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Dressage Technique: staying motivated during winter

Dressage Technique: staying motivated during winter

Motivate yourself to ride your horse during the winter!

Winter can be a challenging season for riders. It's cold, it rains, it snows. When opening the curtains in the morning, many of us would rather stay under the covers than put on tights, beanies, and gloves to face the bad weather. However, just like the rest of the year, our horses are waiting for us, and we need to find the motivation to spend the time they deserve... and with a smile!


Four young riders who are members of the French team that participated in the 2018 European Championships in Fontainebleau share their tips for facing the challenge of riding in winter. Testimonials from Eugénie Burban, Capucine Noël, Mado Pinto, and Ella Lostria.   



The riders often head to the stables when it's still dark outside or already nighttime. Sometimes, the wind blows wildly, making trees creak and scattering hay and straw in the aisles. In addition to enduring the cold, they also need to face a damp and dark stable. Occasionally, freezing temperatures add to the challenge, necessitating adjustments to the plan for a safe journey. Adding to this, the temptation of a cozy Sunday by the fire with friends or family. However, we riders have a unique family waiting for us at the stables. Our horse, of course, but also our neighboring stallmates who share our passion, the one that drives us to wake up early, dress warmly, and spend a weekend in the countryside! 


For some riders, it's a daily motivation that must be found as soon as the alarm rings. "I always have a hearty breakfast before riding in the morning," says Eugénie. The young rider adds that the first rule for leaving the house with a smile every morning is to be well-equipped! There's nothing worse than starting the day with freezing blood.


The same observation holds true for horses. While it's important not to overblanket them, Ella emphasizes the importance of keeping animals warm overnight. Take into account the type of bedding and the design of the stalls. Cover your horses more at night than during the day when temperatures rise. As for you, after a few layers of coats, you're finally ready to brave the cold! The reward is immediate: the neighing of horses who are excited for breakfast or a carrot lifts our spirits! Knowing that our presence is essential for our four-legged friends to have a good day is motivating. As soon as you witness the first roll in the mud in a paddock, you realize that there's a very good reason for leaving the comfort of your pillow. If your horses are accustomed to regular turnout, a few puddles won't diminish the fun or increase the danger. Just muster up your courage for the next grooming session.


Capucine also derives her enthusiasm from her horse. "Feeling him motivated and energetic boosts me." A fresh and rested horse, rejuvenated by the absence of competitions, is ready to embark on a new season. "The winter period should also be a time of physical and mental recovery for the horses," Eugénie believes. "It's an opportunity for a comprehensive check-up with the veterinarian, dentist, and even adjusting the diet." Some treatments may be recommended by specialists to aid in recovery or to prepare for the next season optimally. "It's also the time when I get my saddle checked and fine-tune details on my equipment," Capucine specifies. This could be the opportunity to introduce a bridle for the first time or test a new bit. 


If stretching is highly recommended for athletes, it's even more useful to prepare your body for exercise in cold weather. "I warm up on the ground before getting in the saddle. I force myself to do these warm-ups because after a cold stretch at the beginning of a session, I injured my adductor," she explains. What's true for the rider is also true for the horse, as Eugénie has realized. "I take more time, especially when it's cold, to walk and do more flexibility exercises." Capucine emphasizes the importance of both warming up and stretching, which are inseparable. "During the warm-up, I keep my horse covered with one or even two fleece blankets, or if it's really cold, I use the solarium to keep his muscles warm." Remember to uncover your horse at the same pace as you remove your own layers. As you take off your coat, take the opportunity to remove his quarter sheet. "At the beginning of the session, I walk him covered for about fifteen minutes before warming up at the trot. I focus on all the gymnastic and flexibility exercises to keep my horse in good physical shape."


In cold or windy weather, it can happen that horses become more anxious or agitated. Mado reminds us that there's no shame in lunging a slightly tense horse before getting in the saddle, even an older horse that you know inside out and is usually calm.


