Monday, October 19, 2009

Show Ring Tips & Tricks...Part 1

This is going to be about tips and tricks for excelling in the show ring, as the title suggests. We've covered similar topics before, we have discussed tack, attire and grooming suggestions and though I am sure we shall revisit those again, I'm not going into that now. This time it's just good, old fashioned "how can I improve my performance, get the most out of my horse and enhance our showing experience".

That said, one tip I've not covered before related to attire is to bring along a pair of sweats and an older t-shirt (short or long sleeved, depending on what you're wearing) so you can keep your show clothes clean. I thought this was a BRILLIANT idea if you have more than a few classes all lumped together and run at the same time, but not have to spend so much time changing into and out of your show outfits. Great advice I wish I would have thought of sooner (which sounds like a no-brainer, doesn't it)!

I am a 'serial watcher'. Always have been. So when I have students and clients who are new to the showing scene, I am sure to bring them out to not one, but several shows of whatever level they are going to be showing at (and, of course, we always start out the rank beginners at the local open/schooling show level). It's going to be a show that we are NOT attending with horses competing at first, then later they come with us to a show in order to get an idea of how things go when you're riding into the spotlight. Finally, it's showtime!

When we attend that first show (or shows), we talk. A lot. We discuss expectations, what the judges are looking for, I like to have them do a little bit of 'judging' themselves as we watch classes so they have an in depth concept of just what we, as horse show exhibitors, are seeking to accomplish. This is very similar to the process of teaching Youth Judging ~ such as on the 4H or FFA level ~ however, extremely helpful during the learning process.

Along the lines of watching, which is always an excellent suggestion for all if for no other reason than to get an idea of what's in fashion and what the judges are looking for at the start of each new show season (and yes, along with the various attire fads will be new training strategies and methods as well as a variance in what certain judges want over last year). Taking notes, photographing or videotaping what you like and dislike ~ though I would suggest you ask a participant or entrant's permission before capturing them on film as a courtesy, and be sure to tell them why ~ can be a terrific way to know how to plan what to buy and what you should be working on with your horse. Also, during a break or after the show requesting to speak with the judge(s) can be a beneficial way to get information "straight from the horse's mouth", so to speak. They may be willing to give you pointers on how to best present yourself and your horse. You must be sure to go through the proper channels, though, and contact show officials to make sure of the right time and place to accomplish this.

Here, in the following paragraphs, we are going to explore a few of the vitally important things exhibitors can do to enhance their performances. Let's start with some basics and go from there.

Often you will hear instructors and trainers mention "riding defensively", just as in driver's education during high school you'll hear that mumbo-jumbo about "driving defensively". However, being defensive generally implies that you are having to defend what you're doing because you may be doing something wrong. I would rather ride offensively, making my own way and path, taking my ride into MY hands instead of simply trying to survive out there.

Assuming you are riding in a ring full of those less capable, who don't pay attention to where they are going, who will more than likely cut you off, ride into you and blow YOUR ride, above all else in importance is to pay attention to those around you so you can ensure no one else is going to cause you to lose your class. Keep your eye on horses that may have given their riders trouble in the warm-up ring, and on occasion glance around to see if anyone's horse is out of control. It doesn't have to be obvious, in fact it's better to be less conspicuous. But be aware! It may mean the difference between someone's horse running into yours and getting the gate, versus bringing home the blue ribbon.

One of my favorite sayings to my students is, ride your ring! You have to command that ring, stay in control, use that rail and know how to stay out of trouble.

Some trainers want their students to stay on the rail, no matter what. While I prefer my riders stay on the rail, if you need to move around someone or get away from a horse that's acting up, by all means do so. What I can't stand (as an exhibitor and a judge, both) are those riders who circle the judge, taking the shortest circuit around the ring. It's not a race, folks! Many times I have almost been run over because there are horses playing "Ring Around The Rosie". Not fun! Negotiating traffic in the show ring is simply a fact of life. Just don't make it harder on yourself (and your horse) than it needs to be.

Another place riders sometimes fail to give themselves a shot at a nice rail pass is in the corners. USE THEM! Riding deep into a corner when the majority of your competition will be cutting those same corners can set you up nicely to be seen. Circles and cutting across the arena safely (that being the key word here) are always an acceptable means of putting your horse in the right place at the right time. Getting stuck in a pack of horses or being blocked from the judge's view won't help you.

What about the horse who listens more to the show ring announcer than his rider? Some of the old campaigners do this on a regular basis, and even many trainers don't seem to know how to deal with it other than to heavily school the horse during a class. Now let's stop right here – I do not have an issue with schooling an out of control horse, or a naughty mount that knows the difference between the warm-up ring and the show arena, or schooling at home versus competing. My approach differs from many, because I like to set up "mock horse shows" where that horse simply must learn to pay attention to the rider and not the announcer. Easy? Not always. You have to have a number of riders and horses, all of you have to do your pre-show prep and it can't be the same old arena at home. Your horse already listens there, right? So, you've got to make certain the horse thinks he's at a real show. You also have to have access to the P.A. system, too…though in a pinch you can use a loud boom-box and recorded commands at intervals that make sense. Yes, you CAN do it. It just takes a little bit of planning and preparation.

