Throughout my life, I’ve gone to the occasional show on a school horse with no expectations. Because of the circumstances, it didn’t require a whole lot of organization or (frankly) effort on my part. I’d show up at the barn on Saturday to participate in the “all school assembly” of bathing, braiding, and tack cleaning. Then I’d come back on Sunday, show in my classes, hand the horse off to his next rider, and go home. Insert a few years, and a lot has changed. Now I’m a middle-aged rider, embarking on a new chapter in the book of my horse life — as a horse owner, and now self-admitted amateur low-level eventing competitor.
Even as an amateur, and even at the lower levels, becoming a “real” competitor comes with significant risks for a person like me — excessively high expectations, and taking yourself or your horse too seriously. But let’s be real! I’m not going to the Olympics. The only way I’m going to Rolex is as a spectator. And a barn of my own is a retirement plan for 20 years from now. But I’m highly competitive by nature. So in the absence of competitors to put myself up against, I’ll just compete with myself.
Lest you think this is an easy feat, let me warn you — I can be far more competitive with myself than if you put me in a field with a bunch of 5* professionals. My assessment of my performance is likely to be harsh and unforgiving. And so begins the spiral of hyper-critical, over-competitive self-doubt and anxiety. But that’s not the point of the exercise here! And perhaps most importantly, I know that going in. I goals in eventing are 1) to ride my best, 2) to show off my horse to his best capabilities, 3) to be challenged, and 4) to enjoy a day in the sun. At this point in my life, and in my riding, the definition of “winning” has changed. So it’s even more important to rein in my negative tendencies before I get to the start box.
To get things off on the right hoof, I sat down with my trainer over a cup of coffee at a local bookstore in late January to discuss “the plan” for this show season. Here is what we have collectively discovered…
- #1 — Leave your expectations at the gate!
I’m hoping this continues to be as easy as I think it’s going to be. Officially, I expect nothing from my competition season this year. And I say it out loud to everyone who will listen to me – not so much for their benefit, but for my own. Hearing the words as they travel through the air from your own mouth to your own ears and not just in your head gives them an intention and meaning that they otherwise don’t have.
My mantra this season is: “All I want to do is enter, compete, learn from the experience, and go home. I don’t expect ribbons or medals. This isn’t the Olympics.”
When I first said this to my trainer during that conversation over coffee, her face said it all. I can’t adequately describe to you the look of joy she had as the words passed my lips. She was relieved to hear that this was the expectation — or non-expectation, as the case may be.
So for the record, the purpose of this show season is to let Charlie Brown, my daughter, and me figure out how best to navigate the particulars of organized competitions. I’m in this season for the judges feedback and the experience of the show. We’ll worry about ribbons next year, if then. We will invite our friends to join us, relish the days of honest effort, and go home fulfilled by our work.
- #2 — Make keeping the calendar easy for you and everyone else
I started by creating a Gmail address for my horse. As silly as that sounds, it allows me to keep all the e-mail with the barn, and the vet, and the trainer, and the places I order stuff from separated from my non-barn life. But even better, it gets us a separate, shareable Google calendar, just for Charlie Brown. So now my trainer, my daughter, my husband, and I all have full access to the calendar. When other people need access to see events, we can do that too. Because it’s on the web, it’s always up to date, so no one is operating on bad information.
Fortunately, by this time of year, most of the places that will be hosting shows have posted their schedule for the upcoming summer. But I continue to scour Facebook and other social media for announcements of shows, clinics, and camps to add to our list of choices.
Since I’m eventing, that means dressage, cross country, and stadium jumping. So I’m also looking at pure dressage or jumping clinics as good opportunities for us. What that also does is opens up the opportunity to have someone come with me. So, for instance, when I see a dressage clinic or “fix-a-test” event, I send it on to my handful of local dressage friends to see if anyone wants to join us. Usually, someone will, and it makes things nicer for both of us to at least have a familiar face around, especially since everything else all seems so new.
- #3 — Remember participation can be either riding or auditing
When I started to put this calendar together, my assumption was that I was going to ride in everything. But there are some events that my riding and Charlie’s just isn’t up to yet. Then I remembered — I can audit some of these things too!
Frankly, there are some clinicians who intimidate me to the point where I would only audit their clinics anyway. But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from them. So I have made sure to include some events that are intended for me to participate in as an auditor, not as a rider.
There are also weekends when my trainer is unavailable because she’s attending a show with another student. That’s a prime candidate for an audit experience.
Regardless of whether I’m riding or auditing, I’m getting the benefit of someone else’s knowledge and expertise. And that’s the whole point of clinics and camps anyway. Get the information any way you can.
