Q: This is my first year in IHSA Intercollegiate Horse Show Association competition, and I'm not comfortable riding unfamiliar horses at shows. Do you have any tips for getting to know a new IHSA horse in the short time we have before going into the ring?
A: There are several ways to get physically and mentally ready to go into the IHSA show ring on unfamiliar horses. Start by riding as many different horses as possible before the show. Getting to know new horses and finding out what makes them "tick" will put you ahead of the game. You don't have to ride each one extensively?even just one lesson or jump school can be very informative. Your goal is to develop the art of identifying each horse's unique qualities. Here are some tips on how to do that.
"Read" each IHSA horse the second you throw your leg over his back. Look at his expression and feel everything happening underneath you, even how he reacts to you putting your foot in the stirrup. You can learn a lot by gradually picking up the reins and putting slight pressure on the horse's sides to ask him to walk away from the mounting block. I like to use the phrase "Stop, go, turn" when getting the feel of a new horse. As you walk around the arena, ask for some halts and turns. Observe how much rein and leg pressure you need to get the response you want. Making small adjustments to the horse's walk?asking him to speed up or slow down slightly?can also tell you a great deal about that individual.
At competitions, watch and take notes about the horses being schooled and competed in the classes ahead of yours. Read the horse descriptions provided by the host school. If you have a few general questions about the horse, it's OK to ask the horse holder, but grilling him or her about every detail is usually counterproductive. It can even make you more nervous to receive a spontaneous or (sometimes) inaccurate answer. Remember that horse holding is probably the most thankless job at the horse show?and many horse holders are beginners or uninformed people who cannot answer sophisticated riding questions. The best way to get honest, straightforward answers about a particular horse is for your coach to pose pertinent questions to the host coach.
Prepare yourself mentally for each ride. For flat classes, picture the perfect ride in your mind. If you are jumping, memorize your course, paying attention to every detail. Most importantly, try to face whatever makes you most nervous. Learning to manage show nerves is difficult but not impossible. Should a sport psychologist not be available, find someone else, such as a supportive friend or coach, who can guide you carefully in that direction. Take plenty of deep breaths and perhaps even spend some time alone before the competition. Most likely, the more you compete, the less nervous you'll become, the more you'll relax and the better you will ride.
When you're in the show ring, always remember the basics: outside ?diagonal (for posting trot), inside lead (for canter). Even one slip of the fundamentals can make a difference in the color of a ribbon.
There are several things not to do ?before going into the ring or while competing. Around the country, these are either not allowed or are frowned upon:
- Do not grab the horse's mouth and push him into the bridle to create a deep and stiff frame. This does no good for you or the horse and, in most cases, is prohibited.
- Wagging the head?pulling it from side to side with your reins?to get a horse collected is not allowed and can be hurtful. Whether it is done in or out of the ring, it gives you a false sense of collection and usually makes things worse by upsetting the horse. P.S. Judges hate it!
- Rude or unbecoming behavior in the ring is not allowed. Sometimes nerves overcome riders, erasing their ring etiquette and finesse. Try to make your nerves work for you and not against you by always thinking ahead and preparing for what's coming next.
Rerides are available at most shows. Know the protocol for this situation. If your coach requests a reride for you, it may or may not happen. Either way, stay quiet and be a good sport.
Finally, if it's just not a good day and things have gone wrong?perhaps you had an unfortunate ride on a horse who doesn't fit your riding style?it's hard to be sportsmanlike, but it's so necessary! When you leave the ring and hand the horse to the horse holder, always say something positive. Absolutely never badmouth a horse!
So, with all of these tips in mind and your physical and mental homework done, take a deep breath, reach into the hat, pull out a name, mount and ride your best. This is the most rewarding sport and, thanks to IHSA, we can get closer to our goal of being better horsemen and -women. Enjoy the ride!
Nancy Peterson has instructed riding students at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, since 1972. Among many of her achievements and awards, she received the 2007 IHSA Lifetime Achievement Award and was named the 2004 Virginia Horse Show Association Horseperson of the Year and the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Coach of the Year five times. Currently the director of riding at Hollins, Nancy has guided the team to fourth place in the IHSA Collegiate Cup Hunter Seat Team Championships in 2004 and 2010 and sixth place in 2005. In the recent 2010-11 season, the Hollins riding team won its second straight and record 19th ODAC title, and Sarah Jarosinski '12 was the IHSA Individual Novice Equitation Over Fences National ?Reserve Champion.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.