What can be more daunting than entering the arena in front of a judge and a crowd of spectators? Navigating the schooling ring before your round.
In this article, Hunter Judge & trainer Archie Cox breaks down 6 tips to feel more confident in your next class.
Every rider has had a warm-up experience that affected their confidence before their round. When you’re comfortable, your horse is comfortable, and you’ve had a smooth, seamless warmup, success comes with much greater ease.
Imagine fish gliding past each other effortlessly around their tank. We want to create that ease in the schooling ring. To do so, riders should act courteously and respectfully so that every rider in the ring can have a smooth, confident warm-up experience. I believe that a great warmup before showing can raise your score 3, 5, even 10 points.
Without further ado, here are 6 tips for schooling ring experience that will leave you feeling confident to enter your next class.
- Flat riders stay on the rail.
In a crowded schooling ring, all of us are anxious, we are trying to do our best, and nerves come into play. So, when you’re riding, jumping, and warming up in a crowded arena, the old tradition of riders passing ‘left to left’ often goes out the window. If you need to get to a jump in the middle of the schooling ring, riders should feel comfortable turning inside other riders, therefore being right to right. The person jumping has priority.
If you’re only warming up on the flat, staying on the rail is a courteous way to allow the jumping riders to get to their fences safely. If you’ve been warming up on the flat but are ready to start jumping, wait patiently until you see an opportunity to move to the inside track. Remember: your eyes tell other riders where you are going, so look where you are wanting to go!
- Be courteous when using dressage whips.
A loud crack or a flailing dressage whip can often set other horses on edge, making the schooling ring experience tense for other riders. If you warm up with a dressage whip, keep the whip pressed softly against your thigh as you’re riding so that you don’t accidentally whack another horse.
This is especially true if you are passing or overtaking another horse and rider. If you’re passing someone and you pull your whip in to avoid bumping into the rider’s leg, make sure you are mindful that the rest of the horse is passing as well! I’ve seen many a horse and rider shy away when a dressage whip is accidentally waved by another competitor.
- Change your speed as part of your warm-up routine.
It’s so easy to get sucked into going around and around the outside of the ring at a trot without actually asking anything of your horse. We’ve all done it! However, this can be disastrous when you walk in the ring and realize that your horse is behind your leg. So, change your speed at each gate while you warm up. Practice going forward and coming back. Your trainer will be happy to know the horse is in front of your leg, you will be present and thinking, and horses behave better when given a job to do.
- Be respectful of horses misbehaving in the schooling ring.
Are you having a fabulous time in the warm-up? That’s great! But when you look over and see another horse misbehaving, treat them with empathy and courtesy because one day - that might be you. Just because you’re having a solid warm up today doesn’t mean you won’t ever be the one causing a scene. We’ve all been there.
Remember that it’s hard and embarrassing for that rider, and as a fellow rider you can find a way to give them confidence. Give them plenty of space and don’t gawk. Maybe as they leave the warm-up, a simple, “You rode him so well – I have been in your shoes! Keep your head up!” could turn that rider’s day around.
- No legs in the schooling ring!
Riders, trainers, grooms, friends: stand in the middle of the ring or outside of the arena. Standing or sitting on the rail is dangerous and disrespectful to horses and riders. Let’s face it: the schooling ring is hard enough. People standing and sitting on the rail is an avoidable distraction.
- Practice an efficient change in direction at home.
Once you enter the schooling ring, some things are outside of your control. But this is one thing you can control! Ensure that you’ve practiced safe and efficient changes in direction before you ever even arrive at the show.
In a busy schooling ring, lollygagging across the long diagonal to change direction is not safe and will likely put you in the way of other horses and riders. A simple change, a flying change, a half turn or a half turn in reverse gets the job done quickly and efficiently so that you can fall back in line with the other horses and riders. Your horses, trainers and others will be happier when changing direction is done with ease.
Remember, everyone in the schooling ring is there to have a confident warm-up before they head in for their class. We’re all in this for the same reason! Showing respect to the horse, other exhibitors, trainers, show employees is a top priority at all levels of riding. If everyone participates in safe practices in the schooling arena, it can be a smooth and positive experience which translates into more success in the show ring.
First inset photo: The J’Taime by Jedd Johnstone
Written by Archie Cox
Archie Cox is an 'R' hunter judge who has coached multiple students to national championships. He runs Brookway Stables in Los Angeles, CA.