I board at a place that calls itself a “recreational” barn. It’s a polite way of saying a barn where people don’t compete. Because of this view, training isn’t really offered for people who want to compete. Don’t get me wrong, there are people at the barn who do compete. But they’re essentially on their own for training. The rub is the view that competing is a bad thing, or that those who want to participate in the competitive arena are somehow bragging. I don’t think that’s correct. And in fact, healthy competition should be encouraged for a variety of reasons.
I find that the reason most people want to compete is that they are looking for affirmation that they’ve done a good job training their horse. If you’re training on your own, that’s just physically difficult to see. And if you’re riding around in class with five or six other students, it’s often hard for the instructor to provide individual attention for you to be able to tell. So competition settings become the place to get a third-party opinion from someone whose only role is to look at your performance, and tell you what’s what.
As a “horse mom,” I like when my daughter competes because there are life lessons like preparation, and putting in the work, that are more effective taught by a horse than a (potentially) nagging parent. No matter what I say, the horse still has to be bathed, the tack has to be cleaned, and the trailer still has to be packed. When we get home, the horse has to be tended to, everything has to be be put away, and the trailer has to be cleared out. There’s just no way around it. Showing also teaches a longer-term view of things because the training and riding that needs to be done in preparation for a show takes weeks of advanced work. It’s a big lesson in delayed gratification.
The other point about competing that often gets lost is that — for me anyway — it’s not about competing with other people. It’s about competing with myself. Can we do better at a dressage test than we did last time? Can we be more forward in our jumping rounds? Can we be braver in our cross country? How much progress have we made, and where do we still have work to do? When you do win that elusive blue (or any other color) ribbon, it’s just icing on the cake. When I compete, I want to go perform well. I want to throw down a gauntlet — both to myself and my competitors — that we’re here to rock it. I want others to say, “Wow! Did you see that? They put in an amazing ride” regardless of what our ribbon looks like.
There is also a social aspect to competing. Everyone goes to another venue, besides their home barn. So everyone is a little bit nervous. In my experience, it bonds those of us in a division together. You start rooting for each other to get over the nerves and do well. And when you’re in a particular division for most (or all) of a season, you start to recognize the other riders. You may even have been in a clinic or two with them. That gives you a chance to know your fellow competitors and their horses, and you start to root for them to do well too.
In addition to your own division, you can watch competitors in divisions above you. And I learn a lot just by watching. I also love to volunteer. So when there’s a competition that’s above my level, I sign up to work it. I’m usually rewarded with a cross-country schooling pass that’s good for the competition course at my level, which is always useful. But I have learned so much just by watching professionals at a high-end competition. How do they warm up? How do they comport themselves? What do they do when things don’t go according to plan? What happens when conditions aren’t optimal (windy, rainy, etc.)? How do they manage their nerves? What do they consider “success” at a show for a particular horse? What are they trying to work through?
Here’s another thought: medals. The USDF program just requires three scores of 60% or better on tests at particular levels in order to secure a bronze/silver/gold medal. It says nothing about what color your ribbon was, or where you placed. So you could achieve a gold medal, without ever having won (or even pinned) at any of your competitions. The USEA also has a medal program with similar requirements. Again, nothing about where you placed in your division. Just what were your individual scores?
This isn’t to say that I’m going pro any time soon. Perhaps if I had discovered eventing back in my 20s. But that would now require a time machine, which I don’t have. For now, I’ll be happy with trailering out to competition-focused resources like clinics, training, and cross-country schooling. I’ll be working on achieving a bronze medal in dressage, and eventing at beginner novice level. And that’s gonna require a little competition. You in?