- #4 — Make the calendar easy to read, and organized
Choose a consistent format for entering the events you want to consider participating in. I also chose some shorthand for naming the events: XC = cross-country, XC-S = cross-country schooling, CT = combined training (one day event), HT = horse trial (3-day event), etc. For schooling opportunities, I lumped them all on the 1st of each month, and everyone who is looking at this calendar knows that.
Because it’s computer-based, it’s easy to read (none of my husband’s scrawly handwriting). And for every event, I included the web address of the event or schooling facility, the cost a schooling round, and the contact person/phone/e-mail address. So one of my entries is “Phillip Dutton Eventing Camp @ True Prospect Farm.” When I click on that entry, the details are all there.
- #5 — Put every event you can find on the calendar, and color code it
I scoured the web, asked friends, and checked posts on social media for ideas. I was looking for both official event announcements, and information about where I could school in preparation. As I started to enter everything, it dawned on me that the calendar was turning into a big mess. Then it dawned on me that it would be helpful to be able to sort out the schooling opportunities versus the shows. So, being a visually-oriented person, I color coded the two.
When I actually signed up for a specific camp, I knew that would have to be in a different color still, so it didn’t get lost in the shuffle. That’s in orange so it really stands out. When I’m signed up to audit, that’s a slightly different shade of orange, so I can quickly tell the difference between the two.
- #6 — Meet with your trainer and choose what events you will participate in
Sit down with your trainer over a random beverage at a non-barn location. You need this to be a completely candid conversation between you and the trainer. You don’t need other owners from your barn, or leasers, or staff inserting their opinions. And in a non-barn location, in some senses, you might as well be speaking a foreign language, because almost no one around you will understand what you’re talking about. Your computer will also be happy for the dust-free environment.
We compared the trainer’s calendar, my calendar (remember, I’m an AMATEUR equestrian, which means I work for a living), my family’s calendar (I have a child and a husband to consider), and the opportunities available. Then we started crossing things off. Actually, what I did was changed the color to a very light gray, so they nearly faded from view, but I still had the information in case schedules changed. For days when the trainer was unavailable, like when she’s taking another student to a show that I’m not doing, I changed the events to black to show that there was something that wasn’t going to move here, but again we didn’t lose the information.
- #7 — Register for your shows in advance, or at least get your paperwork together
Our aim is to do an off-site schooling once or twice a month. For us, this will be primarily cross-country because that’s what we have the least access to at our barn. The best options for that are either a public park where it’s free and no pre-registration is required, or a facility about 90 minutes away which offers online reservations. Either way, I need to fill out the release, attach a current Coggins, and pay. So print it out, fill it out, and have it ready. Save yourself the stress, because the morning you head out for that ride, you will have plenty of other things to remember and get done.
For shows and camps and clinics, I will have to do the same thing, but much farther in advance. I learned from a friend, who is participating in an entire series of shows, the value of pre-registering for stabling for the entire season. This way, she knows exactly where she and her horse are going at each show, and she doesn’t have to fuss with doing that paperwork repeatedly. Plus, there’s a discount for pre-registering for the full season. Talk about winning before you even get there! Here, my intention is to get registered ASAP for the camps and clinics because they fill up pretty quickly. For shows where I can register on-site, and there’s the possibility of a conflict arising, I’d still rather have my paperwork done in advance.
Keep a copy of your completed registration paperwork with you until the event is done. I keep mine in a gallon ZipLock bag in the truck. Even better, keep an electronic copy of the complete registration packet in your e-mail. This way, if it gets lost, you can just re-submit a copy of the original, instead of having to fill it all out again.
- #8 — Consider your Coggins
When I bought Charlie, he had an old-style Coggins report — just a basic form, filled out in someone’s handwriting, and stamped with the veterinarian’s seal (so you could read the name and address). There was some basic description of his coloring and markings, but nothing notable. Frankly, it could have been for any number of horses. It just wasn’t a very identifiable form.
Now, Coggins resports come with photos of your horse for identification purposes. Some shows and facilities are getting very strict about having a new-style Coggins. So to save myself the aggravation of having to defend an old result format, I arranged to have Charlie Brown’s re-drawn a couple of months early to have a 2015 date on it, and to have the new format.
I generally keep a dozen copies of his Coggins in the truck, as well as keeping a photo of it (marked as a “favorite” of course) on my cell phone. This way, even if I forget to bring a copy, I have one accessible.
So, we’re off on our first official amateur show season with our new horse. It will take a village to get through the season. Actually, it will first require the arrival of spring. In the meantime, the least I can do is bring a good attitude, and be organized and prepared.
I’d love to hear what others do to say sane and organized during their show seasons, regardless of discipline…