Okay, as I've said before, I use the small open shows as a training ground for the big leagues. You must keep in mind, however, that some folks do participate in local show circuits for year end high point awards and those who do take them very seriously. Therefore, be mindful that you don't blow someone else's ride by schooling your horse. By doing so you could cause them to lose a silver buckle or even a saddle! My rule of thumb for schooling is, you can still follow all directions of the judge, ring steward and announcer. I can't stand it when someone schools their horse at a lope while everyone else is jogging. Follow the darn class and obey the commands given!

Another of my major pet peeves is transitions. Years ago at one of our local show circuits, when it came time to go from a walk to a lope (for instance), everyone down the line would pick up their lead, in order of how you happened to be in that line. That and it had to be INSTANT, so if you were first in line, that very second the announcer requested that lope, you had better get your horse moving. I'm sorry, in my world it just does not work that way. There I was, odd[wo]man out anyhow because I was riding an Arabian in a sea of Quarter Horses and Paints, and I…Gasp…requested that my horse lope when I felt he was ready, regardless of what my fellow exhibitors were doing.

There is never a need to rush your horse. Don't forget that! Of course, you don't want to take an entire circuit around the ring before you request the lope, hoping for that "just right" perfect timing. Let me tell you, it's probably not gonna happen like that. You need to be at least somewhat prompt, even while not immediately launching into the next gait. Something I always tell my students is, set your horse up before you change gaits. Simple preparedness can win you a class, especially if the judge is watching you (or wants to see you perform various transitions). Remember as well, the same goes for down transitions. I really dislike it when a judge will ask for the halt from a hand gallop or even the canter. Your horse had better have good brakes! Many judges will not penalize you for not instantly bringing your horse to a stop, but some will. Hence why you should know what your judges are looking for before you show. Also – be sure you know if your horse is on the correct lead. If you cannot feel it in your seat, work on it until you can. Nothing says "newbie who doesn't know how to ride" like a horse on a wrong lead.

Just as important as taking your time to ask for that lope or canter and get your leads right (any transition, really) is making certain when riding an English seat that you get your diagonals at the trot correct. You really have to take the time and you'll never get marked down if you sit a few strides before rising. I would much rather you get it right than jump into your post and pick it up wrong, then have to change your diagonal. As with everything else, it does take practice, however it's an essential skill you need to know.

A few more tips on ring etiquette:

When you are asked to back your horse, don't forget to check behind you…the same goes for the reverse. Many judges appreciate this and doing so will sometimes give you a leg up on your fellow competitors.

Try to be sure your horse's performance is consistent. You can have a horse that isn't quite as pretty or talented and still place well if you have consistency in your rides.

Please, PLEASE do not train your horse (or allow him/her to be trained) in a manner inconsistent with what is correct. There are tons of "trends" and fads in the horse show world, but there is no substitute for a well trained, correct moving, mannerly horse that moves properly. Quality of your gaits is essential. Don't fall for trends and the judge wont care if your turn-out isn't perfect as long as it is respectful and your horse looks nice. Spend as much time as you can grooming, conditioning and schooling your horse at home and it will pay off!

Be sure you are showing your horse from the moment you set hoof in that arena until you leave the ring at the end of your class, no matter how bad of a ride you had. That one is imperative! Even if you are waiting in the previous class to be pinned and your class is lined up awaiting instruction, or you're lined up at the conclusion of your class. You are STILL in the show ring, act like you belong there.

Definitely be ready to enter the ring when your class is called. Nothing is more aggravating than being in your class, ready to rock and having to wait for some slowpoke to show up. There is a two minute gate call for a reason! Also, nothing peeves off a parent like paying for classes their children miss because they were not listening or were goofing off instead of getting in the ring.

Remember that the warm-up ring at many shows can be chaos. Be prepared for horses to go blowing by you at various directions, horses running up on your horse's tail and horses cutting you off. Too many riders, including trainers, do not pay attention to where they are going during warm-up! Additionally there are sometimes those exhibitors who will purposefully and deliberately try to blow your ride ~ this goes for in the show ring during classes as well as in the warm-up pen. I personally have had this happen, you simply have to ignore it (sometimes you can take it as a compliment, that you're tough competition and they would rather take you out than compete against you). Don't allow it to bother you, because if it does, it will bother your horse.

Only YOU are responsible for your horse…no one else. Keep that in mind at every show, during every class. In the show ring, no matter your discipline, show your strengths and work hard to diminish your weaknesses.

Many riders will try to correct problems with their horses behind the judge's back. I have news for you! Perhaps they can't see what's happening when their backs are turned, but they CAN hear it. It's all good to know where your judge is (as well as the horses around you), but continually glancing around the ring to see if the judge is looking at you is a big no-no in my book. Some folks advocate doing so – I do not. Checking over your shoulder on occasion is fine. Making a small correction to your horse when you think the judge is watching someone else is okay, too, as long as it is minor and quickly accomplished. You don't want to allow your horse to get away with bad behavior, but there is a difference between major discipline in the show ring and a little bump here or a little tap there.

