Planning an event at your barn? Whether it’s a schooling show, a rated show, or a gymkhana, you have a lot on your plate. Weeks beforehand, you need to line up judges, workers, and volunteers; choose classes and mail out a prize list; check rules and regulations; and register entries. But wait—there’s more. You need to get your property ready to welcome the riders, trainers, and spectators who will arrive on the big day. Your business will be on display. Are you ready for your close-up?
For advice on turning a workaday stable into a welcoming and exhibitor-friendly show venue, we turned to two expert show managers. Chris Rogers Aquilio works with Centerline Events, a Connecticut-based firm that manages dressage competitions in the Northeast. Mike Galloway, of Triple Rise Horse Show Management in Eugene, Oregon, runs more than twenty West Coast hunter-jumper shows a year, as well as the Northwest Saddlebred Fall Futurity.
Start by casting a critical eye on your property, our experts say, with a close look at areas visitors will see and use. Now is the time to fix fencing and put a fresh coat of paint on the front gate, arena railing, and jumps or other equipment that you’ll use in the show. Stow seldom-used equipment, and get rid of those cobwebs.
Next, turn your attention to your arena. No matter how nice the place looks, exhibitors won’t be happy if the footing isn’t good, says Aquilio, and the right footing depends on the event. Roll out the heavy equipment to level your arena, and work in new material if it’s needed. (Be prepared to water and drag the arena during the event, too.)
How will you set up your grounds? Here are the key points to consider.
• Arena specs: Many sport and breed associations set requirements for competition areas (see article on page 10). Even if yours is just a schooling show, people are coming to practice for the real thing—so make it as close to the real thing as possible, Aquilio advises. For dressage, that means a correctly-sized arena with letters and boundary fencing; for hunters, fences of the types required at rated shows; for barrel racing, matched barrels spaced according to National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA) specs.
• Warm-up: Riders will need a separate warm-up area, also with good footing. It should be far enough from the arena that warm-up antics won’t interrupt competition, and large enough to let several riders prepare their horses at the same time.
• Ring officials: Judges and announcers will appreciate a place to sit, especially one sheltered from sun and rain. A judge’s booth can be an elegant gazebo or a temporary canopy. The open back of a two-horse trailer, pulled up to letter C, is fine for dressage, says Aquilio.
• Spectators: A multi-day rated show might have grandstand seating and VIP tents; a schooling show might have a couple of benches for weary parents. Either way, for safety’s sake, designate a spectator area that’s away from gate and warm-up areas.
• Horse show office: It should be sheltered from the weather and easy for exhibitors to access—near the competition area, but not on top of it. “A walk-up window is ideal because exhibitors don’t actually have to come in,” says Aquilio. Besides the equipment that the show secretary and other officials need, be sure to have plenty of extra forms and prize lists, pens (they’ll disappear), and a writing surface for exhibitors.
• Parking: If your property allows, designate separate areas for car and trailer parking. Aquilio notes that exhibitors want to be able to park trailers as close to the competition area as possible. “Figure out a traffic flow that will allow trailers to enter, turn around, and exit without hassle,” says Galloway. “And even at a local schooling show, set aside some parking spaces close to the ring for handicapped access. Your spectators may include grandparents who come to see youngsters compete.” The judge and other VIPs will appreciate reserved parking spaces too, adds Aquilio.
• Food and shelter: Provide seating near the food concession, and consider a tent so people can get out of the weather if it’s wet, or out of the sun in summer, says Galloway. “Put some thought into the food,” he adds. “Besides the usual hot dogs, try to offer a variety of food—some salads and fruit, sandwiches made with fresh cold cuts—to meet different needs.”
Once you have the basics in place, it’s time to dress up the grounds.
• Containers filled with plants and flowers look great, but the cost can add up quickly. Get the most bang for your buck by putting a few large containers where they’ll have the most impact—flanking entryways, around jumps, and so on.
• You’ll often save if you use locally grown plants. Galloway uses a lot of nursery shrubs and small trees, for example, since these are readily available in the Pacific Northwest.
• For fall or winter events, seasonal decorations are a low-cost option—pumpkins and cornstalks in fall, evergreen branches in winter.
• Silk flowers are often less expensive than real ones and, Aquilio notes, look just as nice as show decorations. The bonus, of course, is that you don’t have to buy new flowers for every event.
• Set up an attractive awards area where winners can have photos taken, says Aquilio. “We use a painted lattice as a background. It’s decorated with silk flowers and carries banners with the names of the show and sponsors.”
• On show day, an attractive “welcome” sign at the entrance gate will help visitors find your place. Be sure to put up signs directing people to parking and spectator areas, the horse-show office, etc.
Details can make or break your show. Here are some must-haves.
• Restrooms: Put portables where they’ll be needed—near the trailer parking and near the office, for example, not out in the back pasture. “Have restrooms close to the ring, but not so close that horses will spook when the doors slam,” suggests Galloway.
• Trash cans: “You can’t have too many in parking areas and near the ring and food areas. People do tend to throw stuff around,” Galloway says.
• Notice boards: Set up boards for schedules and other important notices in areas where exhibitors can easily find them—jumper courses near the ring, or dressage test results outside the office. And, says Aquilio, put those boards under cover, so that a shower won’t turn paper into a mess.
• PA system: A good PA system—one that transmits words, not pops and squeaks—is essential. “If your event involves music, you’ll need good speakers,” notes Aquilio. Don’t have a system? You can rent equipment; be sure to set it up and test it the day before your event, to make sure that speakers are placed effectively.
• Radios: Use two-way radios to link the office with ring officials, announcers, and other key workers. “We put a two-way radio in the stable area, hooked up to an amplifier and speakers,” says Galloway. “That way we can page people there and keep them in the loop.”
Thoughtful touches make contented exhibitors, says Galloway. “We always have a dish of candy at the office, and we have a little gift, such as a hat or chocolates, for trainers. At back gate areas where exhibitors wait, we have ice water in hot weather and patio heaters when the weather is cold.”
None of that will help if the show is disorganized and exhibitors are treated rudely, of course. “It’s essential that the workers in the office and back gate areas—those who help entries get into the proper class and get classes into the ring on schedule—are cordial, informed, and know their jobs,” he says. With that caveat, a few little extras will keep exhibitors happy and encourage them to return for your next event.