Horse Showing

Game-Day Strategy

May 18, 2011

How these competitors prepare for a finals appearance at the Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show.

By Christine Hamilton for The American Quarter Horse Journal

Marissa works on dropping her irons and picking them back up. Judges often call for riding without stirrups. Journal photo.

The Built Ford Tough AQHYA World Championship Show has a quiet intensity, according to AQHA Professional Horsewoman Darlene Trein. She knows the stress can build up at times for the youth who compete, making it difficult to get ready to show.

At the 2006 Ford Youth World, Darlene’s student Marissa Dalton qualified for the hunt seat equitation finals on Good Naturally, aka “E-bay.” The 1997 bay gelding has earned more than 900 points, more than half of them with Marissa. Despite their experience as a team, anticipating a Ford Youth World finals pattern can still produce a lot of stress.

Here’s how Darlene helps youth like Marissa keep cool and ready for finals.

1. Groundwork
As soon as the finals pattern was posted, Darlene and Marissa went to get it.

“Back at the stalls, we usually discuss what we’re seeing in the pattern and look at the layout of it,” Darlene says. “Then we lay it out wherever we can. It might be in the barn aisle or in the parking lot.”

Marissa then goes through the pattern pretending to ride, with Darlene coaching. It helps Marissa learn the pattern and plan how to approach it. They go through it a couple times like that.

“It’s a way of working on the pattern without tiring the horse out,” Darlene says.

2. Riding Work
“At the show, we work on the little stuff,” Darlene says.

“We attack the major challenges at home, something like riding a hand gallop and coming down to a posting trot. Before the show, we know what might be rough for her.”

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Once they get to the show, Marissa is prepared for any big challenge a pattern might throw at her. So there she works on simple things that might catch her off guard, like hitting a correct diagonal or stopping straight from a walk.

As the finals get closer, Marissa focuses on the pattern’s maneuvers. Darlene works to keep things calm.

“I don’t do the, ‘Oh-my-gosh, we’ve got to practice, practice, practice,’ ” she says. “They got to this show with certain skills and for a reason. I try to relay that to them.”

When they practice, Marissa wears the breeches and boots she’s going to show in, to get the same feel she’ll have in her go.

At some point, Darlene and Marissa practice in the show arena, either at night or early in the morning.

“They need to feel the way the dirt is and how quick the walls come up,” Darlene says. “There’s a different atmosphere down in that big arena. I also let them practice coming through the gate, just like they’re entering for that class. There’s a bit of a heart-stopping feeling coming into the arena.”

They go through the pattern at least once in the arena, to see how it flows. Then, depending on the horse, they might practice part of the pattern in the arena and the rest somewhere else.

The important thing is to not get worked up about anything.

“In one of our practice sessions, Marissa had a bit of a hiccup in one part of the pattern,” Darlene says. “Analyzing the problem, E-bay was just a little fresh.

“As a trainer, I had to help Marissa see that and help me make that analysis and not think, ‘Oh, dear, it’s all falling apart.’ ”

3. Just Before the Go
As the finals approach, Marissa gets completely ready in the barn.

“I don’t want there to be a lot of fussing right before the go,” Darlene says. “I want them to walk to the pen quietly.

“We try to encourage parents to help with that,” she continues. “A lot of parents want to fuss with them in the pen at the last moment, like they’re going out the door to school. I’ve found that they’re much better if you just do fly spray and a little last-minute touch-up or boot polish.”

In the warm-up pen, Darlene keeps Marissa and E-bay moving to stay limber. They might trot or ride a little two-point.

“I try not to let them overdo because it just wears them out,” Darlene says. “I have found that keeping them moving is better than letting them sit and dwell.”

One of the things they do back in the barns is to talk about how Marissa will approach the chute into the arena. Darlene steers Marissa away from running through all the parts of the pattern. She encourages her to be calm and confident.

“As my riders walk down that chute, their job is to dwell on all the positive skills they have,” Darlene says. “They know their horse so well. They’ve practiced, they’ve proven themselves, and they’ve qualified.

“With all that confidence, they must have a margin of forgiveness if something doesn’t go perfectly,” she adds. “There’s an element of momentary luck, and they have to be willing to accept that.”

Darlene reminds her youth that they have to take care of the horse.

“When she walks down that chute, it’s scary for E-bay, too,” Darlene says. “She has to project calm and confidence to him.

“All she’s asking him to do is come with her.”

She laughs and adds, “It’s almost like ‘Dancing With the Stars’ – let’s show them our dance.”

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4. When It’s All Over
Marissa ended up placing sixth in the finals, and Darlene was proud of her performance.

“It’s important to enjoy the moment and celebrate: You were successful today!” Darlene says. “Once you step out of there, the next challenge is ahead of you.

“If they were not successful, I try hard to teach them to look at themselves objectively,” she adds. “I want them to become the type of equestrian who can say, ‘I know exactly what happened there, I missed the cone, or I was a stride late.’

“And I try to teach them to look at their competitors and appreciate how good they are. Be able to say, ‘Wow, she nailed it. She should have won it. I have to raise the bar for myself.’ ” It’s about developing the right kind of professional attitude.