When my friend Erika Conklin, a Bramblewood instructor at the time, suggested we host a Schooling Show at the farm I looked at her with that combination of skepticism and shock that usually accompanies bad, yet unavoidable, news. She might as well have told me, “The owner of that puppy you found wants their dog back.” Instead she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll do all the work. All you have to do is show up.”
And that’s what I did our first show — I showed up and I walked around and I marveled at the transformation of our usually peaceful lesson barn. Horses were everywhere, riders were everywhere, parents were everywhere. There were tears and frustration and joy and expectation and underneath it all that particular tired haze of early mornings and horse sweat. There’s really no feeling on earth like a horse show day. My fondest childhood memories are the pre-dawn drives to Tryon and the roiling nerves and excitement of performing with my best four-footed friends.
When I was growing up, horse shows were often a time of excitement and deep anxiety. I rarely knew what I was doing and the adults around me were often too busy to be bothered with questions. I was lucky to own my own horses and have the ability to travel to shows, but while I craved the environment surrounding shows, my experiences as a junior rider went a long way to mold me into the stressed out, control freak of an adult who continued to show through college and into my twenties. When I started teaching full-time, I swapped roles, traveling with students to shows. That stressed out, perfectionist of a rider was then directing traffic from the ground, a recipe for either greatness or anxiety depending on the day.
When I opened my own farm, I started asking myself how the average rider could experience horse showing without a massive financial commitment or horse ownership. There was no easy answer. No matter what level, horses are an expensive sport. Leasing is an option, but often the problem for most riders is time and availability; their families cannot transport them to the barn four or five times a week.
It’s silly to ask how showing can be a level playing field — the nature of showing is about competition and ranking. Competition is good and everyone does NOT need to be a winner on any given day. That said, there has to be a similarity between the gene that produces a horse crazy kid and the desire to cover every available wall with horse show ribbons. I still have my ribbons from when I was twelve and there’s no way I’m ever throwing them out (I’ll confess most of my early ones were still being used as valances in my bedroom window until I recently moved out to the farm full time).
I was interested to discover that even in the safe environment of the farm, riders experienced the same nervous energy and doubts that usually arise at any type of horse show. We realized that we had an excellent opportunity to use those feelings to our advantage rather than having anxiety take over and ruin the day.
As our series of Schooling Shows continued at the farm, we started to ask ourselves how could we make this experience better. How could we make it OURS?
The answer is — the same as we do in lessons. Just because you can canter and jump doesn’t mean that you always need to. We moved the focus from high performance to basics. Can you safely trot on the rail with a ring full of riders? No? Then you shouldn’t feel obligated to canter jumps, but you can still enjoy a great day of showing. Start with what you know. For what you don’t know, there’s always someone around that is ready to give you an answer. If we have to pause a class for twenty minutes to address a rider’s question or remedy a potentially unsafe pattern, our schooling shows give us the ability to do so.
But the secret ingredient — the one thing that truly transforms our shows at the farm — is our riders’ genuine care for the success and comfort of their barn friends, both two-legged and four. If something doesn’t go according to plan why let it ruin your experience? Whether we’re at a home show or on the road, our riders continually amaze me with their sense of humor, maturity and true concern for the others around them. This attitude makes showing a pleasure rather than a chore.
A horse that was trotting around perfectly the day before a show will choose his moment in the spotlight to act as if he’s never seen a corner of the ring before. One of the greatest lessons of showing is learning how to tap into your inner reserves of patience and acceptance — even when everything seems to be going the opposite of what we’ve expected. These notes apply to parents of riders just as much as they do to the riders themselves. Ribbons and placings are nothing compared to sportsmanship and lasting life skills — those hard lessons that rarely come to the surface when everything is going according to plan. Horse showing is all about self control and stress management.
No matter what level you’re riding at, the decision to show on any given day comes down to two questions: 1. Are you comfortable with your basics and 2. Is your horse comfortable with what you’re asking. If you can answer yes to both those questions . . . there’s still no guarantee that you’ll win the class, but you’ve done more than earn a blue, you’re riding like a pro.