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Show-ring success starts long before you enter the arena

By DANA HOKANA - Horsetrader columnist - February 21st, 2013 - Q&A Dear Dana

DEAR DANA: Do you have any tips to keep in mind for getting the most out of the new show season?
Carmen, Escondido

DEAR CARMEN: I believe that before you enter the show ring it is wise to give thought to your ride. Develop a plan or a strategy to present yourself and your horse as the best that you can be!

In the show ring in a western pleasure class there are many things that are out of your control. Sometimes things happen that you can’t plan for. This is life. However, you can get the odds in your favor by giving thought to and applying some of the principals I am going to give you.

Strategy #1 – “Picking Your Outfit”
Know the color of the walls and/or surroundings of the arena you will be showing in to help you determine what colors will pop in the arena. So pick your shirt or show outfit with that in mind. I do not believe that you need a ton of silver on your saddle to be seen. In my opinion using color to “pop” or be seen is very effective. I pay attention to the arena I will be showing in, is it an indoor arena or an outdoor arena? Are the walls dark colored or light? If so, what colors would look good against the walls, what would give a good contrast? If the class is really large, then it is even more important that you stand out and wear a color that will easily be seen by the judges. If you and your horse are very will known you can get away with not being quite as brihgt. But if there’s a chance that you will blend in with the crowd then don’t let that happen, be seen!

Try to pick an outfit that also coordinates with your horse’s coat color. I love using colors to make a contrast. I also try to not use colors that clash with a certain color or horse. Keep in mind that a really dark horse might need light or bring colors to be seen depending upon the arena and the lighting.

I also like to have a quality show pad that compliments both my horse and my show outfit. Get a look that is pleasing to the eye. Styles often change and sometimes a certain color is in style, but rather that just basing my choices on what is in style, I try to pick what looks good! I think it is ok to wear the same outfit over and over. You can brand yourself and become known in a certain look or outfit.

Strategy #2 – “Watch a Class before Yours”
Always try to watch a class or two before your and make a note of what the judges are calling for in the class. I also make note of how the judges are judging while watching the classes before mine. I watch the order that the judges call for the gaits as they will usually repeat it in the next class. For example, if I know that first direction they are asking for the jog then the lope I had better make sure my jog to the lope transition is good and my horse is tuned up for that. By watching a class before, it will also let me know if they are asking for the extended jog, etc. I also note where the judges are watching the whole class or just one corner of the arena. That way I can make an effort to position my horse in such a way that he makes a good “pass” in front of the judge. There’s always that moment when you catch the judge’s eye and he watches you. Show your horse off to your best ability in front of the judge.

Knowing how the judge is calling the gaits can also help you to decide when to enter the arena. If you know a horse is very slow or a little quicker you might follow that horse or choose not to, you can use that knowledge to decide when to enter the arena. Studying how the judges’ judge can tell you a lot. If for example they want you to lope or canter right off they will often scan the whole class looking for the horses that took the gait when called for. That shows you that they are looking for that confident horse that “loped right off”. hen you can choose to fire right off when they call for the lope or canter.

Strategy #3 – “Knowing the Size of Your Class”
I like to know the size of the class before I go in my class. I do this so I know how many points will be awarded to the winners but I also might use that knowledge to get off the rail in a crowd so that I’m sure I get seen, or I might try to find some rail space and if possible stay in that space. Many things can change once the class starts. You are not in control of evertyhing; sometimes you just can’t get good rail space. But I want to teach you to think ahead. I was explaining this to a student not too long ago who had gotten off the rail and didn’t know how to get back over. I compared it to this, if you are driving on a freeway with the exit a ½ mile ahead and you need to maneuver over to the far right lane to get off without cutting anyone off, how can you do it smoothly? You need to think quickly but be smooth about your movements so as to be safe and courteous to the other “drivers”. This will help you to prepare for the next time to look for that “exit” maybe a mile ahead instead of waiting so long to make your move.

Strategy #4 – “Watch Horses in the Warm-Up”
Try and pay close attention to the horses in the warm up pen with you. If you happen to notice a horse acting up or a bit out of control, you will know to distance yourself from that horse in the show pen. Also, if there is someone who is always schooling or pulling on their horse in the show pen, try to take note of these people and stay away from them as well. I understand sometimes a person needs to school their horse; in fact every horse needs schooling at some time or another. But I find it difficult to show behind people who are pulling on their horse and slowing it down to the crawl, then letting it go in front of the judges for a good pass, then slam this is irritating and inconsiderate. If you have to school just try not to mess up the other exhibitors in the class. They pay their entry fee and the class may mean a lot to them and you certainly don’t want to cost them a good ride!

