Updated: Mar 10, 2019
Competitions are stressful. Even if you’ve been to lots of competitions, they still mean a change in your normal routine, and that of your horse. If you aren’t an experienced horse shower, there is also the added stress of feeling alone, surrounded by a bunch of people who compete all the time. Then, there are those of us who like to keep things as natural as possible for our horses. Can you even go to a horse show if you think outside the sandbox? Of course!
So, how do you overcome all of that pressure and still have a successful go in the arena? As long as you’ve prepared your horse (and yourself) for the stress a horse show might impose, you just have to trust your relationship. I see people all of the time who have great relationships with their horses and good working biomechanics, but are terrified to compete. Trust yourself and your horse.
No one should compete if it isn’t something that they really want to do, and competition isn’t a gauge of how good your horsemanship is. To me, horse shows are about working toward mastering a certain set of skills. You must also remember that judging is always subjective, even with objective criteria, so make your own horse show goals. Set goals that are independent of scores and/or placings.
Do what you do, but know the rules. Depending on the type of competition that you want to attend, there may be things like required pieces of tack or ground schooling techniques that are not allowed. Learn about these well in advance, when you decide competing might be in your goal set. This way you can prepare your horse by incorporating new things into your training regime or modifying training techniques. Practice with these new tools and teach your horse how to relax with them.
Start small, but use a big mindset. Local shows or schooling shows are some of the best ways to get you and your horse acclimated to a show ground. Ask around your local area to find out which shows are recommended for newbies. Even if you just trailer in to the show ground and let your horse walk around. Plan the experience just like you’d be getting on, warming up, and going into the show ring. When our minds are under stress, our bodies revert to muscle memory. Train your body to take over if your brain checks out. Ditto this for your horse. Create a rhythm you can rely on.
The stabling conundrum. Depending on what type of competition and what level; you may need, or have the option to stable your horse on site. If your horse isn’t used to being stalled, this is likely to create some undo pressure. You can only go to competitions where you don’t need to stable your horse, but if you choose to use horse show stabling, teach your horse beforehand. Get them acquainted to being in a stall, just like you do the trailer. Listen to your horse at the competition, you may have to do a lot of approach, retreat, hand walking, and hacking. Whatever your horse needs. If you know overnight stabling is in your future and your horse isn’t used to being stalled, try a show where you can get a “day” stall first. You might need to do this several times. Make sure your horse is comfortable.
Ignore the peer pressure. Some people will judge you for being new, or doing something different, or having a different breed of horse. Other people will remember what their first times were like and want to help. Accept help if you want, politely decline if you don’t and just keep your head up around the judgers. Let your experience speak for itself.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to get help! If you don’t know an experienced competition trainer that can give you good advice, take yourself to some shows. Spectate, or better yet, volunteer. This is a great way to get a feel for shows and to notice any people you might be able to connect with for support. There is comfort in having a buddy.