Competing in horse shows can be stressful for both you and your horse. Trailering, changes in routine and exposure to new environments are all major stressors for horses.
But with a little planning, you will feel more confident heading into the ring and be able to focus on performing and having fun.
In preparation for show day, give your horse ample opportunities to practice loading onto the trailer and travelling to new locations. This will help your horse arrive at your competition in a calmer state.
Practice, visualization, warm-ups, video and detailed packing checklists can also help you plan better for your next show.
Below are 14 tried and true tips from an FEI dressage coach and trainer to help de-stress your show days for both you and your horse.
14 Tips for a Successful Show
1) Practice Loading your Horse
Whether you are heading to a dressage show for the weekend or loading at the crack of dawn for an 8 AM class, a horse that doesn’t load easily and reliably adds real pressure to the day.
On horse show weekends, you are always working on someone else’s schedule. This can include your shipper, your ride time or your coach’s time. Whatever the case may be, a loading issue will make you and your horse feel stressed.
2) Take your Horse Off Property to School
You don’t want to find out how your horse responds to new places and experiences for the first time on a show day. Give your horse lots of experience with being in new locations to help you feel more comfortable at competitions.
Start with small outings – especially if your horse is young, inexperienced or new to you. Your first trips need to have good outcomes so that your horse has a positive association with trailering.
Once you have sufficiently practiced loading and your horse is comfortable being enclosed in the trailer, take your horse for a short trip around the block.
After your trip, give your horse time to relax in a calm, familiar environment. Give them free-choice access to appropriate forages and provides electrolytes to address any dehydration that may have occurred during the trip.
The next step is to trailer them to a nearby farm. Walk them around the property and let them graze. Bring plenty of treats to make this a relaxed and happy experience for your horse.
Ideally, take your horse on several outings and slowly introduce new experiences such as asking them to work at a new location. If all goes well you can practice your tests away from home.
You also want to familiarize them with potentially scary things they might encounter at a horse show, including flags, umbrellas, bicycles, and golf carts.
It can be helpful to expose your horse to some of these novel items while at home so they are less likely to be overwhelmed when they are off property.
The key is to take small steps so that each experience builds positively on the previous one.
3) Use A Caller
Use a caller to read your dressage test and practice together before your competition. Callers are allowed except at the highest levels of competition.
Callers can also help comfort a young or nervous horse by placing a friendly face at the side of the ring, particularly if there are any ringside objects that you think will be intimidating to your horse.
This trick can help smooth your horse’s introduction to the show ring.
4) Memorize your Test
Horse shows can be noisy environments, the weather can be unpredictable and many factors are outside of your control. Having a caller is great, but you don’t want to be thrown off your game if the wind is particularly loud and you can’t hear what the caller is saying.
Memorizing your test before the show will ensure that you don’t panic if you can’t hear your caller. Memorization will also make it easier to focus on your riding since you will only need your caller as a backup.
When memorizing your tests, start by recognizing patterns. In most cases, what you do in one direction will be the same in the other direction.
Look at the test breakdown and learn where each movement begins and ends. This will help you adjust in case something doesn’t go as planned in the ring.
For example, you don’t want a late transition to bleed into the next movement and cause you to lose points in two movements. It is also important to know which movements have a coefficient of two so you can try to really nail them!
5) Practice your Test
Practicing your test ahead of your show day may seem obvious, but this step is often neglected.
Practicing your test from beginning to end will help you decipher which movements are difficult and what to work on leading up to the show. Ample practice will give you confidence ahead of your competition that you can complete each of the movements with relative ease.
This will also help you plan for how to ride your test. Memorizing your test with notes for each element can help you maximize your scores.
For example, you might want to make a mental note, “I really need to go into the corner after H to make sure I have good balance for my canter transition at C.”
Some additional things to prepare in practice include:
- Which hand to carry your whip in
- Which rein will you enter the ring on
- Where X is in your periphery
- How to salute properly
- What you will do if your horse doesn’t stand at the halt
There is so much to learn by practicing your test. This preparation will help you feel calm and composed heading down the centre line.
