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May 21, 2010

Thinking Ahead Is Crucial

Photo by Tricia Booker

Our columnist believes that advance planning and realistic goals go a long way toward maintaining the welfare of the horse.

Advance planning is one of the key elements of a smooth and efficient business plan, especially when it comes to working with our equine friends.

You might think, “How does a business plan apply to me, who just wants to enjoy riding and competing my horse?”

While advance planning is important for any equestrian, it’s extremely important for those riders choosing to compete, no matter the number or level of competitions they wish to attend.

Planning for the competition horse and rider involves many different components, including training and preparation, health and well being of horse and rider, scheduling within the confines of your life, finances and much more.

Not long ago, a competition schedule existed that focused on us spending the winter and early spring preparing for a summer full of weekly competitions featuring the finest in horses and riders at all levels. Today, the hunter/jumper competition world consists of a year-round schedule in which our environment, by its very nature, propels us into thinking we must compete year round.

This culture means that horses and humans alike don’t get the rest and relaxation time they used to enjoy when I was growing up and a young professional in the hunter/jumper business.

Go, Go, Go
It takes a whole group of support people to get each horse to the ring. Trainers, riders, blacksmiths, veterinarians, braiders, feed store operators, hay farmers, saddlers and many more who are often forgotten or, sadly, sometimes never known to the riders and owners.

All of the people who provide services to horses have seen their lives change over the past 25 years. We’ve gone from being involved in a sport that occurred two-thirds of the year to one that’s around the clock-equestrian, all day and every day!

This change sounds great from a lot of different angles, but when you do anything all day, every day, eventually you’re going to suffer burn out. To avoid this, you have to plan breaks in your schedule.

In the case of equestrian, one player in our world suffers burn out not from his own doing, but because we humans decide how often, where and to what level he’ll participate in our sport. These are our equestrian partners, our horses.

As owners, riders and trainers, we have the responsibility for our equine athletes, so we must be vigilant in observing their behavior and any changes to their mindset that may signal that they’re stressed. If we’re obsessed with qualifying or some other goal, we could easily miss the signals from our friends and forget to consider what’s best for our horses.

Feeling compelled to go, go, go isn’t reserved just for those riders competing at the top of our sport. All you have to do is look around at the numerous regional, state and local competition circuits to know that somewhere, someone is pounding the pavement to attain some goal.

It may seem to you as if I’m against setting goals and competing to achieve those goals, which I’m not. I just feel that we need to assess the goals we set for ourselves and in doing so, remember that we’re not alone; our horses depend on us to set reasonable goals that consider their well being before our own.

Having competitive goals attainable for every level of rider and horse is a sign of strength in our sport. It’s within that framework that we must act responsibly toward our horses and our support teams.

Now is a good time for our equestrian community as a whole to assess what motivates our goals and what we’re required to do in order to achieve those goals. It seems that for our youngest competitors, who are the most impressionable, we require the greatest efforts in qualifying for competitions such as Devon (Pa.) and the fall indoor shows. I wonder if that’s the best way to educate these young equestrians?

A Ladder System
Perhaps it’s time to look at developing more of a ladder system to moving up the ranks. There are numerous well-established local, unrecognized circuits to start young riders and horses, but after that, in most areas you move straight to the A-rated level, many of which offer some of the same classes found at unrecognized competitions.

The leap from unrecognized to the A-rated level is astounding in terms of the financial and time commitments. We need to fill in the blanks between these two levels, and I believe the best way to achieving this goal is twofold:

  • The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Stirrup Cup Awards (formerly the Foundation Awards), which recognize the efforts of equestrians earning points exclusively at B- and C-rated competitions.
  • Emphasizing and recreating the importance of our Zone Finals events throughout the country. Years ago, Sallie Wheeler spent considerable time and effort to kick-start the Zone Finals program, which was meant to offer equestrians a place to excel close to home and among their peers without breaking the bank or requiring extensive travel.

The Stirrup Cup Awards program has grown greatly since its start, and with the addition of new divisions for 2011, I believe it’s helping to build this bridge.

In the past, the Zone Finals were an attainable goal for most competitors, and the zones that covered vast geographic areas created two events to help their constituents.

For quite a few years, the importance of Zone Finals has dwindled in the eyes of our fellow equestrians. However, we’ve seen an inkling of a re-emergence of the significance of Zone Finals. Especially apparent is the continued growth and success of the Zone 2 Finals, to the extent that Zone 2 is in the development stages of a separate jumper and equitation Zone Finals.

In addition, we’ve seen Zone 5 create both horsemanship and scholarship fund programs that have a tie to their Zone Finals event and have distributed more than $35,000 in educational scholarships to date.

For many of our fellow equestrians, competing every week and chasing the goal of qualifying for Devon and indoors is out of the question. So rather than have these people move to unrecognized competitions, we need to be more creative and more supportive of their efforts by making each zone host a meaningful finals that provides these competitors with the opportunity to compete against the best riders and horses in their home zones.

Zone competition and finals are the steppingstones that will allow people to get their feet wet in a competition environment. They’ll experience the excitement and pressure of qualifying and competing at a championship in a less intense manner that will give them needed insight to help them make the decision to move up to the next level.

One of the best and most important ways to tie this to the next level up the ladder is to provide the Zone Finals champions and reserve champions in each of the rated sections offered at Devon, indoors and the USEF Junior Hunter and Pony Finals competitions with automatic qualification. This would also include the USEF Medal Finals, which would qualify riders out of the Zone Medal Finals. This is a great example of bridging the gap between the Zone Finals championships and our qualifying competitions and national championships.

Speaking of our national championships, naming a national champion is exactly what the outcome of these competitions should be for our sport. As an example, at the Pony Finals, you regularly have close to 100 ponies in each section competing head-to-head in three phases over two days of competition, recognizing the top 10 in each phase and overall in each section.

These events often host the best of the best. And shouldn’t our national champion come out of this kind of contest? Right now, our national champions are horses that accrue the most points in their respective sections throughout the competition year. The inherent problem with this system is that a horse can be national champion without ever competing against the best of the best.

Our current HOTY system encourages competitors to compete relentlessly to achieve this goal. It doesn’t always mean the best horse has won the title.

We can have both, the national champion from head-to-head competition and the high-point HOTY from accruing the most points. All this takes is some planning and initiative from our community.

Regardless of your level and preference for competition, advance planning for you and your horse is important to achieving a satisfying equestrian experience.

Each year, riders and trainers should sit down and work together to map out the goals and expectations for the upcoming year. Environmental situations that are sometimes beyond our control will play a role in changing your plans as the year unfolds.

It’s best to be aware of this factor, and you and your trainer should meet regularly to reassess your goals and expectations based on the performance of you and your horse as well as the health and well being of both of you.

We must always keep the consideration of the horse foremost in our minds when planning our goals and our methods of reaching those goals. If you haven’t already met with your trainer, take the time to do so now and make it a habit in the future. 

Bill Moroney is president of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, a member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Board of Directors and a USEF R-rated judge. He started writing Between Rounds columns in 2004.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Thinking Ahead Is Crucial" ran in the May 21 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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