The Stages of Showing at WEF After Not Showing Since… Last WEF
Marina is a guest blogger for Hunt Club chronicling her adventures at the 2017 Winter Equestrian Festival. She has been riding for twelve years, currently competes in the jumpers, and recently graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh. Follow along as she captures what it's like to be a snowbird at the winter show jumping capital of the world. Joining her is her super-pony mare, Capri, who will be giving her input for many of the blog posts as well.
I’m lucky enough to say that I have a pretty ideal riding situation: I have a super horse, super trainers, a super support team, and am fortunate enough to have many years of showing at big horse shows under my belt. I like to think that I keep it together most of the time, but week one of WEF was the first time I’ve shown since last April, having taken the summer and fall off from serious riding in order to finish school (PSA- School is extremely important kids, and no matter what you want to do with your riding, an education and understanding of the outside world is vital to your success, including inside the ring!). I digress- but despite many components in my riding working in my favor, not having shown for a while definitely tried to mess with my nerves. However, I’ve had a fantastic mental skills coach, Tonya Johnston, to help me keep my cool. That said, here are the stages of how I’ve handled the past two weeks, which are weeks one and two of the Winter Equestrian Festival:
Tuesday- I take a casual flat lesson at the barn with my trainer, Heather Caristo-Williams, Ralph Caristo’s daughter. It’s very low key, and we actually flat our horses together. She was riding a young horse of hers, and I was riding Capri. By riding together, she is able to visually explain to me different parts of the horse’s movement, and how to best build and maintain muscles for jumping. We typically don’t jump the day before we show, as we like the horses to feel loose and refreshed for their classes. We had a nice jumping school a few days prior to test the gears, and after covering the basics, decided to save Capri’s jumps for the show ring. I feel good after the lesson, Capri feels good, and we do some last minute preparations after the ride so we’re ready for tomorrow, which is our first show day. This includes making sure all of our show equipment is prepared, making sure Capri’s body is given the necessary tools to be ready to jump, and ensuring that I’m comfortable with our class selection.
Wednesday- I’m entered in a 1.15 schooling class with Capri. No biggie, this class is just to canter around a course that includes some singles, some bending lines, some in- and outs and a combination. At Capri and I's experience level, 1.15, or 3’9” is a very nice height to start back at. It doesn’t challenge Capri height wise, but it makes her mind and body get back into the swing of jumping courses. It doesn’t really affect me mentally, knowing that we jump higher normally in more difficult classes, yet it shows which of my skills are a bit rusty from having the time off. Nice clear round, and onto Friday.
Friday- After having a successful day one, I’m thrilled to get back into the ring. Now, we move up to the 1.25 schooling, which is quite a bit bigger even though the difference between 3’9” and 4’1” seems marginal. I tell myself that in order to get back to doing the classes which I love to do with my mare, I have to successfully complete this class. As I’m walking the course, I feel myself start to tense up a bit because the jumps do look bigger. However, I remind myself that so little of the course has to do with jump height (and more to do with the ride around the jumps; I know Capri can jump high), and I know that I can jump this height as well, and that we both show higher. The jump height is the least of my concerns, I tell myself, and just focus on the ride I give Capri between the jumps themselves. The course was a bit more technical, but I tell myself that the course design is not something I can control; the course is my homework, and I have to do the assignment whether I like it or not. Finishing this class revealed an area where I was a little rusty more than in my first class, so with keeping a consistent canter in mind and not breaking it up on course in an effort to create smoother turns and lines, I look forward to week 2. Capri jumped super, but I have a bit of homework to do. I give myself small windows of time to think about the round and watch the video, but then I have to turn it off- even if it means being forceful with myself- and look ahead.
