Unless you’ve done the winter circuits in Florida or California, you’re probably thinking about your first show of the season. And for many of you amateur riders, this might be your first show season ever. As I watch my own students make their plans for the year, I wanted to share some musings on showing from the trainer’s perspective—mistakes I see riders make, both in and out of the ring, that make their lives so much harder and shows so much less fun.
1. Remember this is supposed to be a pleasurable experience. Amateur or professional, this is supposed to be fun. No one gets into horse training for the money; we do it for fun. And I’ve never met an amateur who feels obligated to ride; they choose to do it, again, because it’s fun. So lighten up. Take a breath. Enjoy the journey.
When it all goes to hell in a handcart (which it definitely will, at some point), you’re allowed between 10 minutes and 12 hours of pouting, doled out on a sliding scale of the severity of the disaster. (One bad ride at local show on green or new-to-you horse: 10 minutes. Calamitous performance at the National Championships: 12 hours. Fill in the middle as you see fit.) Pouting shall, under no circumstances, involve crying in public, shouting at anyone, taking any of your feelings out on your horse, or generally making a scene. I recommend, once you’ve gotten your horse and your equipment put safely away, getting in the car and driving to Dairy Queen. Just as a trailer ride to the vet cures many colics, the car trip to Dairy Queen bolsters the spirits of most failed competitive endeavors.
2. On that note, behave like a professional. (And lest you think I’m just talking to amateurs, no; I know lots and lots of pros who need to try behaving like a pro.) Professionals do not yell at anyone. Ever. Professionals do not vent their frustrations on their horses. Professionals manage their time wisely so that they rarely are scrambling to get to the ring on time, or are running around going, “OMG WHO PACKED MY BOOTS?! WHY DIDN’T SOMEONE PACK MY BOOTS?!”
Be responsible for your own stuff, even if you’re so lucky as to show with a trainer who offers any sort of grooming service. If your horse lives in training, ask your trainer what she and her staff pack for you and your horse, and what you should be responsible for. Have a plan and a schedule. And then, if the plan goes awry, be ready to roll with said plan graciously.
3. Set goals in advance. Be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results-Focused and Time-Bound (acronym SMART). As my friend Dr. Jenny Susser, sports psychologist, told me once, write down said goals in pencil, because you’ve got to be ready to alter them as the need arises, but write them down. It’ll help you remember what you considered important at the beginning of the year when you’re reflecting back at the end.
4. Memorize your test. (Or your courses, for you jumping beans.) In dressage, we can have tests read for us at many shows. Don’t do it. Have it memorized and have it down COLD. Sometimes it’s windy or raining or there are three other readers in the same space or whatever. Don’t count on someone else, not to mention that having your test memorized means you know what’s coming next and can plan ahead.
5. Be patient with volunteers. While many shows are run by exceptional management companies, nearly all shows are staffed by volunteers, some of whom are spouses or children of riders and who have literally no idea what they’re doing. It’s OK. Be kind and fair to them.
6. Get your entries in, complete, and on time. It’s just not that hard.
7. Be prepared. Make sure all your equipment fits and is in good repair, with enough advance that you can fix it if it doesn’t or is not. Practice trailer loading. If your horse has never been off property, take an outing to a nearby farm. Practice trailer loading. Know how long it takes to get to the show from home or from the hotel, and if you’re hauling, make sure you have a trailer-friendly route before you go. And PRACTICE TRAILER LOADING.
8. Get your head in the game. So, so, so many riders, both professionals and amateurs alike, get nervous before or at the show. Have a strategy for dealing with your anxieties, whatever that strategy may be. I am lucky in that I’m personally rarely a nervous competitor, but no matter what, I always find 10 quiet minutes before I show anything to sit down, close my eyes, and visualize every step of the test—not just A enter X halt bla bla bla, but visualize every half-halt, every application of the inside leg, every breath. Not only does it make sure I’ve got my test down pat, but it is amazing how it helps me focus.
And I also have a weird little superstition/strategy: As I come around the short side to enter at A, I tell my horse, out loud, the two or three things that I’m going to think about during that test. “OK Swagger: balanced corners, poll up, straightness. Stay with me, here we go!” I remember entering the ring on Ella for our first CDI together, and I said to her, “Um, I have no idea. Stay with me, here we go.” And sure enough, the test sucked.
If you’re looking for an extra bit of help getting your brain space where you need it to be, my awesome friend Jen Verharen is doing a super cool workshop online, for amateurs or professionals, to give skills for focus and calm during competition or lessons. It starts May 1, and whether you’re new to this or you’re an old pro who wants to do better, Jen is fantastic, and she’s been super helpful to me. Check it out, and enter the code TPPVIP20 to get a discount.