Dressage Show Prep 101

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Over the years, FEI dressage rider and RW customer, Jenny Cunningham, has learned that preparation and planning are the most crucial parts of competition. Tune in as Jenny gives us her checklist for preparing for Dressage shows, plus some tips on staying positive and stress free!

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I’ve learned from experience that feeling unprepared for competition heightens your nerves, which in turn can make your horse anxious, too. Now, I always plan months in advance, so I know that both me and my horse are confident and in tip top shape. Here are a few things I like do to in preparation for dressage shows.

Make a Plan

The first thing I do before any show is make a plan of action. What level will I show? What level am I ready for and what level is my horse ready for? Who is taking the horse? Will I stable there that weekend? All these questions need to be answered.

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Teddy says that having a solid plan of action makes for a more stress-free show for both horse and rider!

Next, I plan with my trainer. We go over what movements we’re struggling with and she helps us build our confidence in these movements.

Asking for help is the best thing you
can do for both you and your horse!​

Training is key to success. I know some people don’t like asking for help or they might not think they need it, but the best riders in the world have help from the ground. Go over your plan of action with your trainer and see if they think this is the best plan for the horse. Remember to be versatile and prepared to change your plan if needed. The horse’s welfare always comes first!

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So much planning goes behind these 4-5 minutes in the dressage ring!

Keep Track of Your Fitness

For dressage, fitness and suppleness are key to having a successful test and a happy horse. I keep track of my horse’s fitness with the Hylofit Heart Monitor. It tracks both horse and rider’s heart rates during each ride. You can then compare your analytics day by day to see how you and your horse are progressing in your fitness leading up to competition.

For me, the Hylofit has been a real
game changer in my understanding of
my horse’s fitness and wellbeing.​

You will also be able to see if your horse is happy or stressed during your training. My horse, Bingo, does not sweat properly, so it’s paramount that I track his heart rate during training sessions to see how he is coping.

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The Hylofit Heart Rate Monitor system has proven to be a wonderful way to track me and my horse's fitness.

Don’t Drill Too Hard

Although I ride my horses 5 or 6 days a week, only 3 of those days are allocated to proper dressage rides. The other days are spent trail riding or hacking. We have to remember that these are animals and we shouldn’t drill them over and over every day in the arena. They need to have fun and enjoy their job. Happy horses, happy life!

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Teddy getting some love after a fantastic ride.

The day before the competition, my favorite thing to do is a relaxed stretch session. I do about 15 minutes of walking, 15 minutes of stretchy trot, and 15 minutes of stretchy canter, circling and bending on a long rein. I know the weekend of showing will be a lot for them, so I like to keep my ride the day before relaxed and zero pressure.

Get your Tack in Order

Having correct fitting and comfortable tack for your horse is a key, yet often overlooked, ingredient to a successful show. Figuring out what works for your horse is not easy task, but below are a few things to keep in mind as you prepare for your competition.

Check your Saddle Fit

Having a correct fitting saddle is key not only for competition but also for a happy, comfortable horse. Saddle fit can be incredibly difficult to get right, so for me, calling a professional saddle fitter out was instrumental in this process. They are worth their weight in gold when they get it right!

You can buy the most expensive
saddle in the world, but if it doesn’t
sit right
on your horse’s back, then
it’s basically worth nothing to you.​

Riding a horse with a properly fitting saddle and feeling them move freely through the shoulders is like night and day. Specialized saddle pads can aid with minor fitting issues, but sometimes having a thick, bulky pad on can do more harm than good. Saddle fit is key!

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A properly fitting saddle is key to success not only in the show ring but more importantly for your horse's everyday comfort!

Finding the Correct Bit

Finding the correct bit is also key to a successful show season and a happy horse. The anatomy and structure the mouth varies by horse, so they each have individual bitting needs. If your horse is acting up, opening his mouth, or just looks unhappy in general, check the fit of your bit and check his teeth.

A lot of behavioral problems come from
teeth, bitting, and saddle fit issues!​

When I switched from show jumping to dressage, I had a professional bit specialist come and fit my horses to make sure they were both happy, comfortable, and wearing legal bits for dressage competition. They both turned into very happy horses once I had the correct bit.

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My go to competition bit for Teddy is a Neue Schule Weymouth

For bridles, I only use one brand, and that’s Schockemöhle Sports. They have the most comfortable and anatomically design bridles out there. This eliminates discomfort at the most sensitive areas, nerves, and blood vessels on your horse’s head. The quality of the leather is amazing, and my horses are always comfortable in them.

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Teddy in his Schockemöhle Sports dressage bridle!

Protect the Legs

Leg protection is one of my favorite things, and also one of the easier things, to get right. I solely use DSB Dressage Sport Boots and Bell Boots for training, shows, turn out, you name it! Not only are they beautiful, but they also provide comfort for the horse and more importantly, a lot of protection. My DSB boots have lasted for years, so I highly recommend them.

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There's nothing quite like a shiny set of white DSB boots!

Get your Show Kit Ready

The day before is the most exciting part for me. I have my plan, my horses are fit and ready, I am fit and ready, I’ve learned my test, and all my equipment fits correctly. Now, it’s time to show!

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Teddy all groomed, bathed, braided up, and ready to show!

Make a list of everything you need and then go through and check everything off so that you don’t forget anything. Here’s a quick rundown of the supplies I have packed and ready to go in my show kit:
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Teddy looking thrilled in his Sleazy Sleepwear hood.

When it’s a summer show, also pack a big cooler full of ice! When the horses finish showing I give them ice bath, which helps prevent muscle soreness and is great for hot and humid climates like Florida.

Lastly, Always Stay Positive

The night before the show, I go over my tests in bed and get a good night’s sleep so that I’m fresh and ready for a great show. I always go into the weekend with lots of positive energy because it’s supposed to be fun.

Remember, you can still be super
competitive
without putting too
much pressure on yourself
.​

I have definitely struggled with this in the past. Now, I stay positive and try to keep the pressure of doing well out of my head; instead, I just enjoy the amazing opportunity I have to ride and compete.

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Once I focused on just enjoying the ride, I still remained competitive, but simply stopped putting so much pressure on myself!

We are all so lucky to have horses in our lives. It’s those quiet times right before a big show that I sit in the stable with my horses and truly appreciate everything they do for me. Horses give us life, so it’s our job to prepare them correctly and make sure they are happy and comfortable in every way.
 
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