“We expect to ride and look how we do when we are training. However, the reality of what happens when we ride in competition is often much different than we expect.”
For those of us who ride in competitions or show our horses at any level, we spend a lot of time preparing ourselves and working our horses. We focus on our riding and how we can improve it, trying to build muscle memory to fall back on when we don’t have all of our faculties due to the nerves that often accompany competition. We work to make sure our horses are using their bodies correctly and are light to cues. We do these things not only to better our riding and our horses, but also to showcase our talents to the best of our respective abilities when we enter competition.
We expect our hard work to carry over to the show ring; we expect to ride and look how we do when we are training. However, the reality of what happens when we ride in competition is often much different than we expect.
Here’s a somewhat comical, albeit true, look at 7 ways my riding expectations differ from my riding realities when I enter the competition ring:
1. My hands. As I train, I focus on keeping soft, quiet hands that complement my seat and leg cues. I think about keeping them in an area no larger than a dinner plate slightly in front of my pommel. When I get into the show ring, all of that goes out the window. I’m on the horse’s mouth, they’re high, they’re jerky, and they’re hyperbolic. Even if I think they’re not, competition pictures tell me otherwise.
2. My legs. In training, I think about keeping my hips, heels, and shoulders in line. My heels are down, I provide subtle cues, and urge my horse forward, encouraging proper self-carriage and direction. The minute I get into competition, it seems I forget how to actually ride my horse and use my legs. Do I have legs? Are they supposed to be doing something? They don’t just hang on either side of the horse like wet rags? Why do I somehow look like I am sitting in a chair?
3. My seat. While I have all of my mental faculties, I think about sitting back on my pockets, moving with my horse, slowing and speeding up my body accordingly. When I enter the ring, I somehow become a monkey tied to a dog. I’m bouncing on my seat bones, my upper body is flopping around, and I seem incapable of achieving any sort of upper and lower body separation. Thank goodness my horse is a saint.
4. My posture. Normally, I work on sitting upright, my shoulders are relaxed, and I mimic what I expect of my horse. Add in a case of nerves and my shoulders are up around my ears and my spine somehow has managed to spontaneously compress, arch, and hunch. How is that bio-mechanically possible?
5. My breathing. When I ride my horse at home, I can breathe normally. My chest rises and falls in a predictable pattern. I don’t even thinking about it. It’s almost as natural as… well, breathing. When I compete, I only realize that I’ve been holding my breath when my abdominal muscles start to cramp up and I finally exhale, forcing myself to draw a deep, refreshing, if somewhat shaky, breath.
6. My memory. In my own arena, patterns are a cinch. I remember them and negotiate them without any hitches. Put me in a show ring and my course management goes to the birds. Have I seen a pattern before? How do I turn my horse? How did that pole come upon me so quickly?
7. My horse. When we train, my horse is soft and supple; she collects and stretches out her topline, reaching for contact and driving from her hindquarters. She focuses on me and works calmly, aiming to please. When we get to a show she, of course, feeds off of my nervous energy and sudden inability to ride. She does her best impression of a giraffe and her eyes are wide. All of a sudden banners along the edge of the arena and the tractor are of the utmost importance.
Okay, so I may be exaggerating a bit (I certainly hope I am), but this is what it feels like when moving from the comfort of my home arena to one of competition. Also, this is not to say that all of the pre-competition work and training is for naught. Instead, it’s a somewhat accurate, mostly cheeky look at how the show ring can highlight what needs more work during training. Although I usually cringe when I see the photographs from an event or watch the videos my friends have so generously taken, doing so gives me a very solid idea of what to focus on moving forward.
In all seriousness, though, shout out to my amazing horse who puts up with me at my worst and refrains from putting me in the dirt on a regular basis.