How to Show on a Shoestring Budget

Pro trainer Robin Gollehon mentors a reader whose desire to show is bigger than her budget.
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Question: I really enjoy showing my 6-year-old Paint gelding in Western pleasure, trail, Western riding and showmanship. I want to be competitive at the higher levels, but I'm financially strapped--and likely will be for some time (I'm a recent college grad with hefty student loans to repay). How did you improve and move up through the ranks when you were starting out? Any tips for me?

Callie Fairchild, Nebraska

Answer: Callie, I completely relate to your dilemma. Especially now, in this economy, virtually everyone's feeling the pinch--on basic upkeep as well as showing expenses.

Times were tough for me, too, when I first started out. I borrowed or made my own show clothes, including chaps, and became a frequent customer of secondhand shops (pre-Internet days). There were times when I couldn't afford a motel room, so I just threw a sleeping bag in the dressing room of my trailer and called it a night.

Here, I'm going to give you some tips I've gleaned over the years to help you stretch your show dollars. Though each suggestion alone won't save you a bundle, if you follow several, the savings will add up, especially over time.

Save on entry fees. If you aspire to compete at the world level, and typically show in several events, consider only competing in the ones in which you and your horse excel. | © Alana Harrison

Save on entry fees. If you aspire to compete at the world level, and typically show in several events, consider only competing in the ones in which you and your horse excel. | © Alana Harrison

Maximize Your Training Dollars

  • Instead of hiring a full-time trainer, attend clinics with a reputable trainer/clinician. If it's in your budget, bring your horse and participate--or pay a smaller fee to audit the clinic, absorbing (and writing down!) as much information as you can.
  • Take group lessons, instead of private ones. While you may not get as much individual attention, you'll reap additional benefits by observing other riders.
  • Barter for training. Ask your trainer if he/she would be willing to reduce or negate your training fees in exchange for work around the barn--such as mucking stalls, feeding, bathing, grooming, or if your abilities permit, wrapping legs, banding manes, and so on. (Or, your barter can be completely unrelated to horses. Maybe you have experience in carpentry? Gardening? Sewing? Cooking? Photography? Get creative.)
  • "Share" your horse with a trusted friend, in exchange for her paying part of the bills, including training. For example, to the right person, you could offer your horse up for lessons or trail riding when you're not showing or schooling.
  • In addition to any of the above, glean as much training information as you can from instructional books, magazines and DVDs.

Showing Savvy

  • Trailer to shows with a friend or barnmate to save dollars on gas. Even better? If you don't have a trailer with live-in quarters, buddy up with someone who does. This can save big bucks on motel charges, especially at multi-day/week shows.
  • If you're really strapped for cash and don't have access to a trailer with live-in quarters, pack a sleeping bag and camp out in the dressing area of your trailer--as long as the weather is mild. (Some show facilities even have showers open to competitors.)
  • If you do bunk at a motel, room with a few friends/barnmates to keep your share of the bill as low as possible.
  • Bring your own snacks and beverages to avoid pricey show fare. (Those $3 water bottles add up--fast.)
  • If gas prices skyrocket again, consider attending multiple regional shows closer to home (instead of the bigger and often distant ones). You'll save dollars on gas and other travel expenses and have just as much fun.
  • If gas prices remain reasonable, consider saving your dollars for the larger shows that will likely involve more traveling, rather than competing at numerous regional shows. (Be sure, however, to check with your breed/show association's rules on point accumulations and requirements.)
  • If you show in all-around competition or in more than one or two classes, look for shows that charge a "flat fee," instead of paying per class (these shows allow you to compete in multiple classes for one fee).
  • If you're aiming for a world show, consider competing only in the events at which you and your horse excel. At the higher levels, you're showing against world-class competitors, so stick with what you do best.

