Horse shows are an essential aspect of the equine industry. According to the 2017 Economic Impact of the US Horse Industry Report, produced by the American Horse Council, over 1.2 million horses are used in competitive events annually and the four largest organizations sanction nearly 6,000 competitive opportunities, supporting 241,000 jobs and adding $11.8 billion in direct value to the national economy. What this report doesn’t capture, though, is the percentage of equestrians that might want to compete, or compete more often, but are limited by any number of factors. What if I told you that, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, most if not ALL of those limitations can be overcome?
Skeptical? I wouldn’t have believed me either, until the pandemic forced me to rethink content for a university course I teach, “Principles of Horse Trials Management”. Normally, students in this course play an integral role in the production and administration of our US Eventing Association sanctioned horse trials, held right on campus. But this fall, campus and local restrictions precluded us from being able to welcome outside guests to our facility and the trials were cancelled. I needed a meaningful, hands on, real world activity that would challenge students to learn, grow and experience some of the skills, tasks and problem-solving required in traditional competition management— all while maintaining social distancing and density rules.
Enter (figuratively and literally) the virtual horse show.
Prior to this year, I had heard of virtual shows but never thought much about them. But thanks to COVID, opportunities to compete in virtual horse shows have increased, with many organizations—ours included– making their first forays into the genre.
At first, I didn’t know quite where to start, so I decided to conduct some research. By which I mean, I entered a virtual show.
Dressage Show Online offers both virtual show management for groups/individuals as well as hosts shows of their own. There is no membership fee required to join; just create a profile, add your mount’s info, and then you can start competing. Tests cost just $30 (in total; no add on fees are required, and this includes the shipping for prizes). Once entered, riders film their test—in one take, from start to finish—and then upload it to the site before the deadline. Within a few days, the judge scores and provides comments on the test electronically and uploads a pdf of the score sheet. The judges range from USDF “L” graduates to USEF “S” judges—so this is legitimate scoring and feedback, just like you would expect at a traditional in person show.
The UNH Virtual Dressage Show that my students organized was inspired by this experience, but we put our own ‘Wildcat twist’ on the process. Entries were divided into an open division and a lesson horse division (where “serviceably sound” would be overlooked in the judging and protective boots allowed), and offered a “best turned out” award. And since we lacked a fancy website for competitors to upload to, we asked them to send videos via YouTube links that we compiled into a playlist for our judge.
I had no idea what kind of interest, if any, equestrians would have in entering the UNH Virtual Dressage Show. After purchasing ribbons and hiring USEF “r” judge Leslie deGrandmaison, I calculated that if we came up with 42 entries, we would at least break even.
Nearly 100 entries later, I learned that not only would people enter, they would do so with enthusiasm. What impressed me most, though, was the wide range of reasons that riders gave for doing so.
Some riders were UNH grads, wanting to compete at their alma mater one more time; others were regular competitors who had chosen not to travel to shows this season. Some belonged to barn or scholastic equestrian teams and had made a day of filming everyone’s videos, offering each other encouragement and support, a fun facsimile of a day at a regular horse show. But I was especially surprised by how many entrants were riders that in general lacked other opportunities to compete: they had no trailer, or their horse didn’t trailer well. Their horse was a lease, not allowed to leave the property. Their horse was older, and going to regular shows was too stressful. Yet they all wanted feedback and the opportunity to dress themselves and their horses up a little bit and show off their skills.
From an organizational perspective, a virtual show is more work behind the scenes than you might think. Once those videos started rolling in…well, there was a lot of detail-oriented work in making sure that each one played for us, was saved correctly and then added in the right order to the playlist. Like any show, you have your usual last minute hiccups; horses with abscesses needing to be substituted by a stablemate, entrants that ran out of time to video and needed to scratch, people who were overambitious in signing up for a higher level that wanted to change their entry. We also used paper tests that had to be copied, labelled, put in order, and mailed to our judge, so these late changes were harder to accommodate. But now that I have done it all once, I know better how to do it again. As with managing any horse show, the more you do it, the savvier you become.
