So you have busted your can, your horse is getting fun to ride, and you’ve entered a few shows or clinics and have a start on the ‘big plan.’ So, what’s next?

First of all, take a quick assessment of what you have done so far. Keep it simple. Think back on all the “off-farm” things you’ve done. We’ll look at the big picture first, then narrow focus to the little things.

Big picture: did you manage your time well? was your horse bothered by something? did you forget a key piece of tack, or your course, or did you have to overcome something unexpected? If anyone one of those non-riding factors was in play, then fix it. Anything that cut into the perfection of the riding part needs to be addressed, because those aren’t the hard things. Whole volumes have been written on time management, how to braid fast, how to tack up, organizing your tack, etc., etc., so no need to go over that stuff. Just know you have a glitch and get it fixed.

Narrowing it down: how did your horse warm up in in all of my off-farm competitions? Compare the way your horse felt, the way he warmed up, and the way he performed as well as the way he cooled out in all of the competitions or schooling opportunities. Which one did he do the best? Perhaps it was the one that you warmed up early then got off, then got back on, popped only one jump or two and went right in the ring. Or perhaps it was the one you were running late and only had 10 minutes to warmup – and he was great. Maybe he likes grass better than sand – which facility was best for him? Contrast each one and take an objective look at the way your horse was  in each scenario. This will give you a clue as to the best way to get a good performance in the future.

Continue to narrow it down. Have you studied all of your videos and photographs from the previous outings, and contrasted what you saw with how it felt? Also, did you study the videos of the winning rides, maybe took a look at the top horses and riders in the competition that day and contrasted those videos with your rides. What did you see? Where were you competitive? Where did you need help?

I often make a little list in my head when I see my videos and photos: Shoulders back; perching with seat; lower leg pinching; hands too high; chin up; soften hands; heels down; stay with the motion better; give as I land; stay off his back in my two point; etc. These things stay in my mind while I practice and lesson. I ask my instructor if I am doing better and check with my ground person about any changes they are seeing for the better or worse.

Notice I haven’t even gotten to taking a look at my dressage tests yet. That’s because the test is just a snapshot in time, and we’re trying to get a feel for a period of time and a direction, or trend, in our riding and schooling. The tests are a dot on the chart, a progress check. At the lower levels the best thing a test can tell you is a tendency if you compare them to each other and remember how the tests rode. If judges keep telling you “more relaxation,” or there are always a few circles around a particular same phrase in the collective remarks, chances are that’s a problem and you’ll need to address at some point in the timeline.

So now lets assess what we’ve done and where we want to go. We’ve discovered a better warmup pattern. Our horse seems to like one particular venue better than another. Our judges have given us a couple of pointers on our dressage tests. And I am practicing remembering jump courses faster. I’ve added a longer 2-point workout while I am riding now, so that I am strengthening my core and getting my posture better to help my horse over the cross-country obstacles.

Next? Next is up to your and your instructor, but my feeling is you want to find a couple of shows or competitions and test how your re-tracking is going. I’d enter the same level and try to put together a really good day, nailing all my points — being confident, and at the end of the day feeling as though “that was easy.” I want to see a rider and horse get a win or a high placing to verify that “easy” feeling before they make plans to move up to the next level.

When you win in equestrian sports, you need to be able to enjoy it. Pat yourself on the back. Have a moment of exultation. It’s yours. You earned it. Then put your nose to grindstone and get back to work!