10 Tips to Help You Prepare for Equitation Finals

Photo: AK Dragoo Photography

For junior riders, some of the most coveted ribbons are awarded at the end of an equitation final. From the ASPCA Maclay to the United States Equestrian Federation Hunt Seat Medal, the road to finals is as long and challenging as it is rewarding in more ways than trophies. Experts Kelli Cruciotti, 2015 Pessoa/U.S. Hunt Seat Medal Final winner, and Kathy Fletcher, owner and head trainer of Grazing Fields Farm in Buzzards Bay, MA, weigh in with their tips for making the journey a smoother one.

1. Start Early

Preparation doesn’t happen overnight. As easy as it would be to, you don’t simply wake up the day before finals with perfect equitation and a horse with all the right buttons. “It is kind of a cumulative thing, you can’t all of a sudden be ready,” states Fletcher. “I really encourage kids that are striving to be successful at the finals to challenge themselves throughout the summer and in the winter.”

“All year long you should be practicing and preparing with the finals in mind,” adds Cruciotti. The day after one year’s final is the starting point for the next—you can’t start preparing too early. Thankfully, almost all finals require you to qualify, so you should be on the right track from the beginning of the season.

2. Replicate the Ring

At the national level, many equitation finals are held indoors. Fletcher suggests setting up courses to school in an indoor arena. Some horses react differently to being inside, so be sure your horse is comfortable being in a covered area after a summer of being ridden outside. If your indoor is smaller than those at the finals venue, Fletcher recommends finding a space to set up a course in an area that is the size of the venue’s, if possible. Practicing in the same size space will give you an idea of how much room you will have at the show and help you adjust to the large area.

3. Practice, Practice, Practice

Of the 18 equitation tests, judges can ask any of them after the initial round and some finals even have them incorporated into the first course. Practicing all of these tests individually and in combination with one another will prepare you for what may be asked of you. Fine tune your horse’s counter canter and make sure you’re comfortable with coming up with a one-minute “demonstration ride” so you’re not surprised come show day.

4. Drop Your Irons

Skip No Stirrup November and drop your irons during each ride instead. Not only is this a United States Equestrian Federation hunt seat equitation test that judges can ask of you, but it will strengthen your seat and legs for a secure base and stronger equitation overall.

The key to this is to work without stirrups a little bit every day to be at your strongest as well as to prevent last minute soreness. “Working without your stirrups should be a daily routine. This will help you get tight and make your riding more effective,” advises Cruciotti. Also, be sure to mix no stirrup work into your flat and jumping exercises.

5. Go Bigger

Before finals rolls around, attend a few shows of the same caliber to get you and your horse used to the atmosphere. “I like riders to see at least a couple of bigger shows for a lot of reasons,” explains Fletcher. “Riders are going to see the kids that they see in the media competing against them, so I think it is important to immerse yourself in that type of competition before you ride in a final, especially at the national level.”

6. Get Out of the Saddle

Your horse needs to be in tiptop shape to jump a technical course and make it look effortless and so do you. “As an athlete in a very physically demanding sport, you need to make sure you properly prepare yourself as well as your horse,” explains Cruciotti. “You should try to be on a weekly gym routine as well as trying to eat right. Eating right and having that gym routine will improve your stamina, strength and overall health.”

7. Remain Consistent

Sudden riding changes can make for unwanted soreness. Instead of mixing things up at the last minute, practice consistency and start any changes you do want to make, like strengthening your leg or straightening your shoulders, well in advance. “Your level of riding should not change a month before just because you are getting ready for the finals,” says Cruciotti. “I believe that consistency is the key in preparing for the finals, don’t try and change so much of your normal routine.” Humans and horses are comfortable with steady routines both in and out of the ring, so avoiding sudden changes will benefit both parties come show time.

8. Focus on Yourself

This seems obvious, but in a sport based on being judged it can be tough. Refrain from comparing yourself to others, no matter how big their name may be, and stay concentrated on yourself and your own riding. “We talk a lot about focus and focusing on yourself and your horse and your personal goals instead of looking around and comparing yourself,” says Fletcher. “Kids that struggle with that, I have them speak to a sports psychologist.” Remember that riding is about bettering yourself, not being better than the rider next to you.

9. Don’t Overthink It

Riding is as mental as it is physical, meaning you need to be prepared in more ways than strength. Cruciotti recalls being nervous and finding a way to relax, “I always told myself it’s just a normal class. Once I told myself this, I was able to relax and ride my best instead of putting myself under all the pressure of ‘riding at the Maclay finals.’ One of my biggest tips for riders trying to mentally prepare for a big class or an equitation final is don’t overthink it,” she adds.

10. Enjoy It

After almost a year of preparation and hours of practice, make sure to enjoy the grand finale—the show. “Enjoy the moment; you spend hours, days, months, and years preparing for that one big moment or that one special day,” says Cruciotti. “Once you’re there and about to step into the ring, don’t forget to enjoy every minute of it because most likely it will be an experience that you will never forget.”

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