By Lauren Aubert
In any level of junior equitation, medal finals will often play a crucial part in one’s show career. Qualifying in the summer for the fall medal finals is sometimes the best option due to the challenges and commitments the school year has to ofter, especially for those in middle and high school. Through each placing in a chosen medal class, points are accumulated and work is done improve for the next one. When the “finals season” rolls around, a journey to the venue of your choice is made with the hopes of executing your desired plan. Upon walking the course, reflection is made regarding the no-stirrups flat work, rollback turns, and grids jumped through practicing an automatic release that got you to this point in time, trusting at the end of the madness, the work input will equal the output, just like in physics. The qualifying and practice road is quite the odyssey, but the learning experiences collected along the way make up for the length. Listed below are a few things you can practice to make the most of your journey, all the way until your horse sets its first hoof into the arena sand on opening day of the medal final.
Becoming familiar with the format of your chosen medal final is the first step in preparation for the big weekend. Months before the final, have a conversation with your trainer about what the final entails, how many rounds there will be, what the arena will look like, anything that needs clarification from a professional. Since internet is available virtually anywhere at any time, specifications for the medal final of a chosen equitation class can be pulled up on command. Share these with your trainer, mentor, parents, anyone who can help you determine the skills you will need to utilize. Read up on the minimum number of points needed to qualify for each final, identify what types of jumps the course will offer, or discover if an open water jump could be included in the course. Also, become knowledgeable about what might be asked of you in the work-off, how many will be called back, and if you will have to learn the abbreviated course with no assistance. The specifications can be easily bookmarked on a phone, computer, or tablet. They can be printed out, stuck on a bulletin board and the inside of a tack trunk. Whether you are a seasoned veteran in the class or have never competed in the final before, having the specifications easily accessible when questions arise will help you know what to expect at the final.
Second, create a list including the things you would like to maintain or improve upon before the fall finals season. You can physically write out the items on a paper list or in a notebook, or you can keep a document handy on a portable device that you can look over at any time. The list will be different for everyone, depending on experience and what you would like to accomplish throughout the year. Having specific goals for each final, and general, broader goals for improving aspects of your riding before finals season is encouraged. Creating a list of goals where you can cross off the things you have improved upon or mastered can help you stay on track to reaching where you want to be at the final. For example, if you compete in a medal class where the course is set in a ring with wide-set jumper type obstacles like colorful triple bars and the occasional liverpool, a goal could be to maintain solid form over the larger oxers, keeping your legs connected to the saddle, your back straight, and your heels down, “dragging in the sand” during takeoff. Share this list with your trainer, as he or she can give exercises to help you accomplish your goals, and can remind you about what you have accomplished along the way.
Third, pick up an activity you enjoy to maintain and grow your fitness level for the physical demands of the equitation preparation. Riding alone can be rigorous, especially intense flatwork or executing intricate courses, but adding an additional sport or exercise out of the saddle is beneficial to your health. Staying in good cardiovascular shape is important for all athletes, including riders, where one’s form is needed to be maintained for long periods of time. To avoid mid-round exhaustion which can be prevalent in long equitation courses, choose an endurance sport such as distance running to improve stamina. It helps burn calories, improves your endurance tremendously, and can be a great stress-reliever! Aim to run three or more times a week for a few miles at a time, depending on your previous running fitness level. There are many programs to choose from online to help you along the way, but if you choose to do it yourself, do not ramp mileage up too quickly, as this can cause injury. YouTube can be a great resource for finding different running workouts. If you are in a school that offers it, joining a sport like cross-country or track allows you to run with a group where you can enjoy the company of others, the workouts already planned for you. However, running is not for everyone, and there are many other activities you can participate in to become in better cardiovascular shape. You can choose a cardio intense sport like basketball, lacrosse, or soccer, but if you do not enjoy team sports, even an activity like brisk walking or hiking over rough terrain will benefit your riding. In addition to a form of cardio, strong arm, abdominal, and leg muscles are a must for maintaining position over larger jumps in the equitation. While I am not suggesting any specific exercise to benefit one’s form, try exercises that target the areas of your body you would like to strengthen, or that you feel you use the most while riding. There are websites and blogs online geared towards fitness in equestrians, offering different workouts for riders. Stable Spice is a great blog that offers workouts targeting different areas of the body along with insightful fitness stories written by riders. Everyone’s body is different, so pick exercises that will help you the most with your riding and fitness. I attend a gym with a sports performance program where they give exercises targets towards middle and high school athletes and their specific goals. My workouts are planned for me in a program, and by doing the correct exercises, my arm, abdominal, and leg strength have all exponentially improved, helping my posture and position in the equitation.
When the big weekend rolls around, start to devise your “plan of attack.” It can be as simple as getting around the course while taking the desired turns for beginners, executing the most efficient track with a balanced ride to all the jumps for more advanced riders, or anything in between. Take a photo of the course board after arriving on show day to the venue so you have a picture of the course map to study hours before the final begins. If the show offers a printed-out version that can be marked up with your track, even better. A trainer can help you compose a plan where inside turns, the track to the two stride, even the size of your opening circle are discussed. It is also helpful to sit or stand near the arena while you do this to get a feel for its layout and the locations of the jumps. After studying the course for some time, the jumps and turns in the arena will become familiar. When it is time to walk the course, everything on the plan can be gone over in real life, in real time. For some, connecting the course map to the course in the arena is beneficial to the memory, helping a rider execute his or her plan with maximum understanding of the track.
Finally, find a place to go and reflect on the way you are going to carry out your finished plan. Whether focusing best means sitting near the show arena intently watching the rounds before you, or on your tack trunk away from the commotion of the show grounds, do what will help you prepare the most. Taking a couple minutes to visualize your plan and how you are going to ride each jump can help your ride in the show arena tremendously. For some, watching other rounds will help with obtaining a feel of how the course rides and how quickly the jumps approach the riders. If you do this an hour or two before you mount your horse, stress levels are likely to be lower and your thoughts will not be as jumbled as if you were to start before beginning the warm-up. Mentally planning out your show trip, thinking about the rides you want to utilize to and over each obstacle will put you on the path to nailing your plan for real. After the warm-up is done and you are walking to the show arena to lay down a first trip, take a deep breath, clear your head, and keep a relaxed, clear expression on your face. I have found if I smile or relax my face muscles while cantering to my first jump, appearing confident to the audience when I am nervous, I start to believe my outward facial expressions and end up with a balanced, clear-intentioned ride to the first obstacle and around the rest of the course.
Although medal finals can be a scary and confusing thing for one to compete in, they are one of the best learning tools of the equitation. The challenging courses present a mental exercise for the brain, and the lessons taken away from your rounds can help improve all aspects of your riding. Remember, almost everyone in the medal final is nervous, and you have every right to be! Between the preparation, tough courses, even the much-anticipated work-off of class leaders, there is a lot to remember and apply in the arena. Chanel all your energy into laying down the best ride of your ability, and no matter how you place, you always will be a winner for discovering a new learning opportunity.