Hilda Gurney, undeniably America’s first great dressage rider (and a member of the bronze medal-winning team at the 1976 Olympics) has said that you can train a horse at home all you want, but you then have to spend time training it to compete. If you’ve ever taken a green horse to a show and witnessed how it morphed into a fire-breathing, incoherent equine dragon, then you understand what she meant.
Many green horses suffer mental meltdowns during their first season of showing. But if you take some preventive steps you can make your greenie’s introduction to competition less stressful. Here are some suggestions.
- Practice a few dry runs or rehearsals. Haul your green horse to other stables or community arenas. Give him a few minutes to adjust to the new surroundings then put him to work, whether it’s under saddle or a short session on the longe line. After a couple of these adventures, hopping in the trailer and performing in a strange setting will be just another part of his routine.
- When it’s time to actually compete, choose your first few shows wisely. Look for schooling shows or competitions designed for green horses. The atmosphere will be low-key and the staff (from back gate personnel to the judge) is prepared to deal with some green horse antics.
- Do your research. Make sure the showground setting is suitable for a green horse. Check for a designated longeing area, complete with good footing and secure fencing. Since you’ll be spending plenty of time hanging out, babysitting your baby, look for some comfort factors. Is there shade? What about some solid benches and a hitching posts or cross-ties?
- When you arrive at the show, allow time to acclimate your horse to his surroundings. Integrate longeing (where he can work off some of that excess nervous energy) with stretches of hand-walking. Let him settle in and feel safe before asking him to perform.
- Enter just a few classes, and stick to ones restricted to inexperienced show horses. Ride among your peers. If your horse breaks his gait, misses a lead or spooks in the corner, calmly fix the problem just as you would at home, and carry on. Respect the other exhibitors, however, and don’t disrupt the rest of the class.
- Be alert for signs that your horse is overwhelmed. Though he’s likely to forget half the stuff he’s learned, if he’s especially distracted, neighs frequently, sweats profusely and simply won’t focus, then he’s probably mentally checked-out. It’s time to quit for the day.
- Remember that you’ll feel less pressure if you keep your goals simple. Consider the day a success if your green horse keeps his cool and remains civilized in the frenzied confusion of the warm-up arena. Build on this experience and your horse will be a natural performer in a short time.