Do you dream of showing your horse? Did you compete earlier in life and wish you could do so again? Or perhaps you're new to the world of horses and haven't yet had the opportunity to show, but would like to. Or maybe you're a horse-show parent who?s watched wistfully from the sidelines and now long to take a turn yourself.
If any of these describes you, you're in luck. Because, believe it or not, now?s a great time toget into that show pen. Opportunities for newbies and returnees abound, and the Internet is making it easier than ever for like-minded folks to compare notes and help one another take that first big step.
We're going to explain some of those opportunities to you, plus share concrete tips to point you in the direction of your first class. With our road map in hand, you can make 2010 the year your horse-showing dreams come true.
OUTSIDE THE BOX
Yes, the economy is still hurting and money is tight, but there are many reasons why now?s an especially good time to get into the show ring. In fact, there are more entry-level opportunities now than ever. Breed and sport associations are beginning to think creatively to help first-time exhibitors and returnees find a fun and comfortable place to start.
Take the Pinto Horse Association of America, for example. Its executive vice president and chief operating officer, Darrell Bilke, says his group has made the conscious decision to look at itself as a show-enthusiast organization (encouraging folks to get involved in competition) rather than a traditional breed association (promoting the breeding and registering of horses). Toward that end, PtHA is now granting breeding-stock papers (think ?admission tickets?) to solid-colored horses that don't have Pinto parents?including Quarter Horses, Arabians, Thoroughbreds, or any other breed eligible to be crossed with Pintos.And that includes geldings.
?With a set of these papers,? explains Bilke, ?your horse is welcome to compete in any breeding-stock class put on by a recognized Pinto show. Our shows are known for a fun, friendly atmosphere, and now we're inviting more people to come.?
That means much broader access is now granted to the PtHA?s large tent, which includes a sizable and growing array of classes for novices. Not all classes have breeding-stock divisions, but the number that do is growing, too.
And that's not all. With an eye to providing an extra nudge to first-timers, the PtHA has turned its attention to walk-trot classes for adults, not just kids. Such classes are in the lineup for the PtHA?s 2010 World Show.
Plus, the youth leadline division is being expanded to include trail, barrels, pole-bending, and other such events. Since every leadline exhibitor must have the horse controlled by an adult, the expanded class roster provides ?more classes for the grandmas to play in,? as Bilke puts it.
?We're seeing the high level of grandparent involvement with today?s younger exhibitors, and we?ve identified some ways to expand on that,? he explains.
Though the PtHA is among the most innovative of the groups reaching out to entry-level exhibitors, it certainly isn?t the only one. If you own a registered horse in any of the more prominent Western breeds, check with that breed?s association for show opportunities that might apply to you. If you remember a breed-show world from 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, you'll be surprised by how much more is now available.
Several breeds have programs that include local open shows, specialty shows (all Western pleasure, for instance, or all reining), novice-only shows, introductory shows, or other competitive offerings outside the traditional breedshow realm.
And even within sanctioned breed shows, new divisions exist. In addition to adult walktrot, there are expanding adult novice offerings, plus innovations such as the emerging challenged-rider classes, all designed to meet new demographic needs.
Also smoothing the way for new and returning show enthusiasts is the ever-expanding reach of cyberspace. It's easier all the time to connect with others who share your specific interests and can offer help and advice?on rules and regs, turnout trends, in-ring protocols, and so on. Blogs by new or returning show enthusiasts enable you to ?ride along? as someone like you prepares for and participates in his or her first event. (One blog to check out: 50plushorses.blogspot.com.)
YouTube videos allow you to watch classes being performed, and to view individual runs, for learning?s sake. Moreover, as club Web sites become increasingly tech-savvy, they?re also an ever-more-useful tool for the show-ring newbie or returnee.
H&R Contributing Editor April Fingerlos, whohad to learn the ropes of a new area after relocating from Idaho to Colorado, says Web sites have been an enormous help to her.
?I bookmark the sites of clubs in my area, then go there to check out what's happening and what's new,? she says. ?Because these sites often now include pictures from the club?s last event, I can check out trends for turnout and apparel.
Can I go with what I have in my closet to get my feet wet? Or is there an attire rule on the show bill? Are people banding manes and using fake tails? How fancy are their show blouses?
?You can really get a feel for what to expect in advance, all from the comfort of home,? she adds. (Of course, just knowing what clubs and events are in your area can be a challenge of its own, and for that it's best to have a mentor?more on that in our tips section, coming up.)
Even sites like Craigslist, which groups listings by geographic areas, are proving helpful to would-be horse-show enthusiasts.
?I?ve seen postings on the farm-and-garden section that say, ?I'm going to the such-and-such show and want to tag along with someone?you going, too?,?? notes Fingerlos. ?Or, ?I'll hold the video camera for you if you let me tag along.?
People are really reaching out to each other.?
OK, you?ve decided this is the year you're going to get into that show pen. How to begin? Here's advice to point you in the right direction.
- Get help. If at all possible, find a trainer who can instruct or coach you. Otherwise, just learning the basic skills you'll need for today?s classes can become frustrating and time-consuming, and you'll risk losing your momentum. If you can't manage full-time training or regular coaching, take lessons as you can afford them, or attend a clinic. Also consider trading out services if you have something (such as sewing or accounting skills, or time for stall-mucking) to offer a trainer.
