We Ask The Industry – Tips from Congress Champions on How to Prepare for Congress
Often, champion riders look like they have nerves of steel or ice water running through their veins. They seem to have innate confidence in themselves. But, while they may be born with that self-assurance, riders with the right mental and physical training can develop these positive traits.
These qualities are essential when it comes to showing at the Congress. However, multiple outside elements make winning in Columbus even more challenging and more difficult to achieve. You must overcome cold weather, long nights, lack of sleep, dealing with flapping flags, loud noises, getting sick, juggling school/work and showing…the list goes on and on.
We spoke with several elite exhibitors about how they mentally prepare for classes at the Congress. So how did they end up being Congress Champions and the last ones standing in the arena?
Olivia Tordoff – There are few things more rewarding than a successful Congress. The show is a marathon, but when you load up the trailer with a sense of accomplishment, everything seems worth it. I would say it is essential to prioritize sleeping as much as possible. If you are debating between walking down food alley and taking a nap, opt for the 20-minute snooze. Another essential thing to do is study those around you. You rarely have the chance to ride around with some of the greatest horsemen and women in the country under an overhang. Make the most of it. Take the time to study those you admire and ask for help or advice. Lastly, enjoy every moment of it. Some of my fondest memories have been at the Congress. Twenty Congress championships later, and every single one was as rewarding for me as the last. There is just something so special about the atmosphere and the people there. The history, legacy, and pride associated with Congress are so unique. It’s just something so special.
Emma Gore – Lots of practice. Never assume, ask questions, know your patterns, and be prepared. There is always someone hoping you will make a mistake. But, every practice is an opportunity to be better. Most importantly, have fun.
Evie Doles – My tips for doing well at Congress are: 1) Don’t be afraid to go all out and push your limits. Congress is what you’ve been working for. 2) Make sure to have fun and enjoy the ride. There’s no atmosphere like the Congress. It’s truly amazing. 3) Do what you do in practice. If you can do it in practice, you can do it in the show pen. 4) The Bourbon Chicken is stellar. So are the Brownie Delights from the Sweet Shop.
Angela Fox – My advice would be to do your homework before you go – some examples could be: ride without stirrups, practice showmanship every day instead of a few times per week, ride twice a day when you have time, exercise, know the schedule so you are prepared for any conflicts since the patterns typically come out before everyone leaves. At a minimum, practice parts/maneuvers that you will see there. Don’t get there and go crazy because it’s the Congress; it’s technically just another horse show. But, if you do the work before you go, you will be more prepared, less nervous, and more confident overall.
Cody Parrish – 1. Congress can be overwhelming so try to find some sense of a routine to stick to. I like to keep my horse on schedule as similar to their normal schedule as possible. It’s easy to get messed up with the night riding but finding a daily routine there, normally helps you and your horse settle in faster. 2. Give yourself and your horse a day or two of grace to settle in before you expect perfection. It’s tempting to want to come out swinging for the fences, but for me, it normally helps to start the process as you would at home and build toward the rides you want. Expecting that from you or your horse right off the trailer normally leads to frustration.
Cori Cansdale – The Congress is a show like no other. The cool weather, the excitement in the air, the vendors, the food trucks…but, when it comes to showing, you must treat it like a regular show. So leave the nerves at the gate and trust your preparation.
Farley McLendon – 1) Be prepared before you leave. This means practicing every scenario you can think of. 2) Know your horse. Know what it takes to keep them happy for the duration. 3) Remember, it’s a marathon. At some point, you need rest, and so will your horse. 4) Be aware of the potential weather changes. I’ve shown there where I was sweating and on days when it’s snowing. 5) Enjoy it. Is it stressful, and you want to do well, yes, but enjoy being able to be there and trotting/jogging in.
Whitney Vicars – Enjoy all the unique aspects that make it the Congress, but ride and prepare your horse like you always do. You know your horse. Stick with what works and remember to focus on your task and not let all the hustle and bustle distract you at show time. As I’ve said, faith and prayer are my main components at any show. Prayers for God’s safety, help in and out of the pen, and the faith to trust that God knows what’s best, win or lose. Those who excel at Congress come down to those who can pivot, persevere, and focus, working as a team with your team and having the faith of what’s meant to be.
