The No-Show Problem

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More than a few of us have been dealing with that empty-pocket feeling due to the current recession. If you’re like me, horse show entry fees are starting to make you balk a little. But besides what riders are feeling, how are the horse shows themselves doing? How has the recession affected them? For those of us running and hosting horse shows, the recession can be just as much of a drag.

Here’s the dirt on what has been happening to horse shows, plus some helpful hints to keep people interested—and even draw new ones in.

STARTING SMALL

Many of us view schooling shows as an introduction and stepping-stone to more competitive showing, and often they are just that. These shows can also keep riders tuned up between other shows, and serve as a good first show for a green horse. From the farm owners’ perspective, hosting schooling shows can be a very successful way to help riders continue showing without breaking the bank.

Lynn McChesney, owner of Triple Creek Ranch in Longmont, Colo., has been hosting a hunter/jumper schooling show series that has attracted a consistently strong number of entries for years. In fact, McChesney says, “if anything, the entries have increased, because people are looking for a way to show and save money by staying close to home, and finding less expensive entry fees.”

McChesney believes that the atmosphere at her shows is a big reason that so many people return for each one. That atmosphere stems from her philosophy that schooling shows should be educational, fun and inclusive. To achieve that, she runs two arenas during each show, and is very particular about the structure of the novice-level arena classes. These include the lead line class, walk-trot classes, pile-of-pole classes for those who aren’t ready to jump, and jumping classes up to 18 inches.

Fun includes winning awards. McChesney appreciates that the “tiniest of the kids has worked just as hard as everyone else to turn out well for the show. It’s not very much fun to get up at 5 a.m. and not get a single ribbon.” So she awards “WOW” ribbons for every kid who doesn’t receive any 1st- to 6th-place ribbons, making sure that no one leaves empty-handed. In addition, for every class full of little ones, she announces there will be a “Smiley Face Award” for the rider who has the biggest smile during the class. The winner, of course, receives a small prize.

Education is big at these shows. As all the little riders enter the arena, McChesney talks to them about a few simple things, like which way to track when entering the arena, the differences between a hunter and equitation class, reminds them to check their posting diagonals, and to have fun. She even takes the time to stand with the kids in the lineup and compliment them on their horses and ponies, and ask simple questions such as: “what color is your pony? How old is your pony? What’s your pony’s name?”

McChesney also addresses the parents in the audience, to make them a part of the show. She gives them an idea of what the judge is looking at, and describes what their kids are trying to achieve. She makes a point to treat the parents warmly and create a fun atmosphere for them. “Otherwise, they just end up writing the checks. Parents always remark that they don’t get the fun atmosphere at the bigger shows,” McChesney says.

Siblings on the sidelines are not left out, either. To get them involved in the action, “I ask for help handing out ribbons at the end of each class, or even for help moving jumps between flat and jump classes,” she says.

Besides all of her efforts to give everyone the most positive experience she can give, McChesney recruits others to help build a show atmosphere. She usually invites one of the local mobile tack shops to come and set up for the show. She may also invite local jewelry artists to set up a table, as well as a photographer to capture the Kodak moments. And of course, a chuck wagon or two. “I always have good food, and if anyone falls off they get a free root-beer float,” says McChesney.

THE “A” SHOWS

Patricia Kress, from Knoxville, Tenn., works as a horse show secretary for the AQHA, PHBA, and ASHA in Alabama, Tennessee, and Missouri. She has a slightly different story about what has been going on with large horse shows. Kress says she has “not noticed a major decline in the number of participants, but in the number of classes a participant enters, as well as a slight decline in stalls. This is not in any particular group, it’s across the board.” Plus, she says, “Trainers who used to bring eight or nine horses are now bringing only three or four.”

Kress says that last year she didn’t see much of a drop in participation, but feels that “this year is the first year the recession has really hit the horse show industry.” To keep the entry numbers up, a few AQHA shows have reduced their class fees slightly, hoping that this makes the shows just that much more affordable.

At the larger AQHA shows, the professionals are there for the points. But as with the schooling shows, many of the amateurs are there for the experience. Since amateur riders are the bread and butter of the horse industry, the AQHA strives to appeal to and accommodate them.

A decade ago, the organization developed a novice program to help bring new riders into the competitive side of the sport. These shows are entirely dedicated to the novice rider; there are no professional classes. Kress says that this program “helped to bring new members in” and included more people in horse showing. The class fees are slightly lower in the novice shows, to help draw more participants.

The AQHA, Kress adds, is pursuing more ways to be boost involvement. It hosts “Small-Fry” classes for little kids—“the future of our industry,” Kress says. “We have to make it fun for them in the beginning.” Some shows include costume classes for kids, and some a dog class to involve those who are not riding in the horse show.

While many of us attend a horse show to compete, we also look forward to the social aspect of the show. We get to see friends that we don’t see unless we’re showing, or even just hang out and encourage our regular riding buddies. Whatever the situation, there is a definite social aspect to horse shows. The AQHA has taken this one step further and now hosts a horse show Cook Out Potluck dinner. “The show provides the meat, and you bring a pot of food,” Kress says.

To encourage a big turnout, attract new entries and stay profitable, these experts agree that it’s important to find ways to make your show appealing to a broad range of riders and spectators alike. “We’re all there to see our friends and have a good time,” Kress says. “Horse shows are fun. That’s why we all love them.”