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Competing for Fun, Goal Setting, and Skill Building

The following article was written by Julia Burdy. Julia is the Community Manager here at CRK Training. You may have seen her name and photo replying to comments and posting on the Facebook page, and if you have watched any of the videos here, you have also seen her editing work!

Every Monday, we have a meeting here at the farm to discuss the upcoming projects for the week, and catch up on what we each did over the weekend. Julia often tells us about her shows, and I get to witness how much joy she takes from competing, and how, for her, competing is not about the ribbons, but about measuring the constant improvement in her riding!

I asked Julia to write this article for you, and share why she competes and why you might want to consider heading out to a horse show too!


Its 4 am, my alarm goes off and without missing a beat my feet hit the floor ready to start the day.  Any other day, I would’ve hit my snooze button a few times before finally rolling out of bed.

What can get me out of bed without delay? It is a horse show day. I maybe the only 26 year old with my entire family in tow for the day but I still feel like a kid at heart getting to spend the day with my horse!

I was just 5 when I started showing horses and the rest was history. I’ve always enjoyed the show ring but maybe not for reasons you may think…

For me, it has never been about the ribbons. What made me fall in love with showing was testing my abilities as a rider and my training of my horse. And, honestly, it can be a lot of fun! In fact, competing should be fun! 

My long term goal is to be competing at the 3’ level and the steps I’ve been taking along the way have allowed me to break down my bigger goal into smaller, more achievable steps for me to take along the way. Starting with 2’ courses at local shows, with the goal in mind to just get around the course. Then graduating to 2’3” courses with more finesse, eventually onto 2’6” courses to get more comfortable at a bigger height, and so on. 

Riding into the show ring I don’t have goals to take home the blue or to have the fastest time in the course – my goal is always to have a fun and safe experience with my horse.  However each time we trailer out to put on a performance I want to be better than the last time we ventured out. But when I have a clear goal in mind for the next show it gives me very specific skills that I am trying to improve that help me reach my riding and training goals, I can better analyze where we need to focus on or what has been going really well. 

When I am preparing for an upcoming show, I try to focus my riding and exercises with my horse on exactly what I know will help us perform our best at the show. 

For example, if I am heading to a jumper show I know to implement more turning at speed in my practice rides. I will also work on square turns or rollbacks to practice those sharps turns that might shave a few seconds off of my time.

On the other hand, if I’m focusing on the hunter ring I’m going to practice riding more related distances, even if they are two poles on the ground to sharpen my eye and feeling for the rhythm to make sure I’m getting the correct strides on the lines.

By aligning my skills and exercises with what I hope to accomplish in the show ring I can find a simple trajectory to achieving my goals. But it isn’t only our skills that play a roll in our experiences at the horse show – there are so many factors! 

Next, I’d like to share what I believe are the keys to having a great experience at a horse show.

Picking the Right Horse Show

Which shows or series you select to attend can have a huge impact on your experience. Set yourself up for success by choosing wisely. 

If you are not familiar with the shows in your area it is a good idea to go check them out, see what the facilities are like, and how the competitors interact with each other. 

Environment can have a huge impact on your horse. If your horse doesn’t have much experience off the farm try to find a show with a laid back atmosphere, relatively quiet without too many distractions. 

For example, in our area we have a horse show that has a county fair going on at the same time as the show plus multiple exhibitions occurring throughout the day. This type of show wouldn’t be a choice for a first show because of the very busy atmosphere. 

The level of competition can also play into selecting the right show.  A local show will have a much different playing field than one rated through the United States Equestrian Federation governing body. Local shows are great for getting the show experience without completely emptying your wallet! In addition, there is usually less pressure and competition between exhibitors – great for finding new horse show friends!

Set Yourself Up for Success

In preparing for a horse show, have a clear idea of what types of class you want to perform in. Keep your experience, confidence, and horse’s training in perspective, if you or your horse feel over faced it can totally ruin the experience and the goal is to make it as positive as possible.

Early in my show career, I had a trainer who taught me that you always school at home a level above what you are showing. For example, if at home you are schooling over 2’6” courses find a division that offers 2’ or 2’3”. Or if you doing First Level dressage at home, stick to Training Level at the horse show. This helps me find an extra boost of confidence at the show because it is ‘easier’.

On that same note, if you are already showing and considering moving up to the next level, wait until your current level is ‘boring’. 

Or if you have already stepped up but feel over faced – you are totally allowed to take a step back!

When you select a class to show in pick one thing that you want to focus on and perform well. 

For example, if you are going into the hunter ring and know that keeping the same, consistent canter around the course is a challenge then that is a great thing to make your priority for that show. 

Instead of trying to focus on everything, on the rhythm, your lead changes, and getting the exact strides right, just pick one thing to be really good at that day. 

The Actual Competition

Although everyone is different, I really thrive by having a supportive ‘team’ with me at a horse show. 

Enjoying the team may come from showing in the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association during my time at Penn State where riding really is a team sport. 

In riding with the team, sportsmanship was just as important as horsemanship and I believe that should be true no matter what ring we are showing in.

A crucial member of your support team is a good coach, if they are available. Good coaches are in tune with your horse and your comfort level and can help walk you through whatever challenges you may run into at the show. 

When you first start showing it can bring about a little anxiety when it comes to performing in front of the judge, your competitors, and the audience. 

Remember, if you do struggle with anxiety, finding a show that has a low key environment will be very important for getting started. Also, remember why you are at the show in the first place, winning the blue isn’t the only reason to compete – we compete to develop our skills and set goals!

At a competition, I try to focus my mind completely in my riding and my horse. Getting distracted by the audience doesn’t serve either of you and remember that if you are participating in a judged event the judge is there only to call the placings for your class. As simple as it may sound, I like to imagine that I am just in a schooling session at home. 

Focus on the positives of your performance and celebrate even the smallest successes. Even if you didn’t have the perfect trip around the courses, or you made a few mistakes in your test, try to list the positives. 

The smallest successes might mean your horse is usually distracted easily but today his focus was on your cues, you had clean transitions, or maybe the canter just felt really balanced – these are all worthy of celebrating!

On the other hand you can also find any holes in the foundation of your skills or your horse’s training, take them as homework that way next time you’ll be back in the ring better than ever!

And my final piece of advice is that you are your own competition, the only rider you need to beat is yourself. Strive to be better than your last show instead of worrying about what the other riders you are riding against are doing – not only does it make competing a lot more fun but you’ll grow as a sportsman and a horseman.

Thanks for reading, now I want to hear from you! 

Leave a comment below and share your favorite part of competing or what goals you have for the show ring!

P.S. When I’m not helping helping Callie create awesome content for all of you or riding I run a podcast with a friend, called the Canter Banter Podcast. We are just two friends chatting about all things horses, riding, and balancing riding as an adult rider! You can click here to give us a listen!

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