Over­come Show-Ring Mis­takes

Hunter trainer, rider and USEF ’R’ judge Keri Kampsen de­scribes strate­gies for quickly and ef­fi­ciently ad­dress­ing prob­lems dur­ing com­pe­ti­tion.

Practical Horseman - - Contents - By Keri Kampsen Pho­tos by Amy K. Dra­goo

Let’s face it: Things don’t al­ways go to plan in the show ring. No mat­ter how hard you prac­tice at home, noth­ing repli­cates that en­vi­ron­ment when it’s just you and your horse in the ring and all eyes are on you. There’s no sure way of pre­dict­ing how he’ll re­act to the jumps, how the lines will ride or what mi­nor mis­takes might snow­ball into big­ger prob­lems. Many classes aren’t won or lost with the first mis­take but rather with the sec­ond or third. How you re­act can of­ten save you a place in the rib­bons. At the very least, it will turn a po­ten­tial dis­as­ter into a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. In this ar­ti­cle, I’ll ex­plain how to de­velop es­sen­tial skills for ad­dress­ing mis­takes quickly and ef­fec­tively.

1. For­tify Your Flat­work

One of the most im­por­tant tools we all rely on dur­ing com­pe­ti­tion is ba­sic flat­work. Say your horse lands on the wrong lead at the end of a line. If your flat­work is solid, you can ride a few strides on the wrong lead, set up the change, then ask for it when the tim­ing feels right. No fran­tic strug­gle to throw him onto the cor­rect lead be­fore the turn.

I’m a big fan of dres­sage lessons for any­body who jumps. In my train­ing at home, I fo­cus es­pe­cially on the qual­ity of the can­ter—get­ting it bal­anced and ad­justable. I work on cre­at­ing smooth, or­ga­nized can­ter de­parts in­stead of just ris­ing into my two-point and say­ing, “Go!”

Get­ting your horse in front of your leg is also crit­i­cal. Say you

jump qui­etly into a line and need to lengthen his stride to meet the dis­tance to the next fence com­fort­ably. He must go for­ward im­me­di­ately when you close your leg. I like us­ing the cluck, too, as long as it’s not too loud. This also re­quires work at home: teach­ing your horse to as­so­ciate the cluck with a tap of the stick.

Know­ing your horse’s unique per­son­al­ity is crit­i­cal as well. If he’s on the lazy side, prac­tice with a longer crop at home and in the warmup, then switch to your shorter one for com­pe­ti­tion. If he re­sponds to spurs with ir­ri­ta­tion, switch to rounder ones.

If he tends to be anx­ious and spooky when you en­ter the ring, plan to walk a few steps, then trot past the first jump be­fore pick­ing up your can­ter. On the other hand, you may find it eas­ier to get his at­ten­tion by pick­ing up the can­ter right away and go­ing straight to the first jump.

Some horses be­have dif­fer­ently in the warm-up ring than the show ring. I have a horse now who is ex­tremely mel­low in the warm-up but then is so for­ward in the ring that I wish I hadn’t put spurs on.

2. Ride Preven­tively

Be­fore you ride any course, try to an­tic­i­pate po­ten­tial trouble spots for your par­tic­u­lar horse. If he’s the type who loses mo­men­tum, bulges out and drifts to­ward the in-gate, plan how you will ride past it. If it’s on the end of the ring or in a corner, make your lead change early, then shave a lit­tle off the turn. Carry your whip in your out­side hand and raise it slightly so he can see it out of the corner of his eye. Turn his head away from the in­gate and give a cluck to en­cour­age him to keep can­ter­ing past it.

A lot of mis­takes oc­cur be­cause of poor track rid­ing: cut­ting cor­ners, over­shoot­ing turns, etc. The best rem­edy is to stay fo­cused and ig­nore things that dis­tract your horse. Once your eye is on a jump, don’t look away. If you keep rid­ing to it with de­ter­mi­na­tion, he will even­tu­ally catch up to you.

Pay at­ten­tion to any vari­ables that might trig­ger un­ex­pected be­hav­ior. For ex­am­ple, dur­ing an un­usu­ally cold week at the Win­ter Eques­trian Fes­ti­val in Florida this year, one of my qui­etest horses was ex­tremely fresh when we walked into the ring. So I light­ened my legs on her sides, chose qui­eter dis­tances, talked to her and stroked her neck with my out­side hand on the ends of the ring. The next day she was back to her nor­mal self.

3. Let the Lit­tle Things Go

The more pos­i­tive, con­sis­tent rides horses have, the bet­ter they’ll go in the long run. That’s why it’s so im­por­tant not to over­re­act to mi­nor mis­takes. Say your horse has an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic knock­down. If you spur him off the ground at the next fence in an at­tempt to make him jump more care­fully, that’s just go­ing to con­fuse him. Horses don’t as­so­ciate what you do at one jump with what hap­pened at the last one. You’re far bet­ter off ig­nor­ing the knock­down and fo­cus­ing on the rest of the course.

