I spent last weekend at a horse show in Albuquerque. Three days later, I still feel utterly exhausted. Why? Let me explain:
A useful reminder of what really matters.
On Friday, we packed up saddles, feed, tack room furniture, the kitchen sink, etc. We loaded four horses, hauled to the Albuquerque fairgrounds, unloaded, lunged and rode everyone, tried to get the horses as clean as possible in freezing temperatures, tried to get our tack as clean as possible, dined on canned soup, crawled into our sleeping bags in the camper, and fell asleep studying dressage tests. On Saturday, we fed at 6 am, then went through the silly ritual of grooming and saddling horses while trying to keep white breeches and white saddle pads from becoming brown and covered in horse hair. I coached two students through their dressage tests, rode two classical dressage tests, changed from tall boots into running shoes, ran three horses on the triangle for sport horse in-hand, changed into jeans, chaps, and cowboy hat, rode a couple of Western dressage tests, picked up my score sheets, ignored positive comments from the judge, and beat myself up over things that could have been better. We packed up everything, loaded the horses, and made it back to the barn by 8 pm, unloaded everyone and everything, and went home. Maybe this explains why I still feel tired on Wednesday.
Sport horse in-hand classes: finally, my running hobby has a practical purpose.
For me as a trainer, horse shows mean a lot of extra work, without extra income. I don’t charge additional fees for shows because they’re expensive for my clients as it is. This means I lose money every time I go to a show because I have to cancel the weekend’s lessons.
Warming up for a dressage test means finding focus - for me, and for my horse.
Horse shows drain my emotions even more than they drain my finances. Even after doing it for 30 years, exposing myself to be judged by others makes me feel vulnerable all the time and incompetent most of the time. Showing pushes me way out of my comfort zone, sometimes into a place where I feel like the world’s worst rider, like I should find a different line of work altogether.
Sometimes, feedback is positive. I'll take it when I can get it, but never take it for granted.
These moments of despair have become more intermittent than they used to be. I know that ribbons and scores don’t define my worth as a trainer. I mostly work with horses who are not born and bred to be show horses - rescued horses, horses with behavioral issues, off the track thoroughbreds, etc. I know that my clients value what I teach their horses, without the added feedback from a judge who does not know about the obstacles the horse I’m riding had to overcome. I know that judges can only evaluate what they see in front of them. I also know that judges are humans, with biases and imperfections just like the rest of us. And yet, even though I know all that, I tend to ignore the positive comments and focus on the criticism, sometimes so much it makes me cry all the way home.
Many years ago, I allowed success or failure at shows to define me. I've learned my lesson.
In spite of all that, I still want to show - not almost every weekend, but on a regular basis. Not so much or at such a high level that it crowds out everything else I do with horses, but enough to require a certain degree of commitment. In spite of all the drawbacks, I am not ready for a life without horse shows. Why?
Ivy and Cami are becoming seasoned travelers, at ease in unfamiliar surroundings.
Because going to shows makes the horses I train better horses. Shows are synonymous with noise, distractions, and unfamiliar circumstances, like water trucks and loudspeakers. Once a horse has learned to focus at home, it’s time to expand his comfort zone beyond the boundaries of a familiar arena. Trail rides and trail obstacles are important, but so is going to new and scary places, like the fairgrounds. I find that horses come back from a show weekend more trusting, more confident, more focused. It helps them grow up in a way few other experiences can.
Lessons are important as important for professional equestrians as they are for amateurs - probably more important.
Because going to shows makes me a better rider and trainer. It would be easy to get comfortable in my little bubble of supportive, appreciative clients. It would be easy to fool myself into believing I know more than I really do, or ride better than I really do. Shows don’t allow illusions of grandeur. They are reality checks. Shows expose me to criticism, to being judged, to watching very accomplished riders. This can be a sobering experience, but I find it’s necessary, as a reminder that I still have a lot to learn and can’t afford to become complacent.
Look at how far she's come! Cami, the difficult mare, performing a solid western dressage test.
Because showing is a milestone celebration. My clients aren’t wealthy, but they’re proud of their horses, and of what I’ve done with their horses. Showing is a way of recognizing how far we’ve come as a team. The judge may not know where my horses started, or how amazing it is that we’ve made it to the show ring at all, but the horse’s owners do know, which is more than enough to make me happy.
Joan and Trinity last weekend. They're becoming a great team - relaxed, confident, focused.
At the end of the day, I find that horse shows can help build a sense of community. We show on a shoestring budget, which means that my students work as hard as I do. Everyone helps everyone else, in any way possible. We all muck stalls, braid manes, polish each other’s boots, read each other’s tests. I love seeing my students practice what they’ve learned. I love watching them warm up their horses with patience and focus, to use the toolbox of skills we’ve worked so hard to put together at home. I love that we’re able to show our horses with some degree of success, but without compromising the principles of good horsemanship my program is based on. I love that we’re building horse-rider teams, without shortcuts, one step at a time. And I love that we all support each other in our efforts to become better horse-rider teams.
Harmony between horse and rider is a more important goal than a blue ribbon. But if you do it right, shows can help us create that harmony.
At this stage in my life as a horse trainer, blue ribbons don’t mean what they used to. Shows no longer define who I am, or how good think I am compared to others. I train horses for deeper, less tangible but ultimately much more valid reasons than the thrill of winning. And yet, shows are still a part of what I do - not the main part, not even a very important part, but a piece of the big jigsaw puzzle called good horsemanship.