If I Ran The Show: Part I
What makes a horse show really worth going to? Here's my take on the matter.
I grew up in the beautiful, albeit mostly horseless, town of Myrtle Beach, where girls my age were more likely to play in golf tournaments than attend horse shows. When I reached the point in my riding where I was proficient enough to compete, the list of shows within a reasonable distance was what us southerners would call "slim pickins". I started out with one-day open horse shows, the ones where the English classes go in the morning and Western classes in the afternoon. We would wake up at the crack of dawn, load up my horse in the dark, and I'd show in the morning, then head home when the Western saddles started coming out. There were a couple of hunter schooling shows within a couple hour drive, and we would go to those too. Eventually, as I got more competitive and learned about the world of weekend horse shows, we branched out and began traveling no less than two hours and as far as five hours to participate in our regional "C" circuits. Over time, I also attended "A" shows, ranging from smaller local "A"s to Pony Finals and Ocala.
Fast forward to more recent years, since I've been living in Columbia and working as a professional. Limited by finances, time, client interest, and trailer space, I have largely attended the same handful of venues and shows for many many years. Though these shows are great, I was so excited last season when the clients at my new barn were on board to travel farther away and try new shows, venues, and management companies. We spent the 2018 season branching out and experiencing different shows. Armed with 9+ trailer spots and a group excited to travel, we attended 12 horse shows run by 6 different management companies, at 6 different venues.
When given so many options of what shows to attend, and with the experience of attending different venues, ratings, and managements, you start to form opinions on what makes shows worth going to. Factors such as distance, footing, amenities, jumps, courses, hospitality, staff, class offerings, awards, and more all play into the decision when you're sitting down with a list of a hundred shows deciding which ones to attend. Although I've always had my favorites, our nomadic 2018 solidified some beliefs and shifted others around. In this two-part series, I'll explain my own opinions on what makes horse shows worth going to as well as share the results of a survey I conducted to determine the opinions of others! I'll start with my own...
At horse shows, we ask a lot more of our horses than we do at home. We ask them to go longer, jump more, and perform even better than they do on a daily basis. When determining whether I want to attend a horse show at a particular venue, footing is one of the very first things I take into account. There are a couple of venues I intentionally leave off of my calendar, despite them being incredibly close to home, because I don't feel the footing is up to snuff.
Hard footing can cause horses to become sore, and I've even seen it make the most honest of horses suddenly slam on brakes. On the other end of the spectrum, too deep of footing can cause horses to have to work overtime and can result in strained tendons and ligaments. In either case, we are our horses' keepers and responsible for their well-being. Asking them to perform in dangerous conditions is poor horsemanship, plain and simple.
Imagine you're on a family vacation. Someone's in a bad mood and suddenly the day is ruined for everyone. The things you were excited to do before are no longer fun and everyone is grumpy and just wants to go home. This is how I feel when horse show staff is rude, flippant, or inhospitable. Bad moods are infectious and alienating. I'm sorry, but I am not paying hundreds of dollars to be barked at by show staff all weekend! Instances of poor treatment of myself and my clients have led me to leave certain show companies off of my calendar.
Similarly, good moods are infectious too! One of the horse show management companies we tried for the first time in 2018 (and subsequently went back to for every show), HJ Fox, has some of the kindest, most welcoming horse show staff I have encountered. They remembered our names, took the time to ensure we were settled in, and helped in any way they could. At the first show we did there in April, one of my students and her pony took a tumble in a bit of a freak accident. The staff ran in to help and even offered for us to lay over an extra night if need be. Luckily, everyone was perfectly fine and just a little scraped up, but the thought was there. Three months later, we returned to the same show company and as I was standing at a different ring with a different student, the show manager came up to me, called me by name, and asked how my kid and pony were doing after their tumble back in April. In addition to a million other moments of kindness the HJ Fox staff showed us over the course of the season, I was really impressed by that. I've been attending the same shows for eight years and there are still staff members who don't know my name. Feeling welcomed and appreciated makes all the difference. Without the trainers and their clients, you have no horse show.
