To go with the dark, the weather has decided to unleash every possible combination of weather on you in a single week, mud covers everything you own & your motivation to do much except drink hot chocolate & curl up on the sofa in front of a fire is slim.
Sit down (with that hot chocolate) and ask yourself – what can you do better? What has let you down this year? What has held you back from getting placed or winning? What do you wish you could improve? But also – what have you really nailed this year? What happened on your best days out? What did you do differently? Writing these things down helps to focus you on what you want to achieve and really see in black and white what issues you want to resolve.
No matter what job your horse does, you rarely meet a rider who doesn’t want to get better and improve. Be this moving up through the levels, taking the plunge and going out to compete for the first time or being brave enough for that canter across the field. As well as wanting to improve, if you ask any rider, they will have another rider or riders that they admire and look up to and want to (or dream of!) be as good as. I could give you a long list here, but probably my biggest hero in Equestrian sport is Sir Mark Todd. When I was younger, watching him on Charisma was the reason I wanted to event. But if it’s possible, he gets better and better each year. For me, he instils the horse with a huge amount of confidence; they have total trust in him & try their guts out for him.
But what makes them & their horses so much better? As a professional rider, they are riding a huge amount more times a day than the average one horse owner/rider. Even if you are riding your horse 6 days a week, the practice you can put in is limited; a professional may be riding 10 horses a day. They will be fitter, better, more instinctive and more tuned than you. This is where the term ‘muscle memory’ comes into play.
‘Muscle Memory’ is the body’s method of learning instinct or ‘Motor Learning’. This can be you entering your pin number, tying your shoe laces, driving your car. You don’t need to think about these movements as your body and brain are so used to doing this, it acts on instinct. To get to this instinct level, the key is repetitive CORRECT practice. When you are first learning, the reactions of the body can be slow and stiff and the brain can get easily distracted due to a lack of focus. It feels bad or too difficult and the emotional side of the brain can take over. ‘It’s too hard, I can’t do it’. However, by changing the attitude, and recognizing what happens when it is good and repeating that feeling...the body starts to memorize that and finds it easier to repeat the action. The greatest thing about muscle memory is that even with a break of work, the function remains. Ever got on a bike after not riding one for years? You’re a bit rusty, but soon pedalling away happily!
A great non-horsey example of this is the rugby player, Jonny Wilkinson. He famously, spends hours and hours practicing his kicking of the rugby ball. He now has pin-point accuracy and it is that skill that lead him to become one of the worlds best ever rugby players and Fly-Half’s. In the most crucial moments of matches, his instinct takes over and this is why he can produce match winning moments and appear to do so with total ease.
Have a think about what you do with your horse each week – variety is very important. This is not only for fitness, but also strength, stamina and soundness. Spending every day working in the school on dressage is not healthy for horse or rider. Not only is the work variation important, but also the surface variation. Continuous work on one surface type will not benefit the horse, especially for Eventing. How is that horse meant to cope when the weather dictates less than perfect conditions during your competition season?
Of course, flat work is important – but is what you do working for you? This could be a good time to experiment with your usual routine. Does the horse go better after a short hack before doing a short session of schooling? Are you better to lunge for 10 minutes first? Remember, its winter and who wants to be slogging away for hours on end? Coming up with an effective and easy routine is also the quickest way to get back to the warm and dry!
Incorporating lungeing into your weekly routine is a great way to keep your time down, but give you chance to work your horse from the ground. There are many ‘gadgets’ to use nowadays – side reins, Pessoa’s, bungees etc. Find what IMPROVES your horse – this may be totally different to someone else’s horse. Use lungeing to improve your horse’s weaknesses. Does he tend to be lazy in trot? Are your trot-canter transitions difficult? Remember what was said about ‘muscle memory’. This is your chance to assess your horse from the ground & see what happens when you are not riding. Correct, positive, repetition is the key.
Of course, jumping is great exercise during the winter. Course jumping has probably been the main focus during the summer months, so this a great time to work on grids as well to improve technique. Pole work can be used to give the horse a great work out without leaving the ground. Trot and canter poles can be used to great effect to improve the horse. There are many books available that have great exercises to give you variety. Don’t stick to the same thing each week – live a little!
Hacking will always be hugely important in conditioning your horse – I am a really believer in letting the horse use this time to relax. They should be forward, straight and on a contact but let them enjoy the hacking rather than keeping them in an outline. Some trotting on the roads is fine, but do choose the road surface carefully. Sadly, many of our roads are slippy and it’s not worth risking injury! Lots of us, me included, might struggle to hack in the winter with the light, but try to make time for it.
Now our basic week’s work consists of schooling, lungeing, hacking, jumping, pole work and of course, a well deserved day off. Many factors may alter what you do each week – weather, winter competing, lessons, Christmas! With one horse to ride, you need to make the best of the sessions you do. These sessions can be on your own or when you are having instruction. Try to enter each session with a positive frame of mind. It’s all too easy to inwardly groan as you have to do some more flat work with a horse that really isn’t playing ball today. Try not to beat yourself up if it goes wrong, it doesn’t matter that much. Remember, we are the only sport that works with 2 brains so not only do we have to be on form, but so does our horse! Taking the good bits and re-enforcing them is what we’re aiming to do this winter.
Think back to your favourite professional rider and how their horses go. The dressage test that you ride in your BE100, they will ride 4 or 5 times at one competition. That’s half your season to ride 5 tests! They know it instinctively & can then use that to their advantage to show their horse off to its best. By practicing dressage tests at home, they become easier for both horse and rider and you will start to be able to work on instinct.
Sir Clive Woodward once said (I like my rugby, apologies)that if the England Rugby team lost a match, that was the time for them to go and have a drink and forget about it, not beat yourself up about why it all went wrong. However, when they won – that was when they analysed everything they had done to see exactly why it went so well.
‘Muscle memory’ is really important for both horse and rider, making the job at hand easier for those important competitions so you are ready when it counts. Do keep in mind that the action performed need to be positive and correct – muscle memory works in both ways, incorrect training can lead to the horse instinctively reverting back to what he knows.
By using the winter to your benefit, you can come out in the spring and be ready to show all the positive reinforcement you have achieved, regardless of what you have focused on. This could be more accurate dressage test riding, your horse working in a better outline, your personal fitness levels improved. Choose what direction you want to take your riding and strive to be better. This might not win you the next Olympic Gold medal but it will give you more purpose and direction with your horse. This can only benefit both of you and you never know, you might be surprised at the results.