Show Tips for a Happy Horse

Three tips to have a happy horse in the show ring

A major change is sweeping dressage, and it’s going to affect our horses and all of us who love the sport—riders, trainers, instructors, even the judges who score us as we come up centerline. According to the 2011 US Equestrian Federation Rule Book, the Object and General Principles of Dressage have been completely rewritten to call for “the development of the horse into a happy athlete through harmonious education.” Here are some show tips to help you keep your horse happy:

Katherine Bateson-Chandler and Nartan | © Susan J. Stickle
  • Pick the right level. Compete one level below the level you’re training at home. You and your horse will feel completely confident and comfortable. I’ve seen too many people try to show at the level they’re training, and their horses lose confidence in them and they lose confidence in their horses. Believe me, if your horse has a bad experience in the arena, it will come back to haunt you in the form of an unhappy, nervous, tense horse. The flip side of this rule, of course, is to keep pushing at home so you always progress. You can’t get stuck at Training Level and think that’s all there is.
  • School him and fool him. If your horse is like many horses, he may need you to do a lot of things that go against the tests, such as crossing the diagonal without doing a flying change, or doing a half-pass, straightening and NOT going back the other way. I call these “anti-movements,” movements that are sort of contrary to what you do in a test. This gives me more control, and at the end of the day, you DO have to have control, or your test just ends up looking messy, with your horse throwing himself around the arena guessing what you want and usually guessing wrong. Of course, for every horse who has to be fooled, there’s another one who needs to know the test to feel confident. With him, you may have to trot down centerline and halt at X a few times to show him where he’s going to go.
  • Keep things the same. You can’t tell horse-show management to schedule your classes at the same time you usually school at home, but you’ll give your horse more confidence and mental and physical comfort if, as much as possible, you stick to your home routine at a horse show, especially in the warm-up ring. So many riders at competitions start riding completely differently, and you can just see the tense, confused looks on their horses’ faces because the rules have suddenly changed for no apparent reason.

To read more, see “Develop a Happy Athlete” in the September 2011 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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