Episode 167-Things to consider when prepping for first big horse show

A listener asks about how to prepare her 4 year old for his first big horse show.
Topics discussed when answering include: how to prep depending on the result you’re after (big show or first show), the importance of understanding your horses default (naturally steady, naturally skeptical), knowing the training routine/pattern that helps your horse recover and how to prepare yourself and your horse for the feeling of ‘focused intensity’ that riders often have at shows.

Observant riders become skilled at predicting what the horse needs to produce confidence and consistency. First this happens at home…then it transfers to shows.


Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall, and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. This is the first episode of Season 15, which will be a Q&A season. If you have a question you’d like me to answer, you can leave a voicemail by visiting my website and looking for the orange button that says, “Leave Voicemail for Podcasts”. Now, let’s listen to this week’s question.

Caller: [00:00:49] Hi Stacy, this is Katie from Ohio. I was inspired after listening to your goal-setting series, and I will hopefully be taking my four-year-old to compete at our first big show this April. So my question for you is how I can best prepare him to handle the mental and emotional pressure of a big event? I’d like to prepare him to handle all the sights, the sounds, the crowd. It’s an obstacle competition, so handling anything new that we might encounter in the show ring with confidence–So I just like to do what I can to help him perform with as much confidence and trust there as he does at home. This is also our first overnight for both of us, so any tips you have there, I would appreciate, too. So I would love to hear any advice that you have for preparation that I can do at home or anything that I can do during the event. Thank you, and I really appreciate everything that you do for all your listeners.

Stacy Westfall: [00:01:48] Thanks for your question, Katie. I’ve broken this down into five different topics to kind of think about as we go. And the first one is going to be about the show itself. So you mentioned in your voicemail that it’s a big event. And I’m not quite clear so I’m going to explain that there’s a couple of different ways to look at that phrasing. It could be a big event, as in more than this horse has ever done or more than you and this horse have ever done or it could be big as in a big deal, meaning like in the rider’s mind, this is a big deal. So for fun, let’s just illustrate this by looking at like a completely different event. And let’s say that there might be a big deal and we’re going to measure that with money. So let’s just say that we look at one of the big shows where maybe there’s $100,000 on the line. And the reason I bring this up is because there’s kind of different ways to look at prepping for a show. What I find really interesting that you might not know if you don’t go around a lot of really big shows is that even for the very big dollar shows or whatever, you want to prep, especially for something, let’s just say there’s $100000 on the line, you want to prep the best that you can. But with young horses, that also includes not overworking. So you can look around at a lot of top competitions and see that when young horses go, the trainers, if they’re going to run for, let’s say, $100,000, they often want the horse to have some show experience, but they don’t go haul that horse every weekend for a year. So let’s just say that the average is about three times, three outings before the $100,000 show. If you look at the fact that a lot of big competitions, the horses have a little bit of show experience before that big competition. Really, three isn’t that many when I–when–when you stop and think about it. But the reason I bring this up is because no matter which way you’re approaching it, big–The interesting thing is, even if it’s this big deal show and–and somebody’s going to say, Well, I want to have like three outings before this big, big deal show, they’re still going to approach horse show number one like it’s something. So I’m saying all this because it depends on if you’re trying to, you know, get the best odds for the end result. There is some experience that you can learn from looking around and saying, you know, taking the horses and let them have some experience because they will gain things from going. That’s a thing. However, even those horses that are going to go and have show number four be this big, big deal, a lot of times the–the trainer will still take the horse of the first show and still show it and Horse Show number one could also be considered a big deal. But they’re kind of like hedging their bet towards the biggest deal of the year. And I just wanted to make that distinction because I think it’s interesting to think about what a big deal is. And you very easily could have just meant this big, as in the–the biggest crowd he’ll be around the–the first overnight. Big as in just a different, longer, larger because more things are happening, experience. But I also think it’s interesting to look at it as–as far as like a big deal, maybe that meaning like more a lot on the line kind of a thing, which is why I decided to use the money kind of illustration against it. Because it’s interesting to think that when you go, you–one of the big things that change is between, you know, trying to hedge your bet to like, let’s just say horse show number four is going to be the really big deal. You just–you’re literally using the first three outings to prep, as prep for the fourth. And I’m going to talk about that in more detail how we’re gathering information in just a minute. Now, of course, you’re still have prepped for that first show in a similar way, which is what I’m going to explain that you can do at home. You just start to know if you do a lot of showing that there is something to taking the horses and letting them basically, we call it, sometimes we call it, seasoning them, just letting them have that experience. Because they ar– It’s so fun to–to see them have that new experience and all your prep helps them handle it and yet it’s still new, whereby the time you get to the third or fourth show, they’re kind of like, Hey, we’ve done this before. I know what to expect. So a little bit of that newness has worn off. So if you’re OK with the April event being a show number one experience, then you do all the homework that you have at home and then you go do the best you can while learning. That’s what everyone’s show number one is like. If, however, later in the year you have a big show coming up as in a big deal for you, it’s the one that you would pick to have the best outcome you could most control then that’s the one where you would create very similar show situations several times because what that’s going to do is it’s going to give you more information about your horse in those areas so that you will know how to best help your horse in a show environment. That tends to be what people do in the example that I’m calling like, horse show number four.

