Your Pony’s Show Day
by Sara Light-Waller
Published in HorsePlay
How many times have you worked hard to prepare for a horse show only to get there and find everything falling apart for no reason? Suddenly, things you do easily in practice seem impossible to get right. Your totally reliable pony refuses fences, or shies and won’t stand still for your salute, or misses the first canter lead that’s called.
That things don’t go as well at a horse show as they do at home is really no mystery. People and ponies are creatures of habit. At home everything is routine for you and your pony, and you feel comfortable and safe. At a show, your pony is suddenly exposed to many new things. Some may frighten him; others may make him curious or excited. Your feelings affect him too. When you get nervous or excited you can be certain that your pony will add those feelings to his own. These stray emotions get in the way of your performance.
If you put yourself in your pony’s horseshoes for a moment, you can fix some problems before they ever happen. Look at a show day from his point of view and you’ll understand what can go wrong, and what you can do to help.
For instance, imagine you arrived at the show grounds in the early morning. You unload your pony from the trailer and tie him to one side. Then you go to get your number from the secretary’s desk. On the way there, you meet some friends. After you get your numbers you go to visit with them at their trailer. Before you know it, more than half an hour has passed. You go back to your trailer and hear your pony whinnying. You see he’s been pawing at the ground. Suddenly, he seems more nervous than when he arrived.
In the pony’s mind, you brought him to a new place where he has no friends, tied him up, and went away. He doesn’t know where you’ve gone, or when you’re coming back. For all he knows, maybe you are planning to abandon him without food or water. Wouldn’t this make you unhappy too?
Here’s a better way to start your show day. When you arrive at the show, instead of leaving your pony alone at the trailer, take him for a little walk. He may still whinny and call. but each time he does reassure him with a kind word and a pat. Occasionally let him stop and nibble some grass. If he sees something new and wants to stare at it, reassure him gently and let him have a good, long look. Once he’s satisfied that it’s okay, keep going. By now your pony should feel more relaxed, but keep talking to him — the sound of your steady voice calms him. On you way back to the trailer, stop and get your number. Then, at the trailer, tie up a full hay net beside your pony, and get him a bucket of water. Now he stands quietly and calmly.
Move ahead: imagine yourself warming up for your first over fences class. You’re nervous, so you’re concentrating very hard on the practice fence. Three times out of four your pony pops over it instead of jumping it smoothly. The fifth time he refuses. You become angry and frustrated. You know that you need to fix this, right now, but you don’t know how.
Once again imagine the scene though your pony’s eyes. the show grounds are still a little distracting to him, but after your walk he is probably ready to get to work. The problem here is you. If you’re nervous, you’re probably very tense on his back, and you’re probably not thinking clearly about all the cues you usually give him at home. Instead of thinking ‘smooth canter around the corner, three strides to do, two, one, take off now,’ you’re thinking, ‘jump, pony, jump!’ You’re not telling him enough, so he’s trying to jump all on his own. The more upset you get, the harder it is for him.
What can you do? First, get to the warm-up ring well before your first class, so you don’t feel rushed. Then— this is very important—remember to breathe. In competition situations it’s easy to start holding your breath, but this makes your body tense and your pony upset. It also makes it difficult to ride in rhythm with your horse. Several times during your warm-up, and again right before you go into the ring, stop and breathe slowly and deeply at least four times. Don’t try to teach your pony anything new in the warm-up ring, but do try to ride the practice fences just the way you ride them at home.
Before you start your class, imagine yourself riding your absolute best. Picture all the fences in your mind. This will get you ready to ride the way you can ride at home, and will make you feel calmer and more in control. It will also make your pony happier, because you are putting yourself, not him, back in the driver’s seat.
Think of your pony as your friend. Everyone knows friends treat each other with respect and kindness, and care about what each other is thinking. If you care about what your pony is thinking, and earn his respect, he will do his best for you. That is the secret to being a good rider.
Click the link to see a scanned version of “Your Pony’s Show Day,” HorsePlay, January/February, 1997, pp. 12-13.