Why do we go to shows? There are four reasons.
Why we show horses in general is a subject for much deeper study. Why do we want to spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars taking a 1200-pound prey animal to a scary environment all so that someone in a little box can tell us why we're not perfect at it, and maybe earn a few bucks' worth of ribbon and, maybe, if we're lucky, some delightful GMO glassware? An excellent question, and certainly one that proves the Equestrian Psychosis.
But I've accepted that we're all freaking nuts, and so I clarify: why do we sign up for a show? Sometimes we sign up for a show because either horse, rider or both needs mileage. When I take the baby horses to their first few shows, it's not because I have any grand expectations. It's that they need to learn how to go away from home and wear their Big Boy Pants, and not try and eat me for breakfast. If a student tells me, "I want to be great at showing," the way to get them to that point is by… showing. A lot. Until it's easy.
The second reason is that the horse or rider needs a score for some kind of accolade or approval. Maybe a rider is ready to move on from Second Level, but needs one more score for her Bronze Medal. Maybe a mare or a stallion needs X scores at Y percent to get approved with a breed registry. Or maybe a sale horse has been schooling the Prix St. Georges at home, but by going out and showing it he increases his price tag.
The third is simple: for fun. I know lots of people whose approach to showing is lackadaisical. They maybe go to one or two shows a year, not trying to qualify for anything or achieve anything in particular - they just like going, the fancy jackets and the braids and the social element. Hey, rock on.
And the fourth is to win. Simple as that.
When I'm planning a show season, I'm factoring all the detail stuff: distance, the quality of the venue, the environment; is it a qualifier for something big, or is it just a quiet little show. But I'm also thinking about why I'm showing, or why my students are showing, and what they want to get out of it. And I'm also thinking about whether I'll be showing any given horse at all.
I've been waffling on Johnny, and whether to show him. He can do almost everything in the FEI 5-Year-Old test, and has a lot of the qualities I think they'd be looking for. But he doesn't have all of them, and he doesn't have them consistently. So I go through my checklist:
- Do we need mileage? I don't, not at First and Second Levels. And by his second show as a 4-year-old he'd pretty much learned to behave, so I don't think he does either. Scratch that off the list.
- He's a gelding, and has his papers. He's not for sale, and I've not had a hard time justifying his value to his insurance agency. I have all my rider medals. There's no paperwork we need. Done.
- I'll be at the shows with ten gagillion people anyway, so I don't need to enter him to get in on the fun.
- And so it comes down to this: I'm not sure he'll win.
For a lot of people, even professional riders, going to the Young Horse Championships and placing 13th, or 9th, or 5th would be a huge accolade. I get that, respect the heck out of it, and encourage it. But if you all will indulge me in a little ego, I've gotten some very cool ribbons in my career, but now I want the Big Ones. If I'm going to drop that kind of money and time and heart into it all, I want to stand a real shot at being in a press conference.
And it's important to remember this, I think: a horse's success or not at any one particular show, or even at one particular level, is merely a reflection of where they were in their education on that day. Johnny winning (or not) the 5-Year-Old Championships, or the First or Second Level Regional Championships, or X Level Test Y at Z Dressage Show, would bear exactly zero weight on his future success as an international Grand Prix horse.
And so, for now, Johnny's dance card is full of training, not shows.
Fender is going to show the Prix St. Georges in a few weeks, his first, to give me some guidance on what to make his 2014 goal. For him, it is about mileage - showing FEI is way more relevant to the long-term goal than showing at the lower levels, something at which he proved himself proficient last year anyway. And it is about fun, a bit - yes, I consider showing in my fancy jacket more fun than in the short coat. So sue me!
Then there's Fiero, a 7-year-old that belongs to a wonderful amateur client. I'm just getting to know him, but I thought he certainly would satisfy Reason #4 at Second Level, and so I showed him twice, winning all four tests and kicking the world's butt. He was shown extremely successfully by his previous trainer, and as such is not lacking for mileage (in fact, our only score below 70 percent was in his first test, where I trailered him over to the show with plenty of time, not knowing what he'd be like off the farm; he walked off the trailer like he owned the place, and I wasted his best energy ambling around the showgrounds. He's a pro.) He, too, is a gelding, and is definitely not for sale.
And even though his owner, like me, enjoys a High Point Ribbon as much as the next guy, when she asked me whether I'd like to show him more, I told her to save her money. He's trained. He's proven his proficiency at this level, and is qualified for the Regional Finals - you know, the ones in OCTOBER; nothing like planning ahead! So let's spend the summer training on him, installing the changes, and getting him ready for Third Level and beyond.
The timing of these sorts of things merits consideration, too. A horse that's really stretching for Level X in February might be King Of The World at it by June. Even though Fender showed Third Level last season in Florida, it wasn't until the end of the show season where he really got "good" at it. In 2012, Midgey could not put three one-tempis together in January; by February, he did his first Developing Grand Prix test on 73 percent with perfect ones. Horses don't move up the levels one level per year, as I've seen it suggested. Sometimes they hold at a stage of development for months, even years; sometimes they shoot right up. The peaks and valleys of training don't necessarily correspond with the calendar.
Fortunately, with modern technology, closing dates for most shows are now only two or three weeks before competition begins, so we can throw horses in at the last minute, if they suddenly find themselves ready to go. So I make my plans, and then change them 10,000 times. And if it really comes down to it, know this: I ordered a HUGE High Point Champion ribbon from Hodges' Badge Company as a gift for my mom ten years ago for her birthday. Cost me about $25. If you need a ribbon really badly, and you or your horse isn't quite ready for it yet, there's always that option!