Last week I was at the Horse Park at Woodside for Langer Equestrian Group’s Circuit Opener Hunter Jumper Show. As much as I love showing, horse shows always raise a lot of questions for me. Especially at these big, multi-day shows I see a lot of people sacrificing their horses for a better performance. Their need to win and prove themselves often trumps everything else and makes them blind to the physical and emotional abuse their horse is forced to sustain. By the end of the week horses are exhausted and fed up with the whole thing.
I look at showing with a slightly different perspective. To me, showing is all about seeing how well you can do in this new, often hectic, environment while still maintaining the softness, relaxation, and willingness that you have created at home. At the end of the week your horse might be tired, but he should be content. Through the experience you should have grown closer to your horse and both learned to handle obstacles better.
I would of course be in the minority. This view of showing means I have to have enough confidence to proudly say that I didn’t execute the course or class to the best of my ability. Instead I navigated the class the best I could to ensure my horse was never sacrificed.
For example, I would much rather have a great ride than have immediate transitions in my flat class. When I place lower I know that I need to go home and work on keeping the quality of my transitions while being able to make those transitions immediately.
Similarly, a good jumping round is much more important to me than a hectic, bolting round that places well. I want my horses to of course be fast in the jumpers, but never at the expense of the suppleness, self carriage, and relaxation I have worked towards. If I need to slow the pace and take a hit on my placing I will do that to ensure that I have a quality ride.
I think a lot of natural horsemanship and other like-minded people steer away from showing because of these above mentioned issues with competition and the sacrifices people make to place well. This is a shame because it makes people believe you cannot be both a successful competitor and a horse-centered rider. I hope to help pave the way for others to see you really can do both, you just have to take the emphasis off of winning.
If you take each show as a practice test then you can go home and work through the trouble spots to do better at the next show. Like everything done well this may be a longer way to the top of the ribbons, but the quality will soon enough be there.
Dressage can be a bit easier for people because you really are competing against your best score, not just the competition. With Hunter Jumper shows you don’t get a score, so you have to be even more aware and pick your own ride apart. See what you are proud of and what needed to be improved. Then you can be happy with a better round even if the ribbons didn’t prove it.
I strongly recommend everyone gets out there and goes to a show just to get that experience and put their riding into perspective. Even though shows have this bad rap, if you do them mindfully they can be a great experience for you and your horse. They will show you where you might be weak and where you are solid. The safety of your home arena doesn’t always allow you to see that. Shows also help test the trust your horse has for you and the foundation of relaxation you have built. If you never go out of your comfort zone you can never be as solid as when you have navigated rough waters with your horse. And maybe someday, if enough people ride like this, shows won’t be such a scary, foreign environment for those of us adverse to ever putting our horse in physical or emotional distress.
So even though shows always give me a bit of a pause, I encourage all of you to go out there and try it. Shows give you a purpose, a challenge, and a unique experience to test your foundation. Start with a local show and test it out if you feel like a fish out of water. Then you can go to some bigger shows and see how far you can get while keeping that foundation of relaxation, suppleness, and willingness. Once you start, I promise you will get hooked! Showing is just as addicting as mastering that perfect stretch if you approach it mindfully.