Why do you want to show? If you’re like a lot of exhibitors, your reply will probably be something along the lines of, “I just want to have some fun.” But what’s your definition of fun? Shows can be expensive, and there are plenty of less costly ways to enjoy spending time with a horse. Yet if fun means testing your horsemanship skills, achieving personal goals and settling some good-natured rivalries (all while you and your horse are gussied up and groomed to perfection), then horse shows may indeed be your ticket to a good time.
Scoping Out the Show Scene
The best way to ensure an enjoyable show is to carefully select one appropriate for your skills and goals. Horse shows span a wide spectrum, from casual playdays and schooling shows to high-profile events that offer lavish awards and national titles. This means there’s a horse show out there just for you, even if you’re juggling constraints such as family, work and bills. You don’t need to inherit a fortune or empty your bank account to have fun while showing; you just have to find a show that complements you, your horse and your budget.
If you aren’t sure where you and your horse will shine, start by consulting with a local professional whose clients are actively competing. Ask for honest feedback. Maybe your horse doesn’t quite have what it takes to be successful in western pleasure, but your excellent position in the saddle and your horse’s comfortable gaits and solid work ethic might bode well for success in classes with patterns and courses, such as horsemanship and trail.
Next, visit some of the shows that you’d like to compete at, and just hang out. Does it seem like you and your horse would fit in? Take into consideration the overall quality of the horses and each rider’s turnout. Is it within your budget? Despite all the assurances that judges don’t pay attention to brand labels, there’s no denying that there’s a certain look required to be successful in the show-ring, and that look gets more expensive as you move up the ladder of horse show ratings. Yet, there’s no sense in going broke before you reach the entry booth. Figure out your finances first, then make a commitment to show within your means.
Finally, when you think you’ve found your place, consider joining a local, regional or national competitive association. You’ll have to pay some annual dues, but membership will put you on a mailing list for upcoming shows and allow you to vie for high-point awards and other types of recognition. You’ll also get to know a lot of other horse people with similar interests, and that will lead to even more fun!
The Right Class
Once you’ve settled on a show, read the class list carefully before deciding which ones to enter. While horses and riders perform as a team, there are classes where the horse is judged (such as hunters, jumpers, pleasure and halter) and classes where the rider or handler is judged (equitation, horsemanship and showmanship). Take advantage of these categories whenever possible, depending on whether you’d rather showcase your horse’s talents or your own. Pay attention to the brief notes that describe the class requirements. You might discover something tailor-made for your horse. For instance, if you have an easily distracted green hunter, look for classes with low fence heights that are restricted to horses in their first season or two of showing. That way, you’ll be competing against other horses that may spook in the corner, trot their lead changes and zigzag through a line of jumps.
The same idea works for your riding qualifications. If you’re new to showing, or lack a stellar résumé when it comes to acquiring blue ribbons, then you’re probably eligible for novice classes. Set yourself up for success by competing among your peers. When horses and riders of similar experience are grouped together, there’s a greater likelihood that each participant will end up with a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. Every competitor deserves a chance to shine. You just have to find the right galaxy.
During her lengthy show career on the hunter/jumper circuit, Cindy Hale won more than 20 medals for hunt-seat equitation. She currently serves as a judge at local and regional open horse shows.
This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe.