Well, here we are. My daughter, Rachael, and I have been on “Team Charlie Brown” for about a year now. So as our first show season comes to a close, I thought it an opportune time to reflect on our experiences, and remind ourselves of some of the things we learned this summer. Here are our most important lessons from our first eventing season.
- Be organized
I carry a duplicate set of my entry papers for each competition and clinic with me. That includes the entry form, Coggins, check, dressage test, course maps, and ride time schedule. It’s helpful for organizing my thoughts show by show.
I also keep extra copies of all potential dressage tests, multiple Coggins, USEA and USDF membership information, and other paperwork in my truck.
- Pack the trailer from a list, and do it the night before you leave
Always, always, always pack your trailer the night before you head out to your clinic or show. Use a list. Be pedantic and check it off every time. Don’t do it from memory, and risk forgetting something.
Remember to include snacks and drinks for you, your horse, and your support crew. Everyone is going to work hard on show day, and you all need sustenance and hydration. A big bag of carrots, some protein-laden edibles (like cheese and nuts), and water or Gatorade for all!
After the show, be willing to update your list. For instance, we discovered that my husband and our trainer have an easier time following our cross country rounds if there are a pair of binoculars in the trailer. Not big huge spy glasses. Just a small pair on a lanyard. So we added them to our list.
- Trailer up early
If you can go up the day before, then do. It’s a lot easier on your horse to arrive at a venue a day early, and have an overnight to acclimate to the new surroundings. It may even give you an opportunity to school a little bit, or at least walk your courses a couple of times.
Remember, this is eventing, so competitors have to memorize a dressage test, and a show jumping course, and a cross country course. That’s a lot of memorizing to do. And that’s tough to accomplish when you’re fretting over getting to the show grounds in time for your first ride time.
If going up a day early isn’t an option, then build in an extra hour to your arrival time. You’re going to be getting up at a ridiculously early time of the morning anyway, so what’s another hour? It’s worth it to arrive at your show venue with enough breathing room in your schedule so you aren’t rushed.
You don’t know stress until you arrive late, have to speed tack, enter the ring less well turned out than you’d like, and can barely remember your dressage test as a result. Fortunately, I learned that lesson by observation, rather than commission.
- Don’t over-do your warm up
The point of a warm up is to get your horse ready to perform at his best when he enters the ring. For some horses, that takes quite a bit of time and work. Other horses just get too frazzled if warm up goes on too long. Figure out what the optimal warm up is for your horse, and stick with it.
After several shows, I learned that Charlie Brown has a set amount of energy in his tank on show day, and I don’t serve either of us well if I use it all in the warm up ring. I’d rather get those energetic strides on display during our dressage test, rather than burn them up without a judge to see them. So the point of our warm up is to let Charlie stretch out and get his muscles moving.
- Be willing to ride aggressively
At our first show, I was very tentative on my jump course. Because it was a smaller schooling show, I was offered the opportunity to do the course a second time, even though I hadn’t signed up in advance to do so. When we set out for our repeat round, I chose to take things much more aggressively. And when we did, the whole course went much better.
Riding more aggressively gave us the forward impulsion we needed to clear our fences and hit our distances. Also, by riding more aggressively, I kept my hands more forward, which kept me from hanging on Charlie’s mouth, so he could stretch and round more over the jumps.
I’ll admit, it’s a lot easier to be aggressive when you have some familiarity with the course you’re riding. (see Trailer up early, above).
- Have fun!
We do this for fun. Remember that. As soon as it stops being fun, it’s not worth it. I hate mornings. But I love getting up at 4am to hay and feed and hook up the trailer. If you aren’t having fun, then you sure aren’t going to put in the hard work required in the horse world. And since we have to do the work to keep our horses happy and healthy, the fun is the reward for putting in all that effort.
If you are the parent, and not the rider, this holds especially true. Your child has to have fun as a rider. At one of our events, I admit I held my breath as my daughter went out on the cross country course. As an Eventing Parent, I know how scary it can be to send your child off on a cross country course with a 1200 pound animal with a highly evolved fight-or-flight response. But you have to.
Cross country was Rachael, and Charlie Brown, and the wide open field. There was nothing I could do to affect their ride. Then it hit me. They had this. They were both having fun, so much so that Rachael was taking every optional fence on the course. I wouldn’t trade the smile at the end of that run for anything. And if she would admit it, neither would she.
- Always take your trainer
I’ve seen plenty of riders take the “do it yourself” route. Don’t. Your trainer can see things from the ground that you can’t see from the saddle. A good trainer knows what your habits are, and can help you manage those habits. For instance, when I get nervous, my hands get high and my arms get stiff. My trainer reminds me when I’m doing this. Then I can take the simple corrective action of doing shoulder rolls to loosen my arms, unlock my elbows, and lower my hands.
If you are an Eventer Parent, remember that a trainer will be able to communicate with your young rider under the stress of a show situation better than you can. You pay them to train you child at your home barn. Let them do it at a show when the stakes are higher. The important thing is that the rider receive the coaching they need to ride a safe and effective round. It doesn’t matter that mom/dad aren’t the ones saying the words.
The pros take their own trainer or coach with them to their shows. So I figure until I can ride as well as Phillip Dutton, I need to take my trainer to my shows too.
- Make peace with your amateur status
I will never replace any of the advanced riders on the Olympic eventing team. And that’s okay. That means I get to do this for the sheer enjoyment of it all. I don’t have to worry about running a large barn with multiple horses, and employees, and sponsors and travel. And I don’t have the pressure of winning (or at least pinning) in every single show I enter. I can focus all my attention and love and joy on my Charlie Brown.
Truth be told, because of that, I think I may have more fun than the pros…