In the first installment of this series I opened Pandora’s Box (if you haven’t read it yet, click this link). How should we be thinking about our riding approach in the ring? Should we always be focused on training our horses and seeking to ride that elusive ‘perfect round’? Or are there circumstances when we should be seeking victory? Today I’m going to talk about riding to win. How can you ride, train and prepare to be (or become) more competitive? What are the upsides and what are the downsides of this approach? When is going for it a good idea and when should we be advised to give that fast ride or quick turn a pass? When you feel you and your horse are ready to really go for it but you’re not sure what to do, I’ve got you covered with a few ways to train quick thinking and turning.
Riding to win requires a very different mindset than riding a first round for example. In the first round, you think one smooth rhythm, using your turns to get ready for the next line and so on. In the jump off however, everything gets faster and often feels a lot less smooth.
The main advantage of riding to win, is that you train yourself to ride, think and turn faster. You get used to this different kind of ride by the simple fact that you do it more often. With a more clear focus on being competitive, you increase your chances of victory. Another advantage is that you and your horse learn to think and communicate very closely together. If in the heat of the moment you think “sharp turn to the left” but your horse is focused on “straight ahead”, you are in trouble. So learning how to become a close team and how to align together is an important factor for a successful jump off or round on time.
A crucial downside of riding to win is the danger that it might put greater strain our horses and increase the risk of injury. So knowing when to go for it is critical. Another possible downside is the slightly addictive nature of winning. When attempting to win more often, statistically (assuming the circumstances are right), you have a greater chance of getting that ribbon and with it, greater success. What I have often learned from my clients however, is that when you become more competitive, you start to crave that wonderful feeling of victory. In other words, our ego gets addicted quickly. With that shift of focus from process to results, we quickly loose track of what matters the most: becoming the best rider and the best team with our horse that we possibly can.
“What I have learned from interviewing some of the most successful riders in showjumping, is that chasing the podium is something that they have been preparing for long in advance, down to specific decisions they have made leading up to the big day.”
So when should we actually dig deep and chase the win? What I have learned from interviewing some of the most successful riders in showjumping, is that chasing the podium is something that they have been preparing for long in advance, down to specific decisions they have made leading up to the big day. They have thought out a clear plan leading up to that show if not for the entire season. For each of their horses, they know exactly when they will be working on what. This gives them the advantage that they can always stay in tune to what their horses need. For example, when I interviewed Maikel van der Vleuten, he said: “When a horse needs two more months before I can start taking that inside turn, I will wait two and a half months. I will always wait until I feel my horse is absolutely ready”. So timing is of essence. Try too soon, too fast, and it might have a detrimental impact on your horse’s confidence and learning curve. On the other hand, when you have established an excellent relationship with your horse over a long period of time, you know each other well and you can more easily judge whether your horse and you are ready. Building and then listening to that intuition is important too. So when you (and your team) feel the time is right, consider gradually starting to ride faster and taking measured risks. Again, always take your horse’s wellbeing into close consideration, then start training yourself to think and react faster. The point is, if you never work towards a victorious round, however long it might take until the time is ready for you to try, you risk never getting there.
I often ask riders who come to me and who want to be more competitive, “how often do you train to win”? Most often, the answer is: “never”. Personally, I believe that anything we are not good at, we should train until it becomes easier to do and perhaps even our strength. Though we constantly train towards riding a smooth and consistent, or even “perfect”, round (and a lot of the time this might well be just the right approach), we fail to prepare or train for the speedy element. Therefore, thinking, turning and reacting faster should also be something we train so that when we are at the show, we know what you can and cannot do, and we have more confidence of our quick thinking and abilities in a jump off.
So here are a few ways help you develop some of the skills that will help you succeed in riding more competitively. Firstly, if your horse is not the type or note ready to train short turns over small jumps with at home, there is no need to give it all up altogether. Simply visualize yourself riding a supersonically fast round. The more detail you use and the more time you spend imagining these razor-sharp turns, the fast pace and the amazing feeling of you and your horse being in perfect sync, the better. Secondly, if you find it tough to pick up a faster pace, train yourself to get comfortable with the feeling of that jump off rhythm. Get used to it by galloping on the track or arena and embracing the uncomfortable feeling until it flows away. Think small steps and train yourself and your horse in a comfortable environment first before considering applying it in the ring. When you both feel ready, aim for small steps of improvement.
Photo by Thomas Reiner on Noelle Floyd