How to Stay Sane, Keep your Horse Happy Horse Showing Amber Kimball's student Tina Vargo is her horse's dream rider before and during the horse show, which keeps her competitive at 3rd level.

How to Stay Sane while Horse Showing

Horse shows are fun, right?

Showing usually seems like a great idea, at first.

In the beginning, you’re all smiles. You gather all of the paperwork and membership numbers for yourself and your horse. Then, it’s time to choose a show or maybe a show series. On the way to the mailbox, with the entry forms and a hefty check stuffed into the envelope, you grin. You think to yourself, “This is great! We are going to have so much fun. Dobbin and I are really ready for this show.”

Suddenly, you’ve created a training timeline for yourself and your horse to follow. Anyone who has spent more than a minute around a horse knows there’s only one schedule a horse cares about. That’s the one that involves the delivery of his grain bucket.

Humans, however, are more interested in deadlines, especially when there are blue ribbons and accolades involved.

Are you your horse’s dream … or nightmare rider?

Once the horse show entry is sent, the human is on a mission to make their horse into a champion.

The horse, unaware of his human’s plans, is left wondering what the heck happened to his formerly happy, relaxed rider.

While it’s tempting to push ourselves and our horses to move up a level, the truth is, good horse training rarely happens in a time crunch. To make sure you don’t become your horse’s worst nightmare prior to a horse show it’s important to enter classes already well within both of your abilities.

As someone who has taught a horse to rein back the day before a dressage test, I can attest that it sometimes works out just fine. More often though, it’s a sure way to make a stressed-out rider and a grumpy, confused horse. If you stick to working on what you and your horse already know, your horse may still be happy to see you when it’s time to load up for the competition.

The equestrian pursuit of perfection

Even if you’re competing at a comfortable level it’s easy to get caught up in the equestrian pursuit of perfection.

High expectations are good but remember the old horseman’s saying: ask much, expect little, reward often. 

High expectations are good but remember the old horseman’s saying: ask much, expect little, reward often. 
High expectations are good but remember the old horseman’s saying: ask much, expect little, reward often.

Your horse doesn’t understand if you suddenly become a drill sergeant. Instead, he may find other ways to convey his displeasure toward your rigorous exercises and nitpicking.

Occasionally, the horse will develop minor training issues in the days or weeks before a horse show or old training troubles might reappear. Uncanny coincidence? Probably not. It’s very easy to forget about training for the long-term goals and focus on the horse show looming in the near future. This leads to frazzled riders and stressed out horses.

Instead of drilling the requirements for the upcoming show focus on the basics. Then, establish a correct, balanced horse that is relaxed. This allows you to add the skills required for the show.

With a show ahead, riders often concentrate on the aspects of the show that are most challenging. Preparation is always important but schooling a movement too much can lead to tension in the horse and frustration for the rider. Remember, although there is a show in the immediate future, we need to train our horses for success beyond the show. If you find yourself in a training pickle, ask yourself if you’d be in the same position if there was no competition on the horizon.

Did my horse forget how to… canter?

Uh oh. Now, what do you do?

There are only two days until the show. Suddenly, Dobbin won’t pick up the left lead or has suddenly developed a fear of flower boxes. Your first thought might be to stay in the ring until Dobbin learns his lesson. Or, maybe you just want to forget the show entirely because this stuff is too stressful.

If the training session is not going well and the show is very close, ride a few things that are really easy for you both to reestablish your confidence and relaxation. Then, before things get stressful, put your horse away. It’s likely that a new day will bring back confidence in the skill for both of you.

Horse show warm-up

One of the most difficult parts of competition is knowing how much warm-up your horse needs before going into the ring. When you ride at home, make a note of how long it takes your horse to get to his height of rideability without being too fresh or too tired. In an effort to be on time and well prepared, or maybe in fear of getting tossed into the dirt, many riders ride or lunge their horses too long in the warm-up. The horse is then tired in the competition. Then, it lacks the brilliance he had in the schooling ring.

What can you really change in 20 minutes? Take whatever your horse gives you on show day and polish it until it shines.

If there’s a small problem popping up in the warm-up, it’s not the time for a major retraining session. The last thing you want to do is irritate your horse and degrade his confidence. At this point, you really need your horse to be on your side. Ride him as if he’s having his best day and carry yourself accordingly. There’s no need to let the judge think Dobbin is anything but a superstar. Even if you are so nervous you could barf and Dobbin feels like he’d rather do handstands than half halts, take a deep breath and smile. You might surprise yourself with the results.

The why of horse showing

We all have different personal reasons for entering competitions.

You may have a goal such as a championship title like Horse of the Year or a USDF medal. Others may show their horses to make them more valuable in preparation for sale. Some riders show their horses to learn and see how they measure up against others at the same level. There are even a people out there who show just to have a good time with their horse and their barn buddies.

Hopefully, whatever your reason for showing, you and your horse can have fun and still enjoy each other’s company when the show is over. Maybe you’ll even have a good enough time to do it all over again.