The first horse show.
It can be a scary experience, horse showing. Even with a seasoned old-timer, there is always an underlying tension. Something could happen to throw off the balance, and all hell could break loose. Another horse throwing a fit could set off your horse. A thunderstorm could blow through and knock over all the jump standards while you’re in the ring for your round. (Why yes, this has happened to me.)
First-timers with OTTBs are often nervous, and with good reason. There’s an expectation that an OTTB will take one look at all those horse trailers, see the strange horses and people milling around, hear the loudspeakers, and make an educated guess: “Ah, a race!” and respond accordingly with lots of excited bouncing, piaffe-ing, possibly a little capriole-ing for good measure if they are feeling particularly athletic and competitive. You can’t blame them for it; in fact, if you’re particularly confident in your seat, you might be inclined to just laugh down at them. It is kind of cute, if it isn’t dangerous, all that rubber-ball-bouncing they like to do.
Of course, they won’t all react like this. Some will fall off the trailer, pass out asleep hanging from their lead-rope while tied to the trailer, and rack up 45 time penalties while cantering around the cross-country course. But we should all be so lucky. Mine have always gone for the starting-gate routine, and that’s what I’ve learned to expect.
I got a message last month from a rider who was looking for some advice after a particularly difficult first-show experience. It wasn’t just the show: it was everything, door to door.
Julie wrote that she’s had her first OTTB for a year. “He’s an awesome trail horse, learning dressage beautifully, and I love him.” Julie’s been around horses her whole life, but Calvin was her first jump from trail riding and stock horses to dressage training and Thoroughbreds. “I felt confident due to having started a lot of babies from scratch,” she mentions. Nothing like babies to give you a solid seat!
She found an OTTB with a nice little record: 25 starts, 6 wins, 4 places, and 5 shows, with earnings of $88,885, and a passport stamped by Presque Isle Downs, Colonial Downs, Laurel Park, Gulfstream, Churchill Downs, and Arlington.
“Calvin was on a lay-up farm after bowing in the fall of his 6-year-old year. My trainer recently told me that normally two greenies don’t make a good match, but that Calvin and I make it work and that he’s taught me so much. Since he has no clue what I’m asking, if I don’t learn to ask correctly, we’re not going to get it right! At times I’ve felt intimidated, in over my head, and my patience tested. But when I get it right he rewards me with relaxation, beauty, and a glow on my face that lasts for days!
“He was almost immediately a fabulous trail partner. He has little spook, and is brave. Our first trail ride he plowed through water, crossed a wooden bridge without hesitation, and walk-trot-canters controllably!”
Finally, Julie decided to take Calvin to an open show to introduce him to the atmosphere.
“Unfortunately, the trailer ride was a solo ride, we were in stand still traffic due to a very smokey fire, passing motorcyle rally, etc. He came off the trailer upset! Then the venue had a car show going on and was actually very loud (they had blasting speakers over the horse stall area!) Needless to say he was beside himself.
“I hand-walked him with a chain over his nose for 45 minutes until he calmed a bit. Then put him in a stall to go register for an in-hand class. While I was gone the drill team performed to Bon Jovi. The stall area was loud like a live concert! He lost it and began pawing, kicking the walls, and trying to CLIMB out.”
(I would have done the same thing if I’d had to listen to a drill team performing to Bon Jovi. Editor out.)
“I came back, talked and stroked him until it was over. I didn’t take him out in fear of losing control of him in a large crowd with children. When it was over I began hand-walking him again but he never regained his (relative) calmness. We did the in-hand trail class and he rocked it! Then left after being there about 2.5 hours.”
Phew! What bad luck for Calvin! I suggested a nice quiet outing with lots of walking around for his next off-farm experience, if not his next two or three off-farm experiences.
Julie wrote back that she’d found a quiet venue holding a dressage show, and she was going to take Calvin there to walk around the warm-up ring. “Short, sweet, but with expectation to behave and then rewarded by coming home quickly.”
Sounds like a plan. A few days later, I got this update:
“The dressage schooling show was a much better experience! I gave him SmartCalm paste to take the edge off. We trailered without incident and arrived to a beautiful and calm environment. We lunged in the indoor by ourselves to get acquainted to the venue and then headed out to the warm-up ring.
“He began jigging and whinnying. So I started by just walking him in hand around, and around, and around until he calmed. We did many, many halts and often times backing because he was walking on me or refusing to halt. Almost an hour of that and he calmed enough to get on his back. Then my trainer hand walked him with me on…yes very embarrassing to be a 34-year-old woman being lead-lined at a dressage show! What we do to train our beloved OTTB’s!
“We finally were able to school once he stopped jigging and trying to walk on her, I got him on the aids and beauty!! People were stopping to watch, comment, and even ask if he was for sale!! I proudly talked up my boy and his former life. People on their warmbloods were awestruck by his beauty. Can’t wait until he can show them his real moves in a few more outings.”
What a great experience to counter the first one! It was great to hear how Julie worked slowly with Calvin and helped him chill out enough to do a little work in the arena. Thanks so much Julie, and best of luck to you and In Classic Fashion! I hope we hear from you again in the future.