A first show is a very new and different experience for any young horse. It’s important to make his first show a pleasant one so that he does not associate a future competition environment with a negative experience. At home, a horse spends his days in the paddock with his friends, works for maybe 45 minutes in a familiar arena with few other horses around, and is then tucked into his stable for the night. When it comes to show day, he must be loaded into a horsebox, travel to an unknown venue where he isn’t allowed off the lead and must stay in one location. He must warm up in an arena with several other unfamiliar horses all going in different directions, and must then perform a test or jump a course with spectators, loudspeakers and flapping flags surrounding him.
It’s not a bad idea to give your horse some pre-exposure before taking him to his first big show. By that we mean that you tag along to someone else’s show where your horse doesn’t have to compete but can have a look around at the scene, and you can possibly ride him in the warm-up arena towards the end of the show when it’s quieter. Pre-exposure to a show is especially beneficial for horses who are nervous or skittish by nature. You’ll also be able to get an idea of how your horse will box, travel and behave on your actual show day.
The last thing you want to happen is to have organised everything for show day – your entries, tack and transport – and then arrive at the yard ready to box, only to have your horse refuse to set foot anywhere near the trailer. These situations always create heightened stress in the horse and rider because you start panicking about getting to the show, which usually results in a lot of yelling and tugging endlessly on the lead rein.
To avoid such a situation, it’s best to make sure your horse is comfortable with boxing beforehand. Some horses walk right in with no hesitation, but for the more difficult horses, boxing lessons with a professional are advised. You don’t want someone who will use force to teach your horse to box, but rather someone with horsemanship experience who can make the experience a calm and positive one.
Show day means lots of other horses around. The warm-up is arguably the most stressful part of the day, as you have to try and navigate your way around an arena crowded with other horses, all coming from different directions. Whether you’re trying to practice some movements before a dressage test or to have your turn going over the warm-up fence, you have to blend in with what the others are doing and try your best to stay out of their way.
Horses who are used to riding in lessons with lots of other horses usually cope with the chaos of a warm-up arena, but horses from quieter, private yards are a lot less exposed to this type of environment. The quieter horses who find themselves in the hustle and bustle of a warm-up arena for the first time may become very stressed and confused by all the movement, and they might even try kick out at other horses who come too close.
If you’re worried that your horse might be overwhelmed by the presence of so many other horses in one space, try and mimic the show environment at home. Join a busy group lesson if you can to see how you and your horse cope with being simultaneously focused on your own riding as well as others’. In a separate session, ask your friends if they can practice riding right behind you and riding towards you, trying to get as close to you as possible. Observing your horse’s behaviour will give you an indication of how he’ll behave on show day.
It’s not about height or level
When entering your horse in his first show, try to pick a quiet show at a location close to home. Certain show venues have reputations for allowing too many entries, being disorganised or not having suitable facilities. Ask around for a recommendation before you enter a show.
When entering, it’s important to not base the height or level at which you enter on your horse’s capabilities at home. Rather enter him in a lower-grade showjumping class or a Prelim dressage test, because the expectation is that he is going to be distracted by all the new sights and sounds on show day, resulting in a less focused performance on your horse’s part. Never take a young horse to his first show expecting to come home with a first place – it’s about giving your horse the experience and confidence that he needs. Even if he trots around his first jumping course or doesn’t perform the neatest test, it’s important to not let it disappoint you.
The full article appears in the Young Horse Guide issue of HQ (May 122) > Shop now