I had been fortunate enough to have worked as a coach in a private school for 13 years that had an equestrian programme attached to it. During a regular term we could have over 100 horses on the property with all of those riders have regular weekly lessons.
This meant that on any given day I could be coaching 10 riders or more per day, 6 days a week. During competitions is was not unusual to have 20 riders under my guidance, and often up to 40 at a big Interschools event. This has given me huge amount of experience in what is required of me, to best prepare my students for a successful weekend.
My belief is that my role as a coach in the warm up is to simply ensure the horse and rider were in the best frame of mind, to produce a result to which we had been working towards, in the lead up to the event. This result is not determined by a ribbon received, but by whether both the horse and rider gave 100% towards the outcome, and achieved a particular predetermined goal. Any ribbon gained, or accolades given are purely a bonus. They are things that help keep us keen, and motivated and are great when telling family and friends "how we went" on the weekend, but whether we win or lose in regards to placings, only the horse and rider will truly know whether they really won.
These goals may be as simple as producing a calm test where the horse is willing in his work and allowing the rider to help him stretch into the contact in the free walk, it may be being able to keep a consistant rhythm through out an entire show jumping track, or having the horse stay honest and straight over skinny combinations during cross country.
Unless I am warming up a student whom I have not worked with prior (I will discuss this in more detail later), my students have a process in which we can produce a particular way of going on a consistent basis.
During our sessions in the months leading up to and during the event season, we are making many associations, both between myself and the rider, as well as the rider to the horse. When a rider is warming up for an event, I don't want them have too much on their mind. I really feel for the riders who as they are walking towards the ring they are bombarded with comments like, "make sure you ride strong into the planks, keep you legs on, remember to sit up, don't let him stop at the water tray and so on and so on".
I need to ensure that we have schooled as many of these scenarios at home as possible, and not only once. We school then over and over again until the is the rider is able to know what sort of canter is needed, how he need to prepare the horse in relations to it shape before and after the fence, know what sort of line best suits his horse and how quickly or slowly he need to use his aids if a response in required. We may not school these exercise over big fences, as the height is irrelevant (to a degree) in this stage of the training, it's more about producing the same positive result over and over again until it become instinctive.
Riding horses as we all know is unpredictable sport, but if I can lower the number of unpredictibilities before hand by schooling as many outcomes, and schooling them well enough that appropriate responses are unconscious then we are already a step ahead.
One of my roles as a coach is to link a large amount of information to simple words or phrases. Often in big events we may only get 5 riders ahead of us in the warm up to prepare our horse, yes, some of that is done pre entering the warm up, but often we only have 10 mins access to fences prior to jumping on course.
Having a "code word or phrase" is a way of reminding a rider of all we have been working on before hand and does several things.
1. They have confidence knowing they are able to produce a specific result on a consistent basis. Using Neuro Associative Conditioning (NAC) techniques help to link a particular emotion or feeling to the warm up.
2. I helps the riders to get "out of their head" and "into their body" so they can ride using all of their senses, increasing their feel and ability to choose to respond rather than react if a change in the situation arises.
3. It helps to slow the breathing, and encourage deeper breath coming from the abdomen allowing the rider to think clearer and also helps the horse to stay calm and centered.
For an example, I might start with using the word "Chocolate Cake". Anyone outside might think I am crazy if all I say is chocolate cake at the warm up fence, but there are months of associations linked to that word. At home I might discuss a riders position over a fence, as I have noticed that my rider has a tendency of leaning to whatever direction she is turning after the fence and dropping her shoulder, I also have noticed she grips with her knee, dropping her hips back in the initial take off stride. So I use the analogy, that to produce a good chocolate cake we need sugar, eggs, cocoa etc. If we left out the cocoa we have a vanilla cake. To produce a good jump we need a recipe too. Every horse and riders combination is completely different relative to their needs at the time. But sticking with the rider above I use several exercises, to help her bring awareness to her body, and how she can make changes in which muscles she chooses to turn on and what ones she needs to relax, where her focus needs to be and how the language she uses affects the outcome.
Over several sessions, and many creative exercises later (many of which I will include in coming months) I am able to help that rider produce a more balanced, secure and grounded position. All the time, reminding my rider about the chocolate cake concept.
When we get to the event, knowing I have created about 10 different code words, all meaning something different, so I am prepared for as many scenarios that could come up. If I see my rider slipping back into old habits, all I need to do is say Chocolate Cake, and due to predetermined changes in the riders subconscious through consistent and clear conditioning, I am able to bring the rider immediately back to her grounded position.
I might have the catch phrase, "stay strong on your turns, and straight to your fences" or "ride your approach like you want you departure" All of these mean a whole lot more that what it sounds like as I have placed so much information in those simple phrases during the work at home, that the rider is able to subconsciously be reminded of the many things that are needed to produce the result of - Ride you approach, like you want your departure"
I have many many different strategies that I can use to centre a horse and rider combination that are letting the pressure get to them and are riding too much in their head. Many of these I will include in further blogs. However another of my favourites is a deck of cards!
I need to as a coach make sure my rider as going to the event with "A bag full of cash" not the tangible kind, but the metaphorical kind see http://www.rangaterasporthorses.com/blog/four-legged-investment-strategy and a deck of cards up their sleeve. The deck of cards represents the fact the the rider has a whole lot of predetermined responses using NAC that she can use to help her horse get back into a mindset that is going to produce the best result.
For example, for a dressage test, during our sessions at home, over time we develop a warm up programme that creates the result we need in competition, and then we keep linking that result and response with particular exercises. First we become aware of what exercise may either relax our horse, bring their life up, or build their confidence. We look for things he does well, and easily. We can then strengthen those connections. For example, we notice that for one horse, trot-walk-trot transitions, and leg yield, loop, leg yield exercise slow this horses breathing, and lets his body loose. Se we use then regularly near the end of a good session, to let our horse know he has done well and can relax. He gets rewarded, and the opportunity to rest.
This is linking a positive association to those specific exercises, where the horse is willing to go there, is confidant on the outcome, causing him to put more effort in as he has some certainty to what that exercise means. We then start to use them during the session, when he has tried really hard, or offered us more that we have asked for as a reward. We then start to use them occasionally in the warm-up to help the horse get into a confidant, willing and calm frame of mind early.
This is now a card we have up our sleeve, at a competition if the horse is getting anxious. We can go to those exercises for a few minutes to help the horse build his confidence, in his work and give him something he know he can do well. When he settles we can then move on.
I tell my students, the warm-up for dressage is not a time to school exercises the horse finds difficuilt, nor is it the time to school a new movement. You can only produce the best result up to what your horse is currently capable of.
You have worked hard at home, and your horse knows his work. You know how to ride the movements, and you know your test.
Simply, give your horse your full attention, be present, be there for him, whatever he needs, and then simply let him offer you what he has to the best of his ability. Get out of your head, and feel your body. Be for your horse what you need from him. The rest will flow like warm chocolate :)
So, in closing. Ideally, I give my students as many words, phrases, tools, playing cards and a wad of cash to use at an event. If I'm not there, they have their warm-up strategy already set out for them, and they know their outcomes and their focus.
I also think it is imperative that parents, or those who spend a lot of time with the riders in the lead up to the competition are all on the same page. They are aware of our goals and outcomes, and I have given them too, the words and phrases we have been using so they become just as an important part of the whole picture as the horse, rider and myself are.
If I am there to remind them of some of these, great, if I'm not, I know they will be OK too.