Games (Horse) People Play

A play day can make clients happy, give students (and horses) something waaaay different to do, and—don’t tell them, but—even improve their riding!

Want a surefire way to build barn camaraderie? Try a play day with a bunch of silly classes. Here at Mary Gatti’s Rainbow Canyon Ranch, in Azusa, Calif., we have a highly competitive A-circuit program, a one-day “A” and “B” program, and a 75-student riding school. Most of these folks are serious riders who are on, or are headed toward, the competitive fast track.

But what do we hear, time and again? “When is the play day? We need to do something fun!”

What’s So Great About a Playday?


  • A refreshing change of pace for riders and horses.
  • A chance to see fellow riders in a different light—not just enjoying riding, but enjoying fun that’s tied to riding.
  • A low-key, inexpensive, relaxed opportunity for riding school students—some of whom have never been on a horse without instruction—to start using horsemanship skills on their own.
  • An opportunity for the riding school kids to see that you don’t just turn humorless and competitive when you become an “A” or “B” show-caliber rider—you’re still a fun-loving horseperson with a frisky side.
  • A way to extend your extended family. Our trainers and staff officiate for some play day classes and ride in others. One year our grooms rode. Not only do we get about 35 to 40 competitors, the family audience can swell the turnout to more than 100.

But a good play day doesn’t just happen. Here are some tips for making yours successful.


What to brainstorm? The date (we try for a weekend when nobody’s going to be away at a show), fun classes (for some ideas see box, “Games People Play”), and divisions (we do Open, for our experienced clients who lease or own their own horses; Walk/trot, for the majority of our riding school people; and Vintage, for non-equestrian parents, husbands, brothers and grandparents to be lead-lined—it’s a hoot).

Do not be tempted to schedule millions of different classes. A play day does not run like a regular show. Not only will everybody be goofy and having fun, but you and staff will be changing tack and switching school horses, and for the Vintage Division, you’ll be dealing with parents and brothers who have never ridden before, which takes time.

So crunch the numbers before you plan a ton of classes. If you get about 30 riders, and you start at 8:00 in the morning, and you only do the seven classes I’ve described, and you don’t do all of them for all divisions—you will be working non-stop to get done by 3:00 or 4:00 p.m.

How much to charge? That’s up to you, of course, but this is a goodwill event where we don’t try to make money—if we pay for the ribbons and our clients have a great time, we figure we’ve had a success. But we don’t want to lose money either, so we’ve found clever ways to economize over the years. Instead of hiring a judge, we have a rotating “jury” of staff members. And since play day is a family affair, our “food service” is a potluck where parents and grandparents bring main dishes and salads or desserts. We provide the drinks, cups, plates, napkins and cutlery, and people “graze” to their heart’s content throughout the day.

Let the Buzz Begin

Post the event a month or two ahead. About two or three weeks in advance, have the riding school instructors start explaining the classes to their students. And talk up the play day—not just with students and moms who tend to be around all the time anyway, but with husbands, fathers, brothers, even grandparents.

Then, recruit students for specific classes. Many of the younger kids will be riding for the first time without minute-to-minute instruction. While some of the more benign events—the Apple Race, for example—are suitable for anybody, the more competitive stuff, like Barnyard Jumpers or the Australian Pursuit, are not. We consider each student depending on her level, knowledge and ability, then circle the classes on her entry form to indicate which ones she is permitted to enter. That’s because…

Safety is Job One

In addition to monitoring classes the kids can do, require approved protective head gear and boots (a basic safety requirement you probably already impose in your riding school program). Plan to use only those school horses that will stay pretty even-tempered throughout the day. Limit opportunities for horses to play and get out of control by conducting the flat classes in a small ring. Move to a bigger ring with fences for Barnyard Jumpers, but keep the jumps 2’6” or lower.

While a play day may seem like a fun and even profitable outreach opportunity for outsiders, don’t invite them. You don’t know their horses. You don’t know their abilities. And you have no way of predicting what they might do or cause to happen.

Finally, a play day can be the acid test of how well you maintain the very fine line between fun and mayhem. You don’t want to be a wet blanket, but nobody has fun when people get too silly or dangerously overly-competitive, or when horses get so frisky that somebody gets dumped.

Don’t get so caught up in the fun that you lose sight of safety and allow somebody to post-enter a class that’s a little bit over her head. And they will try. Kids can be persuasive. They’re going to get really, really excited. If they’re doing well and having fun, at some point someone’s going to come up and beg, “Can’t I do the bareback jumpers?”

Stand firm and say, “No. Not at this show. Maybe next time, but only if you practice really hard for it.”

Keep Tabs on the Schoolies

For the most part, your school horses are going to enjoy themselves. But remember, after several hours of unusual activities and of big, tall brothers and fathers who don’t know how to sit in the middle and just want to go fast, some of your best-minded horses may start to lose their sense of humor. If one of them gets a little grumpy with his ears, or decides he’s pretty much going to stand in the middle of the ring, thank him for being a good sport up until now, and gracefully retire him for the rest of the day.

Aside from these minor concerns, play days are cake. Enjoy! [sm]

See below for some of the many games for horses and riders.

Candise “Candy”?Pipkin has been barn manager at Mary Gatti’s Rainbow Canyon Ranch for 18 years (less two years “trying the real world” and finding it wanting).


THE APPLE RACE is a safe flat class in which each rider holds an apple under his or her chin while walking, trotting, changing rein, etc.

Once an apple is dropped, the rider comes to the center of the ring. The last rider holding an apple wins.

THE EGG-IN-SPOON RACE is another very safe flat class in which each rider holds a hard-boiled egg in the bowl of a spoon while performing various movements and gaits. Once an egg is dropped, the rider comes to the center. The last rider holding an egg wins.

One year I glued my egg to a spoon, just for comic relief. When it got down to me and the last two or three people, I started doing absolutely ridiculous stunts, like holding the spoon between my teeth. Everybody was really impressed until I turned the spoon over and the egg stayed there.

GATTI SAYS (the Rainbow Canyon Ranch version of Simon Says) is a very safe flat class for all riders in which Mary Gatti tries to trick the riders into eliminating themselves—either by obeying instructions not prefaced with “Gatti says,” or by incorrectly performing movements of increasing difficulty. Last one in wins. As the stakes get higher, get into some technical, advanced movements—half-turn in reverse, drop your stirrups, halt, rein-back, turn on the forehand. It’s a pretty good test of your training program.

THE DOLLAR BILL RACE is a safe flat class where each rider tries to hold a dollar bill under her thigh while performing various gaits and movements. The last person with a dollar wins the pot. The walk/trot riders do it with saddles, but the open riders do it bareback.

THE BELT RACE is a moderately challenging flat class for teams of two. Each team tries to stay “connected” by a 5- or 6-foot strip of toilet paper while walking, trotting, circling, changing direction, halting and so on. For this event, match up the horses carefully—not all of them can stand to be that close.

THE AUSTRALIAN PURSUIT is an energetic and quite competitive trot race for open riders and advanced riding school students. Riders pass on the inside; getting passed or breaking to canter results in elimination. Last rider wins.

BARNYARD JUMPERS is an over-fences class for open riders who can ride and jump bareback without chaps. The class can be run as a gambler’s choice (each jump has a numerical value and the highest score wins), or a timed first jump-off (fastest time wins). Remind the highly competitive people that it’s just a game and they shouldn’t endanger themselves or their horses for it. —CP & KG






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