Five Things I Learned Riding Three Horses at a One-Day Event

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Yesterday, I attempted to answer a question: How does Buck do it?

How does Buck compete a gazillion horses every weekend?  Could an average rider do it?  As an eventer, I am crazy by default.  Face it, you have to be crazy to have a passion for this sport…it’s what makes us unique.  But it’s a whole ‘nother realm of “crazy” to enter three horses in a one-day event, to be ridden by a mere mortal.

It was just a local unrecognized horse trial.  I entered one horse at Entry (two-foot), one in Beginner Novice, and one at Training.  At the lowest levels, how hard could it be?  I should mention that the Entry horse and the Beginner Novice horse had never been to a show before.  But I felt no pressure for them to be competitive, just get around and have a good experience.  The Training level horse has a bit of seasoning, and was there mostly to get in a dressage ring and try out a new cross-country bit for better control.  Point being, I wasn’t there for ribbons, I was there for education (and a reasonable entry fee!).

I don’t have an army of working students; I don’t even have one.  I was fortunate, though, to have the help of a dear friend and my husband.  Hubby was completely freaked out at the idea of nine rides in a day, and desperately pleaded to hire an extra person to groom.  I assured him we would be fine.  My past life of grooming four or five horses, plus riding my own, has made me very organized, calm, and practical in a show environment.  With a few helping hands to shuffle horses on and off the trailer and swap tack (I also don’t have an armory of saddles and gear), the day ran pretty smoothly.  My husband even commented on the drive home, “You know, that wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected.” Thanks, honey!

Friday afternoon, I managed to ride, bathe, and clip the three horses.  Then pack the trailer, drive to the show grounds, and walk (run!) cross-country courses before it got too dark.  Then get home, braid all three, and clean tack.  It was after midnight before I finished, with my alarm set for four A.M.  Where are those working students?!

The show was, more or less, a success.  I feel like all three horses could have done better in some areas, but they all ended the day with confidence-building cross-country rides and gained valuable exposure going forward.  Here’s what I learned from riding three horses at a one-day event, that applies to any show, but especially if you have nine rides in six hours:

1. Organization is essential.  I packed tack trunks with saddle pads and boots laid out in order of need, one pile per horse.  Bridles were set up in advance, and while my horses tend to share tack, I had a backup bridle fitted just in case.  The names of each horse was written on the back of their bridle number.  There was never a panicked moment spent searching for something– everything has its place.

2. Scheduling.  As I do for every event, I take time to write down a detailed schedule of when to tack, when to get on for warm up, and ride times.  This gets more important and complicated when more horses are involved.  With times written on paper, you can direct your (limited) support crew where and when to best help you.

3. Flexibility is key!  As in life, things rarely go exactly as planned.  Show jumping was running behind, and with tight ride times this really ate up into my already meager warm-up time.  My training level horse literally trotted from the trailer to the dressage arena, and the ring stewards barely let me canter a circle before hustling me out of warm-up (they thought I’d scratched, not realizing show jumping was running late in another ring).  Just roll with the punches and do your best.  The training horse was a bit frazzled, and certainly not at his best, but he made an effort to be rideable and with no warmup to speak of (he really needs 35 minutes) I had to accept what he gave me.

4. Focus on the moment and the horse beneath you.  It’s tough enough to focus on one horse, one course, and one level in a weekend.  It takes quite a bit more mental effort to concentrate on three horses individually, how they need to be ridden, and swap between them in an instant for each phase.   Not to mention knowing where you’re going on cross-country, having only walked the courses once-ish the night before in the near-darkness!

5. Be positive.  After two really horrible, embarrassing dressage rides from the first-time horses– in which the judge complimented me for staying on, and staying in the ring– it’s natural to get disappointed and frustrated with your performance, knowing you can do better.  But with more rides to come, you simply have to forget it, smile, and move on.  There just isn’t time to dwell on what happened five minutes ago…because you’re rushing back to the trailer to get on another one, or reviewing the show jumping course in your mind, or warming up another horse for the next phase.  Be proud of what you *did* accomplish: you didn’t fall off, you jumped all the jumps (in the proper order!) and your horse finished the day better than he started.  There’s always another day to win!

I admit, after nine rides in one day of competition, I still don’t know how the likes of Buck and Boyd and Phillip do it!  It is incredibly difficult and takes enormous mental and physical stamina to keep going and give each horse your best.  I’m sure it gets easier the more you do it, but as for me, I think that’s my last time riding three horses and all three phases on one Saturday.

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