Finding the Balance

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Competition is integral to equestrian sports today. Where would lesson barns and training facilities be if not for all levels of horse shows? Schooling shows, among them, are a basic stepping stone for both horse and rider—not to mention good money makers and marketing tools for the stables that host them.

Schooling shows draw a range of riders—and horses. “People bring their young, untrained, inexperienced horses. That’s OK; that’s what these are for. For others, these are the only shows they go to,” reminds Gina Brinkerhoff, vice president of the Gaitway Walking Horse Association (GWHA).

Knowing this, there is one great challenge that schooling show managers face: how to make the competition both fun and safe for the wide range of people and horses involved.

Here, six managers provide 14 ideas for your next event.

1. Have a “drill sergeant show manager.”

“The primary safety feature we have is a show manager with a backbone,” says Brinkerhoff.

The manager for the Missouri organization’s six schooling-show series is not afraid to talk to parents or riders if she sees something unsafe happening. “Sometimes you’ve got to do the hard things, and sometimes parents don’t want to hear it. If you’re reasonably diplomatic, it can work,” Brinkerhoff says.

2. Hire reputable judges.

Battle Creek Equestrian Center owner Diane Marcina hires local trainers to judge her shows, which consist of dressage, equitation, hunter, and fun classes. This has several benefits: it keeps costs down, it supports the local industry, and she can get to know the judges and their stance on safety beforehand.

3. Choose and place your announcer wisely.

“You want to have someone knowledgeable doing the announcing, so in case horses get out of hand the class can be called back to the walk or halt. Sometimes the riders in the beginner classes need to be told to spread themselves out when they enter the ring or when they change directions,” says Melissa Pogwizd, owner of Blackhorse Equestrian Center in Bethany, Conn., whose equitation and pleasure classes are open to all disciplines.

In addition, the announcer should have a wide view of the action. Anne Frost of the El Dorado County (Calif.) Fairgrounds Schooling Show Series places her announcer in a stand above the arena so he/she can see the whole showgrounds during the 40 classes of halter, showmanship, trail, reining, English, and western. An announcer who’s good with humor can also help to keep things light if tensions rise during the show, as they tend to do.

4. Allow reasonable help during the show.

“We allow the student’s trainer in the ring to coach them during their warm-up. Not only is it safer to have someone watching the warm-up, but I think the students get more benefit from their warm-up time when their trainer is involved,” says Pogwizd.

Marcina, of Augusta, Mich., agrees and likes to see every rider finish a course during her three shows, as well: “If a rider has a problem on the course, the judge helps or the trainer goes in and helps. We find a way to let everyone finish.”

5. Create stallion-handler rules.

There are plenty of riders under the age of 18 with more capable hands than some adults, but in the interest of liability, they probably should not be working with stallions at your show. “Stallions are unpredictable. We not only have to consider the safety of the handler but we have to consider the safety of the exhibitors,” says Frost.

6. Match horse with rider.

“We allow our lesson students to request lesson horses they would like to show, but we make the final decisions on the mounts for our students. So if a student wants a horse that we feel might be a problem for them in the show environment, we can put them to a more appropriate mount,” explains Pogwizd.

7. Don’t over-face your riders.

While this is a competition, you don’t want people attempting overly complicated courses, says Sybil Greene, president of the Nebraska Hunter Jumper Schooling Show Circuit (NHJSSC). NHJSSC’s prize list has a standard set of classes and optional classes for managers to add as necessary throughout their 10 shows each year. Offering a variety of options ensures everyone can show at their level. “Revamping the prize list has a lot to do with the safety issues,” Greene says.

8. Plan ahead.

Katherine Pettus, owner of Taos Equestrian Center in Arroyo Hondo, N.M., says, “Do as much preparation before people come, if possible.” She asks a lot of questions of the new exhibitors and suggests “talking to them on the phone and making sure they are on the same page with safety and fun.”

9. Don’t let relaxed attire rules equal risk.

Marcina doesn’t require her riders to wear full show garb during the cold winter months. She does require boots, breeches, and helmets, however. Loose jackets and clothing with strings are definitely out.

10. Offer safety incentives.

GWHA offers classes of all types—gaited, western, and English—and attracts a variety of entrants. Management “encourages” all kids to wear helmets, and they get help from a local retailer. Linda Wilmesherr, owner of All About Tack in Winfield, Mo., sometimes awards a gift certificate to any helmet-wearing youth rider who receives a ribbon in a certain class.

11. Provide an adequate parking area.

If at all possible, keep the parking area away from the riding areas. Brinkerhoff says she believes this is a help in that there are no banging doors and horses bolting out of trailers to spook those riding.

Vehicle safety is also important. “I keep a separate area open for trailer parking since they are normally here all day, while the students and parents may just come for their classes and then leave. The year before we purchased the farm, one of the exhibitor’s cars got backed into while they were showing. They never found out who did it, and the damage was minimum, but she did not come to any of the schooling shows this year,” says Pogwizd, who averages 50 exhibitors per show.

12. Secure the animals not in the competition.

“I have other horses around that aren’t being shown. I make sure they’re safely away from where the competition and where the new horses are,” says Pettus, who’s been organizing shows for five years. Likewise, farm dogs should follow the same rules as visitors’ dogs—most likely kept in the house or on a leash.

And for inside the barn, “We have installed screw eyes in the horse stalls (up high out of the way) and purchased extra crossties for our boarders so that horses can be tacked in their stalls during the show. This prevents many possible injuries with the increased traffic flow of non-horse-savvy people through the barn aisles.”

13. Provide an adequate viewing area.

You’ve been to the shows—maybe your own—where people crowd around the in-gate to get a good view. Avoid this by bringing in bleachers. If you’re lucky enough to have a viewing room indoors, open that up to spectators.

14. Borrow ideas.

Greene says her organization modeled some of its rules after other organizations’ programs, including the United States Equestrian Federation and similar groups in other states.

While this is a lot to keep in mind, remember that the point is to create a show environment that works smoothly and safely. That helps to achieve the ultimate goal: schooling shows should be fun. Keeping a friendly atmosphere at your schooling shows will help to relieve some of the pressure that can build with competition.