6) Visualize your Test
Once at the show location, spend some time at the ring you will be competing in to visualize your test.
Start by memorizing the pattern in the space. Once you have gone through the pattern in your head, think about the notes you made for yourself when memorizing your test.
Seeing each spot in the ring where you will make your preparations can really help you to set them in your mind.
Envision how you want your movements to look. Think of your horse’s frame, their expression, and how and where you can really show off what you and your horse are capable of.
There is a lot of power in visualization. Make sure it’s a part of your show day plan.
7) Compete at the Right Level
Your show days will go smoother if you compete at a level at which you feel confident.
A good rule is to compete at a level lower than what you and your horse are schooling at home.
You don’t want to head into the ring wondering if some elements are going to happen. Competing at the right level will help you have a positive attitude so you can feel secure in what you and your horse know.
Always remember that a show is not the time to train your horse. This is where you show off all the hard work you and your horse have done at home.
8) Plan Your Warm-Up
It can be tricky to plan your warm-up exactly because many factors are outside of your control! Start with a plan for ideal circumstances, including great weather, excellent footing and a relaxed horse.
You will need to know your ride time and organize your day backwards from there. Some of the things to keep in mind while planning your warm-up schedule include:
- How long it will take you to get to the ring from the warmup
- How long it will take you to make your final preparations for the ring, inlcuding putting on your jacket, wiping dust off of your horse, removing boots, etc.
- What movements you need to practice before going into the ring
- How long it takes to get your horse from his warm-up phase to his working phase
- What your horse’s fitness level is and how long he can warm up for, knowing you need enough energy for a 5-7 minute test after the warm-up
- How long it will take you to travel from the barn or trailer to the warm-up ring
Thinking through these details will help you choose when to get on your horse. After completing your ideal plan, you can then plan for less-than-ideal situations.
For example, unexpected weather may alter the amount of time you have available to warm up for your test. In hot and/or humid conditions, your 45 minute plan might have to be cut to 20 minutes.
Planning enables you to make your warm-up as efficient as possible, even when circumstances aren’t optimal.
9) Dress up for the Ring at Home
Try occasionally braiding your horse at home so you learn how long it takes to braid their mane. You can also make adjustments to the length or thickness of the mane to get the braids looking the way you want.
It is a good idea to try leaving your horse alone with braids in. The last thing you want when returning to the stall to get ready to ride is to find several of your perfect braids rubbed out! No one needs that kind of panic before heading to the ring.
If your horse likes to rub their braids, you may need to bring a neck slinky or keep them tied or distracted with hay until you are ready to tack up.
Also try riding in all of your show clothes to make sure everything fits comfortably. Pay special attention to the following:
- Check that all buttons are still sewn tightly to your coat
- Make sure your spurs are properly fitted to your show boots
- Practice tying your hair up tidily under your helmet
- If you are new to wearing a tailcoat, see how your horse handles the tails
It is also important to try on your horse’s show attire before your competition. If you have a special bridle saved for show days, make sure it is fitted properly and that your horse is as comfortable in it as in his schooling bridle.
If your show saddle pads are different from your schooling pads, ride in them to ensure that they stay in place and that your saddle still fits properly.
10) Make a Packing Checklist
If you are nervous ahead of your show day, you may have trouble thinking clearly and could forget to pack something important!
Make a packing list of everything you need to take to the competition. Break your list down into these six main categories and check off items before leaving for your competiton:
- Show clothing
- Horse feed
- Stable supplies
- Horse blankets
- Show kit
11) Pack a Ring Bag
Pack a bag that has everything you might need at the ring. You will want to include the following in your bag:
- Fly spray
- A wet towel
- A dry towel
- The dressage omnibus
Make sure your bag is large enough to accommodate your boots or bandages after your warmup. Have your name embroidered or written on your ring bag in case you forget it at the ring during the post-test celebrations.
12) Set Boundaries
It is wonderful to have family and friends out to support you on show day, but not everyone is a horse person.
