In 2018, I broke my shoulder in a fall during a speed class. After being sidelined from competing at the top level for several weeks, I knew walking back into the grand prix ring might be intimidating. So we did something we often do to prepare our students mentally for competition: We put on a mock show at home. After setting up a course of jumps at grand prix heights, I walked it on foot just as if I were at a real competition, fully immersing myself in the experience. Then I warmed up my grand prix partner Qui Vive Des Songes Z (“Chewy”) outside the ring before entering it and riding the course. Approaching the challenging course with this show-day mindset was just the confidence-booster I needed to tackle the CSI***** HITS-on-the-Hudson VIII a few weeks later. Chewy and I placed fifth in the $35,000 HITS Jumper Classic and put in a solid effort in the Saugerties $500,000 Grand Prix CSI*****.
I don’t typically jump such big fences at home, but I know what a great mental advantage mock shows provide for riders of all levels—and all disciplines. Nerves play a big role in our sport, so anything you can do to reduce them will improve your performance. In a mock show, you put yourself in the same mental state you’ll experience at the show and challenge yourself with many of the same questions you’ll face there. That way, when you get to the show, you can tell yourself, “This is nothing new,” and enter the ring feeling very confident.
The same holds true for your horse. It’s only fair to expose our horses at home first to any challenges they’ll face in the show ring. Yes, we spend large amounts of time teaching them individual elements—practicing parts of courses, certain types of jumps and turns—but we don’t routinely put everything together in the format we face at a show: warming up in a separate ring over two plain jumps while navigating around other riders; then entering the ring and immediately riding a course of unfamiliar fences without any delays, circles or do-overs. Even when we do ride complete courses at home, it’s often during a lesson and we’ve already practiced at least some of the course.
In lessons and daily rides, we practice lengthening and shortening the stride and changing the tempo. We also focus on maintaining a good rhythm in snippets—while riding different exercises and sections of courses—but we practice having the same canter throughout an entire course less frequently. A mock show challenges you to find the right rhythm for the course and stay on it from beginning to end, making all the same types of turns you would make in competition.
What makes a mock show different from a schooling show is your ability to control the environment. You can tailor the course and situation to meet your exact needs while also still enjoying a certain level of comfort from being at home. If you’re saying to yourself, “This is the first time I ever (fill in the blank—for example, it could be your first attempt at a new height or your first handy hunter class),” this is your chance to practice in a competition atmosphere. If you’ve struggled with a particular question at past shows, this is your opportunity to overcome that obstacle (literally!).
In real competition, countless small variables can contribute to your—and your horse’s—nerves. They might be easy to deal with individually, but combined they can add up to bogeymen and hinder your performance. Say your horse has an aversion to natural rails. Even if you’ve gotten him over natural rails successfully at home, you might still have lingering concerns about what he’ll do in the show ring. As a result, you might ride natural jumps with less confidence in competition when you’re under more pressure. In a mock show, you can recreate that scenario and learn to cope better with that pressure.
Design the Course
The first thing to ask yourself when planning this mock show is: What are your specific goals? Once you understand exactly what aspect of your upcoming show is worrying you the most, you can focus your energy on creating a similar situation at home—or re-creating it, if it’s something you’ve struggled with in the past. By facing your anticipated greatest challenges in a safe space, you’ll set yourself up for success at the real show.
It’s especially important to overcome any negative experiences you’ve had at past shows. That way, instead of heading into the next show dreading repeating past mistakes, you can look forward to it with confidence. If there’s a particular type of jump that you had trouble with at a previous show, be sure to include it in this mock show. For example, if your horse refused a jump made of blue rails, set a blue-railed jump.
If you had trouble in your last show riding a difficult line to a combination (for example, missed the lead on a diagonal five-stride line to a one-stride in-and-out), build a similar line and combination at home. The better you can re-create the elements in the course leading up to that question (track, striding, order and types of jumps, etc.), the better you’ll reproduce the experience. Jumping questions can ride differently at the beginning of the round than at the end. So it’s best to encounter that tricky line, jump or combination at the same moment on course as the day you had the problem with it.
