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Being a better competitor

Gina Montgomery training © Roger Fitzhardinge

© Roger Fitzhardinge


By Roger Fitzhardinge

It's your State Dressage Championships this weekend and as with any competition the enormity of getting out is a little daunting, whether you are a seasoned campaigner or a new one.

We all know in reality that, for the horse, training and the way you should ride the test is no different to riding at home, in a lesson with your coach or at a practice competition. However the title of the competition “STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS” gives it a whole new meaning other than simply riding a test.

We all know the feeling, as you drive into the venue where you often compete, the banner reads STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS. You freeze, your stomach turns over and then you see Jo and Nellie and Rob and Meredith who are all walking around looking more efficient than ever, lunging and riding for ages and you think, I guess I better do that! 

Your mind starts to race; will the arenas be spooky? I hope the judges are not too tough. I hope those people are not watching me. My horse isn't as well presented as that one. Oh I am sure I haven't worked him enough and have I given him enough hay or too much grain? Maybe I should lunge him as soon as I get him off the float, as I don't want him fresh. What if I get lost in the test? What if my coach is disappointed and oh no, I don’t want to park near them!! Meanwhile your horse, who is unaware of all the potential scariness, is patiently standing on the float thinking he is here for simply another test ride.

Then of course you see the judges list, oh no it’s Mary Seefried at C and Mary has judged at Olympic games! Although Mary is seated in a 4WD just as any other person, you start to wonder, does the horse realise it's Mary Seefried, an Olympic judge? Yet rationally we know he looks at it as just another 4WD at the end of the arena, as it is every practice day.

The arena and the letters around the arenas are as they always are but for the odd pot plant that really is not scary but one wants an excuse. The warm up areas are the same as usual except when you look around there are terrified looks on riders faces because they are at THE STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS. The horses look at each other asking, what's the big deal here? My rider is very seriousness today, is there something terrible about to happen?! I think I better be very aware as my rider is hanging on like hell and overreacting to any minor situation. It must be bad so I best get super alert and ready to jump away! 

And you know what you should be thinking- get a grip! It's simply another competition on a rather special day. Take the “State Championships” out of the day and it's simply another competition. Think about what you are telling your horse.

This sport is not like a running race, pole vault or long jump, where chanting and clapping and getting all hyped up is the way to go. It's in fact the opposite. You really need to think less is more when it comes to a dressage competition. You know your horse and his ways, keep everything as you normally would on any other day. Remember to be logical and separate your mind from it being on anything else except riding yet another test. After all that's all it is. 

Riding horses is a very mental game and if you try harder and harder and create more pressure on your horse it WILL all come undone. If you look back on a test and think, he was tense and made mistakes, ask yourself why? The answer is 9 times out of 10 very obvious. You rode the “State Championship” way and not the normal way, and your horse didn’t know what to do with this new feeling.

Think of it like a game of tennis. If you serve a double fault forget it, clear your mind and get on with the next point, forgetting the previous shot. If you ponder and get emotional about a mistake it will affect the rest of the test or warm up, it will do your head in not to mention your horse (and the judge, who believe it or not actually wants to give you marks and not take them away).

Dressage is a very tough competitive sport. It's not only about having a talented horse and about the time spent in consistency of training and competing. It's simply about repetition of exercises that are done every time in the same manner, creating competence within the essence of the movement. Along with competence comes confidence. This competence and confidence simply means that you can repeat the performance anywhere, anytime. 

Back to the tennis analogy, just because it's Wimbledon you don't start throwing the ball all over the place and swinging faster when you haven’t trained for that. Why change a technique, unless it is something that you have practiced? Horses are creatures of habit, and he wants to feel the aids and your riding exactly as in training. 

Just remember, whatever the competition it's easy to try too hard, so keep it simple and remember after all it's just another test on another day! Focus on you and your horse and keep it normal and always the same as any day.

For all of those competing this weekend and those of you planning to compete, enjoy dressage with its many challenges and rewards.

Good luck!!









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