The Golden Rules of Horse Shows
After months of feeling ready to go with nowhere to show, we finally got the opportunity to get in the ring at the Manitoba Hunter Jumper Association Sizzling Summer Horse Show.
Now that I’ve unpacked from the show and our horses are enjoying a few leisurely days in the paddock, I’ve decided to sit down and write about my horse show philosophy.
Here are three things I’ve learned about horse shows in my journey from short stirrup kid to young professional:
My first and last horse show after college with my eq horse, Cedric. He is so handsome that people would routinely mistake him for a Grand Prix horse and ask if I'd gotten a new jumper.
Everyone’s goals are valid, regardless of the height of the jumps.
With Olympic show jumping on TV and a seemingly endless reel of people doing the U25 Grand Prixs on Instagram, it’s all too easy to start to have feelings of inadequacy around competing at a lower level. As the only human member of my household without an Olympic gold medal, I’ve spent lots of time internally grappling with the fact that I dedicate all my time, effort, and money to riding when I’ll probably never compete in an International Grand Prix. I can distinctly remember a conversation I had at a horse show when I returned to Toronto after University and decided to show my old equitation horse one last time as a swan song to riding before moving to Japan.
I was at the show flatting Cedric on Thursday evening when a well-known Grand Prix rider trotted up beside me and said “Hey Cate! Are you doing that one in the Open Welcome?” I laughed and said that I was showing him in the 1.0m jumpers, then felt the need to explain that it was my first horse show back after being away at school for four years, secretly wondering if I should be embarrassed not to be doing the Grand Prix.
In my lifetime thus far, I have been the 10 year old lesson kid who's afraid to canter, the big eq rider feeling left behind as I aged out of the juniors and went off to college while my peers moved onto Young Riders mounts, the amateur showing in the 1.20m with my heart in my throat during the course walk, and the professional showing a thoroughbred fresh off the track in the 2’3” hunters. (What can I say? I contain multitudes.)
If my own riding career has taught me anything, it’s that there’s something to be learned at every height, and that those competing in the lower classes are often working just as hard as the more accomplished riders. When I start to feel shame around doing a “small” class or competing at a schooling show, I nip it in the bud and remind myself there’s value in every stage of the journey.
I also try to be cognizant of my language around showing at lower levels, knowing how it feels to be part of a conversation when I’m doing the low schooling jumpers and someone else says they’re just doing a ‘little’ 1.30m class. At the end of the day, we can’t compare our journey to anyone else’s, and everyone at the horse show is equally deserving of our kindness and respect, whether they are doing the crossrail hunters or the biggest jumper class.
Doing the 2'6" hunters with my OTTB Ruby in 2019. Winning classes on her feels like just as much as of an accomplishment as getting ribbons at WEF on my A/O jumper
The horse show is where you measure your progress, not where you go to train your horse.
Each horse has a finite amount of time in the ring at the horse show, and sometimes the stars just don’t align. In your two minutes in front of the judge, your horse might spook at a new jump or get startled by something outside the ring. We can’t control everything, but we can control our reaction to what happens. Regardless of how my ride goes, I pat my horse at the end of the round like it’s the best we’ve ever done.
In my personal opinion, the horse show is a venue to demonstrate what you’ve already practiced at home, and attempts to “school” your horse at the show usually lead to feelings of frustration. If things don’t go according to plan, the best thing we can do is handle the disappointment gracefully, adjust our plan for the rest of the show as needed, and go home and practice what we need to fill in the gaps in our performance.
It makes me cringe to see someone hitting a horse that stops repeatedly at a liverpool under a jump in the warm up ring, or pulling up and backing up their horse at the end of a hunter class when it gets a little quick. Half the time, no one notices a horse getting strong until the rider gets handsy.
Horses don’t understand the point of a competition, and can only do the best they can with the information we’ve given them. If you’re training your horse at the show, it’s likely too late to make a meaningful difference.
In my view, we should treat the horse show as the name implies -- an opportunity to show off our horses and have a tangible measure of our progress. Sportsmanship involves not only being fair to our fellow competitors, but treating our horses with respect and using our time in the show ring appropriately.
Parker and I making our horse show debut in the 0.9m jumpers.
Preparation is key
I’m a huge believer in good turnout, and I think that dressing properly and grooming our horses well demonstrates professionalism and respect for the horse, the judge, and the sport.
Not everyone can afford the most expensive tack and show clothes, but everyone can take the initiative to spend extra time polishing their boots, wake up early to bathe their horse, and familiarize themselves with the rulebook so they know what to expect and how to behave at the show.
It is inevitable that from time to time a novice rider will make a mistake and cut someone off in the warm up ring or flat class, but as professionals it is our duty to educate our students on ring etiquette so it doesn’t happen repeatedly.
To quote Oscar Wilde, “you can never be overdressed or overeducated.”
Personally, I love purchasing clothing and tack secondhand at consignment stores and on Facebook Marketplace, and as someone who goes to shows without a groom, I believe that dressing appropriately for the discipline and having nicely turned out horses says more about your work ethic than it does about your disposable income.
Many things at the horse show are outside our control. We can’t dictate the quality of the other horses entered in our class, the weather, or if a spectator chooses a bad moment to open an umbrella, but we all have the ability to demonstrate our dedication to the sport by showing off our attention to detail and knowledge of the rules, proper turnout and etiquette.
Seamus waiting for his under saddle class. Getting him this clean was a real team effort!