Riding to Win When You’re Not Riding the Winner
We’ve all read the ads... “hack winner”, “jumps a 10 every time”. We’ve heard the comments on the ringside, “that one moves like a freak” or “it jumps so well”. We all drool over the ones with their knees tucked up under their chins and trots that cover ground like silk. But we don’t all own the hack winner or the one with knees to Jesus. Especially if you’re mounted on a trusty school horse, you may find that your steed isn’t the one that gets people oohing and ahhing on the sidelines.
So if you’re not riding “the winner”, does that mean you just hope for second? Absolutely not! Having a less fancy horse doesn’t automatically bar you from winning the class, it just means you need to ride well enough to make up the difference. The majority of my junior career was spent on the backs of horses and ponies that weren’t classically fancy, and I became a master at riding to win when I wasn't riding “the winner”. Here’s what I learned!
Hide and Seek
Every horse has strengths and weaknesses, even the fanciest ones. The first step is to identify your horse’s most and least desirable qualities. Do they have a lot of knee action in the trot? That’s a weakness you’ll want to cover up. Do they have a great canter? That’s a strength to which you’ll want to draw the judge’s attention! Here’s how to make that happen using those specific qualities (sub in your horse’s qualities if these aren’t them).
First and foremost, develop a great walk to canter transition through diligent work at home. Then, when you enter the ring at a horse show, skip the trot portion of your opening circle. Walk in, give you horse a pat, then make a prompt and pleasant walk to canter transition. In a flat class, try slowing your horse’s trot to lessen the knee action, and try to blend in a bit on the rail. When it’s time to canter, it’s your time to shine! Ride the quarter line in front of the judge and let them see your horse’s best qualities. Riding the class this way will make it so the judge didn’t notice a ton about your trot, but did mark down that your horse had a lovely canter.
Ride Well Enough to Make Up the Difference
Sometimes, exceptional horses or phenomenal riders can get away with small mistakes while less fancy horses or more average riders will seemingly get more heavily penalized for the same mistakes. For example, too close a distance for a horse who’s a stellar jumper may get overlooked because they jump athletically enough to get themselves out of the way. The same distance for the average horse would likely cause him to jump out of shape, resulting in a lower score.
If you find yourself on the more average mount, you need to ride well enough to consistently put in great trips. There are some qualities about your horse that you can’t change, but you do have control over the quality of your own riding! Take every opportunity you get at home to work toward being the best rider you can be. Your horse doesn’t have a reliable lead change? Become an artist at landing leads. Your mount not a star in the hack? Become a master in the over fences - they make up at least 2/3rds of the division anyway! Drop your stirrups more often. Practice finding distances until you rarely miss. It might take your best round to win the class, but isn’t that the goal anyway?
Confidence is Key
No one enjoys watching someone who walks in the ring looking defeated before they’ve even begun. Confidence is everything! March into the ring with your shoulders pulled back, your chin up, and command the judge’s attention. Put in the fabulous round you know that you and your horse are capable of, and earn that blue ribbon!