Every year when show season begins in earnest, thousands of horse trailers roll along the highways on route to a horse show. These weekend warriors are headed for competition and sometimes misadventure.
Veterans of the show arena have witnessed some bazaar and frightening experiences over their years of involvement on the show circuit. You may be the most conscientious horse owner, but other external factors can play havoc with the pleasure and safety of the horse shows you attend.
The Stress Factor
Horse shows are stressful! Not only do most competitors suffer from show-ring jitters, so do horses. Psychology teaches us that our own insecurities are easily transported to the horse. Calming our nerves is harder than we can imagine. It is often the “hurry up and wait” syndrome that most competitors suffer from. It seems like an eternity waiting to make our entrance through the “in gate”. Keeping oneself busy between classes, either by cleaning tack, watering the horse or some other useful activity, will help ease anxieties. It becomes a distraction to our worried minds that often dwells on the “what ifs”.
Practice self-calming techniques, such as deep breathing exercises and muscle relaxation while focusing on positive thought and imagery. Be aware of your muscle groups and learn how to release the tension of competition through these beneficial tools of relaxation.
So often we see horses being longed, ridden and longed again to get the edge off them. Most horses won’t wear down and in some cases the extra work only builds them up, defeating the whole purpose of this often-futile exercise. The simple act of walking a ring before a show starts or during lunch break, acquainting the horse to the new environment, will help it adjust and settle. Just taking your horse to a show without competing and letting it experience the sights and sounds will help prepare it for future competition. Unfortunately, you can’t completely duplicate the show ring at home, but there are some training tips that will help.
Training at Home
Desensitize your horse to many of the variables it will encounter at horse shows. These will include such things as camera flashes, balloons, flags, umbrellas, rain slickers, and those annoying sneaky baby strollers. Tents and awnings are also commonplace sights at shows. That flapping noise can be disturbing, even terrifying to the horse.
Play recorded sound tracks, introducing loud noises such as band music, cheering and clapping and a host of other uncommon sounds your horse will encounter at shows and fairs.
Moving vehicles can often upset a horse. Practice walking your horse by stationary cars with engines running and slow moving automobiles.
Your homework in preparation for horse showing should include trailer loading. Nothing is more frustrating than an uncooperative loader. Equally important, is the controlled unloading of your horse. A horse rushing out of the trailer, can injury itself just as easily as the horse that is difficult to load. The frazzled horse’s anxiety level will have peaked by the time you arrive for your competition. This, combined with your own personal stress from the ordeal, could sabotage your ride in the show ring.
If your horse is new to the rattle and shake of a moving trailer, take a few short trips to help the horse establish its ‘trailer legs’ prior to embarking on the real road trip to a show. Be certain that you take precautions when navigating corners and coming to stops. Remember, you are carrying live cargo that will react to sudden manoeuvers.
Before you head out, prepare a complete checklist of items well in advance. The list should include everything from tack to apparel, food, directional maps, and personal needs such as headache remedies and sunscreen. So often basic items are forgotten in the frenzy of packing for a show and only add to our stress levels.
Make certain you have organized all of your show documents. Having photocopies of these required papers and placing them in a binder for safekeeping in your horse trailer, will ensure that these documents are available at every show when making entries.
Don’t forget to store tools for your truck and trailer in the event of a breakdown. Include a first aid kit: one for you and one for your horse. Other items to consider for your first aid kit are instant ice packs and electrolytes for your horse.
Bring along a flysheet and extra repellent and pack a horse cooler and body sponges. Take your own water supply. (Horses can be finicky drinkers of unfamiliar water sources.) Serious dehydration could ensue from lack of water during heavy competition and extreme heat. Offer water to your horse at several intervals throughout the day, even if it refused it. Don’t forget about the horse that makes the long haul in and from a horse show. Stop often and offer a fresh bucket of water during these brief breaks from the road.
Pack an extra halter and lead shank. You never know when you might need one. Store a shoe puller in your trailer for emergencies.
The Weather Factor
Since a lot of local events and fairs are held outdoors, weather and ring conditions are a consideration when competing.
If the footing is slick or rough, you might not want to risk injury to you or your horse. Depending on your shoeing requirements and discipline, you may want to outfit your horse’s shoes accordingly. Lightning strikes have been known to be fatal for riders and horses. Sadly, fatalities like these happen from time to time at outdoor horse show events. Your horse’s steel shoes makes for an excellent conductor for a bolt of lightning. Since the rider becomes the highest point in the show ring, he or she becomes the ultimate target and victim. Be prudent and safe by withdrawing from competition in extreme weather conditions such as thunderstorms.
Practicing Good Horsemanship
Proper tying with quick release knots or snaps with appropriate length and height consideration will aid in the prevention of accidents and injury. Place your horse in an area free of entrapment. (Fender wells can be considered hazards.) Provide shelter from the hot summer sun by parking your trailer under trees if possible. Set up an awning beside your trailer in open areas. This will give your horse added relief and protection from the sun. A flysheet will also be of benefit to guard against insect pests and the sun’s ultra-violet rays.
Play it safe. Do not allow your horse to graze on unfamiliar turf. Some multi-use public grounds used for the occasional horse show may have been treated with toxic chemical sprays to control the weed populations.
You can’t always guard against public ignorance. Be vigilant, never complacent.
Do not allow visitors to approach your horse without supervision. An outreached hand can be mistaken for a treat and an innocent nip or bite from a jealous horse can lead to a host of problems. Few horse owners realize that in some jurisdictions, a person bitten by a horse who seeks medical treatment for their injury, will result in mandatory quarantine of that horse for possible rabies by the local health department. Regardless of the circumstances, or proof of rabies vaccination, there is no exception to the law in this regard.
If your horse should become frightened by a passer-by on a bicycle, or a baby stroller walking behind it and that horse reacts and lashes out in fear, you are liable for any injuries.
The general public does not often think about their actions and resulting consequences. They may offer your horse a treat that is not suitable, or attempt to pet your horse in a sensitive or ticklish area. This may evoke an unfavourable response from your horse.
There can always be a dark side to events and situations when things go wrong. By minimizing possible disaster scenarios and desensitizing your horse, enjoying a horse show and reaping the thrill of victory can come at a reduced cost both financially and emotionally for you and your equine partner.