Part of Horse Previews Magazine website. Posted on 7/2/98; 2:00:00PM.

Training Strategies: Surviving a Horse Show

By Leslie Vilhauer, Cheney, WA

For those who show once or twice a year or who haven't shown in awhile, horse shows can be a daunting and unnerving experience. The stress level is high with tempers becoming short and butterflies in the tummy becoming unbearable. Appetites change dramatically for competitors, trips to the bathroom double, and riders ask themselves, "why, why, why am I doing this?" Because it's fun! No, really! The rewards are so great at horse shows that memories are created that last a lifetime. It's true that although buckets of tears have been shed at horse shows, it's all worth it. Successful shows don't happen by themselves however. You must learn to prepare your horse for the job, focus your thoughts, and behave in a sportsmanlike manner.

First, prepare your horse by training him for the task at hand. If you need to canter from a walk, practice until you never get a trot stride. If you have to stand still and then back up when the judge walks by, practice backing with a friend walking by and make it straight, without resistance. If you have to trot or canter circles in a dressage test or an equitation class, practice making the circles round and symmetrical.

If your horse has never been hauled anywhere or hasn't hauled in awhile, it will save time and heartaches if you haul him somewhere, anywhere, a few weeks before the show. This preparation will teach you how much time you'll need to load on the day of the show and will lessen the stress on your horse later. Occasionally, the show grounds, whether they are the local fairgrounds or a private stable, will allow you to haul over to ride and school for practice. Be sure to call ahead for permission though.

Once your horse is well schooled and can haul well, he needs to be well groomed. Grooming shouldn't start the night or even morning of the show. If you need to pull a mane, don't do it at the last minute. It's too stressful, and your horse won't appreciate it. Think of these things in the few weeks prior to the show. If your gray horse's tail is stained, start washing it a week before the show in case the stains don't come out in one washing. Also, have your horse's hooves in good condition; they should be well shod or trimmed. Extra long toes showing overdue shoeing or chunks missing from a hoof are not acceptable at shows. Be careful, however, not to have the shoer out the day before the show if your horse ever gets sore from a fresh trim.

Clean tack and clothes are standard requirement at shows, and both can be prepared ahead of time. Although tack can get dusty the day before the show, some saddles may have nitty gritty spots such as elaborate tooling which can be cleaned with a soft toothbrush. Do these areas in advance so that the night before the show you can do a quick touch up with a spray leather cleaner. Show clothes should be tried on and even ridden in ahead of time to make sure everything fits properly and rides well. It's nice to know in advance if your new breeches for that equitation class are so slick that you slide off the back of your saddle at every canter depart. (Hint: rub a bar of saddle soap on the inside of your boots where they touch the saddle for more sticky grip). Also, make sure your clothes are clean. If that hunt coat you wore at last summer's 90 degree 4-H show wasn't dry cleaned, you might regret it when it starts heating up again.

Once you're at the show, learning to focus your thoughts will lessen the stress of competing. This is the point of the show where you might hold your head in your hands and say, "Why, why, why?" You may look at someone holding a breakfast burrito (a horseshow breakfast burrito) and have to run inside the horse trailer for a minute or two. Well, I'm here to tell you that this is normal. Don't worry, it gets easier. First of all, why are you here? You're here because you love horses. You're here because you want to show off your beautiful horse who has worked long and hard for you and who wants to show the other horses and ponies what he can do. You're here because you're not a couch potato who watches other people live out their lives. You're here because you are proud of your work and your horse.

Now focus on the job at hand. Concentrate on tacking up and dressing properly and neatly. Make sure the saddle pad is straight. Put a hair net on to hold strays and use hair spray. Don't worry about other people tacking up; don't let loose dogs and loud children distract you. Think about how long you need to warm up. If family members are nagging at you or won't leave you alone to concentrate, explain that you're memorizing your reining pattern, or jump course, or just thinking about getting a steady jog in the pleasure class. Your mother or spouse can't memorize a course for you, so you need to make time for yourself, even if it means sitting in the truck or in a stall in the bathroom. Visualize your ride. Picture your horse's mane below you. Imagine the walls or rails of the arena as you ride by. As you prepare to enter the arena tell yourself that you know what is required, you've done it at home, and you're ready to do it here. During your ride, continue to concentrate and focus on what you are doing and how your horse is responding. If he's too fast, slow him down. If you're on the wrong posting diagonal, don't fret, just change it. If he spooks, gather him together and continue on. Don't think about the people on the sidelines. Don't think about the sound of the horse trailer pulling in just when you go in. Just do the job that you've been preparing to do.

Finally, to make horse shows more enjoyable, be a good sport. Absolutely never criticize another competitor. Don't sit in the bleachers and tear someone apart. If you think someone rides badly, keep it to yourself. Learn to find the positives. For example, someone may have really bad hands or may bounce at the trot. Look for something good. Maybe their horse is moving well, or has perfect transitions. Maybe their tack is spotless because she was up all night polishing her stirrups or the silver on her saddle. Unless you have perfect rides all the time, at every show, keep quiet. If someone next to you is criticizing a rider, say, "But look at that lovely tail," or "She still looks elegant even though she's on a difficult horse." People learn by example, so be a good one. Clap for a rider even if he or she had a difficult ride. Tell someone they did a good job. Absolutely do not sit off to the side and whisper about someone's ride. Because eventually it will happen to you, and it doesn't feel good. No one goes to a horse show to have a bad ride. No one bounces on purpose, no one misses a lead on purpose. If you miss a lead in your class, don't panic, fix it and move on, knowing that it happens to everybody at some point in time. Take this point of view when you're watching someone else and you'll find that teamwork and camaraderie may develop with other riders that will become friendships that last a lifetime.

Horse shows will always be stressful, but much of it is good stress, not distress. Nerves will calm with each ride and each show. Preparation will become easier and automatic. A positive outlook will make the whole process more pleasurable and will encourage others. If horse shows were easy, everyone would do it. And why do you do it? Because shows are fun, fun, fun! Really!


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