Eugénie primarily rides the stallions at Haras du Feuillard. Since they are also breeding stallions, they tend to be more focused and calm in the winter, outside of the breeding season. "When I encounter concentration issues with a horse, I try to engage them in a technical movement by alternating between gaits with upward and downward transitions as much as possible." Occupying the horse's mind, diverting its attention from the environment and its excitement by focusing its attention on a specific exercise will help refocus it.


Sometimes it's challenging to maintain the same enthusiasm for training as during the competition season. Competition deadlines naturally set goals. For Capucine, the key is to keep both short-term and long-term goals in mind. She mentions the desire to evolve and progress for the next season while staying on course, and emphasizes the importance of being surrounded by a team that shares the same motivation. "It's essential to establish an evolving program with your trainer that includes winter training," highlights Eugénie. "By the end of December, we work together to determine the objectives for the upcoming season and the competition schedule."


Capucine suggests staying focused on performance by practicing the tests for the following year once or twice a month. This is the time to spend on fundamental work to consolidate the quality of dressage. "I make use of the winter months to rework the basics and then integrate new technical challenges," explains Eugénie. It's easier to calmly delve into certain tricky exercises that might be difficult to address between competitions. "During the winter months, I started working on flying changes on the correct number of strides. During the competition season, we work on them less to avoid confusion when I ask for four or three tempi changes." While winter allows for revisiting foundational work and correcting certain flaws, it's also a time to set new objectives, learn new exercises, and advance in your horse's dressage training. Just when you were comfortably in control of a certain level, the quieter season is an opportunity to innovate, discover, and move up the levels. "I take advantage of the winter to learn and begin practicing new movements that will be useful for higher-level tests," explains Capucine.


However, be cautious, as newness often comes with complexity. While it might seem motivating, novelty can also bring about challenges. Turning the page to the next chapter, even when you've mastered your current skills, can potentially put you in a difficult position. You'll be stepping out of your comfort zone. And your morale is already fragile – you're tired, cold, perhaps less attentive, more susceptible. Make sure to test an unfamiliar movement only when you feel physically and mentally capable. Set yourself up for success and approach it with relaxation. Capucine recommends "working on the weaknesses from the previous season while continuing to improve the strengths." This approach increases the level of demands while nurturing your self-confidence. Ella finds this period without competitions valuable. "Winter provides the time to study and correct major flaws from the past season, so you can start the competitions on the right foot."


A few months without competitions also allow you to diversify your training. "In the absence of competitions, I sometimes work on jumping with Crymlyn. A few jumping sessions in the month freshen things up for both of us," Ella jokes. "To maintain our bond, I engage in liberty work with my horse," says Capucine. Winter is particularly suitable for experimentation, such as attending workshops with external trainers. Eugénie took advantage of the competition break to travel to the Netherlands for a workshop with Olympic rider Adeline Cornelissen. "Taking lessons with a different coach allows me to approach technical challenges from a different perspective than with my usual coaches."


On the other hand, Ella explains that during the competition season, her training schedule naturally adapts based on upcoming events. An equilibrium and routine are built around competition dates. The winter months allow for more flexibility, opening the door to enriching innovative experiences that can sometimes be unsettling for the partnership.


While we agree that cultivating your horse's motivation is essential, what about the rider's motivation? Beyond the weather challenges that can dampen the enthusiasm to ride, it's also important to consider the concessions and even sacrifices that consistent equestrian practice demands. "Of course, I miss out on a lot of outings and evenings with friends, family gatherings," admits Eugénie, "but I'm aware that I get to experience so many wonderful things through competitions." Motivation often goes hand in hand with organization. Find the time that suits you best for riding based on your energy levels while managing your overall schedule. It's important to leave time for various activities with other people. Capucine tries "to organize my schedule in the best possible way to balance training, competitions, and spending time with friends and family." Ultimately, as Ella reminds us, while it's important to acknowledge that the world keeps turning while riders are on horseback, "equestrianism is a time-consuming sport, but above all, it's a passion, and the joy of being with the horses always prevails."