Tiina Volmer – When they say it takes a village, it does. Having a great support system is a must. The front runners; trainers, family, friends, and great horses are super important, but also the vets, farriers, braiders/banders, salt water trailer, night watchman, dog sitters, house sitters. Behind the scenes people play just an essential role to tie everything together to be successful. It does take a village. Treating the Congress like any other horse show is vital for my horse and me. You have done your homework at home, so you do what you love to do – show your horse. You have to show what you have that day to your horse’s and yourselve’s best ability. I was given advice many years ago from a friend/trainer, Vicky Holt, “When you think your horse is ready to show, go for one more longe. Either your horse will be quiet, or if it has anxiety or freshness, it can release it before you show, not while you are showing.” I have followed that advice, and it has helped numerous times.
Emma Edwards – I think my best advice on doing well at the Congress is to soak it all in and remember that you work incredibly hard every year to be successful at one of the most prestigious shows. So, enjoy every moment…from the midnight rides, catching up with friends, watching the best of the best compete, and if you’re me, eating Bourbon Chicken and Chicken Dumpling Soup every day for two weeks straight. I know it’s hard not to let the nerves and the Congress buzz get to us, but it is a special stage to compete on, so ride your ride and enjoy every second. Good luck to everyone competing this year.
Dan Yeager – I work all year to get where I want to be to try and excel at the fall shows. I practice during the year to perfect the elements and transitions that will help me excel at the Congress. Typically, patterns come out well before you show your classes. I take the time to study the patterns. I want to understand each pattern element and ensure my horse and I can successfully perform the pattern to the best of our abilities. You hear it all the time; the Congress is just another horse show. It’s the truth. You need to be prepared. Make a checklist. Whether it be mental or you write the list on paper. Make sure you are mentally and physically ready. Both are extremely important. The biggest thing I do is focus on my horse and myself. I don’t worry about anyone else. I never watch my competition as I prepare. When it’s showtime, I make sure I breathe. If I’m prepared, I’m ready for most anything. Confidence is the key to success. If you have done your homework, you will be confident. Go, show, and most importantly, have fun.
Kamiah McGrath – 1) A tired horse is a good horse. 2) Stick to your plan that works best for your horse, even if you know or see others preparing differently. 3) Plan to ride multiple times in the arenas you plan to show in. 4) “Don’t throw your sucker in the dirt”- Mark Dunham. If you don’t do well in the first class, sometimes it’s about recovery. 5) Enjoy the ride!
Samantha Armbruster – Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Often, we expect to do well in our best classes when in reality, the classes you don’t expect much from seem to always come out in your favor. I know it’s easier said than done, but the more you keep your calm, your horse can sense it and, in turn, will help them perform their best.
Tanya Relander – Continue practice, don’t make significant changes. Tell yourself it’s just another horse show, and keep your head focused on your game. Don’t get caught up watching others in the warm-up pen. Expect the weather to be uncooperative.
Liz Barnard Long – When I was in youth (a very long time ago), my dad told me to be prepared, confident, and successful in anything you do in life; you have to be able to visualize yourself in the moment that you are preparing for. The night before or right before I show, I take some time to visualize my ride. I always include the goal of the ride…being called out to make the finals, riding up to get my Top 10 award, and even a trophy if all the stars align. When I don’t do this, for whatever reason, I am always more nervous when I show. The visualization calms my nerves and prepares me to do my best.
Leena Volmer – Be organized and plan – knowing the nightly riding schedules for each arena you will show in is necessary. The riding schedule at night is usually divided by discipline, and there is generally only a 2 -3 hour window to practice at night. It’s vital to check those schedules and ride at the allotted time…getting your horse comfortable in the arenas is much more important than sleep. Also, remember warm clothes since it can be brutally cold at night. I never forget my long johns or wool hat. I’ve found it’s much better to be warm and tired than cold and tired. Also, remember to take vitamins to help boost your immune system. I take Vitamin C and Zinc at least twice a day. Above all else, take care of your horse. Congress is hard on them. Maintain a routine feeding schedule and keep things as “normal” as possible. Make sure your horse is as comfortable as possible. There are a lot of options to help keep them feeling their best. Figure out what works for your horse and do it.
Stephanie Scheid – My most extensive advice is to stay in your lane. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Prepare and warm up just like you always do. Make sure you get your horse into the pen where you’ll show at least once so you’re both comfortable, but riding in the wee hours multiple times isn’t going to help either of you be at your best. Trust yourself, your horse, and your prep work at home. Successful at big shows is 90 percent mental and preparation, with a touch of luck. And don’t forget to enjoy the ride.
Do you have some advice for showing at the Congress? Did you prepare any differently? How did you handle the outside forces at Congress that often disrupt your normal routine at a regular show? Let us know in the comments.