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Creating success in the show ring starts with the warm up. I find it helpful to have a warm up very similar to the one I have at home, so my horses feel relaxed with the consistency of my program. I have always been taught that it is important to let the horse walk for at least ten to fifteen minutes before any real work starts. This time helps the horse limber up and get circulation into the joints, as well as gives the rider time to relax and get focused. The rider can go over the test in their mind, as well as stretch out their legs and get their equitation organized. Breathing is an essential piece of focus and helps their mind get clear and centered. I always make sure I have plenty of time before putting my foot in the stirrup. There are only a few things you can control about your performance, and getting on your horse on time for your warm up is one of them.
Nothing makes me more nervous than not having enough time and rushing my warm up! Horses feel that energy, and feed off of that. Showing is challenging enough, it is easy to be on time.
After my initial walk, I start my working warm up. Some horses in my stable like to start in canter, but mostly I go into some rising trot and work on getting their backs up and swinging. I do many small transitions inside the gaits, many changes of frame, and also start with some easy lateral questions, like small legs yields. If I have a horse who is nervous, I make sure that he starts to accept my leg and be with my leg. This is something my coach, Scott Hassler, has really helped me with. Making sure that the horse is not just reacting to my leg in a tense way, but supple and accepting my leg with a relaxed back. Once I feel the horse is giving me his attention and starting to relax over his top line, I like to start into some canter/ trot transitions. This is a great exercise to swing the horse's back as well. It also gets the horse more focused on the rider by changing the requests often. Remember during this phase, many elastic transitions within gaits, between gaits, in the frame, and small lateral questions for the horse.
By this time, I have the horse loose, and mostly focused, so I take a walk break to give us both a rest. I probably also give him sugar too! I check my girth and adjust any equipment I need to, and then start back to work. During this second phase, I start to focus on parts of the test that I know I need to review. I want to have the horse going into the test confident in the movements that sometimes may cause some insecurities. No part of the test should be a surprise. That is what makes a test look smooth and in harmony, this reviewing of the test. For a First level horse it can be something like changing rein in canter through the trot over x. For an upper level horse, it can be the pirouettes and flying changes. If I ever have a rein-back in a test, I always do it at least once in the warm up. Again, no surprises! On the other side of this,always remember the show warm up is never a place to teach anything new, or demand things you don't at home. It must be fair and the horse and rider must be on the same team for a beautiful harmonious test.
After I have reviewed the movements I need to in the warm up, I take another short walk break to take off the boots, head set, fly spray, and wipe anything down. (more sugar too!) I also use this time to go over the test one more time in my mind, because I never use a reader. I think it's the rider's responsibility to know the test, know the highlights, and know the weaknesses. I like to show off the highlights, and make the weaknesses smooth and not draw attention to them. I don't cause stress to my horses by repeating a hundred times the weakness, thinking on that day I’ll make it better. I’ll just cause tension and it will backfire in the arena in front of the judge. Once I have loaded the test up into my brain, I start my last short set in the warm up. During this last part, I start to create the brilliance I want in the test. I make sure the horse is one hundred percent focused and with me, and reacting to light aids. I wake him up a little more, by doing some quick transitions. I take care that every stone has been turned, my halts are square, the frame is where I want it, and the horse is thinking forward and in front of me. I want to make sure we are ready to rock and roll! When I feel it's right, then I usually leave the warm up and trot over to the ring.
When I show, I always have these words in my mind; free, forward, and flowing. Free in the way that the horse is mentally unconstrained, and free in his movement. I want him to be forward thinking, but also forward in his internal energy. Are his ears forward and is he happy to go for me? Flowing in the way that things are so balanced that the performance looks so easy and harmonious. Many years ago when I lived in Europe, my trainer, Gyula Dallos, told me that I should ride down that centerline and own it. Say something positive in your mind, and breath! Remember horses are mind readers, and what you are thinking will come out in the performance. Even if you have to fake it a little, positive energy is the key. The hard work has been done at home, stop worrying, and go for it, and have a little fun while you are at it! These things, along with a well prepared warm up, will lead to a confident, harmonious, successful performance.
Jessica Jo Tate: Trainer, Coach and International FEI Competitor
A talented Grand Prix and FEI Young Horse competitor, Jessica Jo (JJ) Tate, earned her United States Dressage Federation Bronze, Silver and Gold medals. She’s competed 11 horses at FEI, four of which were at the Grand Prix and finished in the top rankings in numerous regional and national titles. JJ is a noted clinician who trains students throughout the United States. Jessica Jo Tate represented the United States in the World Breeding Championships for Young Dressage Horses in Verden, Germany in August 2007. JJ’s ultimate goal is to represent her country as a member of the United States Olympic Team.