If I Ran The Show: Part II
What makes a horse show really worth going to? Here's the general consensus.
As a kid, I went through the requisite myriad of "when I grow up" career goals. I wanted to be a dolphin trainer, a firefighter, a commercial airplane pilot, and a supermodel. Then, as I got more serious with the horses, I decided for sure that I was going to be a horse trainer and that one finally stuck. If my career as a trainer and rider were not to work out, though, I've always said I'd love to be a horse show manager. Something about being able to offer fun classes, pick out all of the awards, decorate jumps and design courses, and throw a horsey event that everyone would love just lit me up inside. While the rest of my friends were playing computer games (the early 2000s were a weird time), I was in Microsoft word making imaginary horse show prize lists (I was even weirder). I was, and still am, a complete and total horse show addict. Or horse show nerd. You decide.
While chatting with my crew outside the campers after a long day of showing this past summer, we got onto the topic of what made some horse shows more fun than others. Mainly, why we were willing to drive further for certain horse shows instead of going to others closer to home. In my last post, I detailed how I go about making those choices. I was curious, though, how other people felt. Were the things I placed so much importance on, important to others? Did other people care if there were exhibitors parties or special awards? Does the variety of classes on the prize list play an important role to other trainers as they crafted their schedules? The answers to these questions could do more than just satiate my curiosity. They could be eye-openers for trainers, clients, and show managers. They could draw attention to needs and wants that go overlooked. They could help horse show managers determine what is working well and make necessary adjustments to provide better products to their customers.
In July, I crafted a simple 10-question survey using SurveyMonkey titled "Horse Show Preferences" and casually shared it on social media. It tallied just over 100 responses. Of course, the results will be somewhat skewed based on who my contacts are - mostly people who attend similar horse shows to me. However, opinions are like belly buttons.
*Note: nearly all of the questions in the survey allowed multiple answers. Because of this, the percentages often add up to more than 100%, because people could identify with multiple answers.
It's important to know your audience, so one question asked how the respondent was involved in the industry, with the direction to select all that applied: as a trainer/coach, as a competitor, as a parent of a rider, as an owner, as a spectator, and/or as an official.
83% of respondents identified as riders/competitors, and 21% identified as trainers/coaches. Officials made up the smallest portion, and the other three options were in the mix as well. Knowing that these opinions are coming predominantly from riders and competitors is important. Since competitors are the ones that are truly experiencing the horse show to its fullest extent, their opinions are most useful to horse show managers.
Respondents were also asked how often they compete and at what level. The vast majority, 79% of respondents compete at least once per month. Very few respondents compete less often than at least once every other month. About 54% of people identified as "C" circuit competitors, with the next closest percentage being "A" circuit competitors at 28%. Schooling shows were also an option, but very few respondents selected it.
Capacity of involvement along with at what level and with what frequency serve as demographics for this survey. Knowing this information gives horse show managers (and other readers) an idea of whose opinions they're receiving, and allows them to decide how much weight and importance they place on the opinions that follow. If a show manager runs 10 "C" rated horse shows per year, they probably won't place much importance on the opinions of people who attend only two or three shows per season, and won't place really any importance on those of someone who only competes on the "A" circuit. However, they will place a lot of importance on the opinions of those who compete at almost all of their horse shows, since that is their bread and butter.
Next, the survey asked respondents during which months they enjoy showing the most. I was not surprised that the most popular choices were September/October at 82% and March/April at 71%. Those are probably my favorite months, too! In addition to usually featuring beautiful weather (a welcome break from the stifling heat of the summer months), September and October are exciting horse show months because they're wrapping up the season. People are chasing the last of their points to secure their place at awards banquets and finals horse shows are taking place.
Similarly, March and April usually mark the beginning of the show season. The weather is beginning to thaw and everyone is excited to show off their new horses or the techniques they've been polishing all winter.
The least popular months were January/February and July/August. Weather clearly plays a major role in horse show enjoyment!
Like I mentioned in Part I, the types of classes offered at the show are extremely important to me. My next question on the survey asked respondents in which classes they like to compete at shows. The vast majority of respondents, 85%, reported they liked to do the hunters. 65% claimed to be equitation riders, and 44% identify as jumpers. For specialty classes, 67% of respondents enjoy having classics offered (hunters and jumpers), 55% enjoy doing the derbies, 42% do the medals.
Having specialty classes is clearly a big draw, especially classics. With the incredible amount of money we put into this sport, it should come as no surprise that people want the chance to win some prize money!
