Many of us are self-made equestrians in the respect that we don’t have a string of fancy horses, we have one or two, generally bought green and brought along by amateurs, with professional assistance, myself included. Having grown up in a middle-class family, my parents are still wondering where on earth, I caught the horse bug. Quite simply, ownership was not in the budget, but as we all know, for many of us, horses become an addiction, not a simple hobby. Through the years, I’ve brought along many youngsters, some of which I’ve picked up as prospects, others I’ve bred & raised from my farm.
Exposing a green horse to the competitive arena can be stressful for the horse, rider, owner, trainer. Having done this numerous times over the years, I’ve developed a process that I have had a lot of success with. I’ve lived up and down the eastern seaboard with my crew, and I realize that what works for me may not be accessible to other areas across the country. When in doubt, it’s okay to improvise when it comes to getting your horse ready for anything.
Competitions can be scary for a horse who has never been off the farm or outside of his home base. The best way to introduce your horse to the environment is to start at home at least eight weeks or more before your planned debut. For the sake of clarity, we are speaking on the premise that your horse loads and ships well.
Step 1: Make a plan to patiently acclimate your horse to the new surroundings by re-creating them at home.
Play a radio station loudly while your horse is in the barn & while riding. I have found this simple exercise gets the horse familiar with random unexpected noises and distractions. It should be noted that I lean toward pop, rock, alternative, and country stations. I’m not sure you would get the same results with NPR or a classical station. I don’t mean deafeningly loud, but certainly loud enough to sing along with and not be heard over the radio.
Step 2: Organize distractions while you are riding.
This is helpful if you keep your horses at home and often ride alone. Having a friend come over and walk around outside the ring, open and close an umbrella ( it’s going to happen, might as well be prepared) drive the lawnmower around, make noise in the barn, let her kids play loudly outside the ring. Anything that might distract your horse. Once your horse is comfortable navigating distractions without losing focus, you are in a good place to move to the next step
Step 3: Once your horse is confident and easily works around loud noises and unexpected movement or distractions, it’s time to add some other horses to your schooling sessions.
If you board, this is probably not difficult to accomplish. However, those of us that ride at home may need to get creative with a friend or friends who ride to expose your horse to riding with others in traffic. Take a ship in a lesson at another farm or go ride, if your trainer comes to you, this can be an invaluable first excursion off the farm for your horse. Shipping in for a lesson or to a new farm for a schooling ride offers a little bit of stress and pressure found at horse shows. Time management, packing, tacking up in an unfamiliar environment, becoming familiar with what is normal at a new location are all things that build confidence. Patience is key here if your horse needs time to walk around and adjust to the new situation, give it to him. Horses all learn at their own pace; you can’t force a horse to understand something quicker than his training or temperament will allow. Evaluate how your horse handles the new environment; he may need this field trip to gain confidence in his new surroundings; he may settle in 5 minutes. You won’t know until you take a trip. Once your horse has mastered going to different farms confidently and being ridden in new places, we have just one step left before we actually compete.
Step 4: Day trip to a small local show - but NOT showing.
It doesn’t matter if you show hunter and go to a dressage show for mileage, or vice versa what counts here is mileage. Talk to the show manager in advance & plan on filling out an entry and paying a fee or making a donation for the use of the facility, EMT services & insurance. I like getting a stall or parking where most of the activity takes place at the show. One-day shows are great for this.
Most of my horses are not screamers, but a few have been, nothing makes me more rattled than a horse who is in full panic mode screaming nonstop trying to find a friend. Parking said horse in a stall near the rings for the day has been very helpful for horses that are nervous screamers. I highly suggest that this be a solo flight on the trailer, so your horse does not glue himself to the ‘buddy’.
Once your horse settles into the activity, noise, and environment confidently, it’s time to go for a hand walk and maybe some grazing by the schooling area. Let him get a good look around at all the other riders & horses. If your horse is nervous and does not want to graze or stand still, that’s okay. Continue hand walking around the show grounds until he’s ready to graze or stand and watch. Again, patience is key. You may have to do this at a few shows for your horse to figure it out.
Once your horse is quietly & confidently observing his surroundings, it’s time for a tack walk to the schooling area. Again, your horse may not be ready on this first adventure to a show, take your time and give your horse what he needs to build his confidence. It will be worth it in the long run if he’s pleasant to tack walk around the show grounds and will stand patiently at the rings observing all the mayhem at the ingate, head over to the schooling ring, and if he can hack around normally in traffic, congratulations. You have successfully prepared your horse for what to expect at his first competition.
A Few Dos and Don’ts.
- Do contact the show manager and get the thumbs up to use their show for mileage.
- Do intend to pay something, putting on a show is expensive, and even if you aren’t showing you are partaking in the services the show is providing. It’s only fair to compensate the manager or the organization putting on the show.
- Do come prepared for your horse to be on his worst behavior and be ready to deal with it.
- Do give your horse lots of encouragement when he shows that he is adapting to his environment
- Don’t allow your horse to be disruptive in the schooling area
- Don’t allow your horse to act out ringside while classes are taking place. If your horse is screaming, spinning, and carrying on, he’s trying to tell you he’s not ready and needs to take a step back.
- Don’t lose your patience with your horse, regardless of how old your horse is; you can’t expect him to understand what is happening without mileage. He may need more than one practice show before he understands, we always go home to our stall and pasture after the show.
Following these suggestions should make your first competition with your horse easier and less stressful, since you will know what to expect from your horse, and he has an idea of what is going on.
If you are struggling or not sure, do not hesitate to ask a professional for help. Green horses aren’t for the faint of heart and can be unpredictable. Know when you need help and don’t be afraid to ask for it.
We all started somewhere.
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