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ICYMI – From Congress to World Show: Champions Reveal Their Secrets to Handling Back-to-Back Shows

Originally Published November 2017

Training is all about timing. For world-class athletes, life revolves around a rigorous schedule of practices, workouts, meals, and the all-important and relished off-days and rest periods.

There’s a reason the NFL’s Super Bowl is not followed the next week by something that might be called the More Super Super Bowl – those players have trained, practiced, played, and strategized throughout the season to peak (and hopefully win) at the highest point of the year.

But things are different in the horse world, where the season ends with not just one, but two world-class shows – the All American Quarter Horse Congress and the Lucas Oil AQHA World Championship Show.

Despite bustling around unpacking and re-packing, attempting to rest themselves and their horses, and hectic travel plans, GoHorseShow caught up with some of this year’s Congress standouts to find out how they handle the pressure, mentally and physically, and how they ensure their horses do the same.

Finding ways to relax, regroup and continue polishing

Hillary Roberts, this year’s Congress winner of the Open Non-Pro Western Pleasure Maturity on Momma Knows Best and Reserve in the Open Non-Pro Three-Year-Old Western Pleasure on Johnnie On The Spot, couldn’t be more pleased with her Congress results. She will spend just a couple of days at home between shows trying to relax and regroup, but that doesn’t mean she’ll let up on any practice. In fact, it’s continuing to practice that keeps her grounded as she plans for Oklahoma City.

“We had a great Congress, which is always a nice boost of confidence going into the World Show. Keeping that energy and confidence going revolves around practice for me. Just because I do well doesn’t mean I don’t have to keep working hard,” Roberts says. “The more practice time I get, the easier it is to retain that positive energy going into the next show.”

Roberts’ days home will also be spent finding moments to relax and trying to replenish her body by drinking plenty of water and eating a healthy diet – both things she says she struggles with when she’s at a horse show. “We give our horses the same time off between the two shows – a couple of days to rest and recuperate, then back to work. Everyone needs downtime, especially before a big show,” Roberts says.

Scott Reinartz, who was the reserve in both Amateur Driving and Amateur Trail, twelfth in Amateur Horsemanship and a finalist in Amateur Showmanship with his horse, Investin A Goodbar, will be seeking ways to relax during this week at home between shows. Reinartz, who also earned eighth in Amateur Trail on My Bar Passer, regroups with time spent laying in the sun, playing tennis, or hanging in the barn. Meanwhile, his horses get some much-needed rest, too.

“Stall rest, saltwater therapy and plenty of treats,” he says. “This seems to keep them happy and healthy.”

Maintaining a positive mental state

Ask any of these competitors, and they will say that coming off a big Congress win is like stepping off a roller coaster, complete with a racing heart and shaky knees. Once the initial thrill wears off, though, it’s easy to slip into an ugly bout of second-guessing and head games with the fiercest opponent of them all – yourself. At one moment, your mind is filled with, “We just did it; we proved ourselves. We can do it again – no problem.” But a minute later that nasty, “We just did it, literally, just a week ago…how can we ever re-create that ride?” bares its fangs.

This year’s Congress elites recognize the danger of psyching themselves out and have their strategies to combat the mental duress of two significant, high stakes events that are only days apart.

“I go over my performance mentally, ask what did I do well, and what parts needed improvement for each class. Once I have gone over my past performance, I try to let it go and look forward to the next show,” Reinartz says. “It takes a lot out of you to go back to back with two major shows. I look at it as it’s any other show, so I don’t become a head case,” he says with a laugh.

Ashley Hadlock, Congress Champion in Amateur Showmanship with her horse, Touched N Moonlite (Regis), emphasizes the importance of going into each show with no expectations, regardless of placings at previous shows. “I feel if I expect greatness, I’m setting myself up for failure. I try not to reflect on what went well or what maybe went poorly a couple of weeks ago at Congress or any other show. I try to look at it as just another show where I want to display my best to the judges. Yes, I want to do well, but as long as I do my best in showing and presenting my horse, I’m happy,” Hadlock says.

Like Reinartz, Johnna Letchworth, this year’s winner of the Amateur Horsemanship aboard her horse, Krymsun Kryptonite (Clark), points out the importance of finding the balance between relishing your Congress success and clearing your mental slate for the World show. “I think the toughest part about having success at the Congress is that you have to let that success stay where it is and put the same amount of effort and focus into the world show. The preparation will be just as intense, and the want will be just as high,” Letchworth says.

With only four days at home between Congress and World, Letchworth said she was thankful to be at home and catch up on the basics – like laundry and sleep. Meanwhile, Clark has been enjoying a well-deserved vacation since leaving the Congress show pen. He’s been turned out, lunged a couple of times, and has enjoyed a few baths. “Luckily, Clark is exceptional. I think he peaks at every horse show. Every time we go in the pen together, something improves. I’m just hoping that I can peak again,” Letchworth says.

Ensuring peak performance

Not every rider has a horse like Clark, though, and keeping your horse from reaching its season peak is walking a thin line that requires plenty of planning and the right amount of luck.

“It’s a tough job to get a horse to peak at exactly the time we want, especially when two of the most important shows are back to back. I’m learning that if we do most of the hardest work early, the horses are conditioned and ready, but then have time to chill out and end up in a good place mentally,” Roberts says. “At that point, just working on the basics and keeping them mentally prepared is what I like to do.”

Hadlock, who credits her trainers Ryan Cottingim and Mandi Gately with helping her horse peak physically at the appropriate time, understands that part of that physical peak is mental clarity on both the horse’s and rider’s parts. “I take everything one class at a time. I try not to overwhelm myself or horse by thinking of the week of showing as a whole. I rather slow down and take one day at a time,” she says. “If showmanship is two days away, it’s okay if something may not be perfect. I have two days to fix it. I try not to stress myself or horse over the small things.”

One of the ways to avoid that stress and reach that peak is by having a thought out plan like Hadlock’s. When Regis arrives in Oklahoma City, he will have a few days to settle in before showing. In those days, Hadlock says he will be worked and gradually prepped for showtime. The others have similar plans to ease their equine other halves into the World Show environment and chase their peaks.

Although the amount of physical, mental, and emotional strain horse shows can cause on both horse and rider, none of these exhibitors showed anything less than happy spirits as they head to Oklahoma City. Letchworth sums it up well, saying, “The back to back show schedule can be hard, but it sure is exciting. The world show is one of my favorite shows all year – the best of the best in one place. And when things go the way you hope they do, it is rewarding.”

Photos © Shane Rux, Impulse Photography, Capital QH

About the Author: When she isn’t wrangling 12 and 13 year-olds in her middle school English classroom, Megan Ulrich enjoys riding, showing, and judging horses. She lives in Holmen, Wisc., with her husband, daughter, two dogs, and two horses. She earned her journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.