Putting on a Show

Spring is around the corner and many barns will be kicking off their show season. Here's a look at how some barns run successful events.

“When the horse show has just gotten underway, around 10 a.m…that’s when you should be able to sit back, put your feet up and relax, savoring a job well done.” These are wise words from Carole Kenney, a veteran show manager from Parker, Colo. She’s managed at all levels from unrated schooling shows to “A-3” rated AHSA (American Horse Show Association) hunter/jumper competitions.

But before the feet go up, there is a multitude of tasks to be considered and arranged, and, according to Kenney and other seasoned show organizers, the sooner the better. “Be Prepared” is not just a good motto for the Boy Scouts, it also applies to horse shows of all kinds. Imagine all the things that could go wrong and be ready to act with finesse when some of them actually do.

One very practical way to determine your objectives is to pretend you’re the exhibitor and mentally walk through the horse show day. Larry Langer, president of Equestrian Sports Inc. and one of the most successful and respected horse show managers in the U.S. as well as the founding president of the National/Hunter Jumper Council, shares his “horse show in a nutshell” synopsis. It applies equally to any show of any discipline, no matter what the level or size.

“Driving in at 7:00 a.m., is it obvious how to get to the grounds? Is it obvious what entrance to use? Is it obvious where to park? Can I get a cup of coffee this early? Can I lunge my horse? Can I warm up my horse? If a jumping show, over jumps? Can I school in the main show arena before the show starts? Is there any place to sit and watch? Is it shaded? Where can my horse get a drink? Where can I get some cold water? Can I hear the announcer from the warm-up ring and from the trailer area? Is there a starter—with a start order? Can I sign in? Are the jumps acceptable? The footing? The dust? Are there lights? Do I need lights? If the show ends just at dark, will I have to load my horse in the pitch dark? What kind of prizes are there? How far down the order are they given? Are the entry fees reasonable?”

Langer evokes past learning experiences: “When I used to do small shows, my biggest concern was that since they were not approved by any other organization, there was no clearing house to avoid date conflicts. The worst thing was finding out that the day after you sent out your prize list, someone else’s came in the mail for the same date. That is, in fact, why small horse show organizations sometimes get started…to coordinate dates. Call up the other people that put on shows and try to work with them to avoid conflict.”

If you publicize your show adeptly, they will come. Start by planning your event at least five to six months out. Send your event notice to all local and regional publications. They are usually delighted to include show news in their event


Make sure you provide contact phone numbers and names for queries. If the budget permits, place ads in these publications. And remember that ads need to be in early, usually two months ahead. If you have a logo, use it everywhere you can. Publish a weather date and make sure you list a phone number for calling on a night when snow has people wondering, “Show, or no?”

Since you probably belong to local equine and equestrian associations, purchase their mailing lists and do your own direct-mail campaign. Buck Kalinowski, of Hillside Equestrian Meadows in Wolcott, Connecticut, mails to the Connecticut Horse Show Association and Connecticut Hunter/Jumper Association to entice members to his shows, which include gymkhana, advanced Western Pleasure and rated English—the gamut.

Kalinowski has also gone “tech” with the entry process, providing a Website for advance sign-up prior to show day.

Think carefully about the entries for your shows, advises Carole Kenney, and design a class list that is workable within the time allowed for show day. “It’s a tap dance to determine what the majority wants. Why run a class for three small ponies, when you could put 20 beginner riders in another class? It’s a matter of economics,” she says.

You’ll need to order ribbons and trophies based upon your class load. Kenney is known for her inventive and desirable trophies, such as brushes or fly spray. Shop the major tack catalogues and try to establish a relationship with a ribbon manufacturer who may be willing to discount based upon repeated orders.

Charlotte Skinner, announcer, manager and secretary of shows for Equestrian Sports, Inc., in Los Angeles, shares a word to the wise. “Don’t count on volunteers for key positions at your show. Hire qualified professionals for key spots—it’s always money well spent and saves a lot of headaches in the long run.”

Speaking of key positions, Kenney professes that the most challenging component of show management for her is always hiring the judges, “who tend to be booked way in advance, even for small, local shows. You want to hire judges who will please the majority of people. . .as local prejudices tend to build up, such as, ‘That judge doesn’t like my horse.’ Hiring from out of town is ideal, if you can afford to pay for transportation, hotel and expenses,” she counsels.

On another subject, have you devised a plan for removing a severely injured or deceased horse? You should have a vet on call during the entire show and schooling days for those emergencies that can, and will, arise.

Do you have adequate, nearby parking? Is it safe for loading and unloading, and away from traffic thoroughfares? Steven Wright, of Central 4D Barrel Racers, a regional association based in Norman, Okla., remembers that “within the first three jackpots, we outgrew our facilities and our parking. Folks were parking up and down the nearby roads, a mile away from the arena.” Wright subsequently found a new, larger site for his popular events.

Be ready for the sweetness of success when you publicize and manage well-run competitions. “We started out in 1997 thinking we’d have 50 to 75 entries, and we had up to 150,” attests Wright. “Last year, we had 300 entries at our one-day events.”

Don’t forget the creature comforts for both man and beast. Do you have adequate restroom facilities? If not, order mobile, temporary toilets ahead of schedule and place them in convenient, but somewhat private locations. And order plenty.

In the arena and warm-up areas, if it’s going to be cold, ensure portable heaters are safe and ready for use, and that you have extra fuel.

Is there a convenient water supply for horses? Must exhibitors remove manure, and if so, have you communicated that? There’s nothing less appealing than a massive Monday cleanup after an exhausting show.

Showing makes folks hungry and your options are several. Melva Thayer, horse show superintendent for 4-H in Van Buren County, Mich., runs local shows with English, Western, gymkhana and trail classes. “We have a food committee. It all gets donated or we purchase at a low cost; then people sign up to work as volunteers. All receipts go into the 4-H fund,” she says. Or you can hire a caterer to come on site, charging a commission if that’s agreeable.

Kenney shares her own personal caterer story: “Once, when a caterer didn’t show up, I sat up all night making sandwiches. I bought hot chocolate and sodas, and had a youngster sell all of it. Sure, the exhibitors could’ve gone to McDonald’s, but what they remember is that food from our show. And they would’ve remembered if there wasn’t any food.”

Buck Kalinowski prides himself on “exceptional, unusual food…not your typical hamburgers and hot dogs. I buy supplies, then volunteers serve, and some bring homemade delicacies.” Proceeds then go toward show expenses for his inner-city pupil contingent.

The failure of a caterer to show is one matter, but a judge who doesn’t come is quite another.

Hallie McEvoy, judge, author, manager and trainer at Bolton Valley, Vt., emphasizes to “always, always confirm with all your officials at least three times: first when you book them, then two weeks prior, then 48 hours prior to the event. Send out a letter of confirmation, including details on where the judge will be staying, hours of work, etc., and a contract to be signed and returned.”

Overkill is not a bad thing when it comes to confirming officials, as echoed by Thayer, who even after she received a contract, once ended up “judgeless” the morning of a show. “One of the parents attending was a carded (sanctioned) judge, so she filled in, but she couldn’t help her child. As it turns out, the judge we’d hired had driven to the wrong town.”

Some final thoughts from those who’ve “been there and done that.” According to Kalinowski, “If you’re going to put on a show, make it one that people will continue to talk about positively. Map out your arenas—for competition, for schooling—and make them easy to access.

“People hate dust,” he adds. “We installed an in-ground sprinkler system ourselves and used some of our kids to help with the process. It saved approximately $7,000 and it keeps lots of people happy.”

And, finally, Kalinowski can’t say enough about attitude and public relations. “If a person has a gripe, we hear them out. We don’t want them to go away mad—sportsmanship is a big thing around here.”

“You have to apply the rules equally to everyone,” says Wright, “so don’t make any exceptions or do special favors for friends; otherwise, people will sometimes take advantage. . . .We used to let people write checks (for barrel racing, with payoffs), and then we couldn’t pay off in cash.”

Kenney tries to “handle the complaints, but sometimes you can’t satisfy every individual. Say someone wants me to split a division. Maybe I don’t have enough ribbons or it doesn’t make sense economically. I try to be fair to the majority.”

“Try to think of everything, the minor details. I have a little box with safety pins, Band-Aids, coat buttons, needle and thread. People can forgive a bad show day if you’ve helped them keep their pants up with a safety pin,” Kenney adds.

Now you’re ready to host your own great event. Soon, first-time show planners will be consulting you for advice. [sm]

Stephanie Stephens is a print and broadcast journalist based in Los Angeles. She was formerly the marketing director at High Prairie Farms Equestrian Center in Colorado. She also owns an equine public relations and marketing agency, AllHorse.






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