It’s no secret that competitions of any form can be very stressful. Equestrian competitors have the added worry of managing their horse’s stress in addition to their own. A calm mindset can create a balanced performance in the ring, while a nervous mindset can transfer to your horse amidst the bustle of a busy showgrounds.
There’s no substitute for hard work, time, planning, and careful training, all of which will serve to make the most stress-free showing experience possible. But here are some helpful tips for keeping you and your horse comfortable, productive, and positive on the showgrounds this show season.
Keep Stakes Low
When setting goals for your next horse show, remember that even seasoned grand prix horses suffer from nerves and stress in unfamiliar environments. Take a moment to appreciate the partnership that has allowed you to convince a 1,200-pound prey animal to put millions of years of evolution on the backburner for trust and apples every show weekend.
Aim to get something out of each show weekend that has nothing to do with whether you win or lose, such as getting experience or exposure, progressing up the training ladder, or simply having fun. Acknowledging that things are going right whenever they aren’t going wrong will allow you to take things going wrong in stride.
Make a Safe Space
To be comfortable at a show, you must have the essentials — food, water, and shelter — for both you and your horse. When any of these three are compromised, the situation can turn from a positive experience into a miserable one. Bring hay and water from home if you’re able. For yourself, ditch the cooler full of soggy sandwiches in favour of a large plastic tub with a lid that can hold an adequate supply of non-perishables like rice cakes, nuts, and protein bars.
Another very important part of developing a safe space for you and your horse is keeping up with his typical routine and schedule, which is very important for maintaining physical and psychological balance. As a general rule, keep things as familiar and homey as possible. If your horse is used to the radio, bring one and leave it on (low volume) at night. Bringing a square fan that can be hung outside the stall will guarantee airflow and temperature control.
You can’t always control your stabling situation, but one good way to create increased privacy is by using stall hangings. The awesome-looking custom variety can be very expensive, but you can create your own cheaper option with a few woven plastic or reed mats from the dollar store, zip ties, and Velcro. They can be hung from the top of the stall and secured with binder twine. They’re a great way to compensate for being stuck in a sunny spot or near a lamppost that shines all night.
They’re also useful for making a changing room out of your tack stall. The simple arrangement of a few hanging hooks, a mirror, and a folding chair are enough to make a small oasis in a field of chaos.
Focus on Yourself
At shows, riders are often so concerned with how their horses are doing that they forget that taking care of their own half of the partnership is equally important for success. Because your horse follows your lead, training yourself to be calmer in various situations will help your horse volumes.
Some riders try breathing exercises or visualization to calm nerves. Others learn to accept and work through their anxiety. It’s important to give yourself permission to develop a personalized anti-stress strategy that produces results.
Go For a Walk
Your horse is probably used to regular turnout, and being confined is one of the biggest equine psychological stressors. Hand-walking or hand-grazing is an excellent way to afford a bit of controlled exercise on the showgrounds.
Going for a walk is a way for your horse to scope out the surrounding area, see and smell the other strange horses, and generally put his mind at ease. Hand-walking also gives your horse the opportunity to roll, which some horses require daily.
Becoming familiar with your surroundings will also set your mind at ease and let you internalize how long it will take you to move between your stall and the competition ring.
Lastly, hand-walking is a strategic move because it establishes that the grounds are a good, safe place to be. If you’re able to get your horse in and around the competition rings, even better.
Bring a Friend
When you show, you get to participate in a long tradition of community, horsepeople and sport. Showing solo can be a boring, lonely experience, especially if you or your horse are prone to stress. If you’re lucky enough to be going with others from your barn, a riding club, or as part of a show team, the atmosphere can be much less stressful.
Showing with a group means there’s always someone around who can help with safety concerns. There’s always someone to watch your horse when you’re not able to. There’s always someone to do night check with you. If you forget an item, chances are someone has an extra. And, if you’re all from the same stables, your horses will likely be used to each other and take comfort in travelling together.
Being part of a “team” also has great benefits for keeping you sane. You never have to celebrate alone, and there’s always someone to pull you out of a doom spiral. Most importantly, it’s fun!