First-Show Prep

Get your young horse ready for his first show (or prep your seasoned horse for his first show of the year), so he has his best shot at success.

You’ve set your sights on your horse’s first show (or your seasoned campaigner���s first show of the year). It holds so much promise. And yet so much can go wrong. If you have a winning mindset, you’ll do everything you can to ensure that things go right.

If your horse is tense or nervous when he first gets to the show, long trot or lope him to help him settle into his new surroundings. (Longeing him first can make your job easier.) Once he’s relaxed and settled he’ll be able to focus on his “real job.”

You can bet there’s a long trail of prep leading to victory. As someone who frequents the winner’s circle, I can tell you it doesn’t happen by chance. It takes a painstaking approach to management and training to have your horse perform at his peak when he shows, be it his first show or his 50th. 

In this article, I’ll give you a planning guide, so you can be sure your horse is ready to show and win. 

At-Home Prep
Winning starts at home. Here’s what needs to happen there, before you load up and show.

The “ready” test. Answer this question: Can your horse do everything at home that you’ll be asking of him at a show? He’s ready, willing, and able to perform each maneuver with confidence? If you answer yes, he’s good to go. If the answer is no, it wouldn’t be fair to show him. If your horse can’t deliver in the comfort of home, he’ll never be able to deliver at a show. Not only would you be setting him up to fail, but you’d also risk setting back his training progress. Set your sights on a later show, and dial up your training efforts to be sure your horse is ready for it.

The “beauty” test. Now answer this question: Does your horse look like a winner? Is his weight ideal (not too fat, not too thin)? Is he fit enough to perform what will be expected of him at a show? Is his coat gleaming (or does he need to be body clipped)? Are his feet in great shape? Is he (with your vet’s help) sound and comfortable enough to do his job? If you can’t answer yes to all of those questions, your horse isn’t ready to show (and win).

Work ethic. If your horse knows his job and looks the part of the winner, prepare him for his first show by working him at home at least as hard as you will at the show. (If he’s not fit, do so gradually, well before the event.) Not only will he be physically ready, but you’ll have a mental edge, too: He won’t come to dread stepping on the trailer to head to a horse show, but rather will see it as a break from the hard work at home! Speaking of trailers…

Does he have some “miles?” Have you hauled your horse to new places, or hauled him, period? If not, he’ll likely be overwhelmed by having to handle his first haul…and his first show. Help set him up to succeed by frequently hauling him to new facilities for schooling sessions before his first show. The more nervous he is in the trailer and at new venues, the more you’ll need to haul him.

If we have a horse in training that’s nervous about being in the trailer, we’ll even load him up and haul him to lunch with us, and let him stand in the trailer and munch hay while we eat. We’ll do it every day (weather permitting) until he settles. 

Show Time
Plan your arrival and pre-class prep with as much attention to detail as you applied to your “home work.”

Get there early. If you’re heading to a multi-day circuit, arrive two days ahead of time. If it’s a one-day show and you can get a stall, haul in early the day before. (If you can’t haul in the day before, get there at least several hours before your first class.) The more time you give your horse to settle in and get used to the sights and sounds, the better your chance for success. (Tip: To help him settle, put his needs first. Make sure his stall is deeply bedded and he has plenty of fresh water. Keep his feeding schedule as close to the one at home as possible. Horses are creatures of habit: The more you stick to their normal schedules, the more relaxed they’ll be.)

Show him the grounds. If your horse is “hot,” tense, or spooky, longe him first, to let him blow off some steam. Then saddle up and ride him around the show grounds. If he’s still tense, long-trot or lope him in the warm-up pen until he settles. You can’t fight the fear out of him. He has to work through it. It could take one ride or several (which is why you need to build in extra time).

If he becomes convinced a banner or bleacher or trashcan or whatever is going to attack him, avoid a fight. Instead, use the technique I shared in, “How to Handle a Spook,” (May 2013) to work him through his fear, rather than adding to it. 

Be sure to check the schedule to see when you can get your horse in the show pen, then do it. It may only be permitted at odd hours, but getting him familiar with the sights and sounds of the arena in which he’ll be showing will boost his (and your) confidence when it’s time to show in there.

Get to work. Once your horse has settled, he’s ready to work. Use the same prep you used at home to prepare for your class. That means the same warm-up, and the same equipment, cues, etc. Now is not the time to try something new. Consistency is key to success. I frequently see people who get to a show, watch someone else in the warm-up pen, then panic and try to change what they’ve been doing. They won’t win much (and their horses likely won’t last long).

Avoid making changes at a horse show. Ride your horse the same way you do at home, using the same gear (show tack should become familiar at home, rather than introducing it at a show), the same cues, etc. Try to keep him on a similar routine (such as for feeding), as well. The more familiar things are, the more your horse will relax, and the better he’ll perform.

Don’t panic. If something goes wrong in your warm up (for instance, your horse gets distracted), stay calm and avoid a fight, which could lead to a meltdown. Let him lope through his anxiety, and take his mind off it by making frequent circles and changes of direction so he has to focus on you. Once he’s relaxed and dialed in, you can pick up where you left off.

Now, go have fun. You’ve worked hard for this, so enjoy the opportunity to show off your horse. Thanks to your prep, he’s mentally and physically prepared not only for this show, but for many successful ones to come.

A multiple AQHA world champion, Avila has also won three NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurities, the NRHA Futurity, and two World’s Greatest Horseman titles. He received the AQHA Professional Horseman of the Year honor. His Avila Training Stables, Inc., is in Temecula, California. Learn more at 

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