Tuesday- Another flat lesson with Heather, this time focusing on poles. Heather places poles sporadically around the ring and asks me to trot Capri quietly over them for about ten minutes, focusing solely on maintaining my pace, keeping my eyes up and aids consistent. The beauty with poles is that you can do as many as you like without causing wear and tear on your horse. We work over the poles at the trot and move into the canter. Capri gets a bit excited at this stage, so instead of cantering straight pole courses we mix it around quite a bit using transitions and tracks which Capri is not anticipating. This keeps me sharp as well, and after we completed some "courses" where we were calm and collected, Capri gets a pat on the neck and we begin more preparations for Wednesday. These lessons sometimes aren’t more than fifteen minutes. In an effort to keep everything positive for Capri and I, we complete our assignment confidently and finish on a good note.
Wednesday- We do another 1.25 schooling class, which was a mutual decision between Heather, Ralph, and myself. Since these courses are only one round, it allows me to really slow my brain down and just focus on the ride without pressure for getting ribbons or going fast. This class is in one of my favorite rings at the horse show- the DeNemethy- and as I’m walking it the jumps don’t look so big and the turns don’t look quite so tedious. As Ralph is setting jumps for me in the schooling ring, I make my best effort to block out the fact that since there are 125 horses in the class, there are tons of other horses schooling over the same three jumps. Again, that is not in my control, and the only things I can focus on are what Capri is doing, what Ralph is saying, and making sure the red flag is always on the right standard. We go into this schooling class, have the round that I wanted, and make the decision to try the 1.30 on Friday. I had two time faults in this round, but that proved to be irrelevant. I wasn’t going for time, just to have a smooth and consistent round. We can save the leave outs and the inside turns for the next class.
Friday- This is my first real class of the show. It’s the 1.30m speed, in the Mogavero ring - 1.30m translates to 4’3”. Capri and I pulled 52nd position in the order of go which I was pleased with. As I’m walking the course, I remind myself that I’m excited and NOT nervous. One thing Tonya has taught me over the years is that words can have a serious impact on your perception of what you’re about to do. If I tell myself I’m excited it has a very positive effect on my mood and performance, whereas if I tell myself I should be nervous, I almost always end up feeling apprehensive. Instead, I’m excited to jump this course because it’s my favorite class and historically, Capri and I have succeed in this format. I put my plan together with Heather and only watch four or five go before I make myself scarce from the ring for a bit. Over-watching can be dangerous for me because then I second guess my plan instead of trusting that what we have decided on is best for Capri and I. It’s okay to modify the plan if it makes sense for the ride, but not because somebody else is doing it. Finally, about two hours later, I’m twelve out, and my schooling begins. The schooling ring is quite busy in the Mogavero, and its slightly smaller size can make it difficult to get a good canter to the schooling jumps. I jump four jumps, and found that I was struggling a bit to get the distances that would best prepare me for the ring. After talking with Ralph, we decided it would be better to rely on my relationship with Capri and just go into the ring and jump the course. I knew conditions weren’t going to improve in the schooling ring, and I trust Capri enough to know that she will handle what’s in the ring. We go in, and jump to a 7th place ribbon out of 55 horses. It was a great feeling, and I’m still elated that even after taking so much time off, Capri and I were able to rely on our foundation of trust to go in the ring and jump a tough class. A nice weekend of trail riding, bodywork, and relaxation followed.
Despite not having shown for a while, Tonya has taught me that I do not have to re- invent the wheel when I start up again. That element of confidence is key in a relationship like the one I've forged with Capri. I have to remember to trust that the fact that Capri and I have known each other for so long is an advantage that I can to rely on at unpredictable venues like horse shows. This WEF season marks Capri’s tenth winter in Wellington- she’s game and I’m game for the next seven weeks. We are taking week three off since Capri has jumped four classes, and looking forward to what’s on the horizon. Thanks for letting me share, Hunt Club!
Tonya Johnston, MA, is a Mental Skills Coach and author who works with riders all over the world. Tonya has been an indispensable in helping the whole Hunt Club crew mentally prepare for competitions and ride our best every single time. Her book Inside Your Ride, helps riders develop strategies to overcome riding challenges, conquer anxiety, develop a positive attitude, stay in the moment, and fine-tune visualization skills that are crucial for show ring success.