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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

What Can You EXPECT from your Horse Show?

Merriam-Webster definition of "expectation"...

A belief that something will happen or is likely to happen.

A feeling or belief about how successful, good, etc., someone or something will be.

Expectations.  We all have them.  And they are not inherently bad.

Unfortunately for those of us who have chosen the noble and daring hobby (or career) of horse showing (or competing with horses in any discipline) expectations become a bit complicated.

If you play any other competitive sport, you set your goals and then work to achieve them.  When it comes time to compete, you gather your strength, will and developed skills and go to work.

Competing with horses is no different.

Except you have a horse.  And it has a brain.  Which has its own ideas about this business of getting to work.  It senses emotions and micro-movements, and hears small children crushing pop cans in the stands and crackles of the microphone. Sometimes it has to pee.  Or needs a drink. Or wants to sleep.

It is this very living, breathing and thinking creature that makes our sport so wonderful and unique.

But this creature is also the reason why we must approach our competitive "expectations" with caution, especially if those expectations sound something like "winning _(insert any title/class/ribbon you wish)_", "beating __(that girl, that horse, her time, etc)____" or "just not getting last place".

It is very easy to begin spending time fantasizing about what it will feel like to get those red roses or that plaque.

We start envisioning how certain competitors may react or feel when we win.  Or what it will feel like to get that time, have a clear round, get all our leads, or achieve all the elements of our pattern.

It is at this moment though that our beloved 4-legged partner becomes an expert wrench-tosser.  He'll show you problems you didn't even know he had.  He'll find scary things you could never see or hear.  He'll call you out on your "fake it till you make it" confidence.

So what do we do?

Do we become goal-less wanderers just aimlessly riding in hopes that someday, by some fluke of the celestial alignment that we might get a prize?

Absolutely not.

But we DO have to manage our expectations and the role they play in our assessment of our competitive success.

I listened to a book by the wonderful researcher Brene Brown the other day and she suggested an exercise which I have modified below to show you how this might work for your competitive journey.

1) Pick 5 of the top expectations you have for your competition.

            i.e.    Get a first place in class 226  
                     Qualify for regionals
                     Beat that girl ... oh you know who I mean
                     Get all my leads correct
                     Have a clean pattern class

2) Write them down on cue cards, then flip them upside down and shuffle them.

3) Randomly pick 3, flip them over and read them

Now imagine ... the 3 things you picked happen!! Yayy!  But the 2 you didn't do not materialize the way you'd hoped.

For instance, you get enough points to qualify for regionals, you manage to get all your leads and even beat that girl you wanted to beat, BUT you do not get a first in class 226 and your pattern turns into a bit of a wreck. 

Fully immerse yourself in the vision.  How do you feel? Is your show ruined?  Does your effort feel worthless?

If not, you are probably already fairly enlightened to the "expectation management".

BUT, if the thought of one or more of these expectations going unmet makes your gut churn, you might need to work on managing the standard by which you judge your competitive success.

So if we aren't expecting to win ribbons or beat competitors, what kinds of things should we be envisioning when we set out to compete with our horses?

Well ... here are a few tricks I use:

Break it down: 

Think about specific things you'd like to see happen in the class (and things you might be in more control of than the overall outcome) ...

        -  I'd like to have my horse remain responsive to my inside leg.
        -  I'd like to continue breathing through my pattern and wait long enough between elements.
        -  I want to ensure I give myself enough time and the proper "set-up" before transitioning to the canter.
        - I'd like to keep my spacing and maintain proper corners and distance from other competitors (in rail classes)
        - I want to keep my horse's rhythm consistent and keep her driving forward into the bit

Get the idea?  Break your goals down into smaller, more specific and controllable elements.  Then, if you do not achieve them, you can better assess where you need assistance or practice, or if circumstances were simply out of your control!

Think about more intrinsic rewards: 

If you enjoy daydreaming about your upcoming competitive experiences shift your focus away from "winning" or "achievement-based" visions to more intrinsic payoffs such as:

           - The feeling of "fitting in", having a well-turned out horse and being friendly with your competitors
           - The praise and accolades from your team and your competitors when you make improvements or show fortitude in dealing with your challenges
           - The satisfaction of finally nailing down a maneuver, elements, gait, or transition after having some difficulty with it

Reality Check with Perspective: 

I encourage my riders to do this all the time.   We ABSOLUTELY must remain very grounded in our reality (i.e. how we relate to those we are competing against) and our perspective (how we are competing based on our previous experience and accomplishments).

We need to know who our competitors are, what they've done and for how long they've been doing it.  Talk to people.  Find out how long they've been showing, how much training they (and their horse) have had leading up into the competition, their horse's history and breeding, etc.  Watch competitors closely through the season and from year to year.  You will see that most of the people who win have worked hard and invested a lot of time, energy, money and effort to get there (and when you win, you'd likely say the same!).

I often say to my riders:  If there are 6 horses in a class at a local-level show, and 2 are very expensive, well-trained, previous national champion, and you come in 3rd (with your young or inexperienced or less well-traveled horse) you basically won FIRST!  (And also, when the time comes and you are riding that winning horse, you will be much more humble and honored to accept that prize knowing what went into winning it.)

Another essential part of this is ...

NEVER rely on your performance at the horse show to OUT-DO the level that you are easily and successfully achieving at home. 

You cannot just hope and pray that by some miracle you will pull a winning ride out at the show when your rides at home are still a work-in-progress.  This is simply placing unrealistic expectations on you, your horse and your coach based on extrinsic (or outside) expectations such as winning or beating someone.

If you feel that you are not progressing as quickly as you'd like or not finding the success your feel you (realistically) deserve, this is a question to be discussed with your trainer or coach (and if you don't have one, read my last post on why you might want a trainer!) .

Maybe the horse isn't a great fit.  Maybe you need more time in the saddle or the horse needs more training. Maybe the horse needs some ring time with your trainer to troubleshoot.   This is something that needs more investigation at home, before you continue to compete and get more frustrated.

In order to find your deepest and most meaningful success at the horse show you need to determine something really important.

As the fantastic Simon Sinek would say,

You need to START WITH "WHY".

You have to determine why it is you do this.  What motivates you?  What is the payoff?

If the only reason you want to compete with your horse is to get a ribbon, or the only way you'll be satisfied is by receiving the roses, you might need to incorporate that into your plan.  You will likely need to spend a lot of money, find the best trainer, etc. All of these might be completely do-able and legitimate.  But you NEED to be aware.

And maybe just asking "What is my 'why'?" will help you to re-center and refocus.

If the reason you do this is to deepen your bond with your horse, have fun and enjoy the thrill of competition, then maybe all you need to do to find more satisfaction is to manage those other (less-realistic) expectations.  Try some of the above suggestions, discuss some more specific goals and meditate more on the intrinsic rewards, versus the prizes themselves.

Surely you can have long-term goals (like competing at the National level) and this will rely on all sorts of achievement and success along the way.  But what we are talking about is weathering the challenging times, keeping a good attitude and truly getting the most out of your competitive horse experience.

By better understanding what you have control of and the reasons why you began this journey in the first place, you will set yourself up for much more satisfaction and success in the long run.   The ribbons fade and the trophies collect dust and may lose meaning over time but the experiences you have, the character you develop and the enjoyment you get from spending this time with your 4-legged friend will certainly make it all worth it.

~ Jacquie

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Why Would I Even Want a Horse Trainer?

So as a instructor and trainer of show riders and horses (mainly Arabians and Half-Arabians, and soon Morgans!) I’ve been asked some really great questions lately and I want to share a couple.

These are things I hear ALL the time. In fact, there was a time when I asked these same questions. They are legitimate questions, and I feel that they also have very important answers.

The answers might not be what you'd expect ... Especially if you're in the DIY (or Do-It-Yourself) camp.

There are many different variations on these questions but they all revolve around the worth or value (or point) of having a horse trainer.

QUESTION #1: "Why would I want a horse trainer? Isn't that 'copping out'? How can I feel satisfied when I win if someone else does all the work? What if I turn into one of 'those' passenger riders who just gets on a trained horse but doesn't really know how to ride? Isn't it enough to take lessons? (etc ....)"

Okay so there are a few different aspects to this question and I'd like to work through all of them as I think they're completely related.

I'd also like to point out that I respond to this much differently than I used to.

I grew up as a DIY rider. I started riding when I was about 8 or 9 and started working with young and unschooled horses within a couple of years. We took some lessons but most of my time riding was spent with my friends taking a stab in the dark at how to solve all of our horse and riding problems. We learned how to stay on a horse (with whatever means necessary) and we prided ourselves on this ability. Good riders could stay on bad horses ... and that we could do.

"Collection" on a horse meant pulling on those reins until the head was down and to the inside. You then pushed as hard as you could with your legs to make it keep going. When you got exhausted, or your horse ran too fast or misbehaved, you reverted to clamping your knees and going into a half seat to weather it out. It wasn't anyone's fault. This was just how we all did it. The horses were green and so were we. Even if the instructor was giving correct ideas, we had no concept of the feel of a balanced or finished horse and the minute fear or ego came in, you just did what you were doing ... only more intensely.

So back to the point.

As a horse trainer, I ensure that horse and rider are able to progress together. "Progress" to me means continually moving towards balance, lightness, confidence, technicality, and control. Most show horses, even the ones who are in full time training and their riders only ride them in a weekly lesson, are still impressively difficult to ride. This goes way beyond just sitting on a horse and mechanically moving around. Their buttons and cues are intensely sensitive, requiring riders to have a skill and technical depth to their riding.

Think about it like this .... As a rider, would you take lessons from a total beginner? Someone who is just learning a concept or just getting consistent in their understanding.

Probably not.

And yet this is what we ask our horses to do when we decide to do it all ourselves. We ask them to learn from someone who doesn't know what they are feeling for. And likely someone who cannot commit to a regular schedule of 4-6 days a week of consistent work.

As a horse trainer, I help horses to understand a concept before teaching their rider to execute it. I have a feel for how the horse responds and resists and what works and doesn't. I can then teach my rider how to cue the horse, develop the skill or train the maneuver.

My goal is not to make my rider dependent on me. Instead I want to create riders and horses who progress together (much more quickly than they might on their own) with much less heartache and fear.

There are very few riders who advance to such a high level that they cannot benefit from someone else riding and schooling their horse and then providing feedback. The same goes for good trainers ... which is why they often seek second opinions and the advice or input of other trainers!

I mean, I guess in theory there might be riders who just want to plop mechanically on top of a horse, ride into the ring and collect a prize, but I actually have yet to meet any of these riders. Most people want to get better, deepen their understanding of horses, training and competing and continue to develop skills.

The thing about horses (in contrast to ALL other sports) is that there is not just a person who has a brain, personality and ability to learn. As it's been said, "In our sport, the ball really does have a mind of it's own!".

If it doesn't make sense for an athlete to try and compete without a coach or trainer who is constantly correcting, critiquing and advising, then WHY would we ask this of our equine partners (when communicating with and training a horse (especially at a competitive level) is so much more specialized and technical)? It just doesn't seem fair.

In this light, going into a competition with at least some kind of professional assistance specifically for your horse seems to make a lot more sense. There is no "hero" award for doing it all on your own, especially if you are not finding any consistent success. It can be frustrating and lonely to try and speculate why you aren't achieving your goals.

NOTE: I must address the financial aspect here because I know I will get a ton of comments from people saying it's too expensive to hire a trainer. I personally have a passion for helping folks get into the show ring. We do our best to keep costs low, cut extras where possible, and make the show ring manageable and accessible. For those experienced riders who are doing it on their own, finding success and are content, that is fabulous!

Riding is an expensive sport, there are no two ways around it. That said, leasing, horse sharing, fundraising, good planning, transparency of service providers, cutting out extras and showing at an appropriate and accessible level make it more feasible to consider going the "trainer" route. You just might need to look around to find a suitable fit!!

QUESTION #2: "What do you do for your clients at the show? What are they paying for? How do they learn anything if someone does it all for them?
I'm actually going to answer the third question first.

I'm a HUGE FAN of learning. I want my riders to be able to answer the tough questions, get horses ready for a class, potentially help someone at the ring side, or know how to groom and manage a show horse.

That said, the time to learn this is NOT WHEN YOU ARE PAYING A CRAP TON TO SHOW YOUR HORSE.

Was I clear enough?

I am willing to offer as much experience as I can to someone who wants to learn the "behind the scenes" of grooming and horse showing. I have mentored many eager new riders through a long and arduous horse show weekend of stall cleaning, feeding, braiding, bathing, clipping, lunging, class management, etc.

And what I have learned from all of this is that when you pay a LOT (like, A LOT) of money to prepare for and compete in a horse show you do not want to have to be exhausted before you even get into your class.

So to answer the question "What do I do for my riders at the horse show?"

Well, pretty much everything. And when I say "I" it might be me, or someone on the team there to groom or help (usually one of those keen folk who want to learn the ropes but aren't showing in that particular show).

Although I try to keep my show fees manageable they are also fairly non-negotiable.

I wake up crazy early. I clean stalls, feed, bath, braid, do feet, tack horses, warm horses up, coach at ringside, cool horses down, rinse, do tails, clip, etc. My show fees also cover the supplies to do this (it's WAY easier and more efficient to just have one set of prep supplies for all the horses ... and it all gets remembered!).

Sure, folks help out. Someone holds a horse in the bath, someone braids a forelock, someone throws a saddle or bridle on or lunges a horse. But for the most part, that is my job. THAT IS WHAT THEY PAY FOR.

This differs for every trainer but I think most barns are a fairly close variation of this.

I charge a "Show Fee" per show which covers all of the above (and is posted for each show at the beginning of the season). Some barns charge per class or day. I post my fees on my website and we discuss them at our show meetings so there are not usually hidden costs. Riders pay Entry Fees to the show, Show Fees for my services, and then hauling (if they do not haul on their own).

If someone wants to learn how to be a groom or get their own horse ready, we can do that at a fun show or they are more than welcome to come for a weekend and shadow. If we have a busy enough show we might even hire them as a groom.

I have learned that if you are going to take your horse show seriously and you are competitively training for certain goals, you need to focus your energies on your classes. I think if you ask my riders (many of whom started out doing it all themselves) they would entirely agree.

A good horse show team is a family. Your horse trainer needs to be someone you trust, not only with yourself but also with your horse. They will help your horse to find confidence and calmness, and this will make your horse show experience more safe, fun and successful.

And I'm pretty sure at the end of the day this is what we are all searching for, right?