Better Dressage – How to Plan for Success in Competition.

Competitive dressage is, to many people, the primary goal and purpose of their training. For others it is a less central but still significant part of their life as a rider. It can be a source of great fun and satisfaction but it can also cause negative emotions to surface in us. This can have a knock on effect in all of our relationships, with horses and humans alike. In the same way that I looked at Planning for Success in Training I now want to take a look at how  planning your competition season strategically can help you to be a happier and more successful competitor.

What are your personal goals?

My introduction to the concept of competitive dressage was very different to that of many riders I know. Whilst still in my teens I was based with two riders who had competed at Olympic level. The attitudes to competition which I saw around me were very focused. If there was no end goal, there was no need to compete. There was no going out for fun! Going along to compete with them was almost always great fun, but the fun was not a primary objective. I also know many riders who go out to competition purely for the fun of a day out with their horse. Riders at both ends of this spectrum seem to be fairly sure of what they are doing and why.

Then there are a large number of riders who exist in the less certain middle ground. They have the instinct to be ambitious but who have not found a clearly defined objective; they have what I call ‘free floating’ ambition. They are often easily disheartened and tend to be overly reactive to the perceptions of other people. I have reached the conclusion that defining exactly what you want and setting clear goals is very important. The first step is to ask yourself what your primary objective is. Three things that should never be a part of your motivation:

  • To compete because everyone else does.
  • To compete because people seem to expect you to.
  • To compete in order to validate yourself as a rider.

There are many perfectly healthy reasons to compete, such as pride in the training you have given your horse and to showcase your abilities as a rider. For me the unique buzzy atmosphere of competitions is a huge motivating factor. If you plan to breed from or sell your horse it is a sound idea to take it out and show it off in public. Your reasons, once you identify them, will help you arrive at a plan that is right for you.

Target focused planning and experience focused planning.

Your planning process will involve a range of decisions. If, for example, you are aiming to sell a valuable homebred horse, or embarking on a career as a professional rider, then your planning should be target focused. If you are going out because you enjoy the competition atmosphere and want to show how well you have trained your horse then you are more likely to be focused on the experience of competition itself; your planning will be oriented around this.

Target focused planning

This is where we start with the end result – your destination. It is about identifying the steps you must take to get from where you are to where you want to be. For example you might want to win a particular title or be selected for a team. This works equally if you seek to compete at club level or internationally. Here are some things to consider:

  • What are the qualifying rounds of competition you will need to take part in?
  • What is the timescale for qualification for each of them?
  • Which events are key ones for any selectors you need to be seen by?

If you need to go through a process of qualifying rounds it is wise to allow plenty of time to gain your qualifying scores. Begin earlier in the season rather than later. Become familiar with all of the rules and regulations which will apply. Ask riders who have been through the process; few will mind and most will be happy to give you the benefit of their own experiences. Getting the inside track in this way can help avoid mistakes. It is always a good idea to pick up the phone and talk to the regional coordinators or club officials who deal with team selections. If you want to be considered for selection then ask directly what they are going to want from you. Ambition and a direct approach is always impressive. It marks you out as serious and puts you on the radar of the right people from the outset. Even if the conclusion is that you are not ready yet, at least you know precisely what areas you need to work on. You will have a roadmap.

Work out exactly how much this process is going to cost from start to finish and make sure that you have the budget in place. Make sure that you will have the time and the support as well as the money to enable you to reach the goals you set.

Make absolutely certain that you are more than ready for the level and standard of competition that you will be part of when you get to the championship. This is where you have to be sure you are not aiming for a goal that lies toward the outer limits of you riding experience. Forget any notion of impressing people and never let vanity do the talking when you set goals. If in doubt book a lesson or two with someone who judges at that level and consider their feedback carefully.

If you are new to dressage as a sport it is worth going along as a spectator to get a measure of the atmosphere at championship shows. At major shows it is all good fun whilst your focus is on the shopping and spectating but go along with a different mindset and imagine that you are about to tack up and warm up for a test. Watch some tests and see how comfortable you feel with the idea of it being you riding down the centre line. Being able to ride the test is one thing, riding it under those circumstances is another thing altogether. That can be a big shock to the rider’s system. There are major shows with calm inviting atmospheres and others that have an atmosphere like a blast furnace. Know where you are likely to end up should your campaign be successful and factor that into your goal setting process. If you conclude that you can ride the toughest test at a particular level well and that you could ride it under suitably challenging circumstances then give yourself the green light and set the goal. Find out what steps you need to take to make it happen and go for it! If you feel more than a little doubtful of the outcomes then don’t give up on the idea but see if there are some steps you can take to alter the landscape. See if your coach, or a friend, can lend you a schoolmaster to ride in some higher profile shows. Work on your horse’s acceptance of crowds, tablecloths, loud-speakers, TV cameras etc. Time spent working on these things is time well spent.

