Schooling shows are always fun. There’s nothing quite like the relaxed fun and camaraderie you observe there, with novice riders getting the feel of a show with trusted mounts and green horses getting show experience with capable trainers.
Turn right at the sign, drive in, and find a place to park. It could be at the county fairgrounds, or it might be someone’s farm. Either way, plan to park on grass, and bring your lawn chairs, as there may or may not be bleachers available.
Horses and riders are warming up, shouting early morning advice to each other. Someone’s brushing out a tail; someone else has found a handy area of concrete on which to apply some hoof polish. Even though it’s not a big show, there is an air of excitement about the grounds.
The announcer declares that the show is about to start. The loudspeakers (borrowed from somebody’s brother’s garage band) have a faint buzz; maybe it’s a loose wire. The announcer is someone’s cousin who doesn’t seem to know much about showing, but that’s okay. The main rule of schooling shows—and one of the reasons I like them so much—is that the pressure and expectations are low. This is a day just for fun. The announcer stumbles through a competitor’s name, and that competitor’s mom shouts out the correct pronunciation from a nearby lawn chair.
Over near the rail is a small group of dads armed with video cameras (or their phones doubling as video cameras.) In the long term, they’re capturing the event for memory’s sake. In short term, these videos will be seized by the competitors and analyzed deeply. What did I do wrong right there? Why couldn’t I get that lead change? Good moments caught on video will also likely end up on social media: Having a great day at the schooling show…
Schooling shows are popular with extended families, too. Grandpas set up fold-out canopies to give their families some much-needed shade. Throughout the course of the long day, various sun-baked riders will wander up to these tents, horse in hand, and ask “Can I stand in your shade for a few minutes?”
Not seeking shade at all are the preschool siblings of older competitors. They play, roll, and wrestle aimlessly with each other in the grass, somewhat bored with the day. Dogs are also everywhere. Some seem to belong to spectators and stay nearby, others traverse the showgrounds boldly and must belong to the farm owner.
It’s time for a hunt seat rail class, and it’s a bigger one: probably a dozen riders. Unfortunately, the first horse kind of pokes along, and his slow place causes all the other horses to quickly bunch up on the rail behind him. Trainers, taking the “schooling” part of the show literally, shout out advice on how to cut across the arena and secure better position. After all, it’s a schooling show and part of the reason for being here is to learn. Some of the riders get the hint and remove themselves from the traffic jam, but most somehow miss the message. The announcer tries next, with word from someone higher up: “The judge would like you all to spread out.” Finally, they do.
Throughout the afternoon, a thousand minor crises appear and are dealt with. Someone can’t find their pony’s bridle! Oh wait, here it is. We’re running out of third-place ribbons! I have some from last year’s show in my garage—I’ll go home and get them. Someone’s Thoroughbred is afraid of the potted plant next to the judge’s booth! Is it okay if we move it? Sure, go ahead. The loudspeaker quit working! Where’s Cole? Cole: No problem. It’s a loose wire. Everything’s cool.
In the end, as the sun goes down behind the showgrounds and the shadows grow long, the real value of the schooling show comes to light. It’s a day for fun, a day to try something new, a day to win a ribbon, however small, a day for the young horse to learn what it’s all about, and a day for the young rider to test their abilities in real competitive situation. And that’s a pretty fine way to spend a Saturday.
Daniel Johnson is a freelance writer and professional photographer. He’s the author of several books, including How to Raise Horses: Everything You Need to Know, (Voyageur Press, 2014). Dan’s barn is home to Summer, a Welsh/TB cross, Orion, a Welsh Cob, and Mati and Amos, two Welsh Mountain Ponies. Follow him at www.facebook.com/foxhillphoto.