It’s show time. You enter the ring with sweaty palms, mentally coaching yourself. Smile! Watch your posture! You listen carefully for instructions, concentrating on your hands, your horse. Are you too close to the horse in front of you? You’re so wrapped up in doing your best, the Budweiser Clydesdales could be tap dancing out by the stands and you wouldn’t notice.
This kind of experience is all too common. It’s no fun, and it doesn’t do much to help you improve your riding. Instructors and friends can sometimes watch you in the ring, boosting your morale. If they have good memories and are knowledgeable enough, they may even be able to give you a play-by-play of your mistakes and successes. Often though, you either don’t have helpers, or your supporters are far too busy with their own horse show activities.
But don’t give up! You can become more comfortable, confident, and competent in one easy day. All you have to do is go to the next show—but don’t compete. Instead, spend the day observing. Here are six reasons you’ll be glad you did:
1. Knowledge is power, and it’s comforting.
If you’re new to a discipline, the show location, or showing in general, observing can really heighten your confidence. Having a better idea of what’s going to happen, where, and when, will greatly reduce your anxiety next time. But even if you’re an old hand, you can learn a lot by stepping back and seeing a show with fresh eyes.
For example, from the height of the stands, you may notice a depression in the footing at one end of the arena—aha! That may be why your horse has stumbled there in the past. Now you’ll be able to avoid it.
Most importantly though, when you’re not caught up in your own performance, you’ll be able to learn from the successes and mistakes of others. By watching from outside the ring, you’ll see the tiny things that can make the difference between first and second, or placing and not placing.
2. You can judge the judges.
Horse show officials are generally wonderful people, disciplined and dedicated to fairness. However, judges are only human, and they are as subject to bias (conscious or not) as any of us.
Whether you’re going to be competing under the scrutiny of the local judges for a couple of shows, a whole season, or several years, it’s important to figure out their preferences. If a judge consistently pins Quarter Horses over Arabians, or prefers bays in her hunter classes, or snubs any rider that looks like his ex-wife, you need to know in advance! You can either change what you’re doing or avoid those particular judges.
3. You can stay ahead of the curve by watching local trends develop.
There’s one thing you can’t practice for, and can’t reliably anticipate—fashion trends. Judges aren’t supposed to be overly influenced by bling or braids, but it’s simple human nature to favor those who are eye-catching and attractive.
Early in the show season, sit in the stands and watch the fashion show. Notice what the top competitors are wearing, so that you can imitate the best when it’s your turn in the ring.
Flashy tack and fancy clothes aren’t all you should be looking for, however; pay attention to trends in riding as well. For example, some western pleasure classes may be starting to move off the rail, and a few judges are no longer favoring the “very slow, very low” type of movement.
4. Cooperate instead of competing.
You can help yourself a lot by going to a show without competing, but consider helping others as well. Even a schooling show takes a tremendous amount of organization and hard work.
Volunteering to record scores, hand out ribbons, work the gate, and other essential tasks is a great way to support the shows and organizations that have already given you so much. Once you’ve worked hard as a part of the crew, you’ll appreciate your next ribbon so much more. You’ll also feel connected to many of the “regulars,” making your next show a more friendly, satisfying experience.
While you’re out there, don’t forget to encourage and applaud others—you’d want them to do the same for you.
LAURA ROSE lives on a farm in Wisconsin where she blogs, paints and sometimes rescues horses.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!