Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, you probably did not notice it much last year, but all the competitions are now slowly opening up again. Some horses (and people 😉) can build up a lot of tension on unfamiliar grounds, from the attributes in and around the competition arena or maybe just from the atmosphere. Especially now that you probably haven’t been to a competition for a while, it can be nice for both you and your horse to practice some of these things at home. Click here for 10 tips for dealing with tension at competitions!
1. The training starts at home
It’s easier to practice things that your horse finds exciting in the quiet of your home yard. So get started at your own yard with various obstacles, competition arena boards, umbrellas, people moving along the arena, etc. With a little creativity, you can simulate many spooky situations at home so that you can get your horse used to everything step by step. This makes your horse more confident and can also help if you are on unfamiliar grounds.
2. Try to find the cause of the tension
If you are going to train at home, try to adapt the situation as much as possible to the competition environment. Are the white dressage arena boards especially scary and is the outdoor season therefore always a challenge? This could be due to the contrast of the white colour with the dark shade. Horses see colours and contrasts differently than we humans do. See if you can practice this at home with a white fence or white tarp on a sunny day. Or is the judges’ box scary on competition day, when normally there is nothing wrong? Perhaps, in that case it is not the judges’ box that is the problem, but the fact that people are suddenly moving in it. If you can analyse the cause of the startle responses, this can help you prepare your horse even better.
3. Take your horse to unfamiliar grounds without competing
If you don’t have to perform, you can take the time to practice things with your horse. Plus, it probably means you’re less stressed as well. So especially if you or your horse builds up a lot of tension on competition grounds, it can help to break the association that leaving home always means going to a competition.
4. Proper preparation
This tip may seem a bit of an open door, but it can help you immensely. Prepare for your competition on time. Get all your stuff ready the day before so you don’t get stressed at the last minute. Make sure you arrive on time so that you can prepare the horse in peace for the competition area itself. Horses can read your body language so well, and will find it more difficult to relax when you are rushed or tense.
5. Practice trailer loading
Loading can also be a source of tension for your horse, especially if you have limited time. If loading on the trailer causes stress, your horse will be building up tension before you even arrive at the competition grounds. If that is the case, try to practice loading a lot at home in the weeks before your competition. It can also help to occasionally drive a lap with the trailer and just coming back home.
6. Let someone else load your horse
Have you practiced trailer loading well, but are you feeling a lot of tension yourself on the day of your competition? Ask someone else to load your horse. The other person does not have the same tension or nervousness that you have. This can make it easier for both you and your horse.
7. Do a dummy test without having to go for the win
Participate once without the pressure of having to get that winning score. In this way you can consciously practice things in an environment that resembles a competition. So take your time in the ring for this. Does the judges’ booth spook your horse? Don’t push past it quickly, but ask the jury if it’s OK to use the time of your test to school your horse on this.
8. Make sure you’ve been in and out of the ring before your test
This is not always possible, but it can be very helpful. Make sure you are on time and ask if you can take a lap in the competition ring. Go around the entire ring in both directions. What a horse sees in its left eye can seem completely new when it sees it out of the right eye. So go along the track on both sides and show your horse everything once.
9. Be aware of your own tension
Horses are very good at reading body language. They can feel your muscle tension and breathing when you are tense. If a horse is insecure, it may need a good leader. As difficult as it is, try to control your own nerves. The more you can relax and guide the horse into relaxation, the easier your horse will be able to relax too.
10. Accept that your horse can sometimes get tense without you knowing the cause
We can’t always determine the exact cause of tension in our horses. Try not to get angry or frustrated when this happens, because that certainly won’t help your horse in that moment. Accept that sometimes things just don’t work out so well, better luck next time!