Stacy Westfall: [00:07:21] Now, let’s talk a little bit about two other concepts. What we know, like where your horse’s mind tends to default to and then what we know as in the pattern of learning that this horse tends to follow. So when I’m looking at taking a horse to a horse show, I’m using what I know from the past to make a plan to go to that first horse show. What that means is that I know the plan would be different for a horse like Willow versus a horse like her older brother, Newt. So the way that I determine this is I start thinking about how is this horse’s path been so far when I’ve been training this horse? Does he pick things up quickly? Does he benefit from lots of repetition or after I do it a few times, is he just as solid on the fifth try as he is on the 15th try? What’s his learning curve like? I love that you said that he already has confidence and trust at home. The way that you phrased it tells me that you’ve already figured out a training plan that worked with this horse to create this at home. So my question for you would be, is that consistent? Is he very consistent about being confident and trustworthy if he ends up with a week off? Does that waver? Or is he pretty much a solid citizen when you change something? So if you change the work routine, so maybe you normally work him in the evening, but you work him earlier in the morning, or you normally warm him up in a specific way, but you change the warm up or things change in the arena. Maybe somebody comes in and sets a different obstacle somewhere, moves things around. What kind of questions does he ask? I am often looking at the horse’s pattern of learning the way the horse learns. It actually helps me understand the horse’s default and it helps me understand what I’m doing to modify the behavior. So for example, if I look back to how horses behave, if they’re really steady, even as they’re learning–So like Willow’s older brother, Newt, you may have seen him on my YouTube channel. He’s a big, dun horse, red dun. And he was very solid from the beginning. The first time I hauled him somewhere, he was a yearling and I hauled him to do a demonstration on ponying and I was curious. I put him in the trailer, hauled him down, unloaded him. There was a crowd, different location. He was so similar to what he was at home. It was one of the least changes I’d ever experienced with a horse. Like, usually you lose, you know, 10 percent, 20 percent, 50 percent. Usually they’re kind of rattled a little bit in some kind of way. And he was just like, Yep, here we are. It was almost like he didn’t even care that there were any changes around him. It’s to the point where I came home and told my husband that was really interesting because he was so steady. That’s because that’s kind of who he is at his core. Then you turn around and you look at Willow, his half-sister, and her approach has always been more skeptical. That means in all the training and the first hauling, she’s always had a more skeptical view of life. So that’s her telling me her default mode in her mind. So interesting because just yesterday I was out and I had a mask on while I was feeding because of the cold air and this cold that I’ve been fighting. And she hasn’t been work lately and I walked up to catch her and I wasn’t thinking that much about it, and her eyes were all bugged out at me and I was like, Oh yeah, I have a mask on. Willow’s general approach to life is more skeptical. So her older brother, you could change the entire environment, and it was like he didn’t even notice. Willow notices what I’m wearing. So knowing the differences between those two helps me to understand how to read each of those horses differently. It also made sense to me that all along the way, Willow was requiring more exposure to certain things. So her older brother, Newt, I could show him something. And even if there was the momentary like, Oh, that’s new. There was almost a curiosity and an openness, and he just assumed it was all going to work out where Willow tends to be more like, Oh no, what could happen here? Knowing this pattern helps me understand the day-to-day training and understand how to modify. So I leave more time for more exposure with a horse like Willow than I would like her older brother. So when I went to start hauling her, before I ever hauled her anywhere to find out, I already had a pretty strong guess that since she’s responded to all these other things this way, this points in the direction, this is probably going to go this way, too. I’ve got to leave more time to answer all of her questions, where her older brother, Newt, he still benefited from exposure that comes from traveling, but he just didn’t have very many questions about it. So it gave it a different feeling. How has your horse been in the training? Now notice that Willow still ended up being able to go and show. It doesn’t mean that it’s a different outcome for sure at the end, you can still modify. But it just meant the path to get there looked different.

