Horses and Graduate School, Pt. III: What Wintering Up North Taught Us

As Ema Klugman navigates her way through law school and a professional riding career, she’s taking us along for the ride. You can catch up on previous editions of this column here.


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The eventing season in England does not start until March. In America, it starts in early January in Florida. While I’m jealous of the professionals and lucky amateurs who can go to Florida or Aiken for the winter, I like to think that the more traditional way of preparing event horses for the season ahead is also valuable.

There are the obvious reasons: the horses have a longer break between the end of the fall season and the beginning of the spring season, the riders are less likely to get burned out by a year-round showing calendar, and the long, slow fitness work that you have to do because you can’t go cross country schooling or eventing tends to help with soundness and longevity.

However, wintering up north is valuable for another reason. It means that because I start showing later, I don’t have the impending deadlines of competitions about which to stress. There is something important about riding a horse in order to simply improve it; not with the idea to shave two points off the dressage test by practicing it incessantly or to prep specifically for a type of cross country combination you imagine will be on the course next weekend. Just to train the horse, to make it stronger, to make it better.

When the competitions are several weeks or months away, rather than around the corner, there is a certain “quiet” that surrounds the practicing you do. You can really examine your own strengths and weaknesses, and you can feel like you’re allowed to try new ideas and techniques without worrying about whether they will make things worse in the short-term for the next show. You are less likely to fall victim to “quick fixes” that might get you through a weekend but won’t help your horse be successful for years to come. The off-season is when the sausage is made.

What wintering up north also teaches us is that competition really does change our mindsets. It certainly changes mine. Competition is about performing: there is a stage-like aspect to it. After all, we do pay to be judged and told we are, at best, a C+ (or very rarely, a B-, for all of those dressage divas who score sub-20). Thinking about the stakes of the performance makes us do weird things, like ride with tension or try too hard. Shows can be stressful, and striving to be competitive means we put pressure on both ourselves and our horses. Without the pressure of shows being around the corner, we can avoid falling into the trap of training to compete rather than training to train.

This isn’t to say that all of us cold-toed, multi-layered, double-scarfed, red-faced riders aren’t simply twiddling our thumbs up here. We are riding, we are studying, and we are often training with clinicians if we can convince them to come freeze their toes off with us. But we are not caught in the heat of moment that precedes a competition, and that is really a nice thing. Remember that a horse does not know if she is getting a day off or going to jump an intermediate horse trial tomorrow: all she probably knows for sure is that someone is going to come in the morning to feed her breakfast.

But it is not only competing that changes our mindset: it is preparing to compete. I had a coach several years ago who looked at me puzzledly one Friday afternoon and asked, “why are you riding differently because it’s the day before the show?”. They were right; I was riding differently. And my horse was not going any better. It’s a good thing to notice, but a hard habit to kick: that we change course because we want to do well at the competition.

I was reminded of the difference between the training mindset and the competition mindset last week. I had signed up for a jumping show to be held in a couple of weeks, and then the next day I jumped my horses. I felt more stressed than usual. I had trouble focusing. Maybe it was the rust from a lack of jumping practice, as I’ve been doing mostly flatwork and slow fitness work thus far in the year. But it was also probably a result of feeling the pressure to prepare for the show (which, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t really matter—it is an outing to give my horses’ and I some practice and time in the ring, so I should be thinking of it simply as a training day). At least I recognized it.

Let’s be more like our horses—let’s behave the same way whether we have the biggest competition of our lives the next day or simply a hack on the schedule. Because both humans and horses thrive on consistency, whether we like it or not. If we start making exceptions and changing things up before the competition, we are likely to do more harm than good.

I was reading a case for my Criminal Law class last week about whether defendants should be able to use the idea of “mistake” as a defense to their alleged crime. In this case, the court responded that such a defense would create a slippery slope:

“If defendant’s argument were accepted, the exception would swallow the rule. Mistakes about the law would be encouraged, rather than respect for and adherence to law. There would be an infinite number of mistake of law defenses[].”

I like this idea of never allowing the exception to swallow the rule. We have to be consistent in what we do: the basics have to always remain intact. Making exceptions before the horse show isn’t going to make the horse show go better. If your horse cannot achieve Third-level collection, don’t suddenly start practicing it the day before hoping it will stick for the weekend. And if you find yourself doing that, perhaps you are entered at a level which is higher than you are prepared for.

Don’t start doing weird things just because you are about to go ride in front of people wearing a nice jacket and spit-polished boots. The more you change, the more your horse will think it’s a big deal. A show should feel like another day of training, just with a few more people around and a grade of C+, if you’re lucky. There’s comfort in remembering that a horse show should feel just like another cold winter training day with no show on the immediate horizon.