"Riding competitively takes serious time
and dedication." ~ Shane Ledyard
You have the best trainer, a great horse, and you bought all the right tack. You have spent a plethora of valuable time getting you and your horse physically fit and sharp. His whiskers are clipped and his shoes are tight. In the tack room, the rich smell of leather oil is blending just perfect with the aroma of freshly toweled black boot polish. You possess ambition and vigor as the spring air permeates your senses, reminding you of the joy and excitement that only a good day at the horse show can bring. It’s show season, and it’s time to make decisions about where you and your horse are going to showcase your hard work and talent.
Where you horse show should be a group decision based on several factors. Everyone – the rider, trainer and parents (if applicable) should be involved in the goal setting process. The end result should be finding the best circuit or group of horse shows that will enable the rider and horse to truly enjoy their sport. Budget The first thing you need to do is determine your budget. Remember; when you are figuring this element out, there is no shame in not doing the fanciest horse shows in the most exotic places. This is about you and your horse and the relationship that you have together. Putting the family budget under financial strain can take the joy out of more than just your riding. I have been to horse shows all over the country – and it is fun to go to different places and compete with different horses, but remember – the joy should come from being with your horse – it shouldn’t matter where he is. I have seen the same level of joy produced at a backyard horse show that I have seen at shows on the rated circuit. While some may personally enjoy the challenge and the sport of the bigger shows, it does not have be everyone’s goal.
Next you need to asses about your horse’s ability as well as your own. Have a candid conversation with your trainer or a horseman that you trust and ask him what division or show he thinks is best for you and your horse. Don’t let one horse show tell you everything. Unless it is glaringly obvious that you don’t belong in the company you chose, be sure to go to a few shows of the same caliber and see how you do on average. For example, a jumper or a barrel horse could have an off day, and divisions like the hunter, pleasure and equitation are subjective. In these divisions you want to test how you do with a variety of different judges. Generally you should start to see some consistency, provided you and your horse are consistent from week to week. This goes for any horse sport that has a subjective element.
Time is another factor. Be sure to consider other hobbies or sports that you participate in and budget your time accordingly. Show horses require approximately 12 to 15 hours per week in attention from their owner. (Not including horse shows.) Some of this time can be deferred to the trainer or a groom if that is within your budget, but riding competitively takes serious time and dedication. It can become unsafe for the rider when there are regular inconsistencies. It is very important to be honest with yourself when it comes to time management, and then adjust your level of competition accordingly. Now that you have balanced your check book, assessed your ability and budgeted your time, it’s time to pick a horse show(s), or circuit in which to compete. There are a few different mentalities that you may adapt to, depending on the factors addressed above. Here are a few that I have found satisfying for myself and clients in the past.
You may want to ‘spot’ horse show. This means that you choose a few horse shows that you really enjoy for whatever reason (atmosphere, prestige, location, etc.), and set your goals accordingly. I have done this with great success in the past when making up sale horses, and also with clients that have had a flexible budget, but didn’t want to put their horses through the strain of pushing for a year end championship. Depending on what area you are from, there are many beautiful places to horse show that are rich in culture and history. In my region I have places like Devon and Radnor Hunt Club that really enrich the showing experience. Some people enjoy showing at the week long horse shows in ideal climates, like Vermont and New York in the summer or Florida and California in the winter.
If you have a young or green horse in his first year of showing, your plan may be as simple as getting him out safely to a few schooling shows during the season. In this scenario, plan to bring your green horse to a horse show just to ‘hang out’ a couple of times so he can get used to his surroundings. Only show him when he feels relaxed and in tune to your aids while in the show environment.
If your goal is to compete for a year end award, then you need to check your region for the different circuits available. Note that different circuits start at different times during the year and are sometimes held at different facilities. Every circuit has its own flavor and level of competitiveness. Point chasing can be hard on a horse, so be sure to be efficient when you choose your schedule. Pick horse shows with good footing, and don’t over prepare your horse when competing on a regular basis.
Generally speaking, the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), who is our sport’s governing body, is the most competitive (and expensive) circuit available. They have different levels of shows with ratings are determined by the divisions offered and the length of the show itself. The USEF is broken down into zones within the country, and riders may compete to win their zone and/or go onto a national final in their respective division. When searching for tough competition or when you want to increase a horse’s value, this is the spot to be, provided you and your horse can be competitive at this level. Go to usef.org for a list of rules and national divisions offered. Here in Southeast Pennsylvania, we have a generous amount of horse shows and circuits available. They include local grass root efforts, in-barn shows, pony club, and the 4-H. There are circuits such as Associated Horse Shows (AHS), Penn-Jersey, The Bucks County Horse Park Series, Pennsylvania Horse Show Association (PHSA) and the Eastern Pennsylvania Professional Horseman’s Association (EPPHA). This list omits circuits and shows available in our area, but the point is that there are options here and in your respective area as well. Also note, one horse show can hold several ratings for different circuits. For example, a show may be USEF ‘A’ rated as well as EPPHA and PHSA. With all these options, its clear there really is a spot for every horse.
If you are not sure about where to start, talk to your trainer and do some of your own research to come up with the best strategy for you and your horse. I believe that it is very important to recognize that it doesn’t matter where you show – its how you show. As a horseman and a trainer, I want my clients to care for their horse first, and as much of a cliché as it is – I truly want them to be safe and have fun. It doesn’t matter to me if they show at the local dirt ring or at Devon. Staying realistic about your expectations and communicating your goals to the people around you comes first. Once your heart is set and you know where you want to put your efforts, its time to dig in and prepare your horse to show!