From a competitor’s perspective—I was pleasantly impressed by my virtual show experience, and I am planning to enter again next season. The best part (well, besides the $30 entry fee) is that the feedback I received related to my young horse’s performance in her usual ring, under typical conditions. Truthfully, this is in many ways more helpful right now than comments I might get at an offsite show, where she will likely be more tense, anxious, or distracted than usual (she is just 5 years old, after all). Through the virtual show, I received a mini lesson from one of the best in the business; it helped to confirm that my training was on track and challenged me to put all the pieces together sequentially, under a little bit of pressure (aka, my videographer was not going to tolerate me asking for multiple re-takes). Entering a few shows next season will allow me to track progress in the training and provide me with areas to focus on next. Some virtual show platforms (such as Dressage Show Online) even offer championships and year end and performance awards.
But from an industry perspective, these unique competitions are serving the needs of an audience that traditional shows can’t reach, as well as providing an outlet for traditional competitors looking for additional feedback. At a time when the costs of traditional (especially sanctioned) competition are ever increasing, virtual shows eliminate much of the expense while maintaining the fun and achievement of competition. Riding at shows puts us—and our skills—under pressure, and can serve as a litmus test of how secure we are in our work. Whether we are riding for a judge in the booth or one behind the screen, we all want to put our best hoof forward.
Post-pandemic, I hope to see the virtual horse show community continue to thrive, because I believe that moving forward, we need to increase inclusive opportunities for our sport. Virtual shows fill an important niche within our community by offering affordable, accessible competitive opportunities for equestrians at all levels.
So keeping up my record as “world’s slowest blogger”, I wanted to give everyone an update on Izzy’s first official off-farm outing, which happened way back in May. Better late than never, I suppose!
DRF Isabela, better known as Izzy to her friends, just turned three at the end of May. Last year, she learned the basics of longeing, went on short trail walks ponied off her friend Marquesa, and practiced wearing a bridle and surcingle. She had the winter off, and for this year, my goals were to build on this foundation by solidifying her longeing skills, introducing a saddle, working on long lining, and maybe, if all went well, getting on and doing a few short walk abouts by the time school started in the fall.
So this spring, when I started the process of getting her back into a routine of being regularly handled, I was quite surprised to find that she had gone rather feral. Leading her had become like trying to walk a dragon. She wasn’t being mean or naughty per se, just overly joyful. It was as though she had learned to leap and buck over the winter and wanted to show off her new skills.
The problems for me were several. 1) Most of the time, I work with Izzy alone, and I didn’t want to get hurt. 2) My arena is only partially fenced, and I wasn’t confident I could hold onto her. 3) Winter hung on a LONG time this year, and the ice and snow didn’t officially clear out of my partially fenced ring until the very end of April, meaning that even if #1 and 2 weren’t issues, I didn’t have great footing to work with.
All of which left me SERIOUSLY QUESTIONING my mid-March decision to sign up for an in-hand clinic to be held at the very beginning of May with eventer and natural horsemanship trainer Tik Maynard. I much enjoyed Tik’s presentation at the Area I Annual Meeting in January, and when I saw that Fox Hill Equestrians in Barnstead, N.H., would be hosting him, I was immediately interested. Tik is based in Florida, and so opportunities to work with him for a northerly based equestrian are not likely to happen often, and Fox Hill is an easy twenty minutes up the road (as in, I turn right out of my driveway and then right onto the street with the farm, more or less). It seemed like the perfect first ‘off the farm’ outing for my youngster.
Tik was offering a lecture on horsemanship theory each morning, followed by private and small group in hand sessions and jumping lessons in the afternoon. I decided the sensible plan was to audit day one through at least the morning session, then bring Izzy for day two.
Despite her joie de vivre, I went ahead with my plan to bring her to the clinic, and I am so grateful that I stuck with it, as we both learned a great deal.
Lecture Summary: Day One
The horsemanship lecture focused on the theme of how horses learn best and gave an overview of Tik’s training philosophy. One of the main components is that humans must learn to think like a horse; when one can do that, it is easier to set up questions which horses are willing to answer.
Horses have evolved to quickly evaluate which stimuli are worthy of response, and which can safely be ignored. Only those animals which have correctly and efficiently solved this riddle survive, and we must respect that our domestic animals retain these wild traits.
To this end, horses pick up on visual cues and details that we miss, and they may react to them in unanticipated ways. We all have been guilty of responding to these behaviors defensively or angrily, but the truth is that getting emotional in this situation doesn’t do much to improve the relationship or communication between you and the horse.
