Calming Show Nerves

As a judge and a competitor that trains my own horses, I’m all too familiar with show nerves in both horses and people. The funny thing about show nerves is that they tend to be a vicious cycle. The more nervous we are, the more the nervous the horse becomes. The more nervous the horse gets, because we’re nervous, the more nervous we get!

Warm up pen - Harriman, Tennessee
Warm up pen – Harriman, Tennessee

It’s a never-ending cycle! The problem is that someone – whether it’s us or the horse – has to lead. If you’ve got a solid baby sitter type horse that’s been everywhere and done everything you might survive if they lead. However, if you’ve got a horse that’s the least bit green or insecure you had better learn to step up to the plate and be a leader.

Insecure horses, whether they’ve been hauled a lot or not, need a confident rider. They need to feel safe and they look to us to make them feel secure. Only when they feel that security can they start to relax and settle. The first step to improving you and your horse’s show nerves is to recognize their need for confidence, and to recognize your responsibility as a leader. When you realize your role of helping your horse, suddenly you go from being reactive and somewhat of a victim to being more in control. Your mindset tends to change when you see you are responsible for your horse’s frame of mind.

Smarter horses tend to anticipate and get more nervous because of that. The best thing you can do on show day with a horse that anticipates is to not get in a hurry. I get nervous if I feel rushed, and I know they do too. The more relaxed I can be, the more relaxed my horses will be as well.

If I have a horse that anticipates, a high energy horse, or a horse that hasn’t been hauled a lot I try to arrive at the show at least two hours before it starts. I’ll wait a few minutes before I unload, and then wait another thirty minutes before I start tacking my horse up. This gives them a chance to acclimate to their surroundings and relax.

Seasoning at the shows
Seasoning at the shows

A lot of riders will spend time lunging their horses to work the energy off. While I do think some horses do need to get that energy out of their system, especially those that don’t get a lot of daily turnout, I think the majority of horses would benefit more from just a few minutes of quality ground work that makes them think.

Mindless circles at a crazed canter doesn’t get a horse’s mind. All it does is tire them out, and if you’re showing you need a certain level of energy to compete. Save some of that energy for the show ring by working your horse in a way that makes them think and engage their mind.

As the saying goes, if you get their mind you get their feet. Asking them to move their shoulders and hips, or make a lateral move from the ground goes a long ways towards getting them thinking under saddle.

The same concept goes for warm up under saddle. Lope or canter just enough circles to get the edge off if they need it, but don’t let the goal of your warm up be to tire your horse out. The goal of your warm up should be to get your horse thinking and paying attention to what you’re asking.

Just like on the ground, moves that require them to think are great for making a horse think. Instead of repetitive circles, try frequent changes of directions and rollbacks, a side pass or a half pass to get your horse paying attention. Mix your ride up to keep them guessing what you’re going to do next.

As you’re riding, make sure you’re relaxed. Any time you’re tense, whether you realize it or not, you’re contracting muscles in your body that send a “go forward” cue to your horse. While your hands and legs may be telling your horse to slow down or stop, the rest of your body is telling your horse to move. This conflict in cues can frustrate a horse and cause them to be more nervous. Taking a big deep breath and releasing it loudly will release the tension that you’re feeling as well as relax the muscles, and it sends an audible cue to your horse.

Relaxing before a class
Relaxing before a class

Knowing your role as a competitor, and changing your warm up strategy can improve show day nerves. Take the time to do an honest assessment of you and your horse, and look for ways to improve your preparation and you’ll see results in the show pen.

Do you struggle with being nervous in the show pen? How do you think that impacts your horse? What changes can you make to improve that?

Hanging out at the trailer on show day. No rush!
Hanging out at the trailer on show day. No rush!

 

Cardinal Rules Of Showing – Tips For Your First Show

Spring is almost here and if you’re like a lot of folks, you’re already thinking about the show season. Some of you may have already scheduled your entire show season, and others may be considering showing for the first time. Either way, now is the best time to set your goals and schedule accordingly.

SHOW RING

Being a competitor and a judge, I see a lot of new comers to barrel races and horse shows. Remembering what it’s like to be a complete novice and not know anyone, I always try to reach out and help folks that are new to showing. Regardless of what level you ride at, or what event you decide to compete in there’s a lot to learn and a lot of “unwritten rules”.

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The first cardinal rule is always bring your Coggins test even if it doesn’t say it’s required!

The second cardinal rule is thoroughly read the Show Bill or Prize List and pay attention to all the details. The show bill will tell you when the show starts, what the rules are, how much entry fees are and if there are any miscellaneous fees.

The show bill will also list the classes that will be offered. You’ll want to decide way ahead of time which classes you want to ride in. Write down the number and name of the class on a sheet of paper and keep that with you at all times. It’s also a good idea to keep a show bill in your pocket. This way you won’t forget which classes you’re entering at sign up – you’d be amazed how many people forget. This also helps to speed up the sign up process.

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Speaking of sign ups, one question I often get is “What do I do to sign up and where do I go?”

Every event will have either a sign up table or an actual show office. This is where you sign up and pay for classes and get information about the show. Another tip is always bring cash. Not every show takes checks so be prepared.

 

Another cardinal rule of showing is be ready for your class! Always know what class is in the arena so that you’ll know when it’s time for you to be close to the in gate and ready to go in. If you miss your class, you can be disqualified and in most cases entry fees won’t be refunded.

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If you think you might not have enough time between classes to get tack or horses changed, request a “Tack Change” at the time of sign ups. That way the judge and ring steward will know you’re running late and will allot a little extra time before the class.

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One cardinal rule that is frequently broken is know your patterns. Most shows will post the pattern early on to let contestants memorize it ahead of time. Look at and memorize the pattern as early as possible so that you know what you’re supposed to be doing in the pen. One tip is to take a picture of the pattern with your phone – that way you can carry it with you.

The last cardinal rule I’ll talk about is getting to the show early. A good rule of thumb is to get to the show at least two hours before it starts. That way you have plenty of time to acclimate your horses and warm up.There’s nothing more stressful to you or your horse than dashing into a class at the last-minute.

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By planning ahead way ahead, allotting for enough time, and paying attention to the details your first show experience can be a positive one.

Are you planning on showing or competing this year? If so, what events? What are you looking forward to and what are you worried about?