Help Me Stay on Course!

Advice for a rider who struggles to stay focused and on course in dressage and jumping tests at events.

The week before a competition, solidify the test in your mind with visualization, thinking of how you’ll prepare for, ride and finish each movement. | © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Q: I constantly go off course in my dressage and jumping tests at events. How do I stay focused?

LAURA VANDERVLIET: There are two main reasons for riders going off course in dressage or show jumping. First, you may not know your test as well as you think you do. You should be able to pick it up at any movement or jump and recite the rest of it easily. It’s like knowing the alphabet so well that you can remember what comes after L without starting at the beginning. Second, you may forget your test because your horse does something that distracts you. You’re so busy dealing with him that you blow right by the next letter or jump.

Both of these situations can be avoided with proper preparation and a thoughtful warm-up plan. Begin learning your dressage test months before the competition. At the beginning of each year, check for any new movements in the tests you plan to ride. Practice those until several weeks before the event, then put them together and ride the complete test. Run through it several times in the week leading up to the event. Some people worry that practicing dressage tests too frequently teaches horses to anticipate the movements. I’ve found that horses who tend to anticipate actually improve when you practice the tests even more. They know exactly what’s coming next, so they’re more relaxed.

Even if you’ve ridden a test many times, solidify it in your mind the week before your event with visualization. Find somewhere quiet to sit in a very relaxed state with your eyes closed. If you rush through the visualization, you’ll rush when you ride the test. Instead, go through it in real time, imagining every moment. If the estimated time to perform your test is five minutes, it should take you five minutes to visualize it from beginning to end. Think of how you’ll prepare for, ride and finish each movement, not just where you’ll do it. For example, “I enter at A in a big, forward, balanced trot … asking my horse to be light in the bridle and lift his shoulders … then I take a deep breath, make a half-halt and … three, two, one … halt.”

During your visualization, instead of picturing yourself riding the perfect test, imagine staying focused in spite of any possible distractions. I once had a horse who sneezed when he got nervous at shows. If I visualized myself keeping my cool no matter what he did, his sneezing wouldn’t rattle me. Do the same with any habits your horse has. For example, if his haunches tend to drift sideways on the centerline, visualize yourself closing your right or left leg as necessary to keep him straight.

Also try walking your dressage test on foot, just as you would a jumping course. This will help you to orient yourself in the arena. You can sometimes even do this in the competition arena the night before or morning of your event. If the organizers don’t allow you to walk in the ring, sit behind A and visualize your test, this time with your eyes open, so you can mentally associate each movement with the surrounding visuals—the judge’s booth or trailer, woods, cornfields or barns on either side of the ring, etc. When you visualize the test again later, just before your ride, you can incorporate that data into your inner dialog. For example, “I’ll pick up my right-lead canter in the corner by the woods.”

Effectively memorizing your show- jumping test is very similar, although you have much less time to do it. Everybody has a different ideal way of learning, so be sure to walk the course at least once by yourself. Create your own mental image of each jump, line and turn—along with all the surrounding visuals—without the influence of anyone else’s thought process. Then make time to sit somewhere quiet to visualize your ride in real time. If the estimated ride time is two and a half minutes, take that much time to ride the course in your mind. Even if your time is limited, spend a few minutes on the side of the warm-up ring to do this while sitting on your horse.

During your visualization, focus not only on the individual jumps, but also on what you’ll do in between them. How will you finish a jump and balance your horse for the next one? How will you make each turn, giving yourself enough room to get straight to the next fence? Just as you did with your dressage test, also prepare yourself to handle any possible distractions. Say your horse spooks or cuts a corner. Imagine yourself reacting smoothly and efficiently, fixing whatever the problem is while staying on track—or getting back on track—to the next fence.

Finally, both for dressage and show jumping, use your warm-up time wisely. In the last few minutes before your ride time, be careful not to add lots of clutter to your mind. Now is not the time to wander around the ring chatting with friends. Focus simply on your horse and the test at hand. If you’ve prepared properly, the test will go just as well as you imagined.

Advanced-level eventer Laura VanderVliet has dedicated more than 20 years to producing confident, forward-thinking sporthorses in many disciplines. After earning a business degree from Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, she became an assistant trainer for U.S. Equestrian Federation Young Horse Dressage Coach Scott Hassler. She then worked for Olympic eventer Phillip Dutton as his assistant trainer and barn manager before starting her own training business in 1998. Best known for her ability to start horses under saddle without having to “bronc them out,” she has provided this service regularly to many trainers in different disciplines around the country, including two-time Breeders’ Cup winner Michael Dickinson. Laura and her partner, Brazilian eventer Nilson Moreira da Silva, now run a training business, L & N Equestrian, together in Aiken, South Carolina.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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