Will Furlong, dual gold medallist at the recent Young Rider European Championships, shares with Julie Harding his top tips for preparing for your first horse trials
Success in eventing is all about loaning or buying the right horse for the job. When you start out in eventing ensure that you are not over-horsed both in terms of size and temperament. When you view a horse, take along a knowledgeable friend or trainer, research the horse’s history and ask for references to ensure that he is a safe bet. Plump for an older, wiser mount who will help you to learn and gain confidence.
Both horse and rider need the correct equipment, which in the rider’s case includes a properly fitting hat and a body protector of the right standard. As standards change — hat standards have received extensive coverage in the equestrian press recently — find out what is required on the internet or ask at your local tack shop. Staff there will also ensure that your hat fits correctly. Helmets should be worn at all times at a competition, no matter how well you know your horse.
Ensure that your horse’s saddle and bridle fit properly, and have a few bits in your tackroom so that you can find out what works when you go cross-country schooling. Horses can get more onward bound across country and you will probably find that you need a stronger bit. Generally only snaffles are allowed for the dressage, but check the rules before you go.
If you wish to use studs, tell your farrier during your horse’s final shoeing so that he can leave stud holes. I recommend them for the jumping phases as they give the horse added stability. If you aren’t going to use them, practice on grass as much as possible beforehand.
The majority of riders use boots or wraps to warm up for the dressage, but remember to take them off five minutes before you are due in the arena. For the showjumping a pair of front tendon boots is ideal, while back boots are not essential, unless your horse has a tendency to tap the rails. I use front and back boots for the cross-country, as well as overreach boots, to minimise the possibility of injury.
Working with a trainer in the lead up to a competition is advisable, even if you take part in group lessons. They will be able to give you some invaluable pointers. Take that trainer or an experienced friend to your first competition. You will be nervous and won’t know what to expect.
How you get your horse fit for its first event depends on its breeding. Bear in mind that your first couple of unaffiliated events are not going to be that physically demanding, so your day-to-day work will probably suffice as a ‘get fitter’ regime. You certainly don’t need to take your horse up the gallops two times a week or he will become over-fit, hard to control and fizzy.
Take him cross-country schooling to gauge his fitness. Note his breathing and that will give you an idea of how he will cope at a competition. For the more stocky type, trotting up hills is a good fittening method, or consider going to the gallops occasionally.
I kicked off my riding career in the show ring, which was a wonderful grounding, but the hunting field is equally beneficial. Pony Club and riding club events give you a great foundation before you try affiliated, and, these days, I regularly attend unaffiliated horse trials with my younger horses. I would definitely recommend them for a first-time event rider. The atmosphere is calm, fun, friendly and relaxed and these events are the perfect stepping stone following on from general training.
Load the lorry the day before, using a checklist to ensure that nothing gets left behind. Time really does fly on the day itself and, if you are nervous, it is reassuring that you have everything ready in advance. Always take a few extras, such as a spare pair of breeches and a waterproof coat for yourself, as well as a rug for your horse in case the weather deteriorates.
Give your horse a haynet to keep him occupied and tie him securely outside the lorry where he can see other horses. Ask one of your helpers to stay with him while you get used to your surroundings. Locate the dressage arenas, collect your number from the secretary’s tent and walk the cross-country course.
Work out a warm-up routine for all phases at home, write it down and consult it before you mount. Everything won’t go exactly to plan, but stick to it as closely as you can. At the competition an excitable horse will need a bit more working in than a chilled one. Trot your horse around the warm up for five minutes to give him a chance to get used to his surroundings. After that push him into canter and do some transitions. Try and stay relaxed, remember not to overwork your horse and give him little breaks, too, during your 20-minute warm up. Watch a couple of competitors riding their test before you go into the arena.
Jump a cross pole and then a small upright a couple of times. Raise the height slightly before you pop over it again. Move on to the spread. Jump no more than eight times during your warm up. Don’t over jump your horse or jump bigger than you need to. This part is all about confidence.
I walk a course once at the lower levels. Switch off your phone, concentrate and note all the elements you will face, such as uneven terrain, steep hills, sharp turns and jumping from light into dark — and ride accordingly. Just before I go across country I run through all the fences in my head with the programme pictures in front of me.
In the cross-country warm up give your horse one short gallop, and jump about three to five of the rustic fences. Don’t cook your horse. The aim here is to get him going forward and feeling confident.
Leave the startbox as you mean to go on — in a smooth, rhythmic canter. During a rider’s first couple of cross-country experiences I wouldn’t recommend aiming for the optimum time. Build your confidence as a partnership then kick on when you feel ready.
Your horse will be hot after the cross-country, so walk him around the lorry park in hand to allow him to regain his breath and then wash him down on your return to the lorry. Later on, relive the three phases on video and learn from your mistakes. Practice and work on the weak elements, but give yourself and your horse plenty of praise for the things that went well.