When things go wrong in the horse show ring. Part 1

If you plan to step into the competition arena, expect the unexpected. Few sports have more variables than riding.  A 1,000-lb partner that doesn’t speak or think “human.” Judges with preferences. Fluctuating footing and weather conditions. Various competition venues. Required patterns, courses and tests change with each show.

When equestrians take their horses off-property, it’s not a matter of if, but when the unexpected and unplanned will happen. So let’s plan for it.

“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. Inevitable enough that Murphy made it law.

What might you expect to go wrong in the show ring?  In this issue, I’ll put on my judge’s hat and share common mistakes. So common, in fact, that every score sheet has a menu of these mishaps and space to record their numerical deductions.  These include minor miscalculations – a chip before a hunter fence, a slight overspin in reining or a not-quite-square dressage halt and major blunders – a refusal, buck or spook.  As a judge, I can only observe, record and occasionally excuse competitors when things go wrong. Such is judging’s downside, for someone with the heart of a teacher – little opportunity to explain and to coach.

Why do these things happen?  Here, I’ll wear my hat as a specialist in horse behaviour (and generally curious person with an inclination to ask Why?). Fixing WHAT happened depends on discovering WHY it happened.  Uncover the source and the symptom begins to fade away.

In the next issue, I’ll  coach you through an action plan – WHEN things go wrong, WHAT do you  do?  How to manage in the moment, minimize the incident’s impact to your score, to the other competitors and to your longer term training goals.

WHAT goes wrong in the show ring.  Deductions differ across the disciplines, but judges recognize and penalize these common errors.

  1. 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 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 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.

  • Break of gait. Even the smallest dribble from canter to trot will earn an automatic low score in hunter, decrease the movement score in dressage, cost a penalty ½ or 2 in reining or a deduction of 1, 3 or 5 points for most western events, depending on the number of strides.

Why does it happen?  Typically, a horse who breaks gait isn’t light and listening to the aids. In a distracting environment, this education gap is evident. The “go” button is sticky and fails in the crucial stride between canter and trot. The lateral control is weak and unreliable to shift the hips or shoulders back on track. Self-carriage, is when your horse stays connected, on track, and in rhythm, whether you shorten or lengthen his stride, without having to hold him there – kind of like cruise control. 

  • Gate issues.  I see my share of in-gate issues from the judge’s chair and I’ve tackled my share as a competitor. The arena entrance is the site of scorecard full of penalties.  Irregular circles, breaks of gait, cross cantering (losing the hind lead) or even refusing to enter.  In a trail or hunter class, bulging off-line on approach to an obstacle disrupts the canter rhythm and flow of the course, resulting in an awkward take off distance or “chip”.

Why does it happen? A horse’s tendency is to cut in one half of almost every circle and “bulge” out the other half.  The rider may steer his head, but the remainder of the horse fishtails towards home. The magnet of the barn and buddies is a powerful draw for the herd-oriented animal. To a horse, there’s safety in numbers.

  • Lead issues. Departing onto the wrong lead , skipping to the incorrect lead or slipping off-track to a disunited lead( cross cantering) are costly errors. Like breaking gait, many disciplines ascribe a range of numerical penalties, depending on how many strides the horse is out of lead.

Why does is happen? Some eager riders enter the show ring without a thorough knowledge of leads. As your horse’s teacher, you must be able to identify your canter lead by feel – anytime, anywhere. You can feel the lead, not only on the first stride, but as your horse is lifting off, into that first stride.  Comparing your horse’s body parts to a train, wrong leads result when one car derails- the hip slips off the tracks to the outside or the shoulder bulges to the inside. Penalties occur when the rider is late to recognize the warning signs, or without the lateral aids to prevent evasions.

  • Rider errors.

These are the show ring bloopers for which we have no one to blame but ourselves. They include asking for the wrong gait, wrong lead or forgetting an element altogether. Other disqualifications arise from failure to be familiar with the rules. For example, failing to follow class protocol or sporting unpermitted tack (see my last month’s article).

Why does it happen? Mental lapses.  Failure to deeply memorize the course. Neglecting to plan a step by step class strategy.
 I was the “off-course” queen as a junior rider. I remember that lost-in-the-jungle feeling of not knowing what jump or turn came next.  Vagueness has been my downfall more times than I can count.   Too many pre-class instructions from a coach or supporter with the best of intentions can drown out your class plan if not decisive and deeply memorized.

 “But he never does this at home!”

 Things will go wrong in the show ring. Considering what might happen and why they happen ensures that we won’t be surprised.  When riders consider how horses experience the competitive environment and how they view their world, it helps to nip penalties in the bud.