I like showing, but I’m not a maniac.
I don’t personally feel like there’s anything to be achieved by taking the same group of horses to two shows every month; I think training is done at home, and I think that I’m more likely to win at the show if I’ve logged sufficient training. That’s just how I do it—not how everyone does it, nor is it the only way it can be done—but it works for me.
What I really like is the puzzle of it all: how to plan a season, which shows to go to and when, to make for peak performances from my horses. And then there’s also the question of what to do in between those shows, how to give my horses sufficient down time so they can catch their breath and let their tired bodies recuperate, but also build condition, strength and new skills.
Right now, I’m showing three horses at the Fédération Equestre Internationale levels: my own Gretzky (“Puck”) and my mom’s Helio in the small tour, and The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis at the Developing Grand Prix level, trying to qualify for the U.S. Equestrian Federation Developing Grand Prix Championships. Puck and Helio are going the Regional Championships, then hopefully the U.S. Dressage Finals route, and as such can go to any recognized show to do what they need to do, but for Elvis, I’m working off a specific list of qualifiers. Then there’s the fact that three FEI horses at one show is sort of a lot, plus trying to fit in coaching for my students, so I group Puck and Elvis together, and Helio shows separately.
We’re so lucky here in Northern Virginia to have a lengthy list of horse shows to attend, but my favorites are those run by Bettina Longaker and by Janine Malone. Most of them also are qualifiers for the USEF Championships, so that’s where Puck and Elvis are headed. We also like to patronize shows put on by our local riding clubs, so Helio is off to those. My clients divide and conquer based on their own lives and geography, but I do try and spread them out a bit. (As of this writing, 13 are going to one of the shows in June, and I’m riding none of them, and that’s not even close to our entire showing contingent.)
So we show, and then … we figure out what to do until the next show.
I am writing this having just returned from a fabulous outing for Elvis. I’ve been working diligently on his fitness—which I’ll fill you all in on in my next blog—and so after the show, he got a day off and a day of hacking, and now it’s back to the grindstone. I’ve got a month until his next outing, another qualifier for the USEF Championships, and as this plan worked brilliantly for this show, I’ll repeat it before this next show.
For Puck, the show went fine. He behaved. But it just wasn’t as good as I wanted, and in looking at the photos from the weekend—all of which show me working WAY too hard—I could tell why. He’s not in front of my leg enough, he’s not in self-carriage enough, and he’s not off my hand enough. That’s all on me, because horses only go how well we ask them, and I need to hold him more accountable to the training I’ve installed. So that’s what I’m doing for the next month: telling Puck to do more, from less.
Helio has one more outing, and then he gets a nice, long break. I need one more Prix St. Georges score to qualify for the Regional Championships, but I don’t have an easy way to get it because I’m showing everything else for a while. And that’s good, because Helio is on the brink of greatness. Elvis already knows how to do everything and is just making it better; Puck has a real proclivity for piaffe and passage, and so other than getting a heck of a lot stronger at everything, and learning the mechanics of the one tempis, he’s on his path to Grand Prix. But Helio took a really long time to figure out what passage was all about, and until he did, his trot was very efficient. Over the winter he started to understand what it looked like, and I can now pretty reliably get three to four steps at a time. But if I do anything wild like, oh, turn, or change the connection at all, it gets away from me. So it’s not yet controllable, which makes it my summer project.
And that leads me to another factor for us here in Virginia: the summer heat. Our show season comes to a bit of a halt in July, and picks up again six weeks later, at the end of August. It means that we can ramp our horses up, and then let them down again, and then ramp them up again before the Regional Championships in October. I like that timing, because I don’t think it’s fair to just blast them around at full capacity all the time. Having the opportunity to let them take a breath is quite nice. And the summer break is a nice time to introduce the younger horses to flying changes or piaffe, which usually involve shorter work sessions, a blessing in peak heat.
But what to do with the small chunks of time, the three- to four-week gaps between shows?
I ride corners. I ride transitions. I practice halting at X, and then trotting out with self-carriage and power, instead of sauntering out. I touch pieces of the tests I ride, because no one good flies by the seat of their pants, or refuses to ride their tests because their horse “will learn the pattern!”
And I improve the quality of my training—the responsiveness to the aids, Puck; or the capacity for more expression in the trot, Helio; or the muscular capacity and conditioning of my educated horse, Elvis—because that’s going to make for better work when I get back to the show ring. It’s a fine line, the one between practicing my tests and drilling the movements, the one between keeping up my horse’s conditioning and breaking them down. But with any luck, and a solid plan, I can keep my horses keen to the work and fresh of mind and body at the same time.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own string of young horses with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.