It’s all about the Small Stuff!
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 the second installment on how to prepare for your first three-day event, written with the rookie in mind. 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.
In the last issue, I dealt with general preparations, traveling to the event, and everything up to and including the dressage phase. In this article, I have outlined pointers and tips for the remaining elements of a three-day competition, e.g. the speed and endurance phases, the ten minute box, and stadium jumping. Again, not everything I do will suit everyone, so choose what works for you.
The Day Before Cross Country
- You are going to need help (particularly in the ten minute box) so the more people you can rope in to assist you, the better. Get at least two. Meet with your team the night before to assign jobs. Ask your helpers to watch certain fences you may be worried about and to bring their information back to you in the ten minute box.
- Look at your start times and plan when to feed (4-5 hours before the start of phase A), and hand-walk your horse in the morning. I reduce my horses’ hay ration the night before cross-country and feed only a small flake in the morning.
- Always hand-walk using a lunge line and bridle if your horse is likely to be excitable.
- Consider buying a cheap set of walky-talkies — they are useful for relaying information quickly.
- Make a rider card so you know at what time to be at each kilometer marker on the roads and tracks, and at each minute marker on the steeplechase and cross-country. This should be strapped to your forearm for quick reference on course. Make it easily readable and covered in plastic or clear sticky tape to make it waterproof.
- Have your team synchronize their watches to match the official competition clock (usually located in the stable manager’s office). Buy a count down clock and commence counting down exactly 2 hours before you are due to start the cross-country phase. This allows everyone to know exactly how long remains before you start phase D.
- Wear two stop-watches on the day, and ensure spare batteries are available. The second watch not only acts as a backup, but is important if you are halted on course. Recording your own stoppage time acts as a useful comparison to the official time penalties you may be given.
- Check all of your equipment and tack is in good order and is safe to use.
- Tie a shoelace through the top braid in the mane. Then wrap it around the headstall of the bridle and tie it securely. This stops the bridle being pulled off completely should you have the misfortune to be pitched over the horse’s head!
- Stay calm. It is normal to be nervous. Visualize completing the course successfully — don’t focus on the ‘what if?’ If you do your best and what is right for your horse, you will succeed.
- Check the footing — ask riders who have already completed if you aren’t sure which studs to use for each phase.
- Try spotting a few fences yourself, if there is time. If not, ask knowledgeable people to watch the fences you think are difficult, and have them report back to you with their information in the ten minute box.
- Allow plenty of time to get yourself and your horse ready.
Roads and Tracks — Phase A
- When you walk or drive the roads and tracks, take careful note of the obligatory markers. Many ‘old and bold’ riders have been eliminated from an event by missing a compulsory flag during the roads and tracks.
- Hand-walk your horse in the morning. If your horse is fairly calm, mount and walk for 20 minutes before the start.
- The pace for a CCI* will be a brisk trot at 220 meters per minute (mpm). This means phase A will be anything between 16-20 minutes in duration and over 3500-4400 meters. You might want to consider a short canter to get the horse thinking ‘forward’ before the steeplechase.
- Always try to look for the best footing.
- It never hurts to say ‘hello’ to the flag marshals. Not only does it relieve the tedium of their day, but it reduces the chance of your number being missed!
Steeple Chase — Phase B
- Work with your trainer to practice the pace and rhythm needed for the steeplechase. If you don’t have access to a track, measure 640m in a field and learn to ride this distance in one minute. A simple homemade brush fence with a good ground line will aid your practice.
- The pace for a CCI * will be 640 mpm, lasting 3-3 1/2 minutes, over a distance of 1920-2240m. There will be 5-7 brush fences at 1.4m high.
- Try to keep an even rhythm, with no erratic changes of pace, to conserve the horses’ energy, and try to finish within 10 seconds of the optimum time (on the underside, naturally!).
- I always choose a marker 30 seconds back from the finish line, allowing me to gauge and adjust my pace, if necessary, at the end of the course.
- Keep your horse balanced as you slow down gradually, at the same time making headway onto phase C.
Roads and Tracks — Phase C
- There will be a designated assistance area after phase B. Have a helper (armed with your horses’ spare shoes and studs, sponge, and water) check your horse’s shoes as you ride past. If he has lost one and the event has a compulsory halt on Phase C (generally within one kilometer of the finish of Phase B), fit an easy boot to allow you to reach the farrier in that rest area. If there is no compulsory halt, the farrier will be available just after Phase B and you can have your horse’s shoe replaced immediately.
