Deviating a bit from my usual topics, my mind wandered back to my 30+ years of training horses and riders and I thought I would offer some of my thoughts.
As a trainer and riding instructor, one takes on a great deal of responsibility. Keeping a student safe, enhancing and growing their abilities both as horsemen and as individuals while promoting a safe, comfortable environment for the horses.
Spring and summer in particular, bring an increase in activities. There are lots of horse shows, play days and other competitions for which the kids work hard and have great expectations.
This is a huge opportunity for personal growth. Kids demonstrate their skills to a judge, an audience of peer/competitors, friends and family and the public at large. It can be daunting, but the opportunities for success are endless.
Unlike other competitive sports, in which the participant performs individually such as gymnastics, or dance or team sports where they play a part of a greater whole, such as in baseball or soccer, a rider must be the leader of a horse/partner team, in a relationship where responses are fluid and often unpredictable. This requires great concentration as split second decisions and responses may be called on at any time, as in the event of a horse spooking off the rail because of the sudden actions of a spectator or something as common as a napkin blown by the breeze. The rider must be prepared at all times for such an incident, be capable of controlling the horse’s movements and reactions all while maintaining proper form, having spatial awareness to avoid hitting other horses (or even judges) and “covering” the mistake and the ability to remain focused on the changing instructions dictated throughout a performance. It requires patience, confidence, dedication and skill. Children, even at very young ages, do demonstrate the ability to exhibit these qualities.
Youngsters tend to want affirmation and recognition and of course, to please their parents.
Parents, who often invest a great deal of time and money into the child’s chosen sport, tend to sometimes lose perspective, which can place undue pressure on an exhibitor. Others, might not show up, which can be disappointing to a youngster.
But the most common mistake riders, trainers or parents often make, is to put value on winning a blue ribbon.
Don’t get me wrong, winning is a praiseworthy goal, but is not always an accurate measure of success.
Winning placement is at the discretion of judges. Sometimes judges do a poor job. We are human. Don’t set your child up to find their worthiness as a competitor at the mercy of a stranger’s opinion.
Some of our most successful competitions were ones where my kids didn’t place well or even place at all. Showing horses should always be about personal goals. We always had a clear set of directives we wanted to achieve in each class. It might be as simple as remembering to keep your eyes up. Or learning to circle out of a crowded situation…or getting diagonals correct both directions, or nailing lead changes. It may even be having your horse remain walking calmly on the rail, when everyone else is cantering by, because he has been over reactive, or become “ringwise”, (ie: automatically going to the next gait when the microphone keys over the loudspeaker) .
Practicing this kind of showmanship takes great courage on the part of a rider, because they have to go against the flow and bring attention to themselves that may not be positive, but bring long term benefits to the partnership. I’ve had adult exhibitors struggle mightily with it. One had a winning horse that developed a habit of surging forward when the announcer called for a lope, particularly if there were horses moving up behind him. My directions to the rider, were to continue walking until at least 3 horses had passed them before quietly asking for the canter cue. She found it very stressful to do, as she was a highly competitive person. Imagine how much more difficult this can be for a young rider, who is just learning discipline and self control. But it works, and brings both good habits and perspective.
I always encourage riders to focus on a personal goal, such as remembering to ride deep into the corners. If they get no recognition from the judge, but they consistently did that, that is success. Doing so, teaches a horse not to cut corners and ingrains a habit into the rider that becomes fairly automatic.
Attention to detail and concentrating on individual goals, brings confidence, consistency and character to riders, and helps eliminate show ring jitters, resulting in ever increasing wins in the show ring down the road.
Make sure parents and kids know what the goal is for each class, so the appropriate recognition can be given to both horse and rider.
Have a great summer!