7 tips for organising the competition year

The beginning of every year is an excellent time to reflect on your horse and your riding and ask yourself, “Why do I do this sport?” Whether you’re a happy hacker, an amateur or a professional, you will have no doubt experienced ups and downs in your journey as a rider or as an owner. What makes it all worth it is what we feel we get out of riding. It differs from person to person. Some ride purely for leisure and enjoyment, whereas others enjoy the sense of dedication, commitment and accomplishment that come with the sport.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” No matter what level you ride at or how serious you are about the sport, you should always have a goal in mind to work toward. Forward planning is imperative for achieving any goal, and especially when it comes to riding.

1. Set your goals

Before you can sit and plan out your shows and outings for the year, be clear about your goals for the year. Discuss these with your instructor so that you know that they’re realistic and attainable. You might want to move up a grade or two, compete in your first national show, go to your first away show, or possibly try your hand at a different discipline. Everything needs to happen in a fair time frame, so bear that in mind when you set your goals.

2. Sit with the calendar

All discipline bodies provide a show calendar marking the affiliated and training shows for the year as agreed upon with the registered venues. These dates are usually definite, but are susceptible to change under extreme circumstances. For the competitive rider, it’s important that you put aside an afternoon or evening to plan out your shows for the year.

It’s very important when planning your shows to factor in your life beyond horses. Everyone’s circumstances will be different. Some riders are still at school, others are at university and others are part- or full-time workers. If you’re still part of an education system, you’ll want to plan your bigger shows during the holiday period and fewer to no shows during the test or exam period. If you work, make sure that the shows you plan to ride in don’t clash with any conferences or events you might need to attend. If you’re planning to compete in a national or an away show that usually takes place over a few days, you may need to take a few days’ leave, in which case you’ll need to make sure these days are available by the time the show comes around.

3. Space it out

An amateur rider will usually want to do at least one show per month, and more competitive riders will be going to shows every two weeks or so. Some months offer more on the show calendar than others, so it’s important that you space your shows out evenly – don’t try to do too much in one month. You don’t want to tire your horse out or make him sour about going to shows.

4. Mark in your lessons

Before any big show, you’ll want to be as well prepared as possible – and this means ensuring that you’ve trained sufficiently with your instructor. If you’re planning to do a show on a specific weekend but you know you’re away with the family for the week prior, that show might not be such a good idea after all, because you won’t have time to train and prepare. Ensure that the two weeks prior to a big show are relatively uneventful and that you’ve factored in any additional lessons you might need. Speak to your coach about the strategy leading up to a show, as you also need to fit in with their schedule.

5. Maintenance

As with any athlete, ongoing maintenance is important for detecting potential physical problems as well as ensuring that your horse remains in good, comfortable condition. Competition horses should be receiving regular physiotherapy sessions, especially before and after a big show. Solarium sessions, hydrotherapy and electromagnetic therapy on a weekly basis are also beneficial for ensuring muscle health and condition. A competition horse should have his saddle checked quarterly, instead of only twice a year, so remember to factor these appointments in every three months. As your horse puts on muscle throughout the year, his body shape is likely to change, and a badly fitting saddle can compromise his performance and comfort.

If you’re planning on giving your horse some downtime after a busy show period, ensure that he is still doing some form of light exercise every day. This can be in the form of going in the horse walker or a short free lunge session so that you prevent any problems developing with the sudden change in work, such as a locked stifle.

6. Why so serious?

The whole year shouldn’t be about bringing home rosettes. Placing this pressure on yourself and your horse may make you lose sight of what makes riding such an enjoyable hobby and sport. Factor in something different every once in a while. Plan a trip to a cross-country base where you can take your horse on a long outing and play over some fences or in the water. Box somewhere you’ve never been before and go for a hack, including a nice canter on the flat. Enter a class in a training show in a discipline you’ve never competed in before. Join in some of the fun classes at the bigger shows, like a fancy dress or speed challenge. Not only is all this good for you as a rider, but also for your horse, who needs to be stimulated with something new and different every once in a while!

7. All at a cost

Purely keeping a horse is an expensive exercise, and going to all these shows might seem great in theory, but you need to ensure that they fit into your monthly budget as well. If you’re an affiliated rider, you’ll need to spend anywhere between R1,500 and R2,500 just to reregister with your club and discipline body for the year. Alongside that, a single class can be anything between R200 and R500 depending on the show body and your level. If you don’t have your own box, you’ll need to hire one or get a lift for your horse, which usually costs around R500 per day. You will also need to tip your groom and buy yourself and him/her something to eat for the show. You may also need to arrange for show preparation if your horse needs to be bathed and plaited. Some yards include this cost in their standard livery price but others charge more. Most instructors also charge a show help fee of between R100 and R200, so if you’ll need assistance on the day, don’t forget to factor that in too.

It all adds up quickly, so be sure to have a budget available every month to make going to shows a possibility.