The horse is a mirror of the rider's emotions so our first responsibility in helping our horses be calm is for us to be calm. I know that is hard to do just before the big show but it is vital for our horses to be able to relax. Even when you are nervous you can develop ways to help you relax such as taking slow deep breaths; mentally visit all parts of your body and release any tension you fnd especially in your shoulders, jaw, face and eyebrows; soften and broaden your vision; concentrate on a positive visualization of a perfect show performance; find a quiet spot off by yourself with your horse where you can relax together. Practicing Yoga or Thai Chi are great ways to have a lifestyle of body awareness and relaxation. These practices will teach you specific stretches, techniques and postures to bring you into a relaxed state mentally, emotionally and physically.
Be well prepared at home so you will have the confidence to know you will do well at the show. You and your horse should be at 110% at home in order to hope to have 95% at the show. Your confidence and positive mental attitude go a long way toward giving your horse calmness and peace under your leadership.
Double check to make sure you've packed everything you will need before leaving home. Start much earlier than you think is necessary so you won't have to rush to load your horse and worry about being late. Leave plenty of time to drive carefully and to allow for traffic or any unforeseen problems along the way. Arrive at the show venue early so you and your horse have time to relax and walk around, maybe hand graze or have a nice long grooming session.
In order to establish your leadership position, gain your horse's attention and determine how he (or she) is responding to you, teach your horse some simple ground work exercises at home and practice them as a pre-ride checklist. Our Six Keys to Harmony program of six essential exercises http://www.eddabney.com/video.htm teach you techniques for establishing respect and trust with your horse and achieving light responses from your horse. By regularly employing these exercises, your horse will be more responsive while riding and well mannered on the ground. The exercises will help your horse to be calm, focused and willing, and they will increase his coordination for precise and fluid movements as well as to increase his flexibility.
Once you and your horse know these exercises, you should be able to perform them all in about ten minutes, then mount up with more confidence knowing that your horse is focused on you and on the job at hand. Your confidence will pass through to your horse and give you a greater chance for a safe and successful ride. By practicing these fundamental exercises on the ground and mounted, your speed and direction control will be greatly enhanced. These exercises will open a line of communication and prepare both horse and rider mentally, physically and emotionally for a more productive and enjoyable ride.
When your horse is nervous or distracted you will have built in cues for controlling all the horse’s body parts and will be able to ask him to perform these exercises on the ground or mounted to bring his focus back to you and to help him “find himself” again by doing something that is comfortable and familiar to him. Giving your horse lots of little jobs to do will gain his attention, keep his focus on you and establish you as the leader who makes all decisions about speed and direction.
It is a good idea to do plenty of homework with your horse to help increase his courage and confidence and to prepare him for possible spooky situations he may encounter at the show grounds. Of course, we can’t re-create every scary object or situation at home that he might confront out in the real world, but the more strange things you can expose him to at home the more confidence you build in him as long as you introduce these scary things to him with lots of patience and using the approach / retreat method. (See our “Foundation Training” DVD for a full explanation and demonstration of this important technique.)
If you go too fast or too loud with these items or stay too long you could overwhelm him and cause him to fear things instead of building his courage. Try to retreat or remove the item as soon as he is standing calmly, accepting it. The learning is in the release. He learns to face his fears and learns that if he stands calmly the scary thing will go away or become less scary.
The French classical riding masters of the 1600's developed a concept known in French as "descendre la main" which literally translates as "descend the hand" but in practice means to relax or soften the grip on the reins. The French masters found that the tighter you hold the horse the less control you have but the more you release the horse the more control you have. When the horse is being held tightly on a short rein he has a feeling of being restricted and becomes agitated and claustrophobic. If the rider would simply lengthen the rein a little and allow the horse to move his feet, while being directed by the rider, then the horse can calm down and focus. It is impossible to force your horse to stand still while waiting for your turn to enter the arena. The tighter you hold and the more you pull back the more agitated your horse may become. Instead of fighting with his energy, use it. Put him to work by directing his movement into specific jobs and small patterns then offer the opportunity for him to stand still on a loose rein. He may surprise you by being happy to stand and rest.
A successful show with a calm and quiet horse is not all your horse's responsibility. It is your job to be emotionally fit, to properly prepare him at home and to ride in a relaxed manner while still displaying correct posture and equitation. Just take your time and try to approach every session at home and at the show with low stress and calm assurance. Be a confident, consistent leader for your horse so he can come into a place of peace under your good leadership.
Be in the moment and enjoy the journey,
Ed Dabney is an internationally acclaimed clinician, presenting horsemanship and riding clinics all over the US and in Europe. In 2007, Ed was named Champion of the East Coast Trainer Challenge Series by Equine Extravaganza. Ed was honored to have been selected by the University of Georgia to teach their senior level Young Horse Training course.
His training articles have appeared in many major national magazines. Ed produces instructional videos and the “Gentle Horsemanship” TV program which has been seen on RFD-TV.
Ed's blending of natural horsemanship and classical equitation has made an indelible mark with students all across the United States and now also in Europe, drawing the attention of serious riders searching for the lightest touch and the deepest connection with their horses irrespective of breed or discipline.