Maria & Michael Eilberg on handling the run-up to a Dressage competition

Maria & Michael Eilberg on handling the run-up to a Dressage competition

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‘You are doing fine in the warm-up, but as soon as the judge rings the bell for you to start your test, you find you and your horse going to pieces’ 

If this sounds pretty familiar, we have got some great tips courtesy of premium on-line retailer Shadow Horse, from their international sponsored dressage riders Maria and Michael Eilberg. 

“Lots of riders suffer from competition nerves, so you are not alone, however you do need to learn how to manage them, otherwise they cannot only ruin your scores, but also your enjoyment! 

You need to acknowledge what it is exactly that you are nervous about: Is it that you are worried about executing certain movements in the arena, which you know you or your horse struggle with or is it a behaviour problem, such as being naughty or spooking? 

Fortunately both the above can be resolved with time, patience and training. The rule of thumb is always to try and compete at a level lower than the one, which you are working at home at. Even at the higher levels, there will always be some movements individual partnerships will be weaker at than others – the key to this is to make sure the best bits are as near to perfect as you can make them! 

When we are training our clients or ourselves in preparation for competition, we always run through elements of the tests and run through the entire test at least once, so we can look at any ‘sticky’ areas. Very often riding certain movements alone is easy, but when you put them into the sequence of the test, you can find yourself getting unstuck, which might be why you are having problems in the test. Practicing at home and getting regular training will help with your confidence issues, as well as ensuring that you and your horse are better prepared for test riding. It can also help to create as close to an competition atmosphere as possible with flowers/ banners /noises at home and also prepare for a busy warm up arena by riding with as many different horses as possible. Of course you will want to introduce these things slowly in a constructive way when you feel you are ready! It's always a good idea to have a full dress rehearsal, including travel etc, even just going to a few local shows just to ride and not actually to compete, especially for young horses/inexperienced combinations. 

Learning your tests can also help with nerves. Even if you choose to have a caller on the day, knowing the test will help you prepare for each movement better and allow you to concentrate on something other than feeling nervous! It can be useful to have a warm up test before the main test, if you find that your second performance tends to be better .If you find that you have tried everything and your horse still plays up in the arena, it may be worthwhile to hire the arena at the end of the class so that you can practice riding the test and school at the same time if necessary.

Another important factor to consider is that your horse’s tack fits correctly. Again if your horse is playing up, it could well be that he or she is uncomfortable. As the season progresses, your horse may well have changed shape so don’t forget to have your saddle checked during the course of your season. Remember, if your horse is sore, he or she won’t perform to their best, so it’s worth getting a check to ensure this isn’t the case. At Shadow Horse they have a great selection of saddle pads designed to help your saddler with the fit of your saddle when your horse changes shape. Alongside their Sheepskin and Therawool range, they also have products such as the Ogilvy Equestrian Half Pad which uses friction free technology combined with high grade memory foam and optional removable memory pad foam shims to help ‘bridge’ the gap with seasonal changes in shape. 

If you have looked at all these areas and had your horse’s back and teeth checked and your horse is still being naughty, it might be worth asking your trainer to ride your horse in a few tests to help iron out any problems. It can be also be incredibly helpful to watch what is going on to help identify the problem, so taking video footage is extremely helpful. 

Finally, if you are really battling with nerves and you feel you need some help, why not try a sports psychologist. Lots of top-level riders use sports psychologists to help them with huge success. 

Good luck and remember take a deep breath and smile as you enter down the centre line – dressage is supposed to be fun so enjoy it!