In this installment of the Chronicle’s Forum, veteran hunter and equitation trainer Tom Wright explains how proper planning and homework help a horse and rider execute when it counts. Wright runs Uphill Farm Inc. out of Wellington, Florida, and Nashville, Tennessee. He’s trained many horses and riders to hunter wins at all the major championship shows, and his students have won the USEF Medal Finals (Pennsylvania) and ASPCA Maclay Finals. He’s trained dozens of top horses, including Strapless, Private Practice, High Hearts, Dreamboat, Catbird and Airport 48.
When I say I want my horses to peak for a show, I’m looking for everything to be at its best: the fitness level, the soundness, the interest in the jump. I want them to jump their very best jump that week, and I want the rider to be right alongside them. I want them to be as schooled as they can be but fresh enough to perform happily. We’re looking for the horse to perform like they love being in the ring that day. Repetition goes into that, so they really know the aids and the training, but then the horse has to want to go in there and perform for the audience. The last thing you want is for them to go in and go like they’re comatose.
That’s where equitation sometimes gets a bad reputation. My students have won the ASPCA Maclay Finals twice and the USEF Medal Finals. The horses were well schooled, and yes, they were level, more level than they would have been any other time of the year, so they didn’t make an error, but they were never drilled like some horses are. You don’t want the horses or riders to be automatons.
A big part of peaking is proper long-term preparation. For example, when Hayley Barnhill was 15, I said to her, “You are going to be a contender next year at equitation finals. The work starts now.” We worked on various pieces of the puzzle for a year toward the end result, always keeping that goal in mind.
Dividing Up The Year
To make a plan, I break the year into inexact quarters. For us, the Winter Equestrian Festival [Florida] is our first quarter. We arrive at our winter base in Wellington, Florida, in November, so our first “quarter” is really November through April 1. The second quarter, for us, has a lot to do with Devon [Pennsylvania] and Upperville [Virginia]. That quarter runs from April 1 to mid-June. The third quarter is summer, from about June 15 to the beginning of September. Then the final quarter runs from mid September through October when we’re at indoors. As you can see it doesn’t exactly measure into equal quarters, but that’s how I think of the year.
Each section has certain goals, certain horse shows, where we want to peak. For WEF it’s World Champion Hunter Rider week halfway through the circuit, and then the final week of competition the show hosts a USHJA International Hunter Derby and a USHJA National Hunter Derby that we really enjoy competing in. Derby week will be for horses that have been rested after WCHR week or maybe didn’t show that week and were coming back a little later and want to do that as their high point of the Florida circuit.
After the second quarter when we’ve peaked for Devon and Upperville, we move on to the summer. During that third quarter we use shows in Traverse City [Michigan] to get ready for Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships [Kentucky] and the Platinum Performance/USHJA Green Hunter Incentive Championships [Kentucky].
For the final quarter of the year, we seek to really excel at Capital Challenge [Maryland], the Pennsylvania National and sometimes the National Horse Show [Kentucky]. For that we prepare by going to one show beforehand, which this last year was the Middleburg Classic [Virginia], which worked perfectly.
Getting Ready For Each Show
I’m a big believer in having some down time in November, which for us is while we’re in Florida. It used to be that we had three months off, and that gave us enough time to pull shoes, and the horses got turned out. They started out feeling a little foot sore and chipping up their hooves, but then they grew some more foot, and you put the shoes back on, and they felt better than ever. Then you had a month of preparation before getting ready to show.
These days we do pull shoes on some of the horses, but it’s becoming rarer. Instead we usually let them have a cycle or two of steel shoes and give them some downtime. We let them down in November, let them get a little less fit and softer, then in December we gradually leg them back up so they can show fresh in January.
We expect the horses to be too fresh to win the first week that we show in January. We prepare them well at home, but they still get to the horse show, and they’re so thrilled to be there that they can’t help it. We like to show Weeks 1 and 2 at WEF, then we take a break Week 3 and come back Week 4.
Our team has been big believers in taking off Week 5, the week before WCHR week. Most trainers show Week 5 to prepare for WCHR week, but I find that the riders and horses go better when they’re coming back off a little time off. Even if they weren’t as tight as they normally were, they’d come back fresh and excited and full of energy. This works well if the horses are made horses, which most of ours are, and it’s worked well for us for years. We have a good track record for WCHR week—we’ve won the Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular class seven times, and over the course of the last 25 years we’ve only missed qualifying for the class once.
For other shows we consistently spend 10 days at home before we go to a horse show where we’d like to peak. For example, we’re always home for a week or 10 days leading up to derby championships and green incentive championships or Devon. We do slow work at home—a lot of gymnastics and slow coursework, tweaking little pieces of the puzzle. For amateurs and juniors, it’s a chance to address a weaker spot in their riding, really go over it, then put it back together again so they really understand that piece.
When you go to the big show you want to show up ready to walk down into that show ring. The schooling area is not the place to be teaching anybody anything at the horse show. The schooling area is about getting confidence. You might jump a cooler or work a right turn if a rider is a little slow off one lead, but there’s no teaching involved. It’s only about mental preparation and having the horses right at that moment when they’re excited to jump but level enough to be mannerly and dialed in. With riders it’s the same: Their mental focus and their excitement and confidence should be ready to peak when they school at home. When you get to the show all you’re doing is trying to calm them down so they’re able to visualize their course and produce what they visualize. Anything other than that, and you’re going to suffer in the ring. It really is about funneling that excitement in the right direction.
Developing Realistic Goals
For anyone who isn’t going to indoors, you’ve got to decide, “What are my goals for my horse for the coming year?” If you’re not going to show, you’re going to have a very different set of goals than someone who wants to horse show.
Once you decide that you can still break the year up into quadrants and have goals for each quarter. Mark your calendar, then work backwards, saying, “I want my horse to go great at this horse show. I’m going to back it up to give myself a week or 10 days at home to go to that show, and I’m going to do my homework before then.” Maybe you do some schooling shows or smaller shows—whatever works for you in your area of the country.
Give yourself some realistic goals starting out. You may have a baby who’s just learning how to jump down a line, and with them you start easy. I always say start where you’re going to succeed. Start in an area where you know you’re not overfaced. If that means trotting into a line and cantering out, find a local show where you can let the horse get acclimated to leaving the property and staying overnight somewhere or working off a trailer.
My owners treat their horses like they’re superstar athletes, which they are, and they get the best treatment from top veterinarians, shoers, chiropractors and acupuncturists. But that’s not easily attainable for the average owner and trainer. To do it on a different budget, you just have to be a good horseman. Get the best veterinarian you can afford on a regular basis and a shoer who’s excited to work with you and your veterinarian. Communicate your goals to the veterinarian and shoer, as well as whoever is managing your horse’s care. That’s the most important piece of the puzzle: great, attentive daily care.
This story ran in the February 2022 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
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