Even for the most seasoned competitor, horse shows are fraught with nerves and tension for both humans and horses alike. Add in young horses that are just beginning their careers, and the thought of getting them on the trailer and taking them to a completely new facility can be downright overwhelming.
“I start prepping a young horse to go for a show when they’re two days old,” says Australian horsemanship guru and founder of the TRT method, Tristan Tucker. Unless you run a breeding operation, chances are you won’t get the opportunity to start working with your horse that young, but that doesn’t mean you’re SOL. According to Tristan, horses of any age can go to their first horse show and have a successful, positive experience.
Begin With the Basics
For Tristan, working with young horses is all about giving them the tools to properly manage themselves. “I start with a series of patterns and exercises that gives them good self-awareness: awareness of their body, and the order in which they should move to be able to be stable and confident,” Tristan shares. “From the beginning, this sets up the framework and the mindset to be able to have a good management system for themselves in all [types of] situations that involve human elements within their environment. They’re learning the concepts of the world they are born into.”
According to Tristan, these groundwork exercises establish stability and confidence within the horse. “It’s a bit like yoga for horses,” he says. But, he warns, it’s important that the horse really understands what you’re asking and doesn’t simply go through the motions. Groundwork should serve as both physical and mental relaxation for your horse.
Take the Stress Out of Trailering
Of course, preparing a young horse for its first show takes a whole lot more than just groundwork. Fear of trailering can be a huge roadblock in the progression of training a young horse, so Tristan urges people to take their time when it comes to introducing the trailer.
“What’s important with the trailer loading is that they learn the meaning of a destination,” he advises. “I put them on the trailer and drive somewhere, and then I drive home. I offload them first at home so that they learn the meaning of a destination and that they learn that the physical state they’re in when they come off the trailer can be as relaxed as when they went on.” In short, says Tristan, “Try to eliminate as many ‘first times’ as possible.”
“Try to eliminate as many ‘first times’ as possible.”
Once at the show, Tristan recommends taking your time unloading your young horse. “When I arrive at the show, I make sure that they’re sticking to the same plan that they normally have when they’re stepping off the trailer at home,” he says. “They’re not getting to the competition and taking the hind legs off the trailer and then all of the sudden, the head’s in the air and they’re turning off the trailer and looking around, and the energy level is already twice as high as what you want.”
And if your horse does fly backward off the trailer like a bat out of hell? “I put them back on the trailer. Then they take one step at a time off the trailer, so that they stay in control of themselves.”
Focus on the Familiar
Though most of us are used to taking our horses off the trailer and putting them in a stall as soon as we arrive at the show facility, that’s rarely Tristan’s plan of attack.
“As soon as they get off the trailer, I don’t tie them up to the trailer or take them to the stable and put them in a box. I immediately go through the [groundwork] pattern again, as much as I need to — as much as necessary to get them into that relaxed state again,” he says. “When they arrive in a place where everything is strange, they’re doing something immediately that is familiar to them and feels really familiar to them in the body.”
Why? Not only is the horse doing something familiar, but he is also paying attention to you and focused on a task rather than his fear of a new place.
Because the schooling and show rings often hold the most potential for young horses to spook, Tristan advises taking things slow. “I don’t start trotting and getting that energy level up in my horse until I can walk on a long rein and my horse is totally relaxed and in control of himself before I start to add extra things for him to think about,” he shares. Then, rather than ride defensively or attempt to protect your youngster from a spooky fence or a weird corner, “I’m immediately looking for the things that could be challenging for my horse, and then I’m riding towards those things, not away from them. I’m not hiding things from my horse.”
When it comes to young, green horses, no one ever regretted being over-prepared. “The competition is the exam, and the better they are prepared for the exam, the more information you can give them, [and] the more chance they have at success,” Tristan says. “The self-management of the horse is the most important thing that they need to know, especially when you are going to a new place, whether it be a competition or the first time riding out.”
Photography by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.