The sport that I choose to compete in is not something that Tonka would have thought up on his own. Exerting oneself while doing precise patterns in a ring while the sun beats down on you, is not an activity that a horse would innately see as a sensible thing to do.
Tonka is right, of course, it’s not sensible. But I see value in it, and enjoy it, and I want him to, too. To generate his enthusiasm, I build a lot of positive reinforcement into our training (I’ve written about that elsewhere in this blog; there’s a search bar to the right on this page for you to find those posts.) Being at a show ramps the stress level up for both of us, and can quash that good attitude, so I’m careful to do all sorts of things during the show day to keep Tonka happy.
In the warmup, I make sure that I give him breaks, praise, and peppermints.
A show isn’t a place to try to fix a problem, or drill my horse. We do just enough of a warmup to loosen up and then get in sync. That’s it. The test in front of the judge is only six minutes, but within that there are 17 movements that are scored. In the parlance of trainers who use behavior science, that’s one long behavior chain! That’s okay, though, because we’ve trained even longer chains at home. Confidence that you’re fully prepared helps to ease stress.
Still, I get tense when I compete. I don’t want to convey that to Tonka, but I’m sure that he knows what’s going on in my head by how I’m riding. To try to counter my nerves, I begin the test with a smile at the entry halt. It’s amazing what a small upward movement of my mouth can do for both my body, and my horse’s.
I always end with a smile, too. (And an immediate release of the reins and a pat, and a peppermint as soon as we exit the ring.)
The day after this show, I attended a clinic by Axel Steiner. My strategy was validated by a comment of his that the rider should always look up and smile at judge when at the entry halt. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s judged international competitions, including dressage at the Olympics.
The test itself is only six minutes. What happens outside of the ring is equally important to convince my horse that I’m not crazy, and that this showing thing is a worthwhile, and an even fun way to spend the day. Here’s what I do:
Traveling on an empty stomach is bad for a horse’s health. So, I arrive early enough at the barn so that Tonka can eat a flake of hay and his grain before we hit the road. Sometimes this means that I have a very early start! I want Tonka to eat at the show, too. He gets hay in a manger in the trailer. I’m happy when I see him burying his head and tossing hay about to get the good bits at the bottom.
When Tonka is eating contentedly with a relaxed expression, I know that he’s settled in and ready for the show day to begin.
Showing requires a lot of gear. If I’m frazzled, so will be my horse, so I have checklists and try to keep it all organized so that my actions are calm and functional. In the below photo, notice the blue bucket of water. That will be used to wash Tonka off when we’re finished. Tonka hates being sponged with cold water so I put the full bucket in the sun when we arrive. Such small thoughtful actions make a difference to how Tonka feels about the day. Also notice Tonka’s happy expression while getting tacked up. Each step matters to me, because they matter to my horse. (There was a time when Tonka didn’t like the saddle being put on his back. Figuring out why, and changing that dynamic, was a full-out effort.)
It’s good not to rush. After the test, if the venue is set up for it, I let Tonka graze. Steve often helps. They like each other. Having a friend nearby matters to Tonka.
Eventually, we load up. As far as Tonka is concerned, the trailer is a good place to be. There are bananas.
Once back at the barn, I look over Tonka to make sure that he has come home unscathed. Sometimes I end the day by giving him a groom with his favorite massage ball curry.
All of these small things add up to a horse that is willing to go along with his not-so-sensible owner. The expression on Tonka’s face shows how content he is at a horse show.
What do you do to make your horse happy when competing?
By the way, for you dressage folks out there who care about scores – on Saturday we scored 67.037 in First Level, Test 1, which placed us first and gave us the Reserve Champion First Level ribbon. On Sunday, under the very tough Axel Steiner, we got a 65.185 for second place, and we earned a 7 on gaits and a comment of “nice looking pair.” High praise from someone who prefers the modern warmblood style of dressage horse!