Huzzah! I’m qualified for the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions. I’ll ride The Elvis Syndicate’s wonderful Guernsey Elvis in the Developing Grand Prix Championship, for 8- to 10-year-old horses at the Grand Prix level. It’s a big deal, and it was my big goal for the year. Mission: accomplished.
But now that I’m qualified, I have to, you know, go.
I’m in the middle of a four-week gap between my last outing and the championships, and I’m making the most of that time to get Elvis and I as ready as possible. He had a little downtime after that show in July, the last in a long slog of competitions. I’ve spent this entire spring and summer addressing his fitness. As I’ve mentioned before, Elvis isn’t a super hot horse by nature, so I’ve needed to make a concentrated effort to increase his conditioning. By the time we leave for the Festival of Champions, being held Aug. 24-29 at Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Illinois, he’ll be walking five days a week for north of 40 minutes, up and down my Virginia hills, in addition to his daily dressage work.
But there’s more than just dressage, and even more than just fitness, involved in successfully getting down centerline at a big show. Here’s what I’m up to this month.
1. I’m practicing my tests, but I’m also practicing my warm-up. I’m treating each day as an opportunity to perfect what I need to do to get my horse ready for seven minutes of brilliant energy, elasticity, self-carriage and technical proficiency. Each horse is different, of course, but I’ve never had a horse where I felt like I had to touch each movement before going down centerline. I will hit a few of the things that come hardest to him, but mostly I feel like I need to make him sharp, bending, attentive and patient, which comes from basic work more than it comes from half-passes and changes. And I need to know how long that takes, to use my best horse in the show ring, instead of leaving him in the locker room.
I’ve also had a few “Faux Shows,” whether it was a fake show setting of my own setup at friends’ farms (thanks to you all!), or actual schooling shows, because sometimes I get in my head a bit about freezing in the ring and not riding effectively because I don’t want to disturb the apple cart. I braid and dress for these experiences, too, to make them as real as possible. By the time I go to Illinois, I’ll have had several outings, the first of which have all been great successes.
2. I’m working on my headspace. Like a lot of dressage people, I’m wound a little tight. Like everyone I know with international ambitions, I’m hungry for excellence, and sometimes that makes me not the easiest person to be around. So I’m practicing being in good cheer. I’m practicing meditation, and I’m practicing visualization, something I’ve always been good at, but it’s never a bad thing to practice. (Studies have actually shown mental practices are almost as effective as true physical practice).
And I’m also remembering that my words shape my world. Self-deprecation is kind of my jam, but I’m trying to park that on a shelf. Because I am actually good enough to be there. It’s time I owned that.
3. I’m thinking about my pre-show routine, including what I eat, and when. I won’t know my ride times until I get there, of course, but I know that I ride best on a relatively empty stomach, so if I’m showing at 2 p.m., I’ll have a late breakfast so I don’t feel hungry and wanting for lunch before I ride. I also know that I ride best if I have a cup of coffee about half an hour before I get on—a boost of energy to get me down centerline. And because I almost never show just one horse (normally I’m showing two or three of my own, plus coaching a handful of clients and generally running around), I’m packing exercise clothes for myself, and coming up with some off-site activities to keep me from just pacing around and staring at my poor horse all day, all week.
4. I’ve been training for the weather. Mercifully, it’s hot as hell here in Virginia, so while Chicago can certainly come up with some ghastly temps, its nothing I’m not used to. And to get him ready for it, I’ve been working Elvis at different times of day, including (sorry, son) at 1-2 p.m., when it’s at its most ghastly here, just to prepare. He’s conditioned for whatever comes our way.
5. Lastly, I’ve checked my gear. My tack is in good repair. I have saddle pads, white breeches and gloves that are all in excellent condition, but aren’t brand new; I don’t like using new stuff at big shows because I don’t know if my horse will hate it, or if it’ll be slippery, or leave a rub, or whatever else. I’ve got a system I’m used to, and I’ll pack it all up in advance so as to reduce the risk of leaving anything out.
From there, it’s up to me, my brilliant horse, and all of the things that got us here: luck, sure, but mostly hard work and a good plan!
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.