A game plan is key to successful showing—whatever your level.
by Michele Vaughn
Summertime is show time for young riders in every discipline, and it never fails to bring out the hopes and fears of everybody who is involved, from parents to kids to trainers. Whether it’s a local schooling show or a championship competition, it matters to everyone.
Showing matters because, in addition to competing for ribbons and bragging rights, kids learn responsibility, consequences, goal-setting, sportsmanship and a whole lot of other life lessons that are important to their development.
That little girl who has to haul buckets of water for her pony will remember to pack a hose to the next show, right? We learn best the lessons that come from making mistakes, and from having to show up and “just do it.”
Starr Vaughn has hosted its share of dressage and hunter/jumper shows through the years, and this month we host the California Dressage Society (CDS) Junior/Young Rider Championship Show/North. This show includes youngsters riding in their first championship show to experienced show riders almost ready to graduate into Open competition.
The experience children get increases exponentially over time. Case in point: my daughter Genay was one of those little girls on a pony just a few short years ago, and now she’s competing in the Under 25 Grand Prix division with her Hanoverian stallion Donarweiss. Last summer, the two of them even competed in Europe.
You never know how far your child can go, and parents often have questions. Adult amateurs have questions, also. There are so many ways to make showing easier, more successful and more enjoyable, but what they all have in common is a game plan.
It’s important to set goals high, but not too high. You want your goals to be attainable; you don’t want to be disappointed if you don’t reach them.
I write down five important things I want to achieve and post that list in my locker at the barn where I will see it every day. You can post your list on your mirror where you see it every morning, or wherever you want, but it makes a big difference to see it every day, week after week, and month after month.
I did that when I was trying to earn my Gold Medal – I looked at “Gold Medal” on my locker door every single day – and as silly as it might sound, it worked for me. Goals are dreams that have a game plan.
Your game plan starts when you sit down at the end of one show season to plan for the next. Then you’re prepared and you know what you need to do. Start a show calendar for the year and pick out the shows you want to attend. Make sure you have some back-up shows on the calendar in case you need an extra show or two to qualify. Give yourself enough time to qualify – sometimes you or your horse can just have a bad day, and you’ll need another show to get your scores.
Know when you or your child has other things to do – school, business trip, family vacation, etc., so you can plan around them. Be realistic about the time you have available and the time it takes to do the showing in your game plan.
You need to know what is expected, whether you work with a trainer or not. Surprises are not good. Know the scores you need to qualify, and keep close track of your scores as you go through the show season.
Know the requirements for breed awards if your horse is registered. Are the scores you need a collection of five scores at 62% minimum from four different judges? Or are your scores calculated as a median, where a lower score later in the season will lower your median? Make sure you know the rules.
Be sure you get your memberships in early – you don’t want to learn the hard way that scores only count if your membership is current. For dressage riders, at a minimum you’ll want to be a member of the California Dressage Society. For riders who want to go for the maximum range of awards, other essential membership includes USDF (United States Dressage Federation), USEF (United States Equestrian Federation) and any breed associations for which your horse is eligible. Some memberships are annual, such as riders’ CDS, USDF and USEF, and some are lifetime, such as horse registration with USDF and USEF. Check with your organizations to make sure.
When it comes to show entries, technology is your friend. Many shows now offer online entries, and you can get online copies of membership cards, also. Be sure you keep hard copies for backup, however – it can help tremendously if there is ever a problem.
Get your entries in before the closing date, especially if you are snail-mailing them. Online entries should be instantaneous, but if you are faxing entries, be sure and call to confirm that they have been received. Same goes for feed and bedding orders for multi-day shows, unless you are bringing your own supplies.
This can’t be overemphasized. From practicing your tests to packing your trailer, don’t wait until the last minute.
In dressage, you always want to show a level below the level you’re training at home, to make sure you’re solid at the level you’ll be showing. That might seem odd at first, but remember that due to show nerves, a new environment at the show grounds, or a million other reasons, you and your horse are not likely to perform in a test by yourself at the show as brilliantly as you do at home in a lesson with your trainer.
