Photo by Trish McDermott

Shouldn’t this be getting easier? – photo by Trish McDermott

HJU guest blogger Dave Hanley is a 32 yr-old jumper rider who discovered the sport as an adult and in 5 years, has become a true horse junkie.

His goal is to compete at the Grand Prix level in five years. Thanks for sharing your adventures, Dave!

Shouldn’t This Be Getting Easier?

This past weekend was my final ‘warm-up’ show before the start of the ‘A’ circuit show season.  At least, that was the idea.

Coming off of my performance at the previous show where I tied for second in my division out of more than 20 horses, my confidence was running pretty high.

Over the past few weeks, Coach and I had been working hard on a few of the issues which reared their heads in the last show, including keeping a more consistent pace, extending/compressing in the lines and bending more into the corners.  Add these items to the existing list of things like my release over fences and maintaining a short rein, and needless to say I have had a lot to think about.

Looking back to the same time last year, all that was in my head when entering the ring was “…vertical coming home, outside red, diagonal green, outside yellow…” I was basically just trying to stay on course and not look like a complete fool.   Oh, how I yearn for the simpler times…  I guess I kind of assumed the better you get at riding, the easier it becomes.  Makes sense, right?  Not so much.

Just before entering the ring for my first round over fences this past weekend, I had a very detailed plan in my head.  I had not only unconsciously mapped out the course, I knew exactly what I was going to do on each line, over each fence and in each turn.

It went something like this: Pick up the right lead canter in the far corner going to the first fence.  Wait to it as it’s a solo vertical, but keep a good pace as that’s when we get the best distances.  Plus, it’s right beside the judge, so make it a good one!  Then, ride straight towards the end of the ring, being sure to keep up my right rein and sit up to keep her off the forehand in case I need a lead change.  Coming around by the in gate, be sure to get an eye on the next fence as soon as possible – the canoe fence – as it’s a long approach on kind of an awkward angle.  Again, wait to this one so she doesn’t get too speedy, and keep a little left rein and right leg over the fence to get her into the corner.  On the next five-stride outside line coming home she will get forward, so be prepared to ‘whoa’ a little in between.  Wait 4 strides coming out in order to get a nice clean corner and don’t cut in too soon going to the green horizontal six-stride.  Get an eye on it as soon as possible to help with the angle, and move up on the line.  She normally builds pace as the course progresses, so be prepared to ‘whoa’ again on the last five-stride outside line.  Nice circle to finish and clean transition to trot.

Sounds pretty straightforward… doesn’t it?

To this plan, add one part horse show nerves and a long list of ‘riding fundamental’ items I have been working on, and a seemingly functional adult brain can turn to mush pretty fast.

By the time my over fences trips were finished, I had chipped in on my first fence right in front of the judge’s booth.  I missed a bunch of lead changes.  I took off my leg and had a run out (at the canoe jump).  I cut the corner to the diagonal line.  I got super-crooked on the same fence repeatedly.  It wasn’t pretty.

When I left the ring after my final trip, I could feel my face turning red with anger.  I didn’t even want to look Coach in the eye. She made it easy for me, however, hiding her disappointment under the brim of her hat as she leaned over the fence.  I knew I was much better than the performance I just put forward.  So did she.

After cooling out in the warm-up ring (I needed more cooling out than Grace did!), Coach came over and asked me what went wrong.  I couldn’t put my finger solely on one thing, aside from the fact that I felt like I had too much going on in my head and I couldn’t ride with any of the ‘feel’ that I am used to relying on at home or in the warm-up.

After talking through my rounds in more detail, the good news is that there were actually some bright spots.  Overall, my pace was better and the horse was riding in a better shape (we had been working on this a lot the previous week).  I did use the ring better (in most cases).  I got all my numbers on the lines, despite the odd tight spot or crooked approach.

With my third, fourth and eighth place ribbons providing me little consolation for my general feeling of frustration, I asked her the question – shouldn’t this be getting easier?  I’m working hard, and I’m becoming a better rider…why does it feel like things are becoming more complicated?

She answered: “because they are”.

She then explained that being able to plan and execute independent of the nerves that I will naturally feel in the show ring will come with more experience and more time in the ring.  As much as I want to believe riding is about feel at this point, it is very technical when you are learning the fundamentals.  What this means for me is that I won’t be able to rely on ‘feel’ under pressure the way top riders do until I have mastered these fundamentals.

For now, we are going back to work to get ready for the next show in a few weeks.  I have realized that even though I am riding 5-6 days a week and working very hard at becoming more fit and honing my skills, my ‘mental game’ still needs to mature quite a bit.  This sport constantly puts you outside of your comfort zone, and what I need to figure out is how to hold it together when it feels like everything is about to come crashing down.