Thrifty Show-Clothes Shopping

  • If you, a relative, or friend can sew, buy a pattern and make your own show clothes--or hire a reasonably priced seamstress. (Check out suitability.com for pattern ideas.)
  • Carefully comparison shop to get the best deals--at second-hand stores, eBay, discount websites, and so on.
  • Borrow or trade clothing items with friends, if feasible. Or, if you have a show pal who wears the same size, each buy one or two new items and share.
  • Buy a plain, unadorned blouse, then glitz it up by adding sequins, crystals, rhinestones and so on, purchased from a fabric/hobby-supply store.
  • Wear everyday breeches or inexpensive pull-on poly-pants under your chaps instead of springing for new show pants. Very little of your pants show anyway--if the color's close to that of your chaps, no one will notice.
  • Buy solid basics and mix and match to change up your ensemble. You can often add/remove "bling" to change your look. There are even some blouses that allow you to remove or change out cuffs and collars. (One site to try: hobbyhorseinc.com. Search "Wonderland Super Slinky Blouse.")
  • Chaps are one of the most important staples in your show wardrobe (black is best to coordinate with multiple colors). If you're a talented seamstress, you can make your own chaps (I did in my starting-out days). But, if you're not handy with a sewing machine, I'd advise against it, as chaps' fit is extremely important. You can sometimes find an expert to custom-make chaps for less than you might pay at retail (check out craigslist.org or delphiforums.com for leads).
  • A well-shaped hat is also an imperative wardrobe staple. While a black hat often provides maximum coordination, it can also create dark shadows that will obscure your face. A lighter-colored hat will draw the judge's eye upward and lighten your face--to show off your winning smile. Choose what's best for your face shape and skin coloring. While your score should not be affected by your hat's quality, a cheap, poorly shaped hat will make you stand out as a novice. (For more details on hat shape and quality, see Shape Matters.
  • In the summer months, it's often acceptable to wear a straw hat, which can be much less expensive than a felt one (often under $100).
  • You ultimately do need a quality pair of boots, but because boots don't show much under your chaps, it's not imperative to buy new ones now.
  • If you do splurge on an expensive item (especially if it's something trendy for the season and likely won't be in style for next year's shows), resell the item(s) later to competitors showing at a lower level than you. You'll likely get most or all of your money back.
Save on show apparel by buying a plain, unadorned blouse, then add sequins, rhinestones, and so on, to add some bling. | © Alana Harrison

Save on show apparel by buying a plain, unadorned blouse, then add sequins, rhinestones, and so on, to add some bling. | © Alana Harrison

Bonus: For more budget-savvy online tips for show clothing and gear, see Bargains Galore!

Bargain Show Tack Buys

  • Buy a used show saddle, but get advice from a trusted professional or knowledgeable friend on quality leather and good construction. An inexpensive, poorly made saddle will not only make you look like a novice, but can also negatively affect your riding and your horse's comfort--and thus his performance.
  • Keep your eyes/ears open, as many competitors are selling their equipment at bargain prices, because of the economy's decline.
  • If you know a professional saddle maker or jeweler who might give you a lesson in tack/silver construction, you could possibly add some bling to a less-expensive, plain show saddle. If not, adding your own silver isn't a good idea--improperly attached, it will look sloppy and could be distracting to the judge.
  • While not feasible with a saddle, you can easily revamp a headstall. For example, if you have one accessorized with quality silver, but the leather's cracked and worn, have it remade with new leather (using the old silver pieces) for a reasonable price.
  • In the past, inexpensive show pads were often smaller than the more pricey ones--which looked sloppy and didn't show your saddle in the best light. Today, however, oversized pads are more reasonably priced and better show off your saddle--making you look more professional overall.

Bonus: For more show-tack savvy tips, see "Show Tack on a Shoestring," Tack Talk, April '01. To order Horse & Rider back issues, call 877-717-8928.

Freebies--Money Savers in Your Control

  • Boost your overall presentation with a clean, tidy appearance--classy (not overdone) makeup (drugstore bought), pulled-back tidy hair with no loose strands in your face, and clean, pressed, well-fitting clothes (brushed, lint-free hat; polished boots; and so on).
  • Well-groomed horse. (Do all grooming, banding, and so on yourself to save bucks.)
  • Clean and polish your tack, which will also add longevity to its show-ring life.
  • Curb your expenses in other (non-horse) areas. Examine your monthly/annual budget and decide what you could really sacrifice in order to show--that morning Starbucks' latte, weekly manis/pedis, restaurant meals, cable T.V....and so on.

Robin Gollehon and her husband Roger operate Gollehon Show Horses in Versailles, Ky. They stand outside Quarter Horse and Paint stallions, and raise weanlings destined for the longe-line and Western pleasure show pens. In their Yearling Head Start program, the couple assists owners and breeders who want to show and/or market longe-line prospects. Robin also trains and shows Western pleasure horses and hunters under saddle. Learn more at gollehon.com or YearlingHeadStart.com.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

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