My apologies...this is a repeat of a post that went up on this blog back in October of 2009. However, in my opinion it's such an excellent topic, it warrants being put here again. Enjoy!!
This is going to be about tips and tricks (as the title suggests) for excelling in the show ring. We've covered similar topics before, and 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.
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 saying 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.
In the future we'll continue this subject. Until then, put in some great rides and get yourself ready to go show!