I heard a song once that said sometimes you win and sometimes you learn. Boy, I’ve learned a lot over the years, especially about showing horses.
And here’s my biggest lesson: When you’re showing a new horse for the first time, you’re not there to win. You’re on a fact-finding mission that may or may not come with a share of the prizes. You’re in the arena hoping everything will go well, but if it doesn’t, you gather that information. Each time you go into the arena, you’re giving yourself an opportunity to learn about what works and what doesn’t with this individual horse.
I’ve also learned that with smart preparation, you can make the first-show experience better for both of you. I’ll help you with that here, by sharing information from decades’ worth of first trips out with new horses.
Test Your Horse’s Buttons
There are certainly things you need to do at home with your new horse before you enter a competition. I think most people have an incorrect tendency to leave the new horse alone. They just give it some exercise and ride really quietly at home, and then end up at the horse show with all these problems.
Instead, spend your time at home becoming the cause of your horse’s behavior instead of the effect. If I’m the effect of it, I’m probably going to be in trouble; but if I’m the cause of the horse’s actions, then I’m no longer reacting and I can fix any errors.
Don’t be afraid to test your new horse with some things at home, to see what he’ll do. For instance, drop contact with your reins to the bit, or ride across the middle of the pen instead of along the rail. If there’s no control without a lot of adjustment, you have more work to do at home before you can attempt a show. You need to learn what adjustments this horse requires, and get really, really solid on them so that when you do go show, you’ll have the ability to make those adjustments as you go.
Make sure to do a lot of steering on your horse at home. This doesn’t just mean doing circles; ask for frequent changes of direction. Also be aware of how much steering your horse requires. If he’s a reiner, for example, he should lock into a circle and not require a lot of steering. No matter the discipline, I think it’s important to move your horse’s body parts around. Practice riding triangles, squares, rectangles—you want to steer that horse all over the place.
Pay attention to how your horse turns a corner, making sure that when you point him out of a turn, he stays straight as you guide him to the next destination. If you ride in an event that requires the horse to run and stop, check how your horse comes around the end of the arena and prepares for that next maneuver. These are the sorts of spots where a seasoned show horse could show you signs of wanting to make a bad decision. Don’t try to defend, protect, or babysit these potential problems at home. Identify them, then keep working on them until your new horse is really in tune with you.
No matter your event, it will have aspects that an experienced show horse will tend to anticipate. You want to feel these areas out at home so you can work on them, which allows you to be prepared when you encounter them at your first show.
Open Communication Lines
For a first show with a new horse, I like to get to the grounds a day or two in advance. This allows me to expose the horse to the inside of the arena, and also lets me challenge him with some of the things we worked on at home, such as angles, triangles, squares, and steering.
An early arrival also gives me an indication of whether the horse is going to act differently than he does at home. Most of the time, a horse works best at home or where he’s most comfortable, so you still may find areas of his performance that need attention. And yet, you should be able to challenge those spots and work through things, based on the communication you developed at home.
Use your initial warm-up ride to be sure that your horse understands and accepts your cues, corrections, and leadership as well as he did with his trainer or previous owner. To a horse, each rider feels and sounds a little bit different, and each facility seems different, too. This ride needs to build his confidence, not tear it down or confuse him.
Your warm-up rides will give you a feel for the horse’s attitude. You can figure out if he’s quiet and relaxed, or if you need to speed things up because he seems to be too laid-back. You can see if he has a tendency to be on the hotter side when away from home, and can develop a plan for ways to relax him.
Gather Info, Ride Confidently
No matter how much you plan ahead and do your homework, there does come a point where you’re just guessing. But until then, your best strategy is to continue with what you felt on your horse: how to warm him up; what things you need to work once back on at home; where you might need to over-exaggerate things for your horse to understand them. It’s not unlikely that you’ll need to make adjustments after this ride and try again next time, until you finally have it figured out.
As you’re competing, resist the tendency to think that because it’s a new horse, you won’t know what’s going to happen. Otherwise, you’ll compete with uncertainty rather than with confidence, and this in turn will give you an unfocused picture of the results you want. That leads to just going out there and winging it, which seldom works out. Even after I’ve shown a horse a lot, I still plan for a clear idea of what I want to have happen, so I can make sure that I’ve prepared for that goal at home and in the show pen.
Do likewise with your new horse.
The other thing I recommend is that you avoid looking down. Whether it’s the first time or the hundredth time you’ve shown that horse, always look up. Keeping your eyes up slows things down so you can plan ahead during your ride. The horse can read if you’re looking up and guiding with confidence; by looking down, you leave way too much up to the horse, and too many things can go wrong. Then your hand gets fast, your feet get fast, and you start to panic. Avoid this chain reaction by looking up and ahead.
Be OK With Your First Runs
If it doesn’t go well, and depending on what goes wrong, try to be OK with that. I’ve seen a lot of people get upset and angry, and wonder why they bought that new horse. Don’t fall into that. Realize that no matter how good or bad your horse was, some parts of the performance did go well. Maybe the right circles were good, but you didn’t like the left. Or, you stopped great twice but missed the third one. Take that information, be grateful that you have it, and use it to do better the next time.
Above all, enjoy that first show. I’ve found with some horses, whether it’s their first time in any arena or their first time with a new rider, the experience can go incredibly well. Much of this is due to rider focus and confidence. I actually see people have more trouble later on with a horse, when they get overly confident and just start riding the horse on autopilot when they know better.
My philosophy on showing a horse for the first time comes down to this: I don’t expect miracles, but I also don’t count on luck. I make sure I do all I can to eliminate any need for luck. I get ready. And if you’re ready, the first time will go well. n
Craig Johnson, Gainesville, Texas, is a National Reining Horse Association $1 Million Dollar Rider, a two-time NRHA Futurity champion, an NRHA Derby champion, a 14-time world champion, and an international reining gold medalist. His specialties are reining, Western dressage, and ranch riding.