Preparing for your First Three Day Events — Part One
As part of Cindy Rawson’s series on Eventing Across the Pond, the editors of Eventing asked her to include one or more articles addressing her preparation for a three day event. Since 1982, Cindy has represented the USA in over 30 CCIs in eight countries, including the World Equestrian Games in Rome 1998.
This article is about how I prepare for a three-day event, and has been written with the rookie in mind – it’s difficult business. It is not meant to be a definitive guide, but is a brief description of what works for me as I try to swing the balance of fortune in my favour. I have outlined some of the pointers and tips I have picked up (sometimes through bitter experience!) and naturally, not everything I do will suit everyone. Choose what works for you.
Since I have assumed competitors have access to quality trainers, and that horse and rider are physically prepared for their first three day, I have not included any training and fitness work in this discussion. The first part of the article will deal with general preparations, traveling to the event, and everything up to and including the dressage phase. In the next issue, I will cover the remaining stages of a three-day event.
Training for your first three-day event is not just about preparing yourself and your horse for the phases of competition. Once you enter the arena or set off on course, your success is going to depend on a multitude of factors — not least being the training, skill, and fitness of the horse and rider partnership. Whether you believe in fate or creating your own luck, much of your competitive outcome rests on chance. The best preparation in the world cannot anticipate the weather, the size and location of the crowds, or the trajectory of an errant plastic bag! The pressures of competing are enough, so managing the things you can do something about plays a huge part in keeping distractions to a minimum and reducing stress. If you are well-organized and free to focus on the job at hand, you improve your chances of success and will hopefully gain more satisfaction from your riding.
- Pick your first three-day competition carefully. If you have an option, try to find a course that is suited to your horse. Check the USEA and FEI (The International Equestrian Federation) qualifications and the closing date for entries. Work backwards in planning your competition schedule. Include enough time for back-up competitions, should you not achieve your qualifications the first time around. You may have to consider entering 2 competitions at the same time if you are worried about over subscription at the event you have chosen.
- Obtain an FEI passport for your horse and seek USEA approval about 8 weeks prior to the competition — particularly for foreign competitions as the entry has to come from your federation.
- FEI competitions operate under a different set of rules, and it is important to know the differences. The USET can help to keep you informed. Pay particular attention to the very strict rules on allowable medication during and preceding competition!
- Prepare a check-off list of all the equipment you will need. Double-check it before you leave. Try to take duplicate items of all tack, if you can. A bicycle is invaluable for touring the roads and tracks phases (A and C).
- Consider taking a blood test from your horse six weeks before the three day event to determine the complete blood count is correct at this stage of training. Consider a tracheal wash one month ahead to test for clear airways and respiratory infections. This allows enough time to treat the horse if required. Your vet should be able to advise you on these procedures.
- Service your truck and trailer, and plan your route well in advance. Make sure all relevant paperwork is up to date, i.e. health certificates or Coggins tests.
- If travel to the event involves a long trip, I take my horses off every six hours or so for a hand walk. For every twelve hours of travel, I give my horses five to six hours rest. It is important to know your horse’s normal temperature, and to take it twice daily while traveling. This is to monitor for shipping fever (consult your vet for more information).
- I like to allow my horses a day at the event site to recoup for every twelve hours of travel.
- Plan when to feed while traveling — use electrolytes and make feed sloppy to help keep your horse hydrated. I feed vitamin C starting a week prior to traveling to help avoid minor respiratory infections.
- Likewise, soaking any hay or feeding haylage can help keep the dust down. Clear lungs are essential.
- Buy a bigger trailer (just kidding!). No matter the size of your trailer or van, I guarantee you will fill it with all those ‘essential’ items of kit that always seem to match or exceed the capacity of your vehicle!
- Visit the stable manager as soon as possible to get all relevant information: your show packet, bridle and halter numbers (to be worn at all times), event maps, times of briefings, etc. The manager and staff will be very busy, so a smile always helps. Remember, they’re more than likely unpaid volunteers putting in long hours for the sport they love.
- After settling into your designated area, get your horse used to the new and strange surroundings. Take him for a gentle hack and leg stretch. If he’s an eventing veteran, he knows what’s coming and may be excited and tense.