Stacy Westfall: [00:13:01] Now I want to talk for just a moment about how you handle yourself at the show and then kind of contrast that with practicing this same kind of thing at home. So I want you to think about when you go to the show. If you go to any show or if you go to–even when you go to a clinic, I think people, lessons and clinics, people experience this and it’s this level of being present. I think it’s one of the best things that horse shows have to offer because I think sometimes when we go to the barn on the regular, maybe you were not always fully present. But a lot of times that feeling and I’m just going to call it maybe pressure or awareness or just that difference of being like, I’m being judged and I want to be on my best and I want this all to work out. It brings up a different level of awareness or presence. And I think that one thing that riders switch on purpose and then they don’t think about how switching it, even though it’s on purpose, they don’t think about the fact that they haven’t practiced it at home is that level of presence. So it’s interesting to think that if your horse knows you at home and you’re able to do a lot and you’re sort of a little bit distracted in your, you know, you’re–you’re doing some training and you’re answering some questions for this person. You’re doing some of this and then you’re thinking about dinner and you’re doing some of that and you’re thinking about this. It’s interesting to think that the level of focus and presence that you bring actually influences how the training goes. So when you’re at home, it’s interesting to practice at times being very present and knowing how to show up like you’re at a show. With that, I’m going to call it almost focused intensity, because even if it’s not intensity as in like strength, it’s a focus. And if you’ve ever been around somebody who’s really focused, there tends to be an intensity when there’s that level of focus. And I think sometimes people underestimate when they shift into that level of focus that the horse is going to be a little like, Oh, who are you? I don’t know you. So you’ve got to be able to think about what that level of focus is for you, how to show, and how to bring that into your training at home. And also, conversely, like how can you maybe when you’re at home, practice more of that focused intensity. But also when you’re at the show, remember to breathe and not take it, you know, so intense that you go over the top and tense and bring too much tension and things. So I’m going to talk a little bit more about the at-home version of creating that in just a minute, but I want to kind of close up the at-show thing. So there’s kind of a level of awareness of you and how you’re showing up there. Because when people travel, often they’re looking at the horse like, Oh, no, horse, what are you going to do? Not realizing that looking at a horse and thinking, Oh no, what are you going to do? actually is changing the equation. Now, overnighting, you brought that up. If you haven’t overnighted somewhere else before you go to this show, like that could be a clinic or a boarding barn or whatever, you can still make a pretty good guess based on how he’s been when you’ve hauled. Because the way you left the voicemail, it gave me the impression you’ve hauled him some and even though you haven’t overnighted, how they act when you haul them and they’re tied like, say, to the side of the trailer, often will help you understand how they’re going to be when you put them in a stall. And the way that it impacts them is if you’ve got a horse that you tied, you took them to the show, a show or an event, a whatever riding out for the day and you had a stall or you tied them up to the side of the trailer, if they were pretty chill and laid back there, then there’s pretty good chances that they’re going to be relatively chill. Now, like Willow, if you take them and you tie them, decide the trailer and they’re looking around and they’re whinnying and they’re pawing and there’s just a lot of like buzzing energy in their mind. You can just tell that they’re like very busy and trying to figure out what to make of all of it. This type of a horse is probably going to have more of that type of reaction in the stall. And so you can start thinking about ways that you can train or modify that behavior. So again, a horse like Willow’s older brother, Newt, he was pretty chill and laid back. I can move, you know where I tied him around at home or I could tie him–he just didn’t care that much. He was pretty chill and laid back. Then with Willow, I could just change where I tied her at home and it would kind of shake her up a little bit. So I knew that she was going to have a little bit more of that nervous energy and probably expend more of energy when she’s at the show. But what’s interesting is she has more energy to give. So overnights tend to just be an extension of some of these patterns that you’ve seen before. Multiple nights, which you didn’t talk about, but hauling to a show where you have to haul like when I went to Oklahoma, I had to haul for a day, overnight, haul half a day, be there multiple days, then you start to get into just like a tiredness that comes from that much travel, which I’m sure you’ve experienced some sort of travel in your life before, even without horses, and you can be tired from a vacation from a lot of travel. So it’s different and you didn’t really bring that up. But one of the reasons it’s beneficial over time to have horses learn how to settle in to new places is because there is an energy that they will expend in that learning process that once they’ve learned it, they don’t necessarily have to expend that much energy again. So Willow may have been using 30 percent of her energy at early shows just because she wasn’t sleeping and resting and, you know, nervous energy. Now she still she goes, but she settles in so fast. There’s not really very much nervous energy being lost, which gives me more energy, in general, to work with for the show, but also means that going to multiple day shows is easier on her than even those early one-day shows were, because it’s just a steadier experience that has come over time.