Along those same lines, make sure your horse is ready at home BEFORE you take him to a horse show. Train your horse! To be sure, you can never know 100% how a horse will react the first time at a show, and your horse may be perfect in your home arena. Horse shows are not the time to be trying new things and you should not need to have a major knock-down, drag out fight with your horse at a show.

Some horses have fear issues, but a confident rider can overcome them in most cases. A number of horses are afraid of being handed a ribbon, some hate the loudspeakers, others spook at a camera's flashbulb or a display in center ring. I have ridden in many arenas where the show committee will place sponsor banners or signs on the arena rails and I have had horses that hated another horse passing close by or running up behind them – ALL of these things can be scary to some horses. Get them used to things like that at HOME and they won't be such an issue when you get to the showgrounds. Set up situations in a controlled setting where you are in charge and let your horse learn to deal with them at the horse's own pace.

Try not to punish your horse if he's truly afraid. Scared horses are not safe horses, however, I've had the best luck in trying to work them through whatever they're frightened of as long as we end on a good note, just like at home. If your horse is just plain out of control and you cannot get him in hand, scratch your classes. Better to waste a few dollars on class fees than have a bad wreck or worse, wreck someone else. Along those lines, if a rider is unseated, halt your horse. Some say to dismount, I would rather you stay on your horse, it's usually a safer place to be. Consequently, if you come off your horse during a class, it's preferable that you ask to remain in the ring, because you don't want your horse learning that they can get out of working in a class by tossing you! Inevitably they will try it again.

Many times judges will pick their favorites and even start placing their classes (especially if they're rather large) from the moment you set foot in the ring, so make your entrance count! Set your horse up so you can easily head through the gate and down the rail giving the judge a great first impression.

Remember: Impulsion, impulsion, impulsion. In English classes, your judges will appreciate a horse with good forward gaits. Likewise, if you have a Western horse, keep in mind that you want your horse to show proper collection.

Take the time to give your horse a pat after the cards are turned in while you're in the lineup, and as you're exiting the ring. You will leave the impression that you're really thrilled with the ride your horse gave you (even if the truth is, not so much) and that you have respect for your horse as your riding partner. It looks professional and like you care. Every little thing can count, good judges will take notice.

Drugs ARE NOT FOR THE SHOW RING! Things like Bute have their place, but don't come to a show with an entire pharmacy. More than likely you will be caught and nothing good can come of that.

Don't forget to school your horse at the walk as much as the rest of your gaits. It never ceases to amaze me that even trainers will not concentrate on the walk! Walking accounts for 25%-33% of most classes – don't skimp. Also, refrain from allowing your horse to dawdle, wander or gawk around ignoring you, the rider. Performing a good walk can mean the difference between ribboning and getting the gate.

There is no prize for rushing into the ring as the gateman is closing that gate. Be prepared and have your horse ready to perform. I prefer to get in there early, even though I don't like being the first one in…unless I know my horse is going to knock the judge's socks off and I want to be the first he sets his eyes on. Be prepared long before the class is called to order and ready to ask your horse to move off in whatever gait is asked for.

When the announcer calls you to the lineup – LINE UP! Be prompt, don't continue around the arena for another five minutes just to show off. Making that last pass down the rail in front of the judge is okay, but don't make a scene. You don't want to make a spectacle of yourself. For myself, I like to get a spot on the end of the line, because you have a 50% less chance of running into a problem with backing. Many horses do not back straight (which is something else you need to work on at home before you ever think about going to a show), but oftentimes ~ at least in my case ~ there is far more of a concern about the backing straight ability of the horse in line next to you.

Most important of all, relax, and DON'T forget to breathe! I have had students that rode out of the ring out of breath. While this can happen under normal circumstances in some classes (Over Fences events are notorious for this, as is the English Show Hack division at an Arabian show!), this is not something you expect with a Walk/Trotter coming out of a four horse Equitation class. I've also had some kids exit a class and mention that the judge told them to breathe. Sometimes we need little reminders. This is one of those times! Anything you can do to calm yourself, which will in turn help keep your horse calm, will do wonders for your performances. A lot of kids like to listen to their I-pods or other mp3 players. Which is fine as long as they don't miss their classes!

At some point, we'll continue this subject. Until then, put in some great rides and get yourself ready to go show!



  1. In regard to not rushing into the gait when the announcer says: One of my first dressage teachers said, "It is better to PREpare than to have to REpair," and he is correct. The horse has to KNOW something is going to happen (unless you have an old campaigner who hears the click and knows "walk" is next or knows the word "trot" or "jog" and goes into the gait without any input from the rider, also not a good thing). And even more important, the RIDER has to be prepared, too. You are riding your own test and riding it your way. If you're not the first trotter or jogger (or whatever gait), that doesn't mean your horse is not a "pleasure" to ride or that you are incapable of following one-word instructions. ;o)

  2. I like that ~ PREpare instead of REpair!! Very cool, thanks! :)

  3. Right on---Every horse and rider in every discipline should know the "half-halt."

  4. Half halt is something all of my students, whether in a Western saddle or some sort of English saddle, learn! It's importance cannot be overstated for a variety of reasons. :) Very good point!


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