The things which motivate horses to do a certain behavior, including ignoring an unpleasant or unfamiliar stimulus, are not the same things which motivate humans. Horses seek safety, food, comfort and play, in that order. Smart trainers use these motivators in their work.
Because horses seek comfort, creating situations which increase a horse’s comfort when they provide the desired behavior automatically reinforce that outcome. A common example of this in practice is the use of the rider’s leg; the pressure is slightly uncomfortable, but when the horse goes forward and the pressure goes away, the horse’s comfort level increases. Praise itself doesn’t mean much to a horse, but the release of pressure does.
Horses are scared or nervous of things which act predatory; this includes anything which comes running towards them and things which are going fast, being loud, or behaving erratically. They prefer to be approached slowly, which might not be the way we enter the paddock when our minds are preoccupied with catching a horse for a lesson—explaining why a normally cooperative horse might refuse to be caught.
Tik encouraged us to think in a positive frame of mind when asking the horse to do something. For example, think “Let’s do this” instead of “Stop doing that”.
One of our goals is to encourage our horses to play. To this end, ground work is like creating a series of puzzles for the horses to solve through trial and error. Just as with humans, horses respond to these types of mental challenge differently. “There are those which already know the answers, those which try to solve the puzzle, and those which wait to be told the answer,” said Tik. “Problem solving gets inspired when they are young.”
Solvable puzzles introduce to the horse a little bit of pressure; some pressure is needed for growth and learning, but finding the right amount is key. Too little and no learning occurs, too much and the horse may become so anxious they can’t learn at all. Because horses seek comfort, they are going to look for the release of pressure, whether that pressure is physical or mental. “Pressure motivates but the release of pressure teaches,” said Tik.
Day One Ground Work Sessions
With these thoughts in mind, we moved into the hands on portion of the morning. My friend Hilary brought her bay Thoroughbred, Tom, and Tik took the line from her. “When I first work with a horse, I want to know how interested in me he is,” said Tik. “Does he like me?”
Tik approached Tom at a slight angle, reaching a hand out and waiting for the horse to touch him first. Then he began to rub Tom’s head, neck and rump, which the horse seemed to enjoy. “Some right from the get go want to play and run, and some want to snuggle,” said Tik. “You need to play to their strengths but address their weaknesses.”
Tom wanted to be a little too much in the handler’s space, so Tik spent a few moments working on teaching Tom to back up from a soft pressure. He showed us how to use the rope as a cue in three levels of intensity: first, you flick it with your wrist; if there is no response, you then flick it with your elbow, and finally with your shoulder. Every cue with the rope starts with body language. “You may need to go through all three levels, but stop when you get the result you want,” said Tik. “When the horse is learning, go through the levels slowly and in sequence. Only once the horse knows how to do something is it OK to skip a level or two in your signals, otherwise you will desensitize the horse. Try to get BIG without getting MAD.”
When Tom gave the right response, Tik angled his body slightly away, shifted his weight onto one leg, and exhaled. They took a break. The pressure was released.
“There are three parts to this that the handler must understand,” said Tik. “There is your body language and intention. There is the handling of pressure changes. And then there is the timing of the release.”
For ground work, Tik prefers a rope halter, a heavy, dense, long rope, and a sturdy stick similar to Parelli’s Carrot Stick. Depending on the situation, Tik might choose a rope that is 12’, 22’ or even 45’ long.
Tik emphasized that consistency is key. Handlers should always start at level one in terms of pressure, and add to that baseline as needed. The only exception is in the case of dangerous behavior. “When the horse is checking out mentally, you need to get their attention back on you through the use of an exercise which you have established in a quiet time,” said Tik. “There are three goals I have for any training session: the human is safe at the end, the horse is safe at the end, and the horse is more relaxed at the end than at the beginning.”
The next set was a group lesson with five horses working in hand at once. The animals were at different stages of training as well as mental focus, which gave Tik the opportunity to speak to a variety of exercises and possible outcomes. But he started with having the horses get comfortable with their handlers standing about six feet away from them, with slack in the lead rope. “On the ground, you sometimes want the horse’s eyes and ears towards the handler but sometimes you want to direct them and their attention elsewhere,” said Tik.