Make sure you let your entourage know what is acceptable behaviour around the warm-up and show rings, and what you require from them on the day.
Some equestrians need complete focus and want no distractions while others find positive reinforcement and normal chatter helpful for easing their nerves.
You know best what you need. Don’t be afraid to ask for it!
13) Ask for Help
We all need help at the ring. Organize the people you need and what you need them for ahead of time.
Do you need a caller? Do you have someone who can video your ride? Who will carry your ring bag and get you dressed before the ring?
If possible, leave your coach open to watch your test without distraction.
14) Video your Test
Video is a wonderful tool to help you prepare for your next class or your next show. Try to schedule time with your coach to review your ride video afterwards while your test is still fresh in your mind.
Watching a video of your ride can show you what to work on for next time and help you track your progress. Video can also help you decide if anything needs to be adjusted in your warm-up.
This feedback will help you improve and make your next show day an even bigger success!
Preparing your Horse for Competition
Planning ahead for your show day will ensure that you and your horse feel confident, have fun and put your best foot forward!
You can also help your show day go smoothly by optimizing your horse’s health and management for performance and competition.
Competition horses have special needs when it comes to their feeding and high risk of injuries, joint issues and gut problems.
Work with an experienced team of equine professionals – including your coach, trainer, veterinarian and equine nutritionist – to prepare your horse to handle the stress of competition and their training workload.
Injuries & Lameness
Dressage horses are at higher risk of certain injuries, such as suspensory suspensory ligament issues, due to the movements that are asked of them.
These injuries frequently cause lameness and early retirement in dressage horses.
In a survey of over 11,000 registered dressage horses in the UK, 33% reported that their horse was lame at some point in their career. Of these, forelimb lameness was the most common (23%) followed by hindlimb lameness (12%). 
This survey identified several factors that can protect against lameness including:
- More time spent turned out
- Spending a large portion of training time in working paces
- Spending greater than 10% of training time in transitions and extended paces
- Working on surfaces that are uniform despite changes in weather conditions
Joint & Hoof Health
Dressage horses need extra support for joint and hoof health to reduce the incidence of lameness. Providing a diet with a balanced vitamin and mineral profile can help maintain strong hooves and joints.
Work with a nutritionist to check that your horse’s feeding program provides adequate levels of the following nutrients:
- Biotin: This B-vitamin is required to synthesize keratin – a protein that builds strong hooves. Feed at least 20 mg of biotin per day. 
- Organic zinc and copper: These trace minerals are important for antioxidant processes to maintain healthy cells of all tissues of the body. 
- Selenium and vitamin E: These are important antioxidants that support muscle function, exercise recovery and joint health. Performance horses need a minimum of 1,000 IU of vitamin E and 2 mg of organic selenium per day. 
You can also support your horse’s mobility and joint health by feeding docosahexanoic acid (DHA) – an anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid. DHA has been shown to improve joint comfort, respiratory health and muscle function in horses.
Back problems are also common among dressage horses, with 25% of horse owners reporting back issues. 
Topline muscles are important for all performance horses, but especially for dressage horses to support graceful movements. You can help to build your horse’s topline with appropriate exercises and stretching, and by providing adequate protein in the diet.
The reported incidence of digestive disturbances in dressage horses is lower than it is in other disciplines, such as racing.  However, any horse traveling to competitions during show season is at an increased risk of gastric ulcers.
Some key nutritional strategies to reduce the risk of ulcers include:
- Limiting the amount of grain in the diet
- Feeding small meals frequently
- Providing free-choice access to forage
- Encouraging water intake before transit and competition
- Avoiding exercise on an empty stomach
Visceral+ is a gut health supplement formulated to meet the needs of competition horses. It is recommended during show season to decrease the risk of gastric ulcers in order to maintain your horse’s comfort and performance.
Give your horse the best chance of performing well on show day by planning ahead and working with your team to prepare your horse for competition.
You can submit your horse’s information online for a free diet evalution by Mad Barn’s equine nutritionists to ensure their diet is well-balanced to support the needs of a performance horse.
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