Borrow a Trainer: Show-Ring Confidence

Perfect practice and a good attitude improves your horse-showing confidence.

From The American Quarter Horse Journal with Professional Horsewoman Lynn Palm.

To practice for what’s needed in the show ring today, a rider has to be able to think and know the horse.

Today, judges are looking for functional riders. The days of the trainer preparing the horse in the warm-up ring and then putting the rider on at the gate to go in and win isn’t going to work any more.

It’s no secret that getting better in the show ring begins with preparation at home and at the horse show.


Here’s some homework that you can now enjoy.

Improving your competition confidence doesn’t begin with practice, but with perfect practice.

For me, that means having a plan.

1. Know the rules.

Too many people will go to compete and they don’t know the rules. Read your rulebook and ask questions from judges or professionals if you don’t understand something.

2. Write down your goals and objectives before the competition.

Write them out monthly, weekly, daily, so you can track progress.

3. Establish a perfect warm-up.

Find those exercises that allow you both to loosen up your muscles and joints.

Different positions can be a good warm-up such as posting at the trot or riding in two-point. They are great for flexibility, balance and timing.

Figure out what gait your horse warms up best in. A sensitive horse might do well with a good five minutes of walking or an older horse or lazier horse might like to go right into a trot or a lope. The trot is a good stretching and suppling gait because of its two beats and evenness on both sides. Changing directions at the trot will work on lateral suppleness.

Learn everything you need to know in the Beginners Guide to Showing report. Find trainers, learn about show pen trends and more. You'll be prepared and confident for the show.

Upward and downward transitions help a horse’s longitudinal or topline muscling, as well as his hind end joint flexibility.

I always do changes in direction and transitions to supple my horse and limber the hind end. The warm up lasts at least 15 minutes.

4. Pick something specific to work on.  

You might choose lateral work, pivots, flying lead changes, better speed control at the lope, serpentines. Focus on one thing during each practice, but don’t drill it to the point of boredom. Make progress and then be satisfied.

5.  End your practice on a positive note.  

It can be as simple as walking on a loose rein and letting your horse stretch, a turn on the forehand or trot-walk-halt transitions.

6. Think about your ride.

When I put my horse away, I take the core of my lesson and think about what I liked about it – always start positive – and what I need to improve on.

At the Show

In a lot of ways, what you do at the show is a continuance of what you work on at home.

1. Ride with a positive attitude.

Ninety-nine percent of a horse’s performance is our positive or negative thought process.

If you start to doubt yourself, your pattern or your performance in any way, or if you come up with “what ifs,” you will more than likely not succeed.

2. Acclimate.

Arrive early at the show so you and your horse can get used to the arena. I work my horse on a longe line first, to let him play. If he is feeling fresh, he can’t absorb his surroundings. I go around the entire show grounds to see where he is insecure; wherever he is insecure, I spend time there to let him get comfortable.

Plan your ride in the arena. A lot of people will go in and lope, but I like to walk to find out where my horse stays relaxed and where he gets distracted. That’s where I know to be keener with my communication during my ride.

For patterns, I walk around the outside of the ring if possible, on foot or on my horse. You can see distances better from the profile, between cones or poles or where your jumps are. Most shows allow competitors to walk a course before the competition, so take advantage of it.

3. Visualize your ride.

Be honest in a positive way about your weak areas. You might think, “I’m still weak at my left turnaround, so I’ll take it slow and precise and try to plus the right turnaround.”

If you visualize your go and be specific, your subconscious mind and muscle memory will kick in during the performance.

4. Warm up well, not long.

I always want to be able to warm up 10-20 minutes before I do my 10-minute performance in the ring. My goal is for the warm-up to not last more than 30 minutes unless I do a lot of walking.

Figure out your horse’s best warm-up at home, and time it so you know how to plan at the show. When do you feel him start to get sharp and relaxed to your aids in transitions and maneuvers? That’s when you want to get into the ring.

Get prepared for the big show with AQHA's Beginners Guide to Showing report. Get advice on what to expect at your first show from trainers to attire.

A lot of people will warm up and then wait at the gate to socialize with friends. No! Keep your horse walking. Don’t waste the warm up.

5. Analyze your ride.

I coach people to always come out and say what they really liked about their ride. Be specific: “I liked the control I had at the canter in my right circle.”

Then find what could be better: “I looked down when I asked for the departure, and my horse took the wrong lead.” Focus on that during the next perfect practice session.

But don’t come out of the ring and say, “My ride was perfect.” That’s unrealistic.

6. Think long term.  

The most important achievement in any judged event has to be your performance and your horse’s performance – a personal best.

Always respect your horse, and never sacrifice him for the performance.

And always be a good sport.

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