Rid­ers tend to get too emo­tional in the ring. We all have dif­fer­ent is­sues that trig­ger our emo­tions. For me, it’s stum­bles. I had a horse stum­ble and fall with me, break­ing my ster­num, back

and shoul­der. So now when­ever a horse stum­bles, my stom­ach drops. But I fight that panic im­pulse and take a deep breath in­stead, re­group­ing as quickly and calmly as pos­si­ble. There’s al­ways a chance that the judge is look­ing down at her card the mo­ment you make a mis­take. So, for ex­am­ple, if you drop a rein, gather it up qui­etly and con­tinue on as if noth­ing ever hap­pened.

When things go wrong, we feel fraz­zled and com­pelled to do some­thing—mess with the rein length, move around in the sad­dle, etc. But the more you re­act, the more your horse will over­re­act. In­stead, think “start over”—not lit­er­ally start­ing the course from the be­gin­ning, but re­set­ting the tone. Take a deep breath and go back to ba­sics: Sink into the sad­dle, ride your horse into the con­tact on both reins and ask him to move off your in­side leg. Use the top end of the ring to re­turn to your qual­ity medium can­ter be­fore look­ing at your next jump.

One of my fa­vorite tricks for men­tally start­ing over is blink-

ing. If you close both eyes long enough so that ev­ery­thing goes black then take a breath and open them again, it feels like a whole new ex­pe­ri­ence. If you’re an equi­tation rider who tends to freeze, for ex­am­ple, on long di­ag­o­nals to a sin­gle oxer, in­stead of wor­ry­ing about your dis­tance to it, set your track, then close your eyes and breathe. I prom­ise things will look bet­ter when you open them again!

4. Re­spond Con­struc­tively

Just like peo­ple, horses be­have dif­fer­ently on dif­fer­ent days. They’re not cars you can just turn on and drive away. You have to be in tune with what your horse is telling you ev­ery mo­ment of ev­ery ride—and ready to re­act how­ever nec­es­sary to com­fort your mount and build his con­fi­dence.

For ex­am­ple, if you longe your horse early for a morn­ing class but it gets de­layed un­til 2 p.m., you might not re­al­ize un­til you en­ter the ring that he is now too fresh. Dis­creetly drop your stick in the corner and then think of “sit­ting chilly”—main­tain­ing a very quiet po­si­tion and let­ting the jumps come to you in­stead of mak­ing any ma­jor move-ups to them. Talk to him and be pa­tient and soft. And use half-halts to get him back to his medium can­ter more quickly on the back sides of the jumps.

If he con­tin­ues to build his pace in be­tween the fences, make a se­ries of pro­gres­sively firmer half-halts. Af­ter each one, re­lease the feel on your reins, wait a stride, then make an­other one. You can also use the com­pe­ti­tion fence line to back him off. In­stead of turn­ing in the corner, let him can­ter to­ward the fence line and turn him­self when he gets close to it. (Note: Only do this if the fence line is high enough that your horse won’t be tempted to jump it!) If you’re wear­ing spurs, con­sider tak­ing them off be­fore your next round.

On the op­po­site ex­treme, if you ask your horse to pick up the can­ter at the be­gin­ning of a round and get a re­ally slug­gish re­sponse, ap­ply firm leg aids a sec­ond time to send him for­ward. You might have to over­ride the first few jumps un­til he ral­lies to the cor­rect pace. Use your cluck and, when nec­es­sary, your spur. If he doesn’t re­spond to your nor­mal leg and spur aids, try slid­ing your out­side leg back and us­ing your spur in a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion. Also con­sider stay­ing in the ring for your sec­ond round, if that’s an op­tion, in­stead of com­ing out and giv­ing him time to de­flate again. Here are some more quick fixes for com­mon prob­lems: Drift­ing on take­off and/or cut­ting cor­ners: If your horse is con­sis­tently drift­ing in one di­rec­tion, coun­ter­bend him slightly. So, for ex­am­ple, if you’re track­ing left and he drifts to the right, turn his head slightly to the right and push him off of your right leg.

If he’s cut­ting in on the track, use your eyes to solve the prob­lem. Say you’re rid­ing a line from a ver­ti­cal to an oxer and you sus­pect he’ll cut in be­fore the oxer, an­tic­i­pat­ing the turn af­ter it. Keep your eye on the oxer un­til you see the dis­tance, then lift your fo­cus up and to the out­side of the ring in the fi­nal strides. It sounds sim­ple, but it re­ally does work!