Strategy #5 – “Learn When to School in the Pen”If you want to win, don’t school your horse in the pen while waiting for your class to begin. In the last point I talked a little about school but I want to bring up another point. One time, years ago at a show in Del Mar, California, I was showing my stallion, Invested Dimension in the western pleasure. There were 2 judges in the pen. Before the class started as they were loading everyone in the class, I went in and loped around, stopped and backed, loped off the other way then went and found my spot on the rail. Then they shut the gate and the class started. I had a wonderful ride and as they lined us up I was feeling confident of a good placing. They announced one judge and I was 1st on the lady’s card, but when it came to the man, he didn’t use me at all; I didn’t even get a call. He came up to me in the lineup and told me that he loved Dimensions and I had a great ride, but that he didn’t like the fact that I went in and schooled before the class started. He said he was in control in that ring and for me never to do that again. I learned an important lesson! That was his right, that was also his pet peeve so, think carefully before you school on your horse before the class starts. Sometimes they announce to “ride at will”, and you can do just that. And there are some judges that don’t care if you school a little at first. Also be careful about how you school in the show pen. Some judges get angry at that. I don’t like to school in my class but sometimes you have to in order to preserve your horse. But be discreet and care about the other exhibitors!

Strategy #6 – “Have a Pleasant Look on Your Face”
Do your best to keep a pleasant look on your face in the ring. Look confident! We all have those rides when we want to say “oh no” it’s not going the way I want it too! But you know the old saying “fake it till you make it.” Sometimes it doesn’t look as bad from the middle of the arena as you think. Putting a smile or a pleasant look on your face can help to change your whole mood. And remember, your horse feels your mood! And it is proven,confident expectations produce a better outcome!

Strategy #7 – “Always Think Ahead”
Always be thinking ahead to your next move in the show ring. Watch closely and be very aware of what is going on around you, especially directly in front and behind your horse. Be very watchful for horses and areas in the ring that may cause a problem for you and your horse. When the announcer calls for the reverse, make sure you know where the horse behind you is. If he is close, don’t reverse right away and creat a bad spot for youself. Instead, walk up a bit more and then reverse. If you get out of yourself and your own nerves, you can think to you next step. Nervousness can freeze you. You want to stay open and thinking ahead to your next move.

Strategy #8 – “When to Take your Gaits”
Try to find a balance between asking for the gait right when it is called and waiting too long and disrespecting the judges. If you always ask your horse for the gait when called, this will cause your horse to anticipate at the sound of the announcer. This can cause a big problem for you and your horse later on! However, you don’t want to wait so long to take your gaist that you irritate the other exhibitors or the judge. Use discretion and just do your best. You can also use your transitions to buy arena space. When they call the walk from the lope, you can lope up a few strides so that when you reverse you don’t revers right into a crowd. If you are in a crowd and there’s a space up ahead when they call the lope, then lope right off, go around that crowd and get to that big open space on the rail. The more you can show in the open space on the rail the better you will do! A great horseman once said to me, often the horse that has the break in the pen (the open space in the class) wins the class! Do your best to get to that open space!

Strategy #9 – “Show Ring Etiquette”* Don’t cut people off when you go to pass them
* If there are two horses next to each other on the rail, don’t try to squeeze between them, instead go to the inside and give everyone plenty of room.

* If you are schooling, don’t go around horses then cut them off and slow down or start pulling on your horse again.

* Don’t reverse right into someone! Before you reverse, look behind you and plan your reverse, giving yourself room. You can reverse in a pivot or make a small circle to buy yourself more space.

* If you are loping and you are on the inside for a long period of time, try to speed up or slow down so that you don’t cover someone else up the whole class.

Strategy #10 – “Tips for Handling Your Nerves”
* Have a confident expectation.

* Visualize a great ride.

* Think about strategies rather than yourself.

* Stay breathing; breathe deep through your diaphragm. This puts your seat where you belong on the horse and tells him you are confident.

I hope these tips will help you to have great success in the show ring!

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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