by Francesca Prescott
I did it again. I signed up for a show. It’s a month away, but I’m already stressing out over how things will go.
Despite having ridden for most of my life, I have very little experience with competition. To give you an idea, I’ve probably taken part in less than twenty competitions in my five decades on the planet. I’ve always had conflicting emotions about competing. I want to, but at the same time I know I’m happier in the arena at home, working towards four perfect strides, concentrating on refining my feel for certain movements, trying to get my body to find the keys to asking for, say, a good turn on the haunches. I want to be the queen of turns on the haunches! And of half pass! The queen of everything, really! I love the finicky stuff. I love doing things over and over again, taking my time to get things just right, feeling my way. I could take lessons every day, all day long. I find training fascinating.
The problem is, you can’t take your time and do things over and over again when you’re riding a test. You can’t say, “hang on a second judges, I know I can do a better turn on the haunches than that, because I didn’t use enough outside leg to push the quarters around nor did I hold the outside shoulder enough, and I could have used a more inside leg for impulsion and bend, and besides, Qrac was being a piggy and going lalalalalala just then, so can we do it over? And over? And over?”
I’m not used to riding with competitions in mind, so neither me nor my horse are used to riding one figure after another. Qrac may be rising nine, but he was an extremely green seven-year-old when I bought him, he’s not test savvy, and being of an anxious nature, tends to become fractious when asked to halt at X, go straight down the centre line, turn left at C, then extend down the diagonal, etc etc. And that’s before we add the judges and the flowers and the other horses and the noise. It’s all too quick, all too too what-what-what-comes-next??? Before we’ve gone past A he’s no longer focused on me and is all in a flap, doing a horrendous, Thelwell-inspired pony-trot.
It’s strange, but when I think about it, character-wise, Qrac is very similar to me. He’s super-sensitive, mostly calm, yet ridiculously quickly upset. Like me, he’s a big worrier. He does, however, tend to have a shorter fuse than me and can sometimes be rather rude when asked to venture out of his comfort zone. But with a little gentle persuasion he can eventually be swayed into trying, and once he’s figured out that YES HE CAN, he’s all proud of himself and game to do it again. Ok, sometimes he forgets that he could do something the day before and needs a little reminder. And sometimes I get frustrated, wondering what the heck is wrong with me that I take lessons, and more lessons, and more lessons (up to three a week), and work ever so hard, and lots of people drool over how gorgeous he is and how amazing he looks, yet, almost two years down the line, we’re incapable of doing a basic test smoothly! And then I think back to how Qrac was in the beginning and I tell myself we’re not doing so badly. I think about my horse a lot.
So anyway, Qrac and I are signed up for a show the last weekend in March. Call me pessimistic, but I have very low expectations. The venue is indoors and spooky, the arena is small, and I know my horse is going to look at everything, that he’ll be tense and explosive. But my goal is to do more shows this season, because Qrac needs to go out and see things, he needs to get used to the show ring, and maybe over time we’ll both get used to riding tests, not to mention riding tests in unfamiliar places. Who knows, at some point, maybe we’ll even start really enjoying competing. Maybe, eventually, someday, we’ll place! Maybe we’ll “win the cup” (as my riding girlfriends and I say jokingly). Wow, wouldn’t that be something!
What are your experiences of training inexperienced horses towards competition? If you ride dressage, how did you approach working on a test? And whatever your discipline, how do you deal with a nervous, spooky horse on your first few outings?
I spent most of my showing days in the hunter ring -- and I always used them as a way to see what we needed to work on at home. There's not better way to challenge yourselves and see what you truly "get" all the time, no matter what distractions exist. The only person I competed against was myself and my horse. I never had expectations to win - it was just a huge bonus if we did! Set little goals for yourself - like, helping Qrac be calmer and more consistent. Doesn't mean he has to be perfect - but it's something to work towards!
When I did ride dressage, I remember breaking the tests down into several sections to make it easier to understand and in theory, put it all together at the end. Plus, I was always told it keeps the horse from learning the test and anticipating.
Cesca--I never rode a dressage test in my life, but I did haul my very spooky, reactive Gunner to many a cutting as a young horse, only to have him discover a horse eating tarped stack of hay next to the arena and fixate on it ALL day. So I hear you.
I did just as you are saying. I hauled Gunner to LOTS of low level cuttings with no expectations other than he get used to going to new places. And we had a lot of days where he couldn't focus enough to make a decent run. But in the end (it did take a few years) he got pretty solid, and we won a few events. So hang in there. And f you can, try to enjoy the process.
I completely understand where you're coming from. I took my mustang to her first ever show (shes 14) a few months ago, and the entire day was spent just calming her down. I went in with low expectations, but I don't see that as being pessimistic, I simply saw it as schooling!