Speaking of special things, I also asked if people enjoyed special awards such as Best Child Rider, Best OTTB, etc. Unsurprisingly, 94% of respondents said yes. Having special awards at the shows gives riders an extra opportunity for an achievement and something else to work toward. One of the shows we went to this past summer offered special armbands for riders on OTTBS, and the most successful OTTB at the end of the weekend won a special Best OTTB award. It was a neat way to reward Thoroughbreds, even when they aren't competing in special TB divisions!
Again, we spend a ton of money to participate at these events! For me, I really appreciate hospitality at shows like carrots for the horses at the rings, dinners, breakfasts, and the like. As a trainer with many students at the shows, it's usually all but impossible to find time to go get food and concession stands at shows seem to take FOREVER. Having granola bars or pizza at the show is something I appreciate in a big way! And I definitely am not alone in this. When asked what kind of hospitality they like at shows, almost everyone selected water at the rings, which is pretty standard. 62% said they like goodie bags [I was once given a goodie bag upon check in that included a tube of equine quieting paste... maybe don't do that]. 61% appreciate dinnertime exhibitors' parties, and 51% like a breakfast option. I'm a coffee-holic, so even just some boxes of Joe in the morning are a big win with me!
On a similar note, another one of my favorite things at horse shows is vendors! In my [extremely limited] down time at shows, I love to go peruse through the vendors and more often than not I make a purchase I probably don't need. But, it's also fantastic to have a vendor on site when you DO need something! I once had a pony break a bridle at the horse show. Luckily, The Tack Room had their mobile unit on site and we were able to get her a new one before her class. Forget earplugs? Check. End up with a stain on your show pants that even Tide-to-Go can't help? No problem. It should come as no surprise that a whopping 99% of people said they want vendors at horse shows. My theory is the one person who said no is a dad.
Now, down to the nitty gritty. What REALLY makes the difference when it comes to horse shows? I asked respondents to rank the following features in order of importance to them: awards & ribbons, footing, hospitality, jump quality & courses, kind office & arena staff, and variety of class offerings.
Footing was the number one most important factor, with 59% of respondents ranking it first.
Jump Quality & Courses came in second.
Kind Office & Arena Staff took the yellow rosette.
Hospitality came fourth, and Variety of Class Offerings took fifth.
Awards & Ribbons was ranked least important in deciding which shows to attend.
Finally, I left an optional open comment box instructing respondents to describe what they feel are shortcomings of the shows they attend and/or what they'd like to see at the shows they attend. Of the 105 people who took the survey, 63 people took the opportunity to sound off. As to be expected with an open forum like this, the answers varied pretty widely. However, there were some recurring answers.
Timeliness of the shows was the biggest issue, with 16 people claiming unhappiness with how long shows run and how often rings sit empty. Many people sited frustration with trainer conflicts, one even going so far as to say that if you have multiple clients at the show, you need to hire an assistant trainer. I have my own feelings on this that I don't have the time or desire to go into, but I do think it is important for people to keep in mind that whenever there are multiple rings, it is impossible to avoid at least a small conflict. Horse shows cannot and will not always run on time. I'm sorry. I do agree that there are times where staff could be a little more on top of getting people in the ring, where a posted order of go could help, points at which entries should be limited, and better communication from the ring to the barns about what rotation a class is on would be a big help.
Kindness of staff was the second most mentioned issue. Like I mentioned in Part I, kindness goes a very long way, and unkindness can easily ruin an entire experience.
Educated staff or lack thereof got the third highest number of mentions. Respondents expressed frustration with rings not being run correctly, jumps and lines being set incorrectly, rules not being followed, and more. I can definitely attest that having gate staff that does not know their job is probably the single most frustrating thing that happens at a horse show. I recently attended a show where the gate staff seemed as if he didn't know how to run rotations. I had my student ready standing at the gate for at least 20 minutes, and he sent several people in in front of her that were not even at the gate. At one point, I finally just sent my rider in the ring because I was sick of her being passed over, and he told her to get out so he could send in someone else who had just walked up! Frustrating is a massive understatement. My suggestion is for new gate staff to work alongside a seasoned veteran.
Hospitality events and fun contests like stall decorating contests got the fourth highest number of recommendations, showing that horse show goers want to do more than just go in the ring and come out. Turning the weekend into a getaway and fun event for the entire family is a big desire of participants!
Other topics that were mentioned the most were classes for green horses, better food options that are not outrageously overpriced, division appropriate and fun courses, and better prizes including champion prizes, TIP awards, and weekend grand champion awards.
So what do we do with all of this information?
Like I mentioned at the start of this article, this information is especially useful to horse show management. Knowing what people really value at your shows can help to ensure you're giving the people what they want! The main ideas that I've found through this information are that people want good footing, nice and educated stuff, fun classes, and an overall positive experience.