How to Prepare Your Horse for Show Season

*Originally posted on Island Natural Horsemanship April 1 2013

Since the beginning of 2013 I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know Claire Aasen of Synergy Equestrian located right here in Victoria, BC. I’ve been following her blog since she moved here in 2011 and her methods greatly intrigued me. Being a student of life, I’m always wanting to learn more about the different methods and mindsets people use while partnering with our beautiful equine friends.

During our training sessions together Claire has continued to impress me with her kindness, softness and clarity of direction. She has a very holistic view and has spent countless hours learning from Josh Nichol. One of my personal goals for 2013 is to learn more about the art of Dressage and Claire has been a great person to learn from as she combines the relationship of good horsemanship with the art and principles of Dressage.

Being that we are all excitedly preparing for the upcoming show season (and I’ve been out of the competition realm for 10+ years) I wanted to interview Claire to find out how she prepares for this awesome time of year.

I hope you enjoy reading her advice as much as I do!

As show season is fast approaching how you do mentally, physically and emotionally prepare your horse on a daily basis?

Maintaining the softness and mental focus of your horse can be a real challenge in a show environment, half the battle is keeping our own focus and soft feel even with the pressures of riding in the show ring. Here are a few tips to help prepare yourself and your horse for show season.

I find it very helpful to trailer my horse over to the show grounds in advance of a show so that we can ride in the rings and get a feel for the surroundings and the footing. I find this gives us a head start in being able to remain relaxed and focused, even though the hustle and bustle of the actual show will change the energy on the grounds when it comes to the actual show day, but it is none the less nice to know the area ahead of time. I am a very visual person so being able to visualize the show grounds and where I will be riding a test helps me to keep my anxiety level down and also helps with memorizing the test because I can see in my mind exactly where I will be riding it. In the event you can’t actually ride at the show grounds, it is still very important to get your horse out to different facilities and expose them to new environments so that they become accustomed to riding in new places and it becomes a regular occurrence. Make sure your horse is comfortable with trailering before show day, because the morning of your class is not the time to be training your horse to load!!

Something I find challenging about showing is having to ride tests to the letter… because I tend to ride sort of ‘free form’ and not necessarily paying attention to the letters of the arena and the figures specifically, I find that when I go to ride a test it is a challenge for me because even if something doesn’t feel quite right I still have to go straight, or shoulder-in, or canter at the specific point in the arena. Where as in my schooling I spend a lot of time getting the feel right and riding whatever maneuver will help me achieve that feel. So I recommend riding your tests well in advance of the show. I have been caught before where I know I am schooling the movements for a test but haven’t put them all together until shortly before the show and both my horse and myself ended up feeling frazzled and rushed from lack of practice in the test mind frame. You can think of it as ‘test oriented riding’.

I also recommend not shying away from situations where your home arena is busy. If the ring is really busy look at it as an opportunity to prepare your horse for the warmup ring at the show. Ride closer to your fellow riders than you might normally (assuming their horse is safe to approach!) because those tight squeeze situations are likely to happen at a show so it’s better to prepare and build your horses confidence while he is still in his comfort zone at home. A lot of horses get worried when they are on the rail and have another horse coming towards them just off the rail. Ask a fellow rider with a quiet horse to pass you first at a distance and then gradually decrease the space and increase the speed to get your horse used to those situations. This way you won’t find yourself and your horse sidetracked at a show by a scenario that you could have prepared him for in advance.

On the day of a show how do you mentally, physically and emotionally prepare your horse?

I find it very important to give myself lots of time on show day so that I don’t feel rushed and I can stay relaxed and calm with my horse which will of course help him to stay as relaxed as possible. I do as much of the prep in the days leading up to show day as I can, such as bathing if I can do it the day before, cleaning tack, packing the trailer, all that stuff so that the morning of the show you can focus on your horse.

Similarly I like to give myself and my horse lots of time to warmup at the show as well so that if he needs to walk around the ring for twenty minutes before he is settled and ready to get to work I can give him that time. If he starts out right away feeling comfortable and happy then I just take it slow and I have time to take breaks in my warmup but I would much rather that than be rushed especially if my horse is tense. It is helpful to pay attention to how long it takes you to ‘warm up’ at home, before you would feel ready to ride a test. When it comes to show day I would always add time on though to give your horse time to settle down and focus, but knowing how long it takes you at home will give you an idea how long it might take at the show.

I like to do a bit of groundwork before I get on, a few softening exercises, just enough to check in with my horse and know that he is mentally with me and soft in his mind and body. Listen to your horse in your daily training to find out which exercise he finds most relaxing and centering, as this can be different for different horses.

The day of the show is where all your homework will pay off. If you have already trailered your horse to the grounds a couple of times than that won’t be a big deal. When he gets off the trailer and sees all the other horses and the dressage ring set up or the course of jumps, he may be taken aback for a moment but you will have time to do some groundwork and reassure him that there’s nothing to worry about, its the same place he’s been before. Lastly, when you do hop on and begin your warmup, do your best to keep your routine the same as what you would do at home.

What are some ways we can keep our relationship the main priority during a show day?

I think taking your time and paying attention to how your horse is feeling throughout the day is key. Take moments here and there to check in, do some groundwork or whatever it is that you use to connect with your horse. And check in with yourself as well to make sure you aren’t giving off an anxious energy that would put your horse on edge. Remember to take a moment and breath! If you give yourself lots of time then you won’t have to pressure your horse to load if he needs a minute, or rush your warmup even though he is telling you he is stressed.

Having said this there may be moments at shows where things don’t go perfectly and you might have to push your horse a bit more than you would normally prefer to. In those moments try to stay as soft as possible and reassure your horse that you are there for him and he can relax because you are taking care of him. In this way a show could be a relationship building exercise and should in the end build your horse’s confidence. It is an opportunity to see where there might be holes in either your leadership or your training, and you can go home knowing where you need to put in a bit more time. Just remember to listen to your horse, maintain your soft feel, and have fun!


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