A mock show is also a great way to prepare for questions that you might face at an upcoming show, particularly elements involving the track and striding. Look up the name of the course designer and ask around to see if he or she is known for designing any specific challenges. (You may also be able to find videos online of his or her past shows.) For example, if the designer often builds triple combinations on the rail or difficult rollback turns, incorporate those into your mock show. There’s no guarantee that the designer will do what you expect, but knowing that you’ve done the best homework possible will help you start the show with a positive mindset.
Try to incorporate the types of jumps that you might face in your next competition. For example, if you plan to ride in a hunter derby, build tiered rolltops, taller brush boxes and straw-bale jumps. Be creative. Make a liverpool out of a yoga mat.
For timed jumper classes, use cones, buckets or standards to mark start and finish lines. Then, if you have a meter wheel, measure the course and calculate the appropriate time allowed.
For future design inspiration, take photographs at shows of the course boards of classes you particularly liked—or found especially challenging. (I probably have 50 courses stored in my phone at the moment.) Then rebuild those courses, or elements of them, for your mock shows. If you have riders of different levels and/or disciplines planning to participate, prepare to make whatever course changes are necessary throughout the day to accommodate everybody’s needs.
As you design the course, remember that your horse’s manner might change as you ride it. Some horses, for example, get stronger toward the ends of their rounds. As a result, certain lines might ride more easily in the beginning of a course than the end—or vice versa. A mock show is a great way to test your horse’s tendencies and practice your skills addressing them.
Here’s one way to do that with a jumper: build a square oxer followed by a 5 ½-stride distance to a one-stride in-and-out of two verticals. Set the jumps so they can all be ridden in both directions. Then incorporate the line into the course twice. Early in the course, plan to ride the line from the combination to the oxer in five strides. Later in the course, plan to ride it in the other direction—from the oxer to the combination—in six strides. This is a great way to test that you can bring your horse back during the second half of the course and ask him to wait in front of the verticals, which require a more careful jump than the oxer.
A great test to prepare a hunter for handy classes is to replicate the typical start of a round. When schooling on our own or in lessons, we rarely practice walking into the ring, picking up the canter right away and going straight to the first jump. If you’re warming up inside the “show ring” for your mock show, leave the ring after your warm-up, then walk back in through the gate to simulate this moment. Another good test is to plan a turn either inside or around a non-jumpable object (a jump standard, flower box, etc.) early in the course, then plan to ride a similar turn again later in the course to see if your horse is easier or harder to turn the second time. That will give you an idea of how differently you might need to ride such turns depending on when they show up in future courses.
Next, identify your competition arena and warm-up area. If you don’t have two separate arenas, choose one vertical and one oxer in your course to serve as warm-up jumps. In either case, spruce up and decorate the competition jumps as best you can. A fresh coat of paint with new colors can transform well-used jumps. And finding out-of-season plastic flowers and decorations on sale at craft stores is easy.
Depending on how realistic you want to make your mock show, you can also add elements that you and your horse don’t normally see at home. For example, you can incorporate decorations that serve as non-jumping obstacles, like an “island” of jump standards and/or plants (often used to display sponsors’ signs at shows) that you have to decide to turn inside of or go around. If you’re going to be riding in a venue where the walls are adorned with banners, hang posters, flags or even towels on the inside of your arena walls or fence.
To take it one step further, you can mimic the show atmosphere by inviting friends and family to serve as fellow competitors, ring crew, spectators, etc. You can even recruit someone to call for each new competitor in an official voice: “Next on course, we have number such-and-such: so-and-so riding so-and-so.”
All of these extra touches can add to the realistic feel of the show, but they aren’t absolutely necessary. What’s most important is that you tackle the course just as if you were at a show: first walking it on foot, then visualizing how you want to ride it, warming up over two simple jumps, and then entering the ring alone and riding the course “cold”—without practicing it first. Ideally, your trainer should participate in the same way she would assist you at a real show: walking the course with you, helping in the warm-up, then walking with you to the “in-gate” and offering last-minute instructions before you enter the ring. Watching how your rounds go will give her invaluable information; in future lessons, she can address any questions you or your horse were uncomfortable with during your round.
