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Dear Dana: How can I improve my sensitive horse in the show ring?

By DANA HOKANA - Horsetrader columnist - July 19th, 2012 - Q&A Dear Dana

DEAR DANA: Can you provide me tips for getting my sensitive horse at her best for competing?
Andrea Mitchell, Arizona

DEAR ANDREA: I have had many sensitive horses throughout my career, and I’ve learned that how you prepare this kind of horse for the show ring is even more important than preparing the average horse. A strategy to prepare your horse for the show ring is critical for any horse, but especially the sensitive or difficult horse.

No. 1: Know Your Horse
In order to help your horse reach his or her full potential you need to know your horse. Give thought to why your horse is the way he is. Many people brand their horse with a label such as tough or difficult and miss the real problem which could be something manageable such as he has a lot of energy, or if you have a mare, some mares are truly hormonal and can’t help it. Mares that are really hormonal we often put on Regumate to keep them out of heat while we are showing. Some horses are sensitive or difficult because of poor training or bad past experiences. I have many personal experiences of having horses that were tough, difficult, sensitive or hot and I found what worked to manage them. Some of these horses became top show horses and all they had needed was for someone to put a little more thought into their training and preparation.

No. 2: Develop a Strategy
After you’ve given careful thought to knowing your horse you can then develop a strategy to best prepare him. I have a different strategy for every horse I show. For example, I may lunge one horse several hours before they show and I may not lunge another horse. I have one horse that shows best when I lunge her within an hour or two of her class as she has a little energy rush. I have another mare that I have to have at the show grounds at least two days before a big event so that she is settled in and shows at her best. Some horses I ride a lot at shows, other horses I don’t. If you have a horse that is tense in crowds of other horses you may warm him up at times when it’s not as crowded or take him to smaller shows until he is comfortable around crowds of horses. With this horse I would pay attention to enter the show arena at a time when the crowd had already entered. My biggest point is to think about a plan or a strategy to show your horse to his best!

No. 3: Evaluate Your Horse’s Energy Level
In order to have the best ride possible your horse needs to be tired enough to focus. He needs to be relaxed and comfortable with his surroundings and yet not so tired that his movement is compromised or fatigued. I want my horses fresh enough to move good but not so fresh they want to be silly or not cooperate. Deciding whether or not to lunge, how long before the class to lunge, and how long to lunge is a choice you will need to make. Weather is also a large factor in horses’ energy levels. Cold or windy weather will always raise a horse’s energy level. Also after dark horses will develop more energy and might become afraid. I find the first day of the show my horses have a little more energy. Sometimes I’ll lunge the first day or two of the show and then stop. Feed can also affect energy levels. When I have a horse with a lot of energy I may stop their grain supplements a couple of days before they show. Knowing your horse well will help you to make the best decisions possible.

No. 4: Relax Your Horse
Spend the time needed to relax your horse. I was at a show recently with a fairly green horse that tends to be afraid of new surroundings and each time I rode her I walked her a moment and gave her time to see everything and relax in her surroundings. It worked wonders; she was great at the show. I had always walked her and let her see a new arena but the difference was that this time I did not school her or bump her a lot. I just let her relax without my added pressure. I paid attention to her body language and gave her the time needed to relax and to get comfortable in her surroundings.

No. 5: Make Sure Your horse is Comfortable in the Show Arena
Preparing your horse mentally and physically for the actual arena that you will show in is very important. Consider all the factors such as the rail or wall of the arena, if the arena is indoors it will have a different feel. Some horses are more nervous indoors. We deal with that a lot because most of our arenas are outdoors, and we need to acclimate our horses to showing indoors. How is the footing in the arena? I was just at a major circuit and one horse I had there had a real hard time being comfortable in the arena footing. It didn’t have a good base and that particular horse was really bothered by it. My other horses didn’t mind the footing at all, but this horse took a couple of days to feel like herself. Part of developing the best strategy is to gather all the information that may relate to your horse and giving thought to making the best plan.

No. 6: Decide How and When to do your Warm Up Exercises
Sometimes your warm up exercises are very demanding and may feel like pressure to some horses. I have found that in the past, at times, I would drill or tune my horse to prepare for the class, but the exercise or drill itself actually rattled my horse. I thought I was doing the right thing. I would push my horse to move and be the best he could be. Sometimes it would backfire on me and he would actually be too up-tight to have a great ride. I found that if I could do that drill hours earlier in the day, and then work on relaxing him right before the class, I would have better results. I’ve had other horses that were lazy and dull and needed to be really pushed right before the class in order to be the best that they could be.

No. 7: Be On time For Your Class
If you are late for your class you will be rushed and move quicker than if you had plenty of time. Your horse will pick up on your tension. If your horse is sensitive or nervous at shows you will magnify that by rushing around. Your rushing and tension will give him a message that something is wrong. Build confidence in your horse and keep him relaxed by being organized and on time for your class.

No. 8: Get Your Mindset Right
We know that the sensitive horse picks up on your mood so that is why it is all the more important to keep yourself calm if at all possible. I heard a cd recently that talked about being in the competitive vs. the creative mindset. It said that in most areas you will do a better job and have better results if you stay in a creative mindset. I was able to apply this to a situation I had recently at the show I was at with the sensitive horse. I warmed up my horse in the late morning and early afternoon, and she was great. I felt ready for my class. I went and got some lunch and got dressed in my show clothes and got the mare ready to show. When I got back on her it was shortly after 3:00pm and it was really starting to cool off outside. We were showing outdoors and the cool breeze was picking up. I felt like I had just gotten on a different horse than I had ridden earlier. I started to tense up and got a little sharper with my cues. She started to get even more nervous. I found myself saying “Oh no, now what do I do?” I then started looking around to see how many were in my class and wondering how good my competition was. I started to get in a fight with the horse. I then thought to myself “Get out of that competitive mindset back into the creative mindset and work on what you have time to before the class.” I focused on where she was leaning through her body not on how irritated I was with her attitude and I found I was relaxing and slowing down my moves. Soon she relaxed also and I went in and showed her and had a great ride. I realized I had helped her to be the best she could be rather than get frustrated with her and pick a fight. I realize, this may seem easier said than done. But I believe these tips will help you to get the most out of your horse. Good luck and have a great ride!


Do you have a question for Dana? Simply go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Dear Dana” section, then submit it! If your question is selected, you will be entered into a monthly drawing for a FREE “Winning Strides” DVD from Dana’s training video series.

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