To find a reputable professional, ask around?among your horsey friends, at the feed store or saddle shop, or at a local show. Get references and talk to a potential trainer?s current clients.
Your breed organization may also be able to recommend someone; for example, the American Quarter Horse Association has its Professional Horsemen association with trainers listed by area (4ahorse.aqha.com/findatrainer.html).
- Buddy up. Even if you're working with a trainer?and especially if you aren?t?find someone to pal up with. It might be another client in your trainer?s barn, a member of your local riding club (more on that in a moment), or someone you meet while lingering at the saddle shop (or searching online). If you happen to find someone more experienced than yourself, great?that person can mentor you and help you find out what's available in your area. But if you link up with someone who?s also new or returning to showing after a break, that's fine, as well. The two (or more) of you can work and learn together as you prepare for your first event. No matter how you do it, you'll go farther, faster by connecting with other people who share your interest.
- Join up. Get involved in your local breed affiliate if your horse is registered, and/or with any relevant local horseman?s organizations that offer showing opportunities. There are more of these latter groups all the time, often with a focus of keeping show participation fun and affordable.
By getting involved, you'll meet new friends and avail yourself of educational resources such as clinics and playdays.
- Watch & learn. Go to the event you plan to enter or a similar venue?without your horse? just to see what it's all about sans the worry of actual competition. Go with your trainer, if youhave one, or your learning buddy, or else find someone else you can tag along with. Even if you have to go alone, you can pick up a wealth of information that will be invaluable when your time to show comes: what people wear, trends in judging, how classes are run, what the stabling situation is like, where the warm-up areas are, good/bad places to park, how the schedule playsout, and not least of all, where to find food.
- Lend a hand. Volunteering at an event is also a superb way to get a good feel for what competing is all about. Working as a ring steward, for example (the person who assists the judge in the arena), can be like having a personal clinic.
You?ll observe how the judge responds to various entries and, if you're prudent about it, you can even ask the judge questions when he or she isn?t actively judging. Many judges enjoy explaining their perspectives, and it's a terrific way to find out what really matters to a judge?and, equally important, what doesn't.
- Start small, work up. Set modest goals in the beginning (your trainer can help here), so you don't overwhelm yourself. For example, if reining is your ultimate goal, don't jump right into reining events; start instead with simple rail classes at a local schooling show to get your feet wet in the least intimidating atmosphere.
Or, given your confidence level, you may need something at an even lower entry point to start. Here's where walk-trot classes, especially common at schooling shows but becoming more so in other venues, can be helpful. Or plan to start with in-hand events, such as halter, showmanship, longe line, or the new in-hand trail classes now becoming popular. It doesn't matter how you get into the show ring, the point is just to get started. Once you're off and rolling, you can periodically reset your sights on higher goals.
- Keep it fun. Don?t get caught up in the competitive aspect of showing to the detriment of the overall experience. Winning is fun and we all love to do it, but keep reminding yourself that learning, growing, and developing the relationship with your horse?not to mention all your new show buddies?is what showing is all about. If you approach it with this perspective, you simply can't go wrong.
SO MANY WAYS TO PLAY
The best-managed clubs and associations of today are striving to make showing more fun, affordable, and accessible to everyone. We talked about the PtHA in the main text; the American Quarter Horse Association is another group with multiple innovations, including its new introductory shows and ?Show Up!? program for those just starting in AQHA competition (aqha.com/showing/guidetoshowing). Several breeds offer recognition outside their own show pens with programs for exhibitors competing at open shows. Sport organizations are also getting into the act; for example, the National Reining Horse Association has just launched a new ?Reining at the Grassroots Level? program (nrha.com/affiliate.php).
Below are examples of regional clubs working hard to bring newcomers into the world of showing, but this just scratches the surface. Be sure to ask around to find out what else may be available in your area.
- Northern Colorado Saddle Club. Founded in 2006, this group focuses on education and fostering healthy competition. It offers showing opportunities at various levels; entry fees for members are just $5 per class. Those who volunteer at shows receive ride coupons good for classes at future shows. For more information: northcoloridingclub.com.
- Stock Horse of Texas. This group offers affordable education to help members improve their riding and horse-training skills, plus showing opportunities that promote versatile, all-around horses of all breeds. Classes range from beginner level to advanced, with adjustments made to accommodate those still learning (for example, a reining class might ask for simple lead changes rather than flying changes; a working cow horse class might not require the cow to be turned on the fence or circled).
Clinics are offered before most events so members can brush up on skills just prior to competing. For more information: stock horsetexas.org. (Note: A national affiliate, the American Stock Horse Association, has also recently formed as an outgrowth of the SHOT: americanstockhorse.org.)
- National Adult Equestrian Teams. Now in its second year, the Northwest-based NAET is modeled on the Oregon High School Equestrian Teams, only for adults. Members compete in teams, which may consist of any number of riders. All performance classes are pattern events, so that riders receive the judge?s individual attention and feedback. In addition to typical horse-show classes, competitive opportunities include gymkhana events, cattle classes, and drill team. NAET events offers jackpot purses instead of ribbons and prizes, so members can recoup some of their entry fees. At press time, a Web site for this new group was under construction; by the time you're reading this, you should be able to Google ?National Adult Equestrian Teams? and find the new site.