Stacy Westfall: [00:19:14] So when we start thinking about the–the practicing presence at home idea, I mentioned already that you want to be able to practice sometimes like you’re at a show. And I think it’s just interesting,you didn’t necessarily say how long you’ve had this horse for, but early training with a horse, doesn’t matter if it’s early, as in, you know, young horse early or early because you don’t know the horse early, but early training is interesting because you and the horse don’t know each other. So the longer the horse and rider work together, what should happen, what ideally happens, is the rider begins to get better and better at developing a consistent communication pattern. Now, the pattern changes as the horse gets more mature, but the observant rider becomes more skilled at predicting what the horse needs, modifying things before there’s a big problem, and creating these training patterns that lead to what you’re already reporting where this horse is, like, confident. And I’m hoping that also means some consistency because typically you can tell when this horse and rider have got this working for them, because at home things start looking consistent, because the horse’s behavior, even a horse like Willow who’s more prone to having the extreme reactions, the horse can start to look consistent because the rider has created consistency through observing the horse’s pattern of learning. Who they are, who they tend to be, and understanding how to modify it. So let’s take an example from years ago with Willow. Years ago, when I took Willow to one of her first horse shows, I was riding in the warm-up ring the night before and I got a little bit warm and I took off my coat and I dropped it just outside the fence. I was sitting on top of her when I did this. I was sitting on top of her when I took the jacket off and when I dropped it on the ground, she stood totally quiet while I did this from her back. We rode off and I went to circle around where the coat was–and remember it’s on the outside of the fence–she saw the coat on the ground and was instantly, Oh my gosh, what is that? I’m not going anywhere near it. Now, here’s what’s interesting. It was a surprise and it wasn’t. That’s what I mean by really understanding your horse. It was a surprise because I was in horse show training mode, which in a way there’s a piece of me that wants to believe the best, wants to believe things are going to work exactly like they have been on the prep all the way up there. It was a surprise because I was fully embracing the fact that she was going to show up the way that I’ve been prepping her to. And it wasn’t a surprise because this type of behavior was something I had seen from her over the years. That’s what I mean by understanding your horse. So then what happened was the purpose of understanding the horse, and the pattern that works for this horse’s brain means that even in the middle of that experience, I was able to take a moment and recuperate myself and be like, Oh, okay, here we go. Guess we’re going to do this. And then I started going through the pattern of the way that I would circle, where I would rest, how I would negotiate this with her, and when she saw that predictable pattern that I had at home, the way that I showed up for that, the energy I shifted into the way that I accepted, this is what we were going to need to do right now, that helped her be able to then get back into that same routine we’ve had at home. And then she fully accepted it. It wasn’t instant, it took a little bit of time, and she accepted it, got over it, and then we were done. And what’s interesting is we showed the rest of that weekend and I’ve shown her all these years since, and I’ve never had another object anywhere that’s been that dramatic again. I think a lot of times people would think that, you know, this horse that watched me drop the jacket and then had that bigger reaction would probably then react to the new flowers at a different showground or whatever, that’s where it is a dance to be able to say I was surprised and I wasn’t. I actually have to be able to go back to that arena the next day and fully embrace the idea that our work is good, and she’s going to show up that way that I’ve been working towards. And I’ve got to also contain the idea that she’s also pointed me in a different direction than her older brother knew that maybe it won’t. And you’ve heard me talk about it in the podcast different ways. I think there’s a lot to unpack in this concept of being able–because basically, it’s sort of like belief, this ability to remember it. It’s obviously a lot easier with a horse like Newt, her older brother who just doesn’t have the problems. There’s no work to do there about, Oh no, maybe he’s going to react like this, but I’m going to try to work on how I can believe that he’s not going to react like that. The majority of horses are a little bit more like Willow, where you’ve got to be able to remember that there were things and you can use that information when needed. I already knew the patterns that would help her recover, but I also need to be able to forget it and believe in her. So there’s a practice of going back and forth that you get to practice with most horses and you’ve got to make sure that you don’t carry like baggage. Because sometimes I think a horse like Willow in the situation with the coat, somebody would have then labeled her and then they would have assumed she was going to be afraid of the judges’ stand or the flowers or the weird thing down in that corner. And then they would have brought the weird energy to it. What I do is I’m setting up the situation, understanding the horse, going in with belief and the knowledge that I can handle it because I know all the prep work I’ve done. Quite a dance, right?

Stacy Westfall: [00:25:45] Just talking about prep work for a minute, you could prep by hauling to a few different places before the April show. You could haul to a friend’s house, a pretend show, and be very serious about the pretend show. Because remember, we’re trying to figure out like how you’re going to show up, what that energy is going to be. You could haul an overnight somewhere depending on what you wanted to do before the show, or you could let the show be the first overnight. It’s not all necessary. You don’t have to try to do every single step that you can think of. Sometimes I think it’s fun to think of all the possibilities and then just realize like I can choose and I can choose that this will still be the first overnight. And that’s OK. Here’s the reason why I think this is a good idea. Here’s what I’m going to do to handle it this way and that one thing that I definitely do is, even at home, I think it’s important to spend time riding like you’re at a show. And what that means to me is that oftentimes when we’re at a show, the schedule is not the same as what we have at home. And I think that getting myself in that mindset and changing some things around helps me know a little bit more about my horse. So what that means is I might take a weekend and I might ride the same schedule that you would at a show. If you know the show, will you have to get up early or do you have to stay up late to ride? What’s the riding schedule going to be like? Are you going to ride more than once in a day? So a lot of times if I’m getting ready for shows, show season’s coming. A lot of times I might be like, Hey, I’m going to ride late on Friday night, and then I’m going to ride first thing Saturday morning, and then I’m going to ride Saturday afternoon, and that’s all while I’m at home, I’m going to kind of prep and pretend. And it is kind of funny if you haven’t done it for a while, riding a horse more than once in a day, a lot of times will make them be like, what? Now the show horses are like, OK, show mode. But the younger horses, a lot of times, if you haven’t already done that, are a little bit more like what’s going on? And so it’s all these little tiny things that you can kind of move around a little bit that actually break up that pattern that you have at home, which is good because the pattern is going to be different. That pattern of work, the number of hours, the time of day, that kind of pattern is what I’m talking about. That is going to be a little bit different at the show. And so you can mix that up a little bit at home and again, observe the horse and then you’ll just have more knowledge going into it. I have learned to love showing because there is so much that you can learn. I remember at one time all showing felt big to me. At that time, I also remember that I was much more likely to pretend everything was going to be fine while feeling sick to my stomach and tense in my body, which may have actually played into why I didn’t like showing. Now I go and I show and I enjoy what I’m learning along the way. I actually love seeing the whole experience through my horse’s eyes and looking at my experience as well. I remember in the fall when I was at the AQHA World show, I loved just the experience of being there and feeling everything. There were moments that I felt nervous. I remember being afraid. I’d forget the pattern, and that made me feel nervous. There were moments that felt amazing. I remember even in the middle of showing coming around a corner and being so happy to be there and riding and marveling how it did feel like a moment from a ride at home. The biggest difference between me now and way back when showing felt so big and scary to me is that I feel totally present for all of it when I go to these events and I don’t deny or pretend that I’m not nervous at times or I’m not experiencing, whatever. And what’s amazing is that it has unlocked so much more learning for me and more enjoyment, because holding my breath and not feeling good at the other shows didn’t leave much room for enjoyment. Katie, I hope that this is an amazing learning experience for both of you, and I hope this episode helped anyone who is prepping their horse for some kind of a big outing this year. Thanks again for listening, and I’ll talk to you in the next episode.

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