Taking a young or green horse to his first show can be daunting but it doesn’t have to be. Read on for some tips to consider when you are taking the big leap from practise ring to competition arena.
Take your time and don’t expect anything from him
I know you may have high hopes for the future with your young horse but one of the biggest mistakes you can make is placing an expectation on your horse. He has no idea what is about to hit him. He could behave perfectly or he might become overwhelmed and unruly, so deal with problems calmly if they pop up. If you feel that your warm up isn’t going well and he needs more time, don’t feel pressured by the clock that you have to go in and ride that test. If you do, then be forgiving if it doesn’t go as well as you know it could have. If you are at a show and the test or jumping round hasn’t gone well, or he is unsettled, then take him back out into the warm up area and calm him down before hopping off. That way you will ensure his first experience wasn’t so terrible and you taught him that he can relax when he is out. I remember with my horse, it took quite a while to settle him at shows. He would resort to his series of ‘tricks’ but it was purely because he was really anxious about it all! Sometimes the warm ups can be hectic, so take that into consideration- he is probably not being naughty, he is just worried! It wasn’t until we took him to Horse of the Year and after the huge shock of the atmosphere, he can now handle anything a show can throw at him! At the time I was stressed that it was too much for him to handle but they don’t get better without experience, so sometimes you have to accept your best shows are ahead of you and its not going to happen right away.
Prepare well ahead of time
Plan your first show a couple of months before. That way you have plenty of time to prepare and make sure he is ready for it. Take him out and ride him with groups of other horses. Like I mentioned earlier, warm ups can really make or break your performance and they are probably the most overwhelming place for a horse at a show. There are lots of horses going in different directions and at different speeds, some of them are nervous at their first shows too, so be mindful at all times. If you have prepared him well beforehand, this will be less of a stress for the both of you.
Give yourself plenty of time at the show
Don’t jeopardise your experience by not allowing enough time to get to the show and get going. This is a stress that you can mostly control, so be organised and give him the best experience possible. If you are rushing about you will only become flustered and your horse will feed off that.
Make sure he is happy to load on the float or truck
It may seem obvious but this is something that is often overlooked. If you haven’t prepared properly by taking him out for practise runs beforehand you may not have checked that your horse is even happy to get on and off the float. If you get in a fight with him about loading then your day is off to a stressful start before it has really begun. It’s not fair on him to not be prepared so make sure you do all the work beforehand.
Choose a good, small show
Carefully select what show you enter for your horses first start. A venue you have been able to practise at is a great place to go for the first show. He will be more relaxed about what to expect and it will give him a fun first experience- which is ultimately what you are aiming for. You both need to enjoy showing! Ideally, find a show that has smaller entries and with a good warm up area, so that things don’t become too overwhelming. When you arrive give him a walk around to soak in the atmosphere before anything else. This will help settle him.
Use familiar equipment
I made this mistake at my last show. I decided to put spurs on when I never use spurs and all that happened was my lovely, relaxed horse became tense and over reactive to my aids! Another good tip is to practice the test at home in the same gear that you are going to use at the show. I personally use the same gear every day as I do at the show but not everyone does. Plait him up and ride as you normally would. Even plaiting is different, so it’s good to introduce the new feeling in an environment he is used to and comfortable with.
Mistakes can happen!
If you have prepared well you should have a great experience with your horse. However, we all know horses are great at keeping us humble, even at the best of times and whoopsies do happen! If you find he is misbehaving in a class and he is disrupting the other competitors, the best thing to do is ask the judge or steward to be excused. Don’t forget to be gracious and sympathetic. It can be easy to be annoyed especially when you know how great your horse can go! Smile, thank the judge and leave the arena. Then head back to the warm up and work with him until he is calm and happy again. Just expect the basics from him and once you have got that, pat him, make a fuss of how good he was and get off. Don’t let it affect you, he will get better with time and because you gave him a fair experience he will probably be much better next time around. On that note, don’t leave it too long before you get him out again!
If you are really worried- lunge
When you get there and if you find he is really in 'la la land' then don’t hesitate to give him a short lunge. This might be just enough to settle him down and let him look at his surroundings. I very rarely lunge at home so I prefer to hop on earlier and go for a hack or a big trot around the venue before getting down to business.
Don’t be put off by anything I have mentioned, if you are prepared, calm and don’t place any expectations on your horse, you will be fine. Never forget we have all had days we would rather forget so don’t be discouraged if things don’t go as well as you hope, after all some of the worst days is when we learn the most and it sets us up for the future. Good luck!