Monday, September 5, 2011

My Thoughts on Showing

I show a lot, in everything from little schooling shows to breed-specific shows to regional championships. Between shows, I wear the hats of trainer, instructor, coach, and L graduate. My students range from their first show to seasoned FEI riders. This gives me a rather wide-ranging perspective, and from this perspective, I wish I could say a few things to competitors. Since this is my blog, heck, I think I will.

This is supposed to be fun.  Keep that in mind as you plan your show season and prepare for each show. What is fun for you? Is it blue ribbons? Then be sure you are confirmed at the level you are competing, and don’t enter your well-loved heart-of-gold quarter horse in an Olympic qualifying show. 

First, the level you choose to enter. Most riders loose 30-40% of their polish when they step into the show ring. If you want that blue more than you want oxygen, then you need to be blue-ribbon worthy on an average day, not only on your “best-ride-ever” day. Chances are, show stress isn’t going to bring out you or your horse’s best, especially if you are worried about the trot lengthening. So set yourself up by going down the centerline knowing that you and your horse are not just competent at the level, you are dang good at it.

Second, the shows you choose to enter. If blue is the goal, stick to smaller, non-national-team qualifying shows. Even if you aren’t competing FEI yet, the Olympic contenders show up with their whole barn, which means the 2016 hopeful may be in your class. Just watching those amazing animals in warm up is pretty intimidating. But if “fun” for you is putting Mr. Heart-of-Gold against the big boys to see how he compares, by all means, go for it. Frankly, that is how I define fun, so I do it all the time. Doing this, I rarely bring home the blue, but I know how my horse stacks against the big boys. And once in a while we steal the blue. That, for me, is fun.

Showing is 50% preparation and 50% luck.  We can only control so many things in this sport. We can’t control the weather, the order of the class, the arena we are assigned, or the naughty neighbor dog who comes tearing alongside your class proudly carrying the awards-table table cloth in his mouth. 

One thing you can control is how well you know your test. Memorize your test until you can recite it in your sleep.  Memorize not only the pattern, but how you will ride that pattern. Ride the separate parts of your test, then the whole test, then the parts again, until your mind and body have it cold. If your horse learns the pattern, all the better--if he is in the habit of heading deep into the corners or beginning a circle at B, you can add impulsion and balance while he's doing the steering.

If you have a lot of tests to learn, or fight with show nerves, memorize your test inside-out, then use a reader. In our barn, we have policy of whomever goes off course has to buy the entire show group ice cream. This year, with all of the new tests, I, unfortunately, have picked up the ice cream tab more times than I care to admit. My excuse is I am in the ring from training to PSG this year, but in reality, I just need to make myself take more time memorizing tests. It is something I can control.

Appreciate your support system. Showing is important to you, or you wouldn’t give up your time and your money. Your family has to pick up your weekend laundry duty, and your show friends have to deal with your neurotic pre-show habits. These things are an inevitable part of showing, so be nice to them. Greet them with “good morning.” Say “thank you.” Smile. Buy them a beer or an ice cream. You need these people to make your dreams come true, so appreciate them, even if the judge didn’t appreciate your ride.

You don’t have to compete to excel in dressage. I know this is an odd thing to say in a blog about competing, but it is true. Competing is a completely different skill set than riding, or taking a lesson.  I have a student who showed a few times, and then quit showing.  She still takes lessons and clinics, and really loves her horses. Her opinion on showing – why would she spend all of that money, get all stressed out in an expensive outfit, to get a stranger’s opinion that she may or may not agree with. For her, that doesn’t increase her enjoyment of her horse.  So she doesn’t do it. Which brings us to my next point.

The judge isn’t always correct. Yes, I said it, in print. Lightning has not struck me dead yet.  Frankly, competitors, expecting a judge to be correct in every decision, every ride, really isn’t fair. These judges are making 12-40 decisions every 6-8 minutes. That kind of concentration is really, really hard. When I sit in the judge’s booth for a day, I am TIRED.  I, and every judge I have talked to, scribed for, or sat in a judge’s training session with, tries their best to give each competitor a fair, constructive report on the ride they watched. And sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes are in the competitor’s favor, and sometimes they aren’t.  I probably see as many Christmas gifts on score sheets as I see Scrooges.

That being said, there are times when judges do overstep their boundaries. Judges only have the right to comment on what they can see. Judges who make blanket statements about the horse, in my opinion, overstep their boundaries. I understand that the personality type attracted to judging is, by definition, judgmental, but to write on score sheet that a particular horse is “limited by genetics” (yep, I really did get that on a score sheet) is inappropriate. Especially when I, and pretty much every other judge, has disagreed. Thankfully, the horse’s owner and I both follow my next advice.

Don’t let anyone change your opinion of your horse. This is your horse, and I’m guessing you really love him. You probably love the way his nose feels, the way he makes funny faces when you groom the right spots, the way he nickers when he knows you have carrots. Don’t let some stranger who sits in a box change that. You can be disappointed in your performance together, but don’t let that change how you feel about him. Your horse didn’t choose to come to a horse show. He’d probably prefer 5 lush grassy acres to a nervous rider obsessing over a transition at a scary flower-topped letter box. He does it because you ask. That alone is worthy of affection.