I mean, there are some horses that really don't give a crap, but also, most horses aren't born as seasoned calm show horses! Every horse has the bad shows before they calm down and realize its not a big deal!
Promise: thanks for reading and commenting; I've never understood what the "hunter ring" is, can you explain?
You're right about only competing with yourself; this season is going to be all about trying to become calmer and more consistent, about keeping him with me.
I will let you know how it goes!!!
Laura, that's funny about Gunner fixating on the horse eating the hay! I'm sure Qrac will find lots of things to fixate on other than me! But we're going to hang in there, and try to enjoy the process, and work on being calm and consistent. Thanks for the advice!
Marissa, thank you, and you're right, it's just schooling, really. Qrac definitely does give a crap, which makes it all the more challenging. But at least I know he's quiet to handle, and doesn't get all full of himself; he just gets a bit insecure. Just like me!
Good luck on your show, Cesca. When I used to take my horses to shows, years ago, I got nerves so bad that I couldn't even eat breakfast. And yes, of course your horse picks up on your butterflies. But I so agree with all of the advice above. If you just think of these outings as schooling shows, or ways to expose Qrac to different surroundings each time, then your expectations will be to simply sooth him and get him used to new things, and not worry about placing in the classes. Hopefully you can laugh about it a little and make it fun, and then maybe Qrac will think it is, too. Good luck, and remember: Smile! Have Fun!
Cesca--Oops I meant a tarped stack of hay (with the tarp flapping in the wind) that Gunner thought was a horse eating monster. Guess I typed that comment too fast.
I figured it was a tarp flapping in the wind, Laura! Last year, while I was at the only show I did with Qrac, a little later in the afternoon the wind came up pretty seriously and literally blew over one of the little judge huts! It blew it back onto the car park where many horse trailers were parked, with horses tied up alongside them! Crazy moment; I was glad our turn was long gone!!! Trauma!!
Linda, I'm with you on the breakfast issue! But I think I'm getting a little better. I've taken Qrac to a couple of other places for training sessions in the past few months, and although he can get nervous (strangely enough, he doesn't seem to get nervous eveywhere...), I manage to stay far more calm, and have found ways to cope with his nervous energy. Then again, going places to train isn't the same as going to a show as at a show, once you're in the arena, you're on your own, whereas when you go to a place to train, you get advice. But it's all good experience, it's all a learning curve. And hey, going to shows means I have an excuse to take even more lessons!
My "Huey" is OTTB, and talk about a worry wart. My GOODNESS, but he worries about everything. I have a photo of him at 4 months of age, and I knew right away this was truly a picture of Huey because I saw that same look of concern on that little face.
When I bought him he was four and a half--and after his track career was over, there was the same worried expression. Every trailer trip could end up at ... THE TRACK!!! ... and every new person could be ... THE JOCKEY!!!! ... and of course, his life would be over from that moment on.
But I persisted. I took him EVERYWHERE. We went to shows where he stayed in the trailer, feed door, ramp and storm doors open, butt door closed. He viewed the show from the safety of "his pad" and got all manner of treats every time I walked back to see how he was doing. Eventually, I'd take him out of the trailer and walk him around. (These weren't the dressage shows I longed to compete in--these were open shows held near where I lived. Western classes, flat and fences English, very low key but well attended. He was exposed to it all).
The BEST day was when we went to a new place for a dressage show. I parked the rig, opened the feed door and let him look out. He stopped chewing his hay for a moment, let out a big sigh, and went right back to eating. I knew then that he was going to be okay wherever we went. (He still gets a little goosey on large trail rides, but for the most part he's happy to be with the group; he's not so animated that he's a problem for me or any of the other riders).
Bottom line: You will be so calm at the show--because you're not expecting much--that Qrac may very well surprise you. HE won't be all jazzed up either--and you'll both do fine. Betcha!!
First of all, Qrac is such a beautiful horse!
Competition is not my main focus and never has been, but I have taken my horse to some local dressage shows for fun and get feedback from the judge. My casual approach to showing was not in our favor, because my horse and I only went to shows a couple times a year. We just never got comfortable with it, even though we were very small venues. Our relaxation suffered and, as you know, it is difficult to perform well without relaxation (i.e. no stretchy trot even though he offers it easily at home). I never had a problem with spooking, but it was several years before we rode a test and I actually had to push my horse instead of trying to calm him down.
I think that the advice you got about going out often with the objective of getting your feet wet is very good advice. I am sure the smooth tests will follow in no time.
I don't know why I tend to be so relaxed in the show ring these days...maybe because I realize that I'm probably not going to be in the top group, though we do perform reasonably well.
