The weanling futurities are just around the corner, but you’re ready. Your contender looks like a million bucks–his coat gleams, his mane is tamed, and his tail is, well, short but shiny. He leads well, squares up in a reasonable amount of time, and will actually stay put. All that’s left is to see how he stacks up against the competition.
Not quite. I used to think that looking good and squaring up well were enough for my weanlings to be competitive in the show pen. But I’ve learned through years of experience that it takes something else to gain a competitive edge: You need to expose a youngster to the sights and sounds he’ll encounter in the show ring. Unless you do so, all that elbow grease and shank time can go to waste, as your weanling tunes into the bombardment of stimuli around him and tunes out on you.
The judge won’t have a chance to evaluate that dancing, prancing, stressed out bundle of nerves at the end of your expensive leather show shank. You’ll have wasted not only an entry fee, but also time and energy. And, you’ll have made your weanling’s show debut a negative experience rather than a positive one.
So you’ll have the best shot at leading a winner from the weanling ring, I’m going to share with you the program we’ve used to show-pen-train our world-champion youngsters. I’ll also give you strategies for avoiding trouble in the ring–and what to do if trouble finds you. (Note: Even if you don’t plan to show your weanling, this program will help you desensitize him to things he’ll likely encounter in his life. The payoff? A horse that’s better able to take new sights and sounds in stride.)
Show Pen Strategy #1: Here comes the judge.
- Get your weanling used to standing squared up as a cowboy-hatted stranger (or two) approaches, circles, and touches him. Many competitors overlook this simple strategy, only to discover on show day that their weanlings don’t take kindly to approaching judges. Recruit friends to play the role of judge. Supply them with clipboards loaded with paper–the sight and noise of shuffling papers have been known to spook even the mellowest of weanlings. And, get your weanling used to someone handling his mouth. If a judge asks to check his bite, at-home preparation will help you avoid a fight with your youngster, and earn favor with the judge.
- Practice walking to the judge. Your youngster may stand well for inspection, but he may balk at walking up to a stranger. Have your faux judge wear sunglasses, a scarf, and/or any other visual accessory that your weanling may encounter in the show ring.
- Practice jogging away from the judge. Some weanlings are okay with a stranger approaching them or when approaching a stranger. But when you put that person behind them, as you’ll do when you jog away in the show pen, they can perceive him or her as a threat and spook. The more quickly and quietly your youngster will jog off, the easier it’ll be for the judge to evaluate him-and the better your chance at a win.Show Pen Strategy #2: Crowd control.
- Practice leading and lining up with other weanlings. In the show pen, your youngster will be in close proximity to others his age. If that’s his first such exposure, he could get excited-and you could lose control. Set up mock classes at home, using as many weanlings as you can find.
- Band your weanling’s mane and apply face make-up well before you head out for that first show. Some weanlings don’t mind these procedures, but others do. Find out your weanling’s tolerance levels while you still have time to solve any problems. (Tip: Practice wiping his face in the barn, in the arena, and around other weanlings. You’d be amazed at what a youngster will tolerate in familiar surroundings, only to resist when slightly stressed.)
- At a show, pick your lead-in position whenever possible, sandwiching yourself between quiet-looking weanlings. If you see one acting as this one is-head and tail up, and ears tense–you don’t want your horse anywhere near him. Weanlings are like in-line dominos: When one goes off, there tends to be a chain reaction. The farther you are from the epicenter, the less likely your youngster will be affected.Show Pen Strategy #3: Take nothing for granted.
- Will there be banners and flags at the show? If so, find some (or buy a roll of craft paper and make some), hang them in your arena, and work with your weanling until he ignores them. To cover all your bases, unfasten one end of the banner and let it flap in the breeze, just like at a real show.
- Practice leading your weanling over varying ground surfaces, and up and down curbs. Sound silly? I thought so, too, until I had a group of weanlings balk at stepping up a curb at a show. Now I take nothing for granted. My staff and I walk them onto concrete, gravel (the crunchy noise can spook them), up curbs, down curbs, you name it.
- Prepare for encounters with traffic. Your weanling will encounter cars, trucks, tractors, golf carts, motor scooters, and various other automotive “monsters” at a show. Be sure he’s had a chance to get used to the sights and sounds of as many of these as possible, at home or at a facility that abuts a highway. (Caveat: When first exposing your youngster to traffic, do so in a safely enclosed area, such as a paddock or pasture situated alongside a road or highway. That way, should he spook and get away from you, he won’t inadvertently run onto the road.)Show Pen Strategy #4: Know how to handle a crisis.
- Okay, so despite all your hard work at home, your normally mellow weanling finds something to spook at. What do you do? Rule number one: Keep him behind you. If you were to let him get in front of you and start running doughnuts around you, you’d lose control, and he could pull away. When he does a spook-and-squirt, immediately say “whoa” and pull down hard on the lead shank, to stop his forward progress. Simultaneously step in front of him?
- ?and back him up, to block any escape route and to take the “forward” thought out of his mind. Once he’s cocked an ear toward you, meaning his focus is on you rather than on whatever spooked him, cease your go-back cues.
- Take a deep breath (if you’re rattled, he’ll stay rattled), and resume whatever it was you were doing. By consistently reacting to his spooks in this manner, you’ll gradually teach your weanling that he can’t escape his fear, so must control it.Show Pen Strategy #5: Send in the clowns.
- You know all those running kids, barking dogs, and program-thumbing spectators who surround the arena walls? Okay, you do. But does your weanling? Make sure he does, by recruiting as many of those elements as possible around your own arena. Practice walking up to, away from, and in front of those “spectators,” until your youngster takes them in stride. Have them clap and whistle, too. At the show, when your name is called as the winner, you don’t want your weanling to spook at that well-deserved applause!Tips
Outfit your weanling in his show halter when performing all training and desensitization sessions. If you were to have him practice in his everyday halter, you’d risk not only a different level of responsiveness when he’s wearing his show gear at an event, but also that he’d spook from the look and feel of an unfamiliar halter. (Don’t laugh–it’s happened.)
Arrive at the show grounds well before your class to get your weanling used to the sights and sounds in and out of the arena. If it’s a multiday show, arrive a day or 2 early to give him plenty of time to acclimate.
Keep handling sessions brief but frequent. Your weanling’s attention span will be short, so limit training sessions to about 10 minutes. But handle him as often as possible every day, whether grooming and bathing him, or simply strolling down the barn aisle. The more you work around your youngster, the better you’ll be able to read his body language–and he yours–which will pay off in the show pen.
If you notice your weanling’s head go up and his body tense in response to a sight or sound, distract him by walking a circle, if possible; or saying “whoa,” then backing him a step or two. You’ll return his focus onto you, while taking it off the possible spook-maker, thus heading off a potential problem.Based in Gainesville, Texas, Mike and his wife, Marrita (our “judge”), specialize in the training and conditioning of halter horses at their McMillian Quarter Horses, Inc. Over the past 27 years, Mike has prepared or led 17 horses to world championships, as well as to high-point titles, futurity wins, and state championships. This article first appeared in the August 1997 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.