You've experienced (or heard about) those jam-packed, exciting equine weekends. At equine expos around the country, you can shop for the newest tack, find out about new products, attend clinics and demonstrations, check out horses of most every breed, and find out about local and national equine associations.
To find out how you can get the most trail-riding know-how from a horse expo, we met up with several expo experts, including Equine Extravaganza founder Vicki O'Hara; Equestrian Promotions, Inc., president Denise Parsons; and trailering expert H. Kent Sundling (known as "Mr. Truck"; www.mrtruck.net), who exhibits at horse expos across the country.
We also sought advice from Margaret Herron, a Certified Horsemanship Association assistant clinic instructor and trail guide who attends the biggest horse expos every year, students in tow.
Following is these experts' advice on how best to plan, schedule, stay comfortable, and more, when attending your next equine expo. (For a schedule of upcoming equine expos with contact information, see page 105; for an online version with live links, visit www.myhorse.com/trailrider.)
1. Plan early. Target the expo you'd like to attend, then frequent its website, and sign up for any e-newsletters so you'll know when it's time to download and print out a final seminar schedule. Then you can start making your travel plans.
Parsons notes that if you want to avoid crowds and have time to talk personally with trainers, you might want to go on a Thursday and Friday (if the expo is open), rather than waiting for the weekend. It might be worth taking a day or two off work so you can get the most out of the slower days.
2. Book your room. If you'll be staying in a hotel, book your room early. Parsons says it's best to make hotel reservations 60 days in advance. "After 30 days in advance, you might not be able to take advantage of discounted rates, since hotels often have cut-off dates or just sell out early," she says.
Before you make your reservation, identify the event's host hotels. You might save big if the expo has arranged for special discounts and early-bird prices. "We have agreements with many hotels that will offer rates well below their normal rack rates, if you book through our site or let them know you're part of a group," says Parsons.
3. Select the right seminars. O'Hara says 70 percent of her attendees are trail riders, and she makes sure to include trail-enthusiast topics in the seminar schedule. That said, many clinicians' presentations may not scream "trail riders only," but will still include valuable information on training, riding, caring for, and traveling with your horse.
"With more than 100 clinics, demonstrations, and seminars it is critical that you plan in advance," says O'Hara. "Carefully review the choices, and choose the sessions most relevant or appealing to you. First, look for clinicians that you know and admire, then look at the topics to see if something catches your eye.
"Many of our clinics have a general appeal to all horsepeople," O'Hara continues. "For instance, despooking your horse is relevant to virtually all disciplines. The key is to read the titles carefully and choose the topics that most closely fit with your needs."
Adds Parsons: "The more you learn from a variety of horse trainers, the better prepared you'll be for any training or spooky-horse situation that might arise. Even if a training clinic isn't catered specifically to the trail rider, you can learn skills from every presenter, and use these skills to make your trail rides more enjoyable and safer. I honestly believe that everyone can learn something from every single clinician."
Take time to critique your current riding, training, and horse-care know-how, and make a list of topics you'd like to know more about.
4. Ride your own horse. Many horse expos allow you to "ride with the stars." If you live close enough to the expo site to trailer in, consider taking your horse for a hands-on clinic. Check the schedule for a clinician who you'd love to work with, or a seminar title that clearly describes an issue you have with your horse (such as managing fear, trailer-loading, or changing leads). Then contact the expo to see whether riders are needed for that demonstration.
Parsons says that you'll have a better chance of being selected if you or your horse has a specific problem; she also notes that each clinician looks for a different horse-and-rider pair. "Once the schedule is posted, review it to see what topics may appeal to you and which would be appropriate for the skill level of you and/or your horse."
5. Pack for comfort. You might be tempted to wear your best and most fashionable Western or equestrian wear, but Parsons recommends putting comfort first. Wear comfortable shoes and clothing; opt for your broken-in boots instead of that shiny new pair with the pointy-and-achy toes.
"A comfortable pair of shoes is the number-one tool for the patron," says Parsons. "Your shoes can make or break your day. A good pair of rubber-soled shoes is a must. Dress casually. Although you may need to go outdoors to travel between buildings, you'll likely be comfortable inside with a light sweatshirt. Keep in mind that whatever coat you bring, you may have to carry it all day."
6. Divide and conquer. If there are two seminars scheduled at once, and you'd like to attend both, have a friend attend your second choice. Take lots of notes, and share your learning later. You'll find out more information and anchor your learning by teaching others.
Herron and her two trail-riding students traveled more than 1,700 miles to attend the 2008 Equine Affaire in Columbus, Ohio. After such a great road trip, the team wanted to make sure they learned all they could at the expo.
In just three days, group members saw every shopping booth and made it to 24 different seminars. Their seminar strategy: They split up and attended about eight seminars apiece. "We divided to conquer - then reported back to share what we learned," Herron says.
7. Speak up. O'Hara recommends visiting clinicians in their booths. "This is the chance to get up close and personal, and ask trainers questions about your specific issues or concerns," she says. "They're very personable, and they welcome visitors. This isn't the time to be shy!"
Trainers and clinicians want to talk to you. You'll find out that the great horse trainers and top clinicians are also kind and realistic horsepeople. This is your chance to get some one-on-one attention.
Look for signs in your favorite clinicians' booths that announce when they'll be available to answer questions or when they might be making a guest appearance in another booth.
8. Plan your shopping strategy. As soon as you arrive at your chosen expo, get a trade-show map (usually in the event program), so you can plan your shopping strategy. Find out where hot items, such as tack, trailers, and barn items, are grouped.
"I tell horse folk to check out the map and see where everything is," Sundling says. "The bigger expos now have shuttles to get you to all the buildings. Find out where those stops are. Expos can wear you out, so take a few water bottles, and space out your itinerary over at least two or three days to make sure you have time to see it all."
Herron further recommends attacking the expo as if it were a grocery store: Arm yourself with a list to make sure you stay focused, get all the goodies you need, and stay on budget. "Firm up your shopping list before you go, and shop early in the event to avoid the last rush of crowds - and to make sure nothing is sold out," he says.
9. Bag it. Parsons recommends bringing a bag on wheels to tote all (or almost all) your new goodies. Stock your bag with a notepad, pen, and maybe even a small tape recorder and video camera. "Also bring some cash," she advises. "Food and admission is cash only at most expos. Although there are usually ATMs onsite, there's no guarantee they'll be working."