Mocha is much more fun to show than my other Quarter Horse mare was, though--she's bred for it and, after four shows, she still shows a keen interest in the new stuff. I enjoy watching her reaction. But it helps that she's pretty competitive--don't ask me how, but she seems to have figured out that people are watching her strut her stuff, and she's a bit of a showoff. And keen. I think I held my breath through half of our very first reining pattern (and then I chucked my very nice beaver hat and settled down to RIDE!).
I bet if you tie into Qrac's inner showoff, and just focus on exposing him to the event, no expectations...you'll find out he'll enjoy it as will you. I park Mocha where she can watch what's going on in the ring. Occasionally her reaction to something she doesn't see at home makes me laugh...and there's been a couple of cases where I think she's been watching and learning from other horses (during Trail obstacle classes, but I also noticed behavior differences after watching a few plain vanilla rail classes).
Looking at shows as another form of training and schooling actually does take the pressure off. I'm like you, I like fiddling with perfection on a move, and show competition used to wreck me. Then I started focusing on making shows a pleasant time for Mocha, and looking at shows as another exposure to improve her training and experience, and they really became more fun.
Promise and I did hunter/jumper - so our shows consisted of hunter flat classes and over fences classes.
A hunter flat class basically puts you through the paces of walk, trot, canter - and depending on the judge, sitting trot with or without stirrups and/or hand gallop. I was always taught that they were looking for the horse they would want to ride home on after a long day of hunting.
And, the over fences classes were jump courses of varying degrees of difficulty, depending on what level and height you were competing.
TDdancer,sounds like you're doing a wonderful job with Huey, and what dedication to haul him around everywhere! I don't even take my dogs everywhere!!
Thanks for your lovely comment, and I will let you know how Qrac and I do at the show at the end of March. Meanwhile, tons of work to do! My favourite!!!
Val; thank you, Qrac still takes my breath away every single day :) True love!
I find dressage shows quite intimidating here in Switzerland; I've never been to watch any in other countries (apart from FEI World Cup massive events, another galaxy!), and maybe it's just me being insecure. The level tends to be pretty high, even in the lower level tests. There aren't that many shows in the French speaking part of the country (which is the most "laid back" apparently when it comes to judging), so many dressage riders travel to the German part of the country and often come back crestfallen because the judges are ruthless and ever so harsh, so your confidence falls through your knickers. I'm terrified of venturing over there!!! However, I work with an amazing Swiss German trainer who comes to my yard every other week, his lessons are phenomenal and I always leave on a high. And then I fall into bed, utterly pooped!
I'm getting off track here (as I often do...), and I think what I wanted to say (!) was that my objective is to go to as many venues as I can with Qrac, and maybe we'll finally be able to ride a test smoothly and calmly.
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment :)
Joyce, you're right, I need to just see shows as part of training; it should take the pressure off (at least to a certain extent). The more familiar things become, the easier it is to relax.
Mocha sounds wonderful, your description reminds me of my now retired Kwintus, who went into show-off mode the moment you braided his mane. He'd come out of the trailer practically passaging, but in a calm way, no stress at all. It was like, "Hey guys, here I am, let me show you how it's done!" He was a wonderful schoolmaster.
Promise, thank you for the explanation. I think they do a lot of hunter classes in the UK; they often feature in horsey magazines, but I've never really read up on them as we don't have them here. Some showjumping events do something called "style", where the riding and the way the horse goes is judged too. I think those classes are a good idea as I see so many horrendous riders bullying their horses across courses. Those horses are saints with what they put up with!
We call those equitation - I used to compete in equitation a lot. So not only do you have to have a horse that looks like a great ride after a long day of hunting, you have to look perfect while riding it! Always challenging, especially over fences!
Thanks, Promise :) Riding (and horses in general) are always a challenge, no matter what, don't you think?! There's always something to worry about :)
Just have fun and keep your great sense of humor intact!
Thanks Alison, I had a fabulous ride today, Qrac all light and focused and active. No stressy moments, just heavenly :) Just how it should be...
I was so intimidated when I started doing reining with a green horse and me an old fat beginner, but after doing run after run at open shows and breed shows I now have so much fun and so look forward to starting my new reiner. It really just takes hauling them to different places and I will admit that it didn't become real fun until I met like minded ladies and young girls that I could go with and smooze with and just have fun with and now it's a party time with our horses. That doesn't mean that we don't take our rides serious because showing costs so much but we do lots of cheap open shows to prepare for a biggie show and we still have each other to help, guide and sometimes just laugh with. I've been doing a freestyle and I put my reins on my horn to do the spins bridleless and unfortunately used a different saddle with a smaller horn and whoops off went my reins and my guy just kept spinning and everyone cheered thinking it was on purpose. It was so funny, my friends helped me laugh all of the whoops away.
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