Practice until you can ride the test in your sleep, or almost. We practice test riding once a week, minimum. For those new to showing, riding a dress rehearsal can help pinpoint areas that aren’t quite as polished. Your trot-canter transitions might not be as smooth as you thought, or your show coat might restrict your movement more than you anticipated – it’s better to discover that at home than in the show ring. This will give you time to fix it before the show.
Show clothes are important, not only for how you look, but also how you feel. Your show clothes should be as comfortable as possible, so if you use everyday boots at the barn to “save” your show boots, make sure that your show boots fit well and are comfortably broken in. You don’t want to be distracted at the show by boots that are uncomfortable. The same goes for coats, breeches and all the rest of your show outfit. It might not sound like a big deal, but it is.
When it comes to trailering, there’s a lot to prepare if you’re trailering yourself. There’s the physical condition of the trailer: check tires, hitch, doors, floors, walls, fire extinguisher, and trailer brake to make sure there’s been no damage or deterioration since the last show. Trailers, whether used frequently or once a year, need an annual maintenance checkup – safety depends on maintenance!
Pack everything you need for your stay at the show, for you and your horse. There are all sorts of lists on the web that you can use, but another way you can personalize a list is to think through a day at the show and write down everything you can imagine using. In addition to tack, feed and bedding, there are everyday things like buckets and brooms, duct tape and baling twine – all those things that come in handy when you least expect to need them. Remember things like first aid supplies that you don’t want to be without if you need them.
Also, ask friends who show for their lists – you might be surprised by some of the unlikely things they pack that are useful to have on hand. (Baby diapers to use as large emergency bandages or to keep hoof packings where they belong, for instance.)
Not least of all, make sure your horse loads easily and willingly. There are too many tears over a horse that flat-out refuses to get in the trailer the morning of the show, when everyone thought he loaded but nobody spent any time making sure of it. Nerves are always a little closer to the surface on show day, for people as well as for horses. It pays off big time to take the time to practice loading until it’s automatic for everyone involved.
That holds true for hitching and unhitching your trailer, as well. Make sure the trailer hitch ball is the right size for your trailer; that the hitch raises and lowers smoothly and easily; that you have chocks for the trailer wheels and the hitch itself if you plan to unhitch the trailer at the showgrounds – or even if you don’t.
Be prepared for the unexpected – it will help keep everyone’s nerves under control.
At the Show
If you’ve done your prep well, you can move in and set up easily. There’s a great camaraderie to move-in day at the multi-day shows, and you’ll meet old friends and make new ones while everyone is moving in. Even when you trailer in for a one-day show, there’s a special feeling of “we’re all in this together” that competitors share.
Check in at the show office for your number, rider information, stall assignments and any questions you may have, such as the hours for schooling in competition rings, where show rings are located at multi-ring shows, which rings are for schooling or warm-up, and any other logistical questions.
Let your horse get used to the show grounds, by hand-walking him around if he’s got good ground manners or hacking him around the grounds if he’s better under saddle. He needs to get used to the sights and sounds he’s just seeing for the first time.
Use schooling and/or competition arenas during posted hours and know that competition rings are usually closed after they are groomed to keep them pristine for the start of the show.
Allow enough time for the warm-up routine that works best for your horse, be sure to check in with the ring steward as you enter the warm-up ring, and have someone on hand at the end of your warm-up to take off your horse’s leg protection, dust off your boots, give you a last sip of water and hand you your show coat if you’ve warmed up without it.
If you’re using a test reader, this is the time for them to get in place at the show ring. Even if you know the test inside and out, using a reader is a form of insurance – anyone can have a momentary brain freeze. It’s only at championships that readers are not allowed, so be sure to practice showing without a reader so you’re ready for championships when you qualify.
Then, deep breath … it’s time to put your skills to the test and “enter at A.” You’re ready to have a great show!
Dressage Life: Dressage Life author Michele Vaughn is a dressage rider and trainer who earned USDF gold and silver rider medals. She has coached her daughter Genay from her first ride through Grand Prix competition, and now coaches other riders as well. At her Starr Vaughn Equestrian in Elk Grove, CA, she breeds and trains champion Hanoverian sport horses, manages dressage and hunter/jumper shows, and hosts clinics and breed inspections. For more information, visit www.svequestrian.com and www.dressagelifecoach.com.