- If your event has a compulsory halt on phase C, dismount, sponge and scrape the horse, and check all studs are tight.
- After the exertions of the chase, phase C allows for a fair amount of walking. The pace is slower, at 160 mpm (25-40 minutes, 4000-6400m). Once your horse has had time to recover, trot on again to get to the ten minute box at the required time.
Ten minute box
The ten-minute box warrants a small article in itself. However, if you prepare, stay calm, and think logically, you will have more time than you think.
- If this is your first three-day event, consider practicing your vet box routine at home.
- As the rider, the less you do in the box, the more time you have to visualize the course and stay focused on the job at hand. Have a drink and gather information from your fence spotters.
- Arriving one or two minutes early into the box allows that little bit of extra time. On the other hand, don’t waste energy on Phase C by arriving too early.
- As you and your horse approach the box, you will be required to trot to enable the veterinarian to check the soundness of your horse. He/she will also check your horses’ pulse, respiration, and temperature as soon as you have dismounted.
- When choosing your spot in the holding area, think about the time of day you will be running and choose a place that offers shade or shelter and easy access to water/ice.
- The ten-minute box can become crowded, so try to take all your equipment and spare tack in a trunk. Although this can be a little awkward to manage, it keeps your things together and, most importantly, dry. Most events will have some form of transport available to help you move equipment to and from the ten minute box.
- Have your supporters assemble with plenty of time before you arrive, and have them fill several buckets with water and/or ice. As long as the weather is cooperative, lay out all equipment on a rain sheet so that it is easily accessible (a full equipment list for three day events is available via e-mail).
- Your helpers should know where the farrier is located, and have a complete spare set of shoes handy with the studs already fitted.
- The most important job during the ten minute break is to cool the horse down. Use iced water if competing in hot weather, and have one helper sponge the horse while another scrapes him off. The faster the water is on and off, the faster the horse will cool down.
- It is important to keep your horse walking between washdowns — this keeps his muscles relaxed and prevents lactic acid build-up.
- The ten minute box will also be the area to which you triumphantly return, having ridden a clear and fast cross-country round (thinking positively!). Ensure that you also have the equipment and helpers necessary to care for your horse when you have finished the course.
Timing is the key in the ten minute box. This is my team’s approach at a typical three day:
- Minute twelve
- Vets will take the temperature, pulse and respiration rates of your horse. Ensure you keep this information for future reference.
- Put a saddle cover on (to keep the saddle from getting wet while washing the horse down), loosen the nose-band and girth, and put the halter on. Alternatively, clip a lead-rope to the bit.
- Minute eleven
- Check the boots have not slipped, and look for any cuts or scrapes from the steeplechase.
- Wash and scrape
- Walk the horse around in a 20 meter circle and check that all shoes are still on. If one is lost, go immediately to the farrier to have it replaced.
- Minute ten
- Wash and scrape
- Walk the horse around the box
- Minutes nine, eight and seven
- Wash, scrape and walk
- Offer the horse water if he will drink, or squeeze a soaked sponge into his mouth.
- Check that studs are still tight — change if necessary
- Change the bit if necessary
- Minute six
- Wash and scrape
- Walk the horse around the box
- Syringe an electrolyte mixture into the horse’s mouth
- Minute five
- Liberally apply eventing ‘grease’ from the top of the legs and stifles, to the hooves. Do not apply to the chest and stomach, as this stops the skin from sweating. Use rubber gloves to apply the grease so you don’t transfer this slippery stuff to the reins or stirrups.
- Dry reins and stirrups
- Minute four
- Reposition the saddle and tighten the girth
- Veterinarian will ask for the horse to be trotted up to check for soundness, and will possibly monitor the heart rate and temperature again.
- Minute three
- Take the halter off
- Tighten the nose-band
- Dry soles of rider’s boots and stirrup pads thoroughly
- Check the girth and tighten the over-girth
- Minute two
- Pick up a trot and canter if sufficient area is available. Make sure your horse is alert and realizes the day’s work is not yet done!
