Show ring strategies for competitive success

Have you ever had any of the following happen to you: You jump the diagonal line, turn the corner and realize you have no idea which fence is the next jump? After having an awesome warm-up, you trot down centerline and conclude that your horse is exhausted and that you will have to nurse him through the rest of test? You are in the lead after dressage and cross country. You have two rails to spare and you will win the event, but your nerves get to you and you have four rails! Are any of these scenarios preventable?

Showing horses is an expensive and time consuming endeavor. And there is nothing worse than having a disastrous experience in the ring, especially when you know that the disaster was preventable. Whether you try your competitive skills at the local, national or international level you need to make the most of your time in the ring. Although some riders may have a natural talent for show ring skills, fortunately for the rest of us there are strategies that can be learned that allow you and your horse to do your best.

The Zone

Top equestrian athletes, like all successful athletes, are able to clear their minds of distracting thoughts and focus on the task at hand. Sports psychologists call this state “relaxed focus” or “the zone.” Many athletes use the time preceding the event to listen to music or review their course or strategy.

2003 World Cup Finalist George Williams spends time by himself before he goes into the ring. With headphones on, he sits quietly in a chair to gather his thoughts. He says, “You need quiet time to mentally prepare yourself.” His strategy works. George was the 2002 Dressage at Devon Grand Prix Freestyle Champion.

At the next horse show, take a few minutes to narrow your focus to the course, test or class at hand. Whether you listen to music or simply sit by yourself, you may be amazed at the results.

Don’t Win the Warm-Up

Top riders know exactly what type of warm-up their horses need to perform their best. If you think back to some of your least successful show ring trips you may realize that you lost the class in the warm-up ring by either doing too much warm-up or not enough.

Pan-Am Games Silver Medalist Dr. Cesar Parra has the warm-up for each of his horses down to a fine science. He believes it is important to listen to what your horse is telling you about what he needs in the warm-up. He explains, “I have learned in my career that I have won too many warm-ups and not enough classes,” says Cesar, winner of more than 300 FEI dressage classes. “Now I concentrate on winning each class, not the warm-up.”

When you are in the warm-up at your next event, as you begin to walk, trot and canter, ask yourself questions about what is happening underneath you. Is my horse responding to my leg? Does he stop easily? Does he feel stiffer in one direction? Is he jumping round or flat? As you feel the answers to these questions you will know what exercises you need for your warm-up. Remember the goal is to peak in the show ring. Don’t leave your best jumps or tempi-changes in the schooling area.


Before you head into the show ring do you have a plan? Many amateur riders venture into the ring with thoughts of fences or test figures, but no plan. Top riders know exactly what they are trying to accomplish when they walk through the in-gate.

Former World Champion and Olympic Medalist Rodrigo Pessoa always has a strategy before his horse steps one hoof into the arena. In a tight race for the 2003 World Cup Championship Rodrigo was in fourth place coming into the final round of the three day test. “In the [last] round I thought I just have to do my thing and try to go clear,” Rodrigo said. “[I tried] to put the pressure [on the other riders.] It worked for two, but not for three!” Rodrigo jumped a clear round and finished in second place. Rodrigo’s strategizing has earned him six consecutive top three finishes in the World Cup Final, including three championships.

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Ask yourself: Do I want a safe, clean round? Should I pull out all the stops and go for fast as well as clean? Is my horse anxious-should I go for a soothing trip? Should I go for a safe, accurate test or a brilliant, booming test? Knowing what you intend to do allows you to develop a general plan for how you will ride the fences or the test.

Overcoming Challenges

The best preparation, perfect warm-up and winning strategy will always be put to the test by the inevitable challenges you will face. Whether it is poor weather and footing conditions, a cheering crowd or an early mistake, top athletes learn to be flexible, adjust their plans and cope with the stresses of competition.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics Ulla Salzgeber faced what could have been a real mind-blower. Part way through her freestyle test the audio system failed and she was forced to retire. Due to the unexpected situation and a tightly scheduled competition Olympic organizers had Ulla ride her freestyle again after all of the other competitors had their turn. Many riders would have crumpled under the stress. Ulla with her usual aplomb came back and rode a brilliant freestyle, securing the individual bronze medal. How was she able to do it? Her attitude towards all challenges-“I never give up,” she says.

Remember that challenges are part of the competitive experience. Rather than allowing yourself to be stressed out by the unavoidable obstacles, be flexible, remain composed and press on. If you and your horse are well-prepared, you can handle anything.

Being competitive in the show ring requires more than just good riding skills. Focus, prepare, strategize and remain calm and you too can ride your best in the pressurized environment of the show ring.