On another note, well-educated staff is also crucial. There's nothing more frustrating than ring staff that doesn't properly execute rotations or an order of go, or who doesn't work together in the event of a trainer conflict. In June, we attended a show hosted by Cheryl & Co. at Wills Park for the very first time. From my very first interaction with Cheryl via facebook message, she was kind and welcoming, offering hotel and restaurant recommendations for our stay as well. When it came down to show time, I had 7 horses at the show split between four show rings. A trainer conflict between the small ponies, pre-children's, and the walk/trot seemed inevitable. When I asked one of the ring staff members, she immediately hopped on her radio and discussed with the other two rings to work out orders of go, priority, and where I would go and when. I never had to walk anywhere else or talk to more than one person. It ran smooth as silk, and I was incredibly impressed and grateful.
When I'm deciding what shows to go to, I love to see the prize list and check out what classes will be offered. As a trainer, I first have to determine that there are appropriate classes available for the students I have. For example, HJ Fox has an abundance of divisions for all different levels of riders, especially for the beginners. When I have a bunch of beginners or greenies attending a show, I love to see options and have the ability to place them in the best division for their level. HJ Fox offers cross rail classes open to adults on green horses, which was a big draw when I had an adult taking her very green TB to his very first show this summer.
As a professional rider, I love to see fun classes I can do, especially those with prize money or something other than stuff for greenies. This past fall, Harmon Classics ran a $5000 1.15m jumper classic sponsored by Edge Brewing Barcelona. It was exciting and drew in a large crowd for the highest class the show management offers. Though my horse and I didn't win, it was a fun and exciting class in which to participate.
The most fun class I've ever done since turning professional took place in the Olympic Stadium at GIHP at HJ Fox's July horse show: the Fox Trainer's Medal! In case you didn't know, professionals may not participate in any equitation classes whatsoever. This particular class was open only to trainers with students competing at the horse show, and was a bonafide medal class complete with a grueling flat phase. I absolutely loved it, and not just because I finished 2nd aboard my student's horse, Heat! It was a spectacular way for trainers to walk the walk and encourage correct and beautiful riding after checking that pro box. My only complaint is that the class only runs once a year. I would absolutely love if the class took place at every horse show and had its own medal final like the rest of the medals!
Horse shows come in all different sizes and levels. With different ratings, locations, and class offerings come different clientele and sizes of classes. There are some venues or show managements that might offer a class or division, but I know from experience the classes don't fill. For example, there are certain shows to which I don't take my personal horse because I know the jumpers (or at least those over a certain height) won't fill. Similarly, there are other shows that I know will always have plenty of entries in his division. I love taking him to the PSJ shows at Highfields because I know the upper level jumpers will be full.
There are some horse shows, though, that are just way too big and could seriously benefit from limiting entries. There is one show in particular that year after year runs until 10 or 11 at night because the numbers are so massive. Though the rings are lighted, the schooling areas are not. It's exhausting as a trainer to be coaching at the ring from 7am until 10pm (not to mention waking up at 5am to feed and care for the horses), and it's frustrating for students when the first half of their competitors went when it was light out and now they're having to jump around in the dark with no safe way to warm up their horse.
Amenities, Facilities, & Nuances
When choosing the shows that I want to go to, I also take into account the amenities of the venue. In addition to the footing as I mentioned earlier, I also look at the stabling, jumps, arenas. Georgia International Horse Park has the best stabling with huge airy stalls, ceiling fans, and wide aisles. I really like the hunter jumps at Wills Park, and the jumper jumps at Highfields. I love that the arenas are in close proximity at Wills Park, but don't love the schooling areas. I enjoy showing at FENCE or Harmon Field in the fall because the fall foliage in the mountains is beautiful and the weather is perfect.
Other more nuanced things go into the decision making process, too. Does the show offer nice awards and ribbons that my students will enjoy? HJ Fox has an enormous table of prizes to choose from and gives coolers and saddle pads for major classes. If it's a show in the summer, are there shady places to hang out? For example, Mullet Hall can be a rough place to show in the summer due to the heat and lack of shade other than the barns and a few small groves of trees. Are there adequate places to graze the horses? Are there good facilities for campers? Is it difficult to navigate with a large horse trailer? Are there good places to eat? Are there adequate places to stay that aren't too far from the show grounds?
As you can see, I put a lot of thought into the shows I attend. When I sat down with my barn manager and a couple clients last month with a list of probably 75 shows, all of these factors helped to create the calendar I submitted to the rest of my customers.
The second half of this article will follow up by sharing the results of a 10-question social media survey I conducted on the factors that are most important to others in regards to choosing horse shows. I'm excited to finally share those results with you all!