a session to working on your basis, whether that's making sure your horse is in front of the leg or your contact is consistent or your horse is supple.

The preparation for a competition is all about putting you in the right headspace to perform at your best and putting your horse in the right physical and mental position to perform at their best. The day before the show is arguably the most important day for getting both you and your horse ready to go.

I had a horse where i absolutely had to train with my instructor and run through the test the day before. It helped me to know exactly what i need to do on the day and it boosted my confidence to know i had already run through the test the day before. But then i had another horse who didnt suit that, he would anticipate my canter transitions if i ran through the test the day before and he would be more grumpy if i made him work hard twice in a row. It just didnt work for him. So instead we went for a blast around the gallops the day before a show. It put him in a better headspace to perform. and he was ready to put 110% into his work on the day of the competition rather than feeling a bit tired from the training the day before.

3. Decide when and what to pack

Packing the lorry or trailer can be a stressful situation, that fear of 'have i forgotten something' happens to us all. Make a list of everything you will need and then tick it off as it goes into the lorry, it will stop you having that late night 'did i actually put it in the lorry' moment.

The problem of when to pack depends on you. Some people prefer to get it done and sorted the day before so they don't have to worry about it. If this is you, maybe try also plaiting your horse the night before too. It will help to take the stress out of feeling like you have loads to do, especially if youre competing earlier in the day.

But you might find that having things to do is actually more helpful for you as it keeps you mind busy. Again, and you're probably noticing a trend here, do what works for you. I see so many riders doing things before a show because their idol does it or a rider they look up to or is doing well does that. But that works for them, it might not work for you.

4. Create your routine

This is more talking about the day of the show. You will have already decided whether you are plaiting and packing the day before or the day of the show but what about the rest of the lead up to you going into that arena. This part is all about 'controlling your controllables'. This is a sports psychology method i was taught a long time ago when i was competing at international level. Its about looking at what you can do in the lead up to you going into that arena to help you be the best you can be and not giving any attention to the things you cant control like the weather or whose judging you or who youre competing against. You cant control that so try not to focus on that because it wont have any benefit, instead focus your attention on controlling those things you can control.

What will you do on the drive there?

How much time do you want to allow yourself before you get on?

What are you going to do when you arrive?

Will you watch other riders before you compete?

Watching riders is a big one that some people love to do and some people hate. Don't get caught into watching other riders if it makes you nervous or gets you off your game. If it makes you feel motivated and excited by all means do it. Some people like to feel excited, motivated and raring to go, others like to feel calm and composed and relaxed. Work out how you want to feel and then all you've got to do is find out what helps get you there. Again, it doesn't matter what you do, i used to do sprints up and down the side of my arena to psych me up on one horse because i was too laid back and lazy i wouldn't ride at my best if i didn't feel raring to go.

And then there's the question of do you talk to people. That may sound silly but going back to our controlling the controllables it might only take one persons misplaced comment to change your mindset. I've had people say to me things like 'well it cant be any worse than last time' or 'remember you need 70% to qualify'. It might be that chatting to people calms or one of the reasons why you compete is to see your friends and have a chat and if that's the case then that's great go and chat away to everyone, but if you find that people asking how your horse is going, and whether you think they'll go well today will make you feel more nervous then just don't chat, they will probably still be there after the test anyway.

5. Talk to the people who will be going with you

Whether this is your parents, your friend, your groom, chat to them about what you want them to do or what you need from them. Generally, most of the time they've come to support you and help you, so tell them what will help you. Whether that's helping you tack up, or telling them what to remind you to do in the warm up, or asking them to give you some space to get your head in the game or even just chatting away to them.

I think a lot of the time at a competition as riders we don't want to be selfish, but you've got to remember that this competition is about you and your horse, you've worked hard to be there, you've trained hard, you've paid your hard earned money to be here too so don't be afraid to tell people what they can do to help you perform better.

6. Plan your competition warm up

No matter whether you are nervous at a competition or just very chilled out, having a warm up routine at a competition can be super helpful. Generally you can keep it pretty similar to your warm up routine at home. A nice leg stretch and warm up, and then pick up and work through the aspects you need to work on. You know your horse so you will know what you need to work on in your warm up but your aim is to get your horse feeling physically ready to go. Even in the warm up you might find it helpful to run through different bits of the test or even the whole thing if it helps you feel more confident.

Timing is something that a lot of people struggle with. How long should you warm up for? And its a little bit of a trial and error, sometimes you might find you didn't have enough time sometimes you might feel you overcooked your warm up. Generally i would advise allowing 5 mins extra than you feel you need. Worst case scenario you can give your horse a walk break halfway through and it will give you that extra leeway if you need it.

7. Goal Set

Before you go down that centre line you need to have it very clear in your head what you need to do to come out of that arena and be happy with that test. Scores are relevant for qualification scores and placings and so on but we've all come out of a test thinking it was rubbish and got a great score so they're not always the best indication of how you did.

Remember that competitions are a different environment for both you and your horse and add to that the fact that we haven't been able to compete for a while don't go out thinking, i want this test to be perfect and everything to go to plan. Instead, make some goals that are more relevant to you. It might be that you want to get your horse to relax in the warm up, or that your horse stays in front of the leg for the whole of the trot work or it might be that your goal is to enjoy it and have fun. Make your goals relevant to you and what you have been working on in your training.

Think of this first competition back as your baseline, we've had a long time training and a lot of things will have improved but we still have a whole season to get continue improving so use this first competition to see where you're at and then you can use it to work out what you need to improve over the rest of the season.

Remember, when preparing for any competition its not about what other people are doing but what works for you and your horse. Every horse and rider is different so find what works for you and stick to it. It might take a bit of trial and error to work out what works but that's okay, its part of the process. Once you have a system that works, stick with it. The routine will help you find your rhythm with competing from following the same preparation and process every time.

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