When things go wrong in the horse show ring. Part 2

Though it may make me wince to re-live it, every mistake is a learning opportunity!

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan

In the previous issue, we explored common horse show mistakes seen and scored from the judge’s seat. Errors so commonplace that each has a name and numerical penalty across riding disciplines.

Moreover, we dug to the source of  WHY  mishaps  happen. By gleaning insights from the science of how horses learn and think, we uncover explanations beyond excuses (She’s just being a mare) or traditions (Seven falls make a rider).  I use this evidence vs. emotions-based approach in coaching riders how to consider the horse’s perspective in order to fix the issue.

Now, WHAT do I do?

WHEN things go wrong, you need an action plan.  How do you manage in the moment, minimizing the incident’s impact to your score, to your fellow competitors and to your confidence?  A snag in the show ring need not become a setback, unraveling your training progress.  In fact, a snag reveals a weak area – an opportunity to “build back better”.

 Imagine catching your sweater on a stall door latch. You could:

A. keep walking, tugging on your arm in frustration, as a little snag becomes a lariat loop and you walk right out of your unravelling sweater. 

B.. Unhook the snag in the moment, carefully carrying on with dignity, despite the disappointing and embarrassing loop, until you can make the repair at home.

I see a lot of frustrated riders at horse shows, “schooling” (jerking) on their horses after they’ve hit a snag in their class.  Here, where cooler heads prevail, is a list of some general don’ts and dos, followed by more specific fixes for typical show ring mistakes.

  • Don’t go to the show without your tools ready. “But he never does that at home!” When your horse responds to a cue “most of the time”, he hasn’t thoroughly learned it.  A busy horse show atmosphere is sensory overload for a green horse. Like asking a kid to review multiplication tables on the park bench at Wonderland before going on the roller coaster, it’s tough to concentrate and recall!
  • Don’t blame your horse. When I assume my horse “should know better” the truth is, at that moment of frustration and embarrassment, I’ve really just run out of creativity, patience and my understanding of how horses learn and perceive the world.

  • Don’t blame the judge, your spouse, your mom or the footing. All competitors share the same conditions and officials. Control what you can, and do the best with the circumstances you’re dealt with. Appreciate your pit crew. They could be on the golf course or in the garden this weekend instead of a horse show.
  • Don’t start what you can’t finish.  At home, if you encounter a roadblock or resistance, you can try another approach or simpler steps. In the show ring, it may be impossible to follow through on what you’ve asked your horse, without disturbing other competitors or disrupting class procedure. Mistakes, swept under the carpet come out sideways later – anxiety, anticipation and unwanted habits. Exiting the ring without taking the correct lead, getting through the trail gate or over the jump, begins a downward spiral of “untraining” your horse. “In almost all training, situations, the most effective way to “delete” behaviours is to prevent them from being expressed.” Dr. Andrew Mclean

  • Don’t reward evasion. Sadly, that’s what happens when we circle away from the jump or trail obstacle to take another shot at it. We reward evasion, for example, when our horses prance in anticipation of a barrel pattern or the call to canter and we let them go before they settle.
  • Do anticipate trouble spots. Where are the magnets, potentially drawing my horse offline or off course? Be prepared for your horse to drift out and cut in somewhere on every circle. Where are the spooky sections of the ring? Which part of the pattern will be challenging for your horse? Perhaps certain transitions are sticky. Or he tenses up when another horse comes up behind him. I managed a horse through a few show seasons who reliably came unglued at applause. In the lineup, I watched for the judges to submit their cards, so I could dismount before the placings were announced and divert her attention.
  • Do blow the class and fix the problem…sometimes.  Sure there’s a time for camouflaging the mistake and showing to win.  But long- term investing costs. Invest in the training of your horse even if it costs the class.  However, do so tactfully and with grace. Gracious to your horse, who won’t learn anything when stressed. Gracious to other exhibitors – don’t compromise their safety or success. Gracious to the judge who is letting you finish your pattern or jump a courtesy fence after you’ve technically been disqualified.
  • Do assess the situation.  Tell the story of exactly what went wrong. Put the facts into words:
  • My horse kicked at a horse cantering up behind me in the class. I noticed these warning signs -ears tense and turned back. Then, he raised his head and sped up.
  • My horse would not stand still at the start marker.  The more I held him in place, the more agitated he became. He charged off at the judge’s nod, breaking into a canter instead of the required sitting trot.
  • My horse switched leads, loping past the in-gate on the way to the lope-over obstacle. His hind end left the track at the gate and our approach to the obstacle was crooked.
  • Do prepare a Plan B. Have it in your tool kit to patch a mistake in the moment – “Never mind, carry on”. Your spare tire is not a permanent tire to drive on, but an imperfect substitute to finish your trip. For example, “Next time, if my horse tenses at the start cone, I’ll walk a calm, little circle vs. forcing him to stand there.
  • Do detach from frustration.  Emotions can muddle the clarity of our aids or magnify them like a megaphone.  A rider’s emotion stirs up her horse’s emotions. Emotions can cloud the logical solution to the issue. When hitting a snag in the warm up or show ring, take a deep breath and assess the communication gap with your horse.