He­si­ta­tions on take­off: Some­times horses hes­i­tate on take­off be­cause they’re un­com­fort­able with our dis­tance choices—ei­ther too long or too deep. Usu­ally rid­ing the ap­proaches with more leg will help to cre­ate more pos­i­tive dis­tance choices, which will re­build your horse’s con­fi­dence. Main­tain­ing a steady rein con­tact up to and over the jump will give him con­fi­dence as well.

Also close your legs and cluck to him on take­off. Mean­while, be care­ful not to get ahead of the mo­tion with your up­per body.

Awk­ward jumps: When a horse makes a re­ally awk­ward ef­fort over a jump and lands with a thump, it can be a very un­nerv­ing feel­ing for both of you. Get back to your qual­ity con­nected can­ter as soon as pos­si­ble, then ride the next few fences with a stronger, more sup­port­ive leg and seat.

5. Ad­just Your Goals on the Fly

Af­ter your horse makes an er­ror, it’s up to you to de­cide what course of ac­tion will re­sult in the best learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for him. Some­times that means go­ing for a steady, con­fi­dence-build­ing round in­stead of a bolder ride for the win. Other times, you may have to sac­ri­fice your chances at a rib­bon al­to­gether. For ex­am­ple, if your horse has trouble with a fly­ing change and ends up cross-can­ter­ing (can­ter­ing on dif­fer­ent leads with his front and hind legs), that’s not the end of the world. But if he stays in the cross-can­ter and be­gins to panic and build mo­men­tum, your score is al­ready drop­ping. If you con­tinue on to the next jump in this un­bal­anced man­ner, your round will spi­ral down­ward. There is no rea­son to cre­ate an­other is­sue—es­pe­cially a jump­ing is­sue—be­cause of a mis­take on the flat. In­stead, tran­si­tion to trot—or even walk—or cir­cle to get the clean change.

Sim­i­larly, if your horse hes­i­tates dra­mat­i­cally and re­peat­edly in front of the jumps and you know your dis­tance choices aren’t the source of the prob­lem, sac­ri­fice that round to clar­ify that this be­hav­ior is not ac­cept­able. Hit him be­hind your leg with your stick (or on the shoul­der if you’re not com­fort­able let­ting go of a rein) on take­off over the next fence.

If your horse re­fuses a jump, try to de­ter­mine the cause as quickly as pos­si­ble. Was it a poor dis­tance or did he stop be­cause he just doesn’t want to do his job? If it was the for­mer, for­give your­self; ev­ery­body makes mis­takes. Ride a cir­cle, giv­ing your­self plenty of time to de­velop a good can­ter and then start over. Throw away all the neg­a­tive thoughts fly­ing through your head about what hap­pened and get on with your ride.

If there’s no un­der­stand­able ex­pla­na­tion for the stop, dig in and re­mind your horse that his job is to get to the other side. Stay down in the tack and use ev­ery­thing you’ve got—your seat bones, leg, spur, stick and voice (lit­er­ally, growl at him!). Make sure he’s more afraid of you than the jump. If you feel him suck

back in the ap­proach, tap him on the shoul­der with the stick three strides away from the jump.

Be sure any correction you make is fair and con­struc­tive. Kick­ing and spurring a horse for spook­ing at some­thing will just make him think, “See, I should have been scared.” In­stead, try to get as close as pos­si­ble to the scary ob­ject with­out fright­en­ing him. Make a tran­si­tion or cir­cle if nec­es­sary, pat­ting and re­as­sur­ing him. The sooner you re­build his con­fi­dence, the bet­ter he’ll per­form in the fu­ture.

Some­times you won’t be able to cor­rect the prob­lem while you’re in the ring. For ex­am­ple, I rode a young horse re­cently who was very spooky about flower boxes. In­stead of over­jump­ing them the way horses usu­ally do when they’re wor­ried about a fence, he hit the jumps. In his ner­vous­ness, he was mis­judg­ing the height. At that point, I knew we weren’t in con­tention for a rib­bon, so I just stayed calm and fo­cused on the con­nec­tion in the bri­dle, the shape of his frame and the can­ter qual­ity. When we fin­ished the round, I went back to the warm-up arena, worked more on his can­ter rhythm and qual­ity, then threw some cool­ers over the warm-up fences to prac­tice main­tain­ing good form over spooky jumps. That solved the prob­lem.

What­ever is­sues you en­counter in the ring, al­ways try to learn from them, then build on these lessons at home and at fu­ture com­pe­ti­tions.

By be­ing con­nected and even in both your reins and legs, while look­ing ahead to each next jump you can help your horse stay straight and fo­cused, as Mag­gie Lewis’ 10-year-old Ju­nior Hunter Au­tumn Glory is beau­ti­fully demon­strat­ing here.

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