- Hand graze as often as you can — try to get as close as you’re allowed to the actual competition arenas. To help the horse relax in this new and busy environment, be willing to keep pulling him out for short but frequent walks. Keep hard work to a minimum before the first vet check.
- Protect your horse’s legs at all times while traveling and during the event. Use stable bandages in the stall, and boots/bandages when out.
- Use lots of bedding so your horse is warm, comfortable, and unlikely to scrape himself. Make sure there is an ample supply of fresh water — keeping your horse hydrated is a top priority.
- Take notes and listen closely. If you’re unsure of anything, ask questions. You don’t get penalized for being green, but a green mistake could cost you.
- Pay close attention on the drive round of the roads and tracks. Find your kilometer markers and compulsory flags. They’re easy to miss when mounted and you’re under stress! The same applies to the steeplechase walk.
Walking the Course
- Walk the course alone the first time — it is the only chance you will get to imagine what your horse’s first impressions will be.
- The second walk can take a long time. Measure the course with a meter wheel and compare with the official distance. Often organizers will wheel a very tight line, in which case making the time will be difficult. Take careful note of all the alternative options, and record your minute markers. Pick fixed objects as your minute markers, e.g. trees — not items that may be moved or obscured by crowds on the day of the competition. Write them down.
- Ask more experienced riders if you’re unsure of the approach to particular jumps. Don’t be shy — in my experience the ‘stars’ of our sport are more than willing to give helpful advice.
- On the third walk, imagine how the course is going to look on the day. Visualize your perfect ride, and don’t forget to also imagine yourself successfully coping with any problems that might arise.
- On the morning of the competition, I go out on course to check the footing and to re-walk difficult lines. If there is enough time, I try watching how the tricky fences are riding, and compare notes with other riders.
- All events are required to check the incoming horses soon upon arrival. Sometimes the horse will be checked by a vet the moment he’s off the lorry, so make sure he arrives looking his best. Bear in mind you are now at a horse show, which means, by definition, you and your horse and entourage are on display. Initial impressions are the first steps to scoring well, so be neat and tidy in your person, your tack, and your horse, especially if this is your first time at a CCI. A sloppy turnout can create the impression that you’re not serious about your sport.
- The formal trot-up is the ground jury’s first impression of you, so it is important your horse be well turned out — look smart, smile, and act confidently.
- Practice trotting up at home. Ask a knowledgeable friend or your vet to watch you and help gauge the best pace and balance for your horse.
- Set up a dressage arena at home, so the horse becomes used to working within artificial confines. Simply laying planks of wood on the ground is a cheap alternative that creates the same effect, particularly if painted white (a good job for Dads!). For the more nervous horses, try to introduce flowers or flapping bunting/flags into the training area so they are not spooked at the competition.
- Be sure to have your bit and spurs checked well in advance.
- Find out which test you will be performing well in advance and start practicing at home. Use a competent trainer and have someone video you frequently. If your facility has arena mirrors, even better!
- Practice wearing your tailcoat — pin down the flaps of your coat to your saddle pad; it looks neater and avoids distracting the horse. Make sure your top hat fits and will stay on while doing canter work in a stiff breeze.
- Don’t forget to sew on your USA flag to the saddle pad (good job for Moms!).
- Find a length of black clothes elastic and sew two small loops on each end. This can be used for holding your dressage number in place by looping the elastic around your back, through the number, and hooking the loops over your coat buttons.
- On your dressage day, bring everything that is needed to the dressage area, e.g. sponge, body brush, copy of the test, rain coat, fly spray, bits, extra studs, hoof pick, hoof oil, boot buffer cloth, towel, video camera.
- Most events have a dressage 10-minute arena for the combination next-to-ride. Know where this is and how to get from it to the competition arena.
- If there is sufficient time, watch an early test to check you have learned the right one. If you made a mistake, you wouldn’t be the first!
- Check the arena footing and observe how it is riding. Are other horses slipping, or is the ground being churned up? Decide upon size of studs.
- Ride your test confidently and look like you are having fun, even if you are not! As we all know, horses are incredibly sensitive. They feel what you feel, and react accordingly.
I hope this information is helpful. I welcome any feedback and can be contacted through my website at Cindy Rawson Event Team
Next month: It’s all about the Small Stuff! Part II Preparing for the steeplechase and cross country, final vet check, stadium day, and after-competition care.