University of Vermont AAHS


By Jan Dawson

[reproduced from Summer 2003 Caution:Horses, Volume 8, No. 2]

"These are show horses and they are used to all sorts of distractions."  "These people have come to a horse show and you can expect them to be experienced."

Are these valid statements?  Are they statements that one can rely on when deciding either how to run a show or what to do with horses or students at a show?  Probably not.  Even on the best of days with the most experienced horses and people something can go wrong.  Every horse and every exhibitor has a first show.  Not everyone is experienced or competent.  Some are experienced and incompetent.

There are ways to prepare yourself and your students for the hazards of showing.  The following are some guidelines.  This is by no means a complete list.  Understanding the problems presented by a show is better than attempting to find a set of rules that will apply to all of them.

Showing is stressful for all concerned.  The horses can be tense.  The riders can be tense.  The show staff can be tense.  The tensions means that neither horses nor people will be 100%.  The horse will be less than he is at home, the student will be less than he is at home.  The staff at most shows will be volunteers and probably will not have not had a rehearsal.

For this reason it is important for every instructor to have well practiced procedures in place before the show.  Anything that is going to be done at the show needs to be learned at home so that there are no surprises at the show. Students and owners should have their horse handling skills reinforced before they must handle horses in a crowed area filled with other either preoccupied or inexperienced horsemen.  Everything that will be done at the show should be practiced at home. 

Guidelines for Showing

1. Have the necessary health papers prepared in plenty of time.  This will vary from state to state and show to show.  It may be proof of a negative Coggins test within 30 days, six months or one year, or it may require a more extensive examination by a veterinarian.  Most states require an "original" Coggins which means that the veterinarian must stamp, sign and date the copy you carry or send if you do not carry the actual original.  This is important as often competitors must send off entry materials to several shows at once.

2. Horses must be able to load and unload easily.  Everybody must understand this process and either have their own job or know where not to stand.  A horse that is a problem loader is dangerous.  The time it takes to teach a horse and its owner to load is time saved in the long run.  It may also be an accident prevented.  There are many sources for loading instructions.  The main thing is that the end product is that the horse load quietly by himself without the aid of feed.  One should not enter a two-horse trailer with a horse and certainly not in front of him on the same side.  With slant load trailers it is best to tie horses outside but this requires two people.  While two people are always preferred for hauling it is not always possible.  Extra caution is necessary in the slant loads with a tack room in the back as the opening is much smaller if one must exit in a hurry, especially if the horse has the same idea.

3. At a one-day show, safe parking may be a problem.  Some shows will mark off parking spaces to allow enough room between trailers for safe handling of horses.  If they don't, you can do this yourself with cones, flags or other markers.  When tying to the trailer make sure that your trailer does not have sharp edges exposed that could catch a horse's foot.  Buckets need to be hung chest high to the horse and not left on the ground unless they are taken at least 20 feet away from the horse.  Hay nets, preferably, should be the breakable type.  All hay nets should be hung with the main string run through the bottom ring to double the net to make it more compact and then hung as high as the horses head in a manner that will not permit it to drop down as it is emptied.  Use of the very large nets is discouraged as it is difficult to get them hung so that they will not droop down within reach of a horse's feet.

4. The stabling at bigger shows offers its own set of problems.  If one has rented all the stalls in an aisle it is not an inconvenience to consider the aisle one's own.  That doesn't make certain practices safe, it just means that they don't affect the general public.  If one only has a couple of stalls the aisle must be considered a public area and viewed as a source of potential liability if one creates a hazard in this place through which all these horses must pass.  The fact that "everybody does it" does not make a practice safe or acceptable.

The practice of cross-tying in an aisle way is suspect for many reasons.  Often the cross-tied horse is standing on cement.  Obviously there is no butt bar.  All horses that pass must pass this horse moved to the side.  They must pass all the stuff that surrounds him which may be several electrical cords not to mention the general clutter in the aisle.  If either horse becomes upset there will be a problem.  It would be hard to defend the practice of taking up a public aisle in order to groom one's horse when it creates a hazard for others.  These duties can be done in a stall or a tacking-up stall can be rented as well.

5.  Where and how to tack-up and un-tack the horse at a show is a procedure that needs to be taught to each student.  No horse should ever be in a position to be loose.  Tacking up in a stall is preferable to tacking up in the aisle. This common practice is an inconvenience to others and offers many additional risks that are avoided when one tacks up in the stall.

Tacking up at your trailer is necessary at some shows but it offers additional risks.  There is the risk of the loose horse.  There is the risk of the injured horse.  There is the risk of the injured person.  Most of these relate to the method of tying and managing the horse when changing from being tied to being saddled.  The most important thing to remember is that the horse must never be out of one's control.  While we do not want to fasten the halter around the horse's neck while he is still tied, we do not want the horse loose.  It is better to untie the rope but leave something around the horse's neck.  This lessens the possibility of the horse getting away.  Having two people who both know what they are doing and have practiced the routine as it will have to be done at the show is a big help.  If the horse is EITHER in the trailer on tied to the trailer  THE VEHICLE MUST BE ATTACHED TO THE TRAILER.  There are no exceptions to this. 

6. Warm-up areas are the most dangerous riding areas at a show.  Managing to ride safely in the warm-up filled with other nervous, preoccupied, sometimes inexperienced or incompetent riders is a tall order.  This is a skill that can be practiced at home.  It is the skill of looking out and riding smart.  There are some show facilities that do not have appropriate warm-up areas for novice students.  The instructor should be aware of this and know in advance what the facility is like.  If there are unsafe practices in use that will put an instructor's student's at risk the instructor should not hesitate to stop them.  The steward and show management is there for a variety of purposes and providing a safe environment in which to show horses is one of them. This does not mean one should complain about each inconvenience but only if something is creating a real danger during the normal use of the warm-up or other area.  For this reason instructors must make certain that the students they take to shows are capable of being there and competent to be there on the horse they are riding.  If one is leaving the safety of the student up to the good nature of the horse then one should reconsider.  Forty-four state legislatures have said as a matter of law that horses are unpredictable, something all instructors claim to know anyway.  The question to ask is, "Can this student manage this horse if something unpredictable happens?"  This means the "normal" spook or naughtiness, not the worst case possibilities.

7. The instructor should enter the student a level below what the student is doing at home.  This gives the student confidence and allows for nerves.  The student should also practice at home whatever is going to happen at the show.  This does not mean one should run the barrels at home, quite the contrary, but it does mean the horse might practice waiting in the alley.  The student can practice avoiding being boxed in on the rail.  In-gate skills can always use work so the student doesn't have a mishap waiting in a crowd to go in.  This is a good subject to bring up to the show management to avoid dangerous, crowded staging areas, especially for youth riders.  A trainer with many students cannot be expected to be with all of them at once.  The 13 and under class is not going to suddenly become mature just because they are at a show.  Yet many shows appear to assume that one or the other of these statements is a fact when neither of them is.  It is especially important to remember that parents as a group have not usually taken the riding lessons and are not competent to supervise their kids, nor are husbands.  Only if the instructor or trainer prepares specifically for this can it be reasonably done.

An instructor or trainer should make sure that he has carefully thought through everything that will happen at the show and trained each of his students or customers in the necessary procedures so that they can participate safely.  He does this for their safety and his, and his own liability protection. 

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