n the first installment of this series, I opened Pandora’s Box (if you haven’t read it yet, click here). How should we be strategizing our rides? Should we always be focused on training our horses and seeking to ride that elusive perfect round', or are there circumstances when we should actively be seeking victory?
Today I’m going to talk about riding to win - there is, after all, a time and a place for it. We compete for a reason, and winning doesn't feel too shabby. 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, when is it worth laying down that fast ride or inside turn?
When you feel confident that you and your horse are ready to 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 and go for the gold (or blue ribbon, however you roll). In this installment, we're talking show jumping, and we're talking speed.
Communication is Key
Riding to win requires a very different mindset than riding a first round or schooling a youngster, for example. In the first round, you think one smooth rhythm, use your turns to get ready for the next line, and focus on consistency. In the jump-off, however, everything gets faster and often feels a lot less smooth.
Gudrun Patteet and Sea Coast Just the Music.
The main advantage of riding to win in a jump-off or speed round is that you train yourself to ride, think, and turn faster - which can come in handy in other areas, even a hunter handy round or a technical cross-country course. 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 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 align your thoughts and instincts is an important factor for a successful jump-off or speed class.
Knowing When to Rein it In (Literally)
A crucial downside of riding to win is the danger that it might put greater strain on 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 increase your chances of being placed more often. What I have learned from working with my clients, however, is, that when you become more competitive, you start to crave that feeling of victory. In other words, our ego gets addicted to success pretty quickly. With that shift of focus from the process to results, we quickly lose track of what really matters the most - becoming the best rider you can be, and creating the ultimate teamwork between you and your horse.
The Right Time to Go For It
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.
"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 with 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”.
Maikel van der Vleuten and Dana Blue.
So timing is of the 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, you might forget how to or, worse yet - that it is even an option.
“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”
Master the Jump-Off
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, you know what you can and cannot do. Plus, you’ll have more confidence in your quick thinking and jump-off abilities.
Emanuele Gaudiano and Carlotta.
Firstly, if your horse is not the type or not ready to train short turns over small jumps with at home, there is no need to give it 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 notice you find it tricky to pick up that forward canter pace, train yourself to get comfortable with the feeling of that jump-off rhythm. Get used to it by galloping on a track or arena and embracing the uncomfortable feeling until it flows away. In case the fear persists, reach out to a (mental) coach and work on it together. Think small steps of improvement and train yourself and your horse in a comfortable environment first before considering applying it in the ring. When you both feel ready, go out and enjoy the (fast) ride!
Photos by Thomas Reiner.