WHAT goes wrong in the show ring. Deductions differ across the disciplines, but horse show judges recognize and penalize these common errors.
- Spook. Your horse freezes or flees. In most disciplines, for its affect to your score, the first option is preferable to the second. For example, a startle and stop will earn a five point penalty in many western events. But flight off the track or a spook-and-run-back may take you off-pattern and out of the placings.
Why does it happen? As a prey animal, a horse feels vulnerable in unfamiliar territory. As a social creature, his instinct tells him there’s safety in numbers. The spook of one horse in a flat class inevitably triggers a flurry of flight! Performing individually, solo in the ring, your horse may feel vulnerable and on high alert for anything moving or changing. Interestingly, I’ve found some horses to be less spooky in the show venue bustle than on home turf. That scary shadow on the ground, is now “overshadowed” by all the sights, sounds and movement of the horse show.
- Anticipation. Your horse navigates the trail gate on autopilot, sets up his own feet in showmanship or jumps into the canter at the announcer’s mic click. He seems to know what comes next – which is manageable, until you try to upset the order.
Anticipation shows up on the horse show judge’s card in a variety of ways, usually reducing the movement or maneuver score, unless your horse’s “overthinking” culminates in a penalty-earning error.
Why does it happen? A reiner’s tension builds at the centre of the ring because that’s where all the transitions, flying changes and spins start. An unsettled horse dances at the start cone of a pattern while his nervous rider tries to hold him still, which only makes him feel trapped. In previous classes, upon the judge’s nod, the rider unintentionally stepped on the gas pedal, thus, beginning this horse’s anticipation cycle and dread of the start cone like the boogie man.
A hunter jigs in the hack class at the sound of the announcer’s microphone clicking to call for the canter. No doubt he’s been startled once or twice by his rider’s hasty outside leg cue, particularly if other horses have begun to canter. Now he’s preparing to take off faster than a teen driver burning rubber out of the Dairy Queen.
Horses are creatures of routine, learning quickly by association (classical conditioning) and by trial and error, choices and outcomes (operant conditioning). Horse show routines soon become habits, often unintentionally. Behaviours learned in the presence fear are not soon forgotten. A prey animal in nature doesn’t get a second chance to make a judgment error.
- Tension. Short rigid necks, busy mouths, fixed ears, hasty steps. Expressions of tension are more likely to reduce your score, without earning an actual penalty.
Why does it happen? Conflict behaviour is a term describing the way horses respond when feeling trapped or confused and without a clear option to find relief; held in place by a nervous rider or unrelenting training tack; stressed by the abrupt signals of a frustrated rider; confused by the conflicting aids of a rider overwhelmed with navigating arena traffic while sorting through the announcer’s instructions and the voice of her coach from the sidelines!
- Refusals and run outs. Your horse veers off the path to evade the jump or avoid the trail bridge. He might balk to a stop or dig in his toes, screeching on the brakes. These major faults ensure you’ll be out of the ribbons. Repeat two or three times (depending on the rules of your riding association) and you’ll be excused from the ring.
Why does it happen? Contrary to what we’d like to believe, a horse doesn’t naturally love to jump. Hurdling over an obstacle into the unseen other side, clashes with his strong survival instinct and caution from taking unnecessary risks.
Do you have the tools in place to persuade your horse’s feet to go where his instinct tells him not to?
As a judge, I wince to see a competitor who hasn’t trained their horse past the “head steering” stage before entering a horse show. Without confirmed lateral skills and reliable go-forward signal, they’re unable to override the equine inclination to skip the trail obstacle or to funnel a wary horse forward and over the fence. Circling after a stop for another approach only confirms an optional side exit. Moreover, the horse’s evasion is unavoidably rewarded as they’re excused from the ring.
Next post, more horse show ring “suddenly moments “and how to manage them.