Imagine that your horse gives you an amazing feeling in the training. You feel him rising underneath you and it feels like your horse can read your mind by responding to the smallest aids. Wow!
After practicing the dressage test at home and being convinced that you would for sure get a standing ovation from the judge, you decide to sign up for a show.
So there you are at the show, all excited to get started and show off your hard work at home. But as soon as you get your ‘Valegro’ off the trailer, you see that his posture and behavior has changed. His head is up, looking around and impatiently going back and forth while calling for his friends. All of a sudden it becomes a struggle to saddle up your horse, not to mention getting on.
Then the next challenge arises. While riding your horse in the warm-up arena, it feels like you have a completely different horse and you can’t seem to get that same feeling like you had at home. It’s like your aids aren’t getting through like it normally would and that your horse is in his own bubble.
You can probably imagine that the dressage test doesn’t go as well as planned and you definitely don’t get that standing ovation from the judge. Sure, the scores weren’t that awful, but still, it feels like a complete disaster, because you know the potential of your horse.
“Horses have changed and the competition environment has changed”
Sounds familiar? Well, I think we’ve all been there. It’s a common problem that happens to a lot of dressage riders. As a matter of fact, with the modern sport horse it seems to be happening a lot more often than it used to do in the past. Can you even imagine how on earth you were able to do all the things with your horse years ago without ending up in the hospital? But horses have changed and the competition environment has changed.
The bad advice you get
No matter who you speak to, the most commonly heard advice that so many dressage riders fall victim to, is the ‘just go to more shows’-advice. Just go more often and your horse will get used to the environment. You just have to get in the ‘competition rhythm.’ Well, that’s a myth and I will explain why.
The single one most important thing for a horse is survival. Through survival they are always looking for a position of comfort. When they are put in an environment or situation that reflects danger, the horse reacts from instinct with a certain flight or fight behavior.
As soon as the horse then feels any slight increase in comfort or when the pressure decreases, a horse will then associate that behavior to that situation and a new pattern of behavior is formed.
For example, your horse gets tense at the show and becomes really tight in his body, bracing himself in a state of heightened readiness to flee if necessary. Once you leave the ring, put him back in the trailer or once he gets home to his own stable, the horse will feel a release of pressure and gets comfortable. At that moment, the physical action the horse took to go into the tension state in the ring is then rewarded.
The horse goes into a situation or environment he had no knowledge of, he reacted with a level of flight instinct to protect himself and it worked. He survived! The association behavioral pattern for the shows to survive is formed and next time he will be ready!
You can imagine that when this behavior after a first experience is being repeated, the behavior gets reinforced. The problem is that this will become the associated behavior tot survive at the shows.
Of course, a pattern like this is easily formed on a highly sensitive horse with a high natural level of flight instinct. Horses that have a generally quiet disposition and that are a bit nervous at their first show, this is normal. After a few shows they will probably get used to it and find a level of comfort to be able to do the job. But even then, when you have an incident at the show that causes the horse to lose confidence, this can be a pattern set for long term recurring problems.
A show is like an exam
So what should we do instead? We have to think of every new situating or a situation you want to change as being an exam. To do good in an exam you need to have all the information you need to be able to answer all the questions that will be thrown at you.
“Don’t leave your horse with only the knowledge to survive”
Don’t send your horse into the exam with no knowledge about the things he will experience and no knowledge about what he should do or how he should answer questions that are asked of him, like what to do when you hear a loud applause? Don’t leave him with only the knowledge to survive.
Focusing on the technical skills is an aspect that often gets all of the attention. Preparing your horse for a show means for most riders making sure he knows all of the exercises that are being asked in the test. But that’s only half of the exam!
Most of the things in our human environment when put into a horse’s natural environment would seem life threatening. It’s something the herd should be suspicious of until it’s being investigated. The applause, the plants around the arena, the judge’s box. All those things can be a threat and can trigger the horse’s flight instinct for survival.
Therefore, we shouldn’t forget to mentally prepare a horse for a competition. Your horse will be faced with a lot of things he’s not familiar with and it’s our job to prepare him for that. When you don’t do that and you only focus on the technical aspect, you have 50% covered and you can only hope that the other 50% will turn out right.
The four main things a horse has to know how to respond to are the general pressures of 1. movement, 2. touch, 3. sound and 4. approach (objects approaching the horse and the horse being able to approach strange objects).
Unfortunately, just going to a show over and over will not teach your horse how to respond to these pressures. In the worst case scenario, it only leads to a reinforced pattern of bad behavior, especially when you have a sensitive horse with a natural high level of flight instinct. It’s our responsibility and obligation that we teach our horse the right answers and prepare him for a show. Don’t go to an exam if you’re not prepared.