Experience focused planning

This kind of planning revolves around making choices that optimise the positive outcomes for you and the horse. It is about going out and having a really good day. This may be because you are competing purely for fun or it may be because  you or your horse need to build confidence. In no way does this take less planning but the focus is experiential rather than on reaching a target. Key decisions will revolve around issues such as:

  • Where to go.
  • How to get there.
  • Who travels with you.
  • Your show day routine.

The number one consideration is the venue. Choose a venue that you like, one that will calm you and one that is well run. A well run competition is much easier on the nerves than one full of stressed out, complaining fellow competitors. Visit all of the venues within your region as a spectator and pick out the ones which seem inviting. This can be a very subjective choice, a matter of instinct. If you like the lay out of the facility it will help you relax and that will help your horse.

If either you or your horse is inexperienced then it is vital that the competition experience is optimal. Renting a box at the venue is helpful, even when you are not staying over. The horse will have somewhere to relax, to be closer to other horses, and you will be able to leave the horse for slightly longer periods than if it were on a lorry. Stress can be infectious. Some combinations calm down when around one another but often the reverse is true. What I have done for pupils in the past is offer to stay with the horse whilst someone else takes them as far from the horse as possible, for as long as possible. This is where a good groom, or willing friend, is invaluable. For me personally, I avoid human company as much as possible and virtually camp out in the stable with the horse. Work out what is best for you and go with that but having a stable to use gives you more options.

Planning your journey is important too. One thing to note is that driving your own horse to a competition can be a stressful thing in itself. I prefer to travel separately and get to the venue ahead of the horse. If that is true for you as well then consider using a transporter or getting a trustworthy person to drive the lorry for you.

Choose your companions with care and plan how you would ideally like the day to run. Ideally I would prefer to keep it to a core team of driver, groom and possibly one other person. In an ideal world I also have a million lists and a timetable. Turning up with a collection of enthusiastic supporters might seem like a good idea but it is fraught with potential for stress and problems. In my experience, having more helpers around often results in things being forgotten and tasks being overlooked. It also increases the chance of performance anxieties affecting you as a rider. Even supportive, well meaning people can put you under pressure without realising it.

Defining your individual goals and planning your competition season.

If you have clearly defined goals as a competitor then you will be planning your outings many months and sometimes even years in advance. If your goal is less clearly defined then your season can more spontaneous but the research and planning that goes into it is no less important. I would still advise anyone to plan ahead for as much of their season as they can. There are many good reasons for this; it helps to make sure that you have time off booked, that you avoid diary clashes with family occasions and that you have higher odds of being able to book transport and help if you don’t have a lorry and a full time groom.

Knowing how often to go out is a key thing for all riders. I have known of riders qualifying for championships and then not going out at all in the interim. For some horses this is fine but for others need to be out fairly regularly to remain calm in competition atmospheres. I have also seen riders who took their eye off the ball and let the horse lose it’s physical edge in between one competition and the next. Equally it can be easy to make a horse jaded and tired by over competing it. This is particularly true as tests become more demanding in terms of complexity and physical effort. Respecting the individuality of your horse is important and adjusting through trial and error will let you fine tune your strategy. If you need to avoid gaining too many points at a particular level, but want to go out anyway then you can always ride Hors Concours, or go along as a non competing horse. In both cases you must make the venue aware of what you are hoping to do and respect their wishes on the matter.

Whatever your reasons for getting involved in dressage as a competitive sport the most important thing is for it to become a positive part of your life. The key is in the preparation, your frame of mind and that of the horse. There is a lot that good preparation can do to help with these elements and that is going to be the subject of the next article in this series. In the meantime I hope that approaching your life as a competitive rider in a structured way will enable you to identify what you want to achieve and set you on the path to attaining your goals. Success is something you define for yourself in advance, whether that is winning a national title or getting through the test without impromptu airs above the ground.

“Clearly defined goals lead to a clearly defined sense of achievement.”

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