The day before the mock show, prepare yourself just as you would for a real show. The more you can plan and organize the day before, the better you can focus on your riding during the show. Put out all of your tack and equipment, checking that everything is clean and ready to go. Plan to use all of your proper show tack. This is a great way to test what works best in show situations. For example, if you ride one “class” in a snaffle and realize your horse might go better in a pelham or gag, try that in the next “class.” Figuring this out in the mock show will lessen the margin of error in competition. It’s also much easier—and less expensive—to make changes at home than mid-show.
Also lay out your clothes the night before. At the very least, plan to wear breeches and boots. If putting on your show clothes triggers a variation of “white-coat syndrome”—the physiological reaction (increased heart rate, sweating, etc.) that some patients experience when they see doctors in white coats—wear them in the mock show. That way, when you dress for the next real competition in your whites and shadbelly, for example, instead of panicking and thinking, “That means Classic!” you’ll switch to calmer self-talk: “Yes, this is special, but it doesn’t make me nervous.”
Similarly, if your horse gets amped up when he’s braided, braid him for the mock show. If you haven’t had a lot of experience jumping braided horses, this might be useful practice for you, too. (Some riders find the feeling of braids instead of loose mane under their hands disconcerting when giving a release over fences.) It is also a great opportunity to practice braiding!
Immerse Yourself in the Moment
On the day of the mock show, although there should be an element of fun, take the event very seriously. Try to put yourself in the same mental state you’d experience at a real show.
Before mounting, walk the course with your coach like you would at a competition, discussing your track, time allowed, etc. Plan to challenge yourself. Is there a faster, inside turn you could take for the jumpoff? After the course walk, visualize your ride. Make the experience feel as real as possible.
As you warm up for your first “class,” put yourself in the same mental state you’d experience at a show. Nerves often crop up more in the warm-up ring than in the show ring, so it’s important to get comfortable with this scenario. It can be unsettling when a rider comes at you head-on or someone is on the backside of the jump you’re approaching. Keep your eyes up and try to stay in the zone. Give the other riders plenty of space and be patient when they get in your way.
If possible, incorporate into your warm-up any elements of the course that might be especially challenging. For example, if there’s a particularly difficult turn after a jump, try to practice that in the schooling area. First visualize the turn. Next, check that the traffic is clear before jumping the schooling fence, turning your head upon landing to look for the turn and then making it.
If being the first rider on course is a situation that might trigger your nerves, either plan to ride your round first or avoid watching any other riders go before you. Try to deal with every mental challenge that you think might arise on show day. Always take a moment before you enter the ring to walk quietly, take a few deep breaths and visualize your round once more.
When it’s your turn, think to yourself, “Here I go, walking into the ring now.” For some people, this moment can bring a level of anxiety. Doubts can creep in. Try to counter those thoughts and feelings with positive determination. Your horse will pick up on this energy and rise to the occasion as well.
Enter the ring and start your round just as you would for this particular class. If it’s a handy hunter, for example, canter straight into the ring. Find the pace and rhythm that you know you need to win the class, and focus on maintaining them. If anything unexpected happens, handle it just as if you were competing. If your horse spooks, instead of circling and settling him down, carry on the best you can, riding “by the seat of your pants.” If he misbehaves in any way, try to correct him as subtly as possible, just as you would at a show.
When you finish your round, exit the ring as you normally would. Debrief with your trainer, take a break and then prepare for your next class. Try to learn from any mistakes and keep immersing yourself in the moment.
Remember, whether you ride jumpers, hunters, equitation horses or eventers, we all go through the same stresses at competitions. Putting on a mock show will help you overcome those stresses, so you can focus on the task at hand and achieve your goals, whatever they may be.
About Heather Caristo-Williams
Since her first lead-line win at the Devon Horse Show at age 4, Heather Caristo-Williams has been a formidable competitor. She placed sixth in the 1994 AHSA Medal Final, fifth in the 1995 WIHS Equitation Classic and won multiple team gold medals at the North American Young Rider Championships. She scored her first grand prix win at the age of 16 on an off-the-track Thoroughbred named Cliffhanger and earned five national hunter championships. Focusing more on jumpers in recent years, she has represented the U.S. three times in Nations Cup competitions. Her bachelor’s degree in art and psychology helped to create her foundation for teaching riders of all ages and levels at her family’s Glenview Stables, based in Saugerties, New York, in the summer and Wellington, Florida, in the winter.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue.