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Your horse’s first show is for learning — not losing!

By RAY ARISS - Horsetrader columnist - November 1st, 2012 - Q&A Hey Ray!

HEY RAY: I found out that when you train really hard at home in preparation for your first horse show, and you load up your champion hopeful, on your way to the show, something magical happens. When you arrive and you unload your trailer, the horse that comes out isn’t yours. What is that all about? Everything we worked on, everything we achieved and everything I expected went out the window. What happened?
—Ann Hutchison, Norco

HEY ANN: The phenomenon you experienced is not exclusive to you and your horse. Actually, it is the norm for most horses going to a show for the first time. It’s amazing what stress, pressure and a new environment can do to the fragile mind of an inexperienced horse. The surprises you learn at your horse’s first show usually only happen once if you pay attention. It’s not so much what you did at the show that counts, it’s more about the preparation and all that you simulate about the show at home that really makes the difference.

I recently took a couple of horses to a show and experienced a little of what you are talking about. Before going to the show, I thought to myself: What are some of the worst possible scenarios that can go wrong if I took these two horses to the show today? I envisioned how my horses would react if:

-I worked them outside the ranch.
-I trailered them to neighboring arenas.
-I parked the trailer while I had lunch.
-I exposed them to trash trucks, water trucks and tractors as much as possible.
-I turned other horses loose in the arena while I was schooling them under saddle.

Other simple things I worked on with my horses before going to the show included:

-Exposing them to distractions from outside the arena.
-Running people up and down the bleachers.
-Announcing over the loud speakers.
-The applause of a small crowd as I rode by.
-Riding past banners on the rail.
-Patting the banners as I rode by.
-Draping blankets or tarps over the shoulders of my horse. (Attempt this from the ground first, with caution!)
-Ribbons on my bridle.
-Line up with other horses in the middle of the arena and stand quietly.
-Instruct horses to leave the arena while I continue to stand quietly. (In case you place or win your class.)
-Desensitize my horse to strollers, bikes and umbrellas.

These are not all, but just some, of the things I worked on before going to the show. Horses aren’t the only ones that stress-out at the show. Handlers and riders experience a lot of what horses go through, too. It’s quite interesting how the anxiety that you may feel can be passed on to your horse. So, it’s very important that you remain calm, cool and collected in order to help your horse succeed at the show.

One thing I tell my students who are nervous about showing is that I only expect them to ride in the warm-up ring in preparation for the class. Going into the class becomes their decision. I expect them to work with their horse until the horse feels like he did at home. If they feel the horse is not where he needs to be before the class, the experience will stay in the warm-up ring until they achieve what was expected.

The show is meant to be a learning experience, not a losing proposition. This also helps the rider take a heavy load off of their shoulders, allowing them to sleep the night before. Unless the rider is confident he will do well, going into the show arena should be nothing more than a consideration at best. I can’t tell you how many times I warmed up or schooled a horse in preparation for going into a class, and did not decide to enter the show pen until a couple of minutes before the class. I have never given a second thought to scratching a class for schooling a horse that did not peak-out in time for his class. Going into a class unprepared or unequipped to triumph makes about as much sense as going into battle unprepared or unequipped just to see what would happen — not necessarily the kind of experience you want in either situation.

The last thing you want is to find yourself unprepared in the ring. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel your hands are tied because you can’t school or correct your horse, there is a good chance your horse will associate horse shows with getting away with stuff. There is no prize big enough for that.

Ann, if you give yourself enough time to expose your horse to the new surroundings in addition to all the preparation suggested above, the chances of success increase greatly. Remember your horse does not know the difference between the warm-up ring and the show ring, but you do! You cannot school in the show ring so don’t leave the warm-up until he is just right.

Remember to trust your instincts and think safe, especially away from home,

Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horse-and-human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco CA, at his bustling StarBrite Riding Academy. Does your “horse-human” relationship leave you with a question for Ray? Just go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Hey Ray!” section, then submit it!

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