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  • Writer's pictureKatrin Silva

The Horse Show Conundrum

May has been a busy month for me: two horse shows on two consecutive weekends. For years, I’ve struggled with whether I still want to show. These two very different events highlighted all the reasons why I do, and all the reasons why I don’t:

The first horse show was an Arabian show with non-rated all-breed classes in all sorts of disciplines, including classical and western dressage. Entries were reasonably priced. My students felt enthusiastic. A good-sized group of us spent the weekend showing, mostly in both kinds of dressage, but also in all-breed rail classes.

The weather was terrible. The warmup rings were chaotic. Dressage horses shared it with western horses, hunt seat horses, and a few saddle seat horses. One of my green horses jumped out of the ring and got eliminated. Another spooked when the dressage arena fell over in the gale-force wind, but recovered enough to finish her test. The rest, and my students, and my assistant, did pretty well, winning a few classes, placing in others. The dressage judge became grouchier and grouchier as the weekend went on. “Don’t you people around here ever scratch and just go home?” she told her scribe at one point. The scores she gave were on the low side, but her comments remained encouraging and constructive.

We all felt bone tired by the time we loaded up the horses and went home, but we also felt like we had accomplished what we had come to do: to expand our comfort zone. To show off our horses to the best of their, and our, ability. To celebrate how far we and our horses had come as a team. To receive constructive feedback from a judge. To build partnership with our horses, and a sense of community with other horse people. I was super proud of my horses, and of my students.

The next weekend, I took one horse and one student to a recognized dressage show. We were the only two from our barn willing to fork over the exorbitant entry fees, but we did it because we wanted to try to qualify for the regional championship later this year. Weather-wise and schedule-wise, this show was a walk in the park: two rides a day, on a warm, calm weekend, plus a little bit of coaching. Almost a vacation by comparison. But emotionally, this show drained me. The warmup ring was full of large, exquisitely moving warmbloods. All horses and riders looked alike and were dressed the same. The atmosphere was hushed. I felt intimidated. My young Andalusian mare spooked and balked at the loudspeaker, the photographer, and the trash barrels. Our first test was a bit of a rodeo, but by the time we entered at A for her second test of the day, she had recovered some confidence. We had no major mistakes and a very relaxed, stretchy free walk. I finished happy with our performance, super proud of my inexperienced horse staying focused and trusting me to guide her.

Later that afternoon, I picked up my test sheet. The score was low, though not abysmally so. The judge’s comments, however, were all negative: needs to show more overstep in the walk, more acivity in the medium trot, more engagement in the collected canter. Nothing we did was deemed good enough, though I knew we could not have done it any better that day. The happiness I had felt after finishing my dressage test evaporated. I felt crushed. I cried into my score sheet, overwhelmed with self-doubt. Two weeks later, I am still wondering whether I should quit training horses and take up a more suitable career, like flipping burgers.

Are horse shows worth the expense? The extra work? For my entire horse career, I’ve been on the fence about this. I always rode a lot of young, green, or troubled horses, so showing was never my main focus, but there were times when I wanted it to be. Many years ago, when I was young and impressionable, the allure of the show ring seemed irresistible. I was hungry for ribbons and recognition. I believed I needed to show if I wanted to earn a living as a professional equestrian. I also believed that the best trainers won, and the not so good trainers lost, so whenever I lost, I felt like a complete failure.

Over time, I realized that being a good rider or trainer and showing successfully were two different skill sets. Don’t get me wrong: riders who do well at shows know how to ride, but that’s not all they know. They also know how to handle the pressure of competitive situations. They know how to turn out and present a horse to a judge. They know which classes to enter. They know how to negotiate a warm-up pen. Most importantly, they know that they need to ride the kind of horse judges in their chosen discipline like to see: horses that move a certain way, horses that look like they can do the job to the judge’s satisfaction. If they are amateurs, they buy the most suitable horse they can afford. If they are professionals, they seek out clients who own that kind of horse, or they persuade their clients to buy that kind of horse.

This is what I struggle with. I’m an equal-opportunity trainer. I believe in my heart of hearts that the dressage-based training I do is good for all horses, not just horses who are born and bred to compete at dressage shows. I love that my barn is filled with all sorts of horses - different breeds, different ages, different physical issues, different ways of moving. My clients have goals that may or may not include ever competing at any kind of show. I work with all kinds of horses, regardless of how much talent for competitive dressage they may or may not have. I genuinely enjoy working with all kinds of horses and their owners. I love what I do because it helps all horses. I have no intention of triyng to fill my barn with “better” horses and would never, ever, suggest to a student that the horse she owns and loves is inadequate, not good enough, or unworthy of my time.

Does this mean I will never be as successful at dressage shows as other trainers? Yes. It does. Does this state of affairs make me sad? At times, yes. There’s still a part of me, though by now a much smaller part, that craves good scores and blue ribbons. I still want to finish my silver medal at some point before I die, but I won’t compromise my egalitarian core values to get it. And I still believe that horse shows can be valuable experiences for horses and riders, so I’m not ready to quit showing altogether. But I know, deep down, that a score does not define my worth as a rider, or as a trainer. I know my clients appreciate me for reasons that have nothing to do with the color of the ribbons I bring home. I just need to learn to keep this in mind while I pick up my next score sheet.

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