One young handler and her sweet steady eddie type schoolmaster worked on learning to give from pressure on the nose. “For a lesson horse or a kid’s horse, you need to think about how sensitive you really want that animal to be,” said Tik.
Several horses in this group played with a tarp that had been laid out in the arena. “There are a few different ways you can ask the horse to cross the tarp,” said Tik. “It is like asking a riddle. You can lead them over, send them over, draw them over or back them over, if you have it secured down.”
Turk, an elegant bay Thoroughbred gelding, tended to speed up once in motion on the circle and needed to slow down and refocus on his handler; Tik helped her to cross his front feet and back feet over each other. “At first, it is about moving the whole horse forward, backwards, and then on a circle,” said Tik. “After this is established then we start to move the front half relative to the back.”
Horses can be responsible for four things: to maintain their speed and gait, to maintain their direction, to be looking where they are going, and to act like a partner. As trainers, we should not be doing these jobs for the horse. “But horses must be taught how to do these things,” said Tik.
Other than going for short trailer rides around the block last summer, Izzy has not left our farm since her arrival on a bitterly cold morning in March of 2017. I am not sure who was more nervous for the outing—Izzy or me! Two of my students, Julia and Nikki, tagged along for moral support, education and extra hands if needed.
I don’t think anyone else brought an animal as young as Izzy; I held her in the barn aisle while Tik wrapped up his morning lecture on day two, and although she danced and jigged a bit while waiting her turn, I felt she was really trying to be good. That said, I had no idea what to expect from her when we got into the ring. I think Tik fairly quickly assessed that her brain and energy needed to be redirected, and so he came back a little early from his post-lecture break to get started.
“Do you mind if I work with her for a few minutes?” he asked. I was so relieved! Yes, please!
The first thing he did was swapped out my long line for the sturdier rope line he had been using on other horses. He then let Izzy move out onto the end of the rope, where she leaped and ran and displayed the athleticism which I hope will be used for good things in the future. He wasn’t expecting her to be totally focused on him all the time; in fact, that day he said that he would be happy if she was with him 30% of the time.
“I am looking for the moment where she wants to stay still and relax,” said Tik. “I am not punishing her at all for her loss of attention or focus. Instead, I give her something else to do.”
It was truly amazing to watch Tik work with Izzy, who he had just met, in such a respectful yet constructive manner. She had moments of simply moving around him at the end of the line, and other moments of youthful behavior. He could halt her and turn her. They went and checked out the mirror together. As she started to visibly relax and become more mentally calm, Tik led her to the tarp and a wooden bridge which had been used in previous sessions. She inquisitively just walked right up to and over both objects. I was not surprised that she handled them so well, as this has been her typical response to something new, but it was lovely to see that she had the same attitude in a new place once the zoomies were behind her.
Tik wrapped up his work with Izzy by playing with some halt, walk, halt, back up transitions, teaching her to cue into his body language. He tipped his shoulders forward to encourage her to walk, squared them over his hips for the halt, and inclined them slightly backwards to cue her to back up.
After this, I took over for a few moments, practicing the same in hand transitions, and finally ending with her just hanging out all the way at the end of the long lead, while I turned my back to her and stood weighted more on one leg. I’m told she did lots of yawning, but of course I wasn’t allowed to peek!
“The more emotional something is for the horse to learn, the longer the break they get,” said Tik.
While he described his work with Izzy as being a “typical three-year-old session”, he also acknowledged that she was a pretty self-confident animal, as was evidenced by her overall response to the new situation and stimuli. “Horses like this which are clever and smart and brave are great but also a challenge,” said Tik. “You must find ways to help them learn and stay interested.”
Coming to this clinic, as mentally stressful as it was for me to do it, was absolutely the right choice to make at this stage of her training. Izzy was like a changed woman after interacting with Tik, and both his feedback and watching how he used his body language to interact with her helped to give me the confidence to do what I had sort of suspected she needed me to do—get a longer line and really send her forward when she wanted to act up. So long as your response to her is fair—I am sending you away to work a little bit not because I’m mad but because we have a job to do—she responds positively, and rather quickly settles down.
I have continued to play with some of these techniques this summer, but I will admit that I have much more to learn. It was a fascinating opportunity to do something totally different with one of the horses, and I am pleased that it was such a positive experience!
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian