When Things go Wrong in the Show Ring

During March of this year, 2012, I had fun presenting a clinic of this title at the Can Am horse expo along with notable hunter judge, BarbaraMitchell and again with reining judge Gary Yaghdjian. We fed of each other’s energy as we highlighted various mistakes judges note on their cards and how to prevent them. I asked riders to look beyond the usual fixes, which focus on rider mechanics, to consider WHY things go wrong in the first place. Why do horses do what they do so predictably?

From the minor errors – a chip before a hunter fence or a slight overspin in reining, to major blunders – a refusal, or a spook (after which everything disintegrates), the source of the problem can often be found through the science of equine behaviour.

When the judge’s card says CC (cross canter), the post-class coach’s commentary usually includes “you should have used your outside leg.” But let’s dig deeper into what caused that horse’s hind end to slip off the track, resulting in a lost hind lead in the first place. Commonly seen at the in gate, the magnet of the barn and buddies is a powerful draw for the herd oriented horse. The rider may steer his head, but the remainder of the horse fishtails towards home.

If the judge records HH (high head), in the approach to the jump or a run down to a sliding stop, the source of the issue is an animal, claustrophobic by nature who feels trapped by a rider who, for the sake of balance or nerves, is hanging on the reins.

Anticipation shows up on the judge’s card in lots of ways. Horses are creatures of routine and learn by trial and error or operant conditioning. Now, while the research indicates that it takes an average of 5-7 repetitions to learn a skill, any routine learned by fear is learned in only one or two repetitions. Think about it – in the wild you don’t get multiple repetitions to learn to flee from a cougar! A horse soon loses his composure at the centre of the ring in a reining pattern because that’s where all the transitions, flying changes and spins start. And if they start with a nervous rider abruptly stepping on the gas pedal, he’ll scoot out of place faster than a teen driver burning rubber out of the Dairy Queen.

And the hunter who starts to jig in the hack class at the sound of the announcer’s microphone clicking to call for the canter? Startle him once or twice with a hasty outside leg and he’ll start to dread it like the boogie man.

When we’re working with an equine partner whose native language and world view differs from ours, we’re bound to have things turn not turn out exactly as we’d hoped in the show ring. Learning what makes him tick is a key to winning partnership!

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