- Minute one
- Under starter’s orders
- Have someone available to assist if you anticipate any difficulty with your horse when entering the start box
- Start your stop-watch 10 seconds before you are due to set off. Check it is actually running and have eyes up and both hands on the reins when you hear the word ‘go’!
Cross Country — Phase D
You and your horse have trained hard, and are fully prepared. You have walked the course and know all the alternatives. You have visualized your clear round and are ready for the most exciting part of the competition: the cross-country.
- Approach the first fence carefully, and support your horse. After the excitement of the ‘chase, many horses try to “brush” through the first cross-country fence, with occasionally unfortunate consequences!
- Try to make up time between fences by ‘kicking on’ on landing.
- Be aware of how your horse feels. If your horse is tired, steady up between fences, support with hand and leg and come home slowly.
- If your horse is really tired or not having a good time, it is far better to retire to fight another day than to give him a bad experience — or worse!
- Horses are great levelers. If all does not go to plan, use your round as a learning experience. Remember the positives, work on the negatives.
Once the excitement of the cross-country is over, the real work begins in caring for your horse. After all his hard work, it is vital that care starts immediately if he is to be sound and supple enough to pass the final veterinary inspection and have the best chance to perform well in stadium jumping.
- The horse will need to be washed, cooled down and walked until his heart rate and temperature have returned to normal.
- Keep your horse hydrated. Be sure to offer him small amounts of water at frequent intervals and monitor his water intake.
- Care for the horse’s legs begins immediately. First of all, I use cool boots soaked in ice water to take the initial heat out of the legs. It is vital however, that these are not left on too long, as they start to have the opposite effect on the legs if they are allowed to heat up!
- After the horse is completely cooled down I like to whirlpool my horses’ legs for 20 minutes, using boots full of ice water, and repeat the process one or two more times throughout the evening. Finally, I use a cooling poultice and bandages overnight.
- Use of a magnetic rug, massage and simple stretching really helps keep horses from stiffening up. Feeding arnica tablets throughout the event can also help reduce bruising and soreness. Your vet should be able to advise you on these matters.
- Hand-walk your horse to help keep the lactic acid from building up. After the initial cooling down period, take him out two or three more times for a ten to fifteen minute walk (depending upon the time at which you finish the cross-country). Try to walk for the last time just before the stables close for the night.
- Leave your horse alone for at least six hours, remembering that rest is an important part of recuperation.
- Repeat icing, massage, stretching, and hand walking in the morning.
Final vet check
The final veterinary inspection will take place on the morning of the last day of the competition. Horses’ soundness is assessed to ensure it is safe for them to continue the competition.
- Your horse may benefit from a hack or light flatwork to loosen him up on the morning of the final day.
- Learning how to trot up properly takes practice. So as not to appear sluggish, your horse needs to trot straight and stay well up with you.
- If you find that your horse is really stiff in the morning and not responding to treatment, then it is always best to retire. Bear in mind this will hopefully be the first of many three day events, and a little restraint now may save your horse for a glorious career later on!
- Remember this is the final phase of a long and tiring competition for your horse. Try to do enough flatwork to ensure your horse is supple and obedient, but don’t overdo the jumping in the warm up.
- As with the cross-country, allow yourself plenty of time to walk the show jumping course. I like to walk 2-3 times, paying close attention to the areas where time can be made up. Time penalties in stadium can be very expensive!
- Unless you are unfortunate enough to be one of the first to jump, watch a few riders to see how the course is riding and whether the time allowed is tight.
- Your horses’ therapy treatment after stadium should be basically the same as that given after the cross-country, although he will probably not need to be washed down in ice water unless it is extremely hot. Use ice, poultice, and bandages on his legs, and a magnetic rug, etc., on his body.
- Keep your horse hydrated. Monitor his water intake.
- On the way home, I like to stop and unload once every 6 hours to give my horse a hand walk.
- After our return home, I give the horse 2-3 days off. He will then be hacked every other day for 10 days (if sound and well) to let him down. Finally, he will be turned out for a well earned two to four week holiday!
I hope these articles have been helpful and go some way toward easing the daunting prospect of a first three-day event. While there is no substitute for actually getting out there and doing it, this information should help the first timer get a taste of the preparation required in order to take on the biggest challenge our exhilarating sport has to offer. I welcome any feedback and can be contacted through my website at Cindy Rawson Event Team. Good luck and happy eventing!