It’s almost that time of year! As the days grow milder and the barn gets busier, there’s one common topic of conversation: show season!
If you’re new to riding, you might be curious to try showing, but not sure if you’re ready. The good news is, there are tons of different levels and types of shows, so there’s something for everybody.
Here’s how to tell if showing is for you, if you’re ready, how to budget for it, and how to prepare your mind and your horse.
It Pays to Watch
First, make sure that you’re actually interested in showing. Not just in the victory laps and ribbons, but the early mornings, fastidious grooming jobs, and seemingly endless horse bathing that goes into it.
Attend a few shows as a spectator if you haven’t already. Not just the regional and national shows, but the smaller shows where you’ll get your start, too.
Check out the riders and horses, and get a sense for the turnout and skill level expected. Keep in mind that you want to train to a higher level at home than what you compete in (for instance, if your goal is to show 3′ hunters, you need to be confidently jumping over 3′ regularly at home).
Once you’ve spent a few weekends in the stands, ask your coach (or an experienced competitor) if you can come along as a groom. Grooming is the best way to get show experience without actually showing, and it won’t cost you anything. Be prepared to get up early and do lots of brushing, bathing, hoof polishing, and hand walking.
Consider reaching out to show organizers and seeing if they could use some volunteer help. Most will be grateful for the support, and you’ll get backstage access to what happens behind the scenes. Plus, you’ll meet other competitors, who can be a great resource and source of support later in your showing career.
Talk to a Coach
In terms of assessing your skills, your coach is the single best way to tell if you’re ready to show, and the best source of information about the local show scene.
When starting, it’s wisest to start with smaller, unrated schooling shows. These are usually hosted by local riding stables. If you’re lucky, your barn may hold its own shows, or your coach may be affiliated with one that does. On-property shows are the easiest, least expensive way to do your first show.
If you don’t currently have a coach, it’s a good investment to take a few lessons with one who is active on your local show circuit. Ask her to assess your and your horse’s skill, if she thinks you’re ready for the ring, and what local shows she would recommend.
Ask if she does coaching on show day, as well. An experienced coach is a great asset to show you the ropes and keep you calm. You’ll have enough on your mind as it is, the last thing you need is to be unprepared for your class because you didn’t know you could warm up first!
Get your Budget Ready
Nothing with horses is really “cheap,” and showing is no different! Even schooling shows at a local barn can run you a few hundred dollars a weekend, easily.
The good news is that smaller schooling shows typically have much less rigorous turnout requirements.
You’ll need to check the rules for your show, but you can usually get away with a clean, respectful appearance, even if you don’t have all the bells and whistles. You may be allowed to wear paddock boots and half chaps instead of field boots, for instance.
As far as your horse goes, “clean and conservative” is usually the rule in the English world. Matching tack is ideal, but a black bridle and brown saddle won’t get you disqualified. You can always invest in nicer equipment as your show career progresses.
If the cost of preparing for your first show seems daunting, take heart. You can get quality used show equipment from second-hand equestrian shops. If there’s none in your area, try online consignment shops like UsedHorseStuff.com. And if you find that showing isn’t for you, you always have the option to re-sell your only-used-once show duds.
There’s no getting around registration fees, although they’re usually pretty reasonable (under $40 or so per class) for smaller schooling shows. Your coach or a barn buddy can give you an estimate of what to expect in your area and discipline.
For over fences classes, many shows offer a schooling round where you can take a few jumps without a judge, for a smaller fee. This is a great investment for both horses and humans. It will give you both a chance to get used to the new ring and crowds.
While home shows are the best way to start, going to off-property shows is much more exciting. And, of course, expensive.
You’ll need to trailer your horse there, which can be expensive if you don’t own a trailer. Sharing with riders in your barn is the best way to cut costs, and most coaches will arrange trailering from their barn to the show grounds.
If you’re going away for more than a day, expect to pay stable or paddock rental fees for the night, too.
Before you go, your horse needs to be up to date on his vaccinations and worming. Shows are a great place to pick up a new disease and bring it back to your barn, so make sure he’s up to date and be prepared to show documentation.
Show ring jitters can rattle even the most experienced competitors, so prepare yourself mentally beforehand.
Accept that nerves are part of the process, and it’s just your brain trying to help you- sharpening your senses, increasing your reflexes, speeding up your thinking and slowing down your perception of time. Which is exactly what you want! So go with it.
In your pre-show rides, practice mindfulness and deep breathing in the saddle. Being able to muster this calm focus will help you take it “one stride at a time” in the ring.
Practice positive self talk to keep you confident. Avoid negative statements like “this is out of my league.” Instead, phrase it positively, like “this is what I’ve trained for.”
Focus on setting goals that are within your control, like keeping your heels down or nailing every distance. Avoid results goals like winning first place, which is ultimately out of your control.
Get Your Horse Ready
Trailering, a spooky new environment, surrounded by strange horses, overwhelming smells and sounds, AND the physical stress of doing several classes in a day? Horse shows can be super stressful for horses.
If your horse has never shown before, you need to get him ready, too. Desensitizing exercises at home are an excellent place to start. He must be able to trailer and tie calmly and should interact well with other horses.
The best way to get a new horse acclimatized to showing is to bring him along for a day, if possible. Walk him around the stabling or trailer area, let him watch a class, take him to the warmup rings, and anywhere else you can. The more he’s exposed to beforehand, the less he’ll (hopefully) be surprised by later.
There’s so much more to being an equestrian than racking up ribbons in the ring. Horse shows are an exciting way to build camaraderie, enjoy a little healthy competition, and improve your riding.
So long as you’re doing it for the love of the sport and the desire to be a better rider, you’re already ready to show.
My first show I came last in every class and then topped it off by exiting through the in-gate. What was yours like? (Better, I hope!) Share your first show stories below!
Featured image by PublicDomainPictures.