How can I get my spicy horse acclimated to shows?
There are lots of things that you can do at home to make your horse’s show nerves settle down when you get to the show grounds. It’s all about prep work and planning ahead! You should have these basic skills down pat before you hit the show:
Show grounds are a great place for your horse to “see the world”. There’s a lot going on, tons of people, new horses, many rings hopping, vendors, loudspeakers, golf carts...you get the idea. It can be sensory overload!
You must be able to hand walk your horse and have him pay attention to you, in all situations. If you don’t have this control and attention from your horse at home, you are putting yourself, and others, at risk when you arrive at the show. Spend the time to train your horse to hand walk safely. You may need to pack a stud chain to use, but please don’t make the show the first time you use a chain. (You may have noticed that going to a show is NOT the place to try new things.)
It’s also handy to have a horse that is trained to hand graze - on your terms, not his. Hand grazing consists of a few very simple principles - you decide when, you decide where, you decide for how long. A horse that wanders off, tugs the rope, etc. has no boundaries and needs to brush up on manners.
Some show grounds have areas of grass for hand grazing, which can help calm a nervous horse in a new situation if he has those manners instilled. Be extra cautious of other horses sharing the area. If your horse does not have access to pasture at home, be wary of any tummy upsets that could happen if you suddenly introduce a new “treat”.
Many folks like to lunge their horses to let them “blow off some steam” at the show grounds. My feeling on this is clear - don't do it. I personally don’t believe in lungeing for the sake of emptying a horse’s gas tank by allowing shenanigans and the like. It’s not safe, it's not productive, and allows the horse to disregard the instructions of the handler as he zips around. This puts injury at the top of the “likely to happen” list, and puts you and others around you in danger. Lungeing, like hand walking, requires a horse to pay attention to the handler at all times. It’s fine if your horse needs a stretch after a trailer ride. Also be warned that often the show grounds makes the “lungeing area” out of the space with the worst footing, which can end your show before you ever start if you let your horse go bonkers.
How else can you have your horse get used to a new situation?
-Keep his schedule the same
-Let him walk around and “see”
-Good grooming and bonding sessions
-Recognize his need for quite time, also
-Use a slow feeding system to keep him occupied during the day
-Keep him in sight of other horses
-Use positive reinforcement to make his show experience a good one
-Try and set up his stall before you bring him over, so that he’s not stuck in the trailer waiting…
-Bring water from home if you can, bring his hay from home, too.
-Consider a haul in/haul out show as your first shows together, so that his “sensory overload” time isn’t so long.
-Blackmail or bribe a friend to come with you and keep you sane.
Horses generally like their meals on time, so keep his show meals in time with his home meals. If you have a class around his lunchtime, consider feeding early enough so that he can digest a bit before you go into the ring.
When you are at a show, chances are his box stall will be small, and you will likely not have access to turnouts, pasture, etc. That doesn’t mean you get some extra time as a rail bird! Do your horse a favor and hand walk him during his normal turn out time so he can move around a bit.
Hand walking is critical! Your horse can see what's going on and stretch his legs.
Most importantly, have the training and skills on board before you get to the grounds. Yes, some horses are nutty, but be patient and stick to what you know when you get there.
What other tips do you have for settling into a show?