In my first blog, I briefly mentioned the structure of how my IHSA riders participate in horse shows. That nightmare for most riders, of picking the name of a horse out of a hat? A horse you most likely have never ridden, let alone jumped! - getting on and riding? That’s our reality at every horse show.
The other layer to how IHSA is structured is that teams - split into Regions and Zones, similar to the USHJA - host the horse shows at their home barns with their home horses and the students and coach are responsible for pulling it all off. Last weekend, my team welcomed just over 100 riders from 12 teams to our barn in below-freezing temperatures and somehow, we pulled it off. But with Hylofit’s help, we not only pulled it off - we thrived!
Northwestern’s Equestrian Team was a dominant team in the region for years in the early 2000s. It was a big team with multiple point riders and they won - both the individual riders and the team. I hear this legend from other coaches in the Region, how Northwestern was the team to beat, and it motivates me every step of the way as I help rebuild the team. The team has struggled for years now. Coach switches, barn switches, losing team members to other sports...it’s been a rough go for NUET. Last year we hosted our first-ever home horse show for the Region, the first step towards trying to make a name for ourselves again. We pulled it off, but it was rough. Horses came up lame, we had multiple re-ride requests, and my riders were trying to balance being gracious, active hosts, while simultaneously being competitors themselves. We did it, but we didn’t walk away with many ribbons.
This year, we have a new barn full of exceptionally cared for horses. With Hylofit, I’ve been tracking the baseline heart rate of our school horses and watching the data closely after each lesson. As we marched towards the show date, I had a pretty good sense of what “normal” for our school horses looked like. I knew Benny’s heart rate spiked if his rider cut an inside turn (sorry, buddy…that was my fault) but he rarely got above Zone 2. I knew Tower could look fresh and ready to go on the ground, but it was all a show since his heart rate was steady in Zone 1. I knew that while Charlie looked calm, working from behind and accepting the contact when the bleachers were set up he was anxious, his heart rate spiking into Zone 3 even on the flat.
With my riders, I also watched closely to the things they couldn’t - or wouldn’t - tell me about what was happening in their brains and bodies. I knew my anchor rider in the Novice division was an anxious competitor, that she was shaking not from the cold (though that was probably part of it) but from her nerves. I watched my cool as a cucumber Open rider’s heart rate spike just as she walked into the ring, despite her telling me she felt great. I even watched my Walk-Trot-Canter rider get through her first class being judged at the canter stay consistent in her heart rate, even when her draw - a fiery redheaded mare - decided the canter my rider was asking for was much too slow and grabbed the bit to beat the slow pony in front of her.
It was fantastic to have this insight in real time. For me as a coach, it helped color how I approached each individual rider before and after their rides. That Open rider? Had a run-out at a fence and when I went back to look at her ride data, it was clear going into the line she was not nearly as mellow as she’d told me; I could’ve done better as a coach before her ride to help calm her nerves. My Novice rider? A good laugh right before she got on helped calm her down and helped her put in two fantastic rides over fences and on the flat. For me as a trainer, I knew that after four trips, Tower was still blissfully enjoying his job, keeping a steady Zone 1-2 heart rate. I knew our mare Hazel was struggling with the crowds plus how new she was to being over fences with different riders and was able to pull her from the show before something happened to her or a rider - she was maintaining a Zone 3 heart rate even in her stall.
All of this data came together and the team was Reserve High Point team on Saturday, the first tri-color ribbon they’d received as a team in over 5 years. On Sunday, my Novice rider was High Point Champion for the day, helping us secure our second tri-color for the weekend. I am so proud of every single one of them - for coming together as riders, as horse people, and as hosts. These horse shows are incredibly stressful for everyone and somehow we came through the weekend with not only fantastic rides but also healthy, sound horses - not a single one off on Monday. I’m still learning how best to put the Hylofit data into action but I think this weekend was proof positive we’ve found a key ingredient to our developing special sauce.