stress-free training

Your horse performs perfectly at home, but goes to pieces at his first show. What’s wrong? Prepare him for a stress-free show.

You’ve worked hard to prepare your horse for his first show. But when you arrive at the ring, he’s so stressed that he refuses to perform any of the maneuvers you think he should know well. What should you do? The key is to develop a stress-free training plan that will help you and your horse avoid overload and embarrassment, and help you work toward showing when you’re both ready.

Planning for “Perfect”

Countless riders practice at home until they feel their horse is perfect, only to arrive at their first-ever show to find the horse has seemingly become “untrained”. Simple skills he performed flawlessly at home are suddenly impossible if he isn’t mentally prepared for the changes in location and the sights, sounds and pace of a show. If you don’t plan for your horse’s first performance, you could set him up for an emotionally overwhelming and stressful show experience that will haunt you – and him – for some time to come.

Location, Location

To your horse, training is very place (or location) specific. A horse learns to perform a certain skill in a certain place and quickly commits that place to memory. If you first teach your horse to pick up a left lead canter three-quarters of the way down your arena as you’re facing your barn, he memorizes the spot and the action he did at that point. When you cue him for the same thing in a different place, he may not know what to do at first. It’s hard for him to think when he’s overwhelmed with new stimuli.

As a trainer, I use repetition to my advantage when teaching a new skill. I repeatedly ask for the canter (or other maneuvers) in the same place in the arena until I know my horse understands the cue in that location. Once he knows how to respond in that place, I begin to give him the same cue in a new area of the arena. Keep in mind that your horse hasn’t fully learned a skill until he can do it in many places – different locales within your arena, then around the farm, and finally in an entirely different environment such as your local show grounds.

To overcome your horse’s location-specific training, make sure to ride in as many different locations as possible. Keep reading him to find out how and when to introduce him to new locations and unknown horses. He will need experience responding to you in many new environments as well as at home.

As your horse progresses in his training, he’ll be able to perform stress-free in different locations, including at a show. But don’t push your luck or speed up your training process. Build show visits and location scouting into your training program. For your horse to be stress-free in any environment, it will take time and experience – and an understanding of how he learns.

The Stages of Learning

Horses, like all mammals, must go through a learning process before fully understanding any new training and becoming accustomed to any new place. The learning process is a four-part sequence that includes:

• taking in new information
• practicing the newfound skill
• understanding the skill can happen anywhere • continually practicing the skill so the learning remains fresh and refined.

As you plan for your horse’s training at home and at a show, it’s important to understand this normal progression and what your horse needs to work on so he won’t be stressed by skipping a step. Here are the scientific stages of learning:

1. Acquisition – The horse learns to associate a cue with the behavior you’re teaching him. In other words, he “acquires” a new skill and can usually perform it when you ask, but not always. He’ll need lots of repetition before the skill is fully learned.
2. Fluency – The horse almost always responds correctly to the cue, and now refinement can occur. For instance, you might begin asking for a canter from the walk instead of from the trot.
3. Generalization – Generalization occurs when the horse takes a skill he has learned in one environment and understands he can confidently perform that same skill in any environment (such as at a show). It takes a significant investment in time to “season” your horse to performing in different environments.
4. Maintenance – The “finished” horse will perform reliably in a variety of settings – at home, at a show, or anywhere else you take him. A horse at this level no longer needs training; he simply needs maintenance of the training he already has.

Horses may advance quickly through the first two stages of learning, but it takes a long time for them to become generalized in their training. It’s a stage that’s often overlooked. It can be very time-consuming because you’ll have to virtually go back to step one and ask the horse to perform the simplest of skills in different settings. Horses that are generalized in their training are referred to as “seasoned” horses – what we often refer to as, “been there, done that.”

“Seasoning” Your Horse

Once you know the learning stages and your horse’s need for location training, it’s time to develop a longterm training plan, building in many visits to new locations and shows before you pay your entry fees.

Giving your horse some “seasoning” and preparing him for his first show will take some time and travel. Long before you actually compete at a show, it’s a great idea to take your horse to some new locations to ride. Trailer him to a friend’s arena. Riding in new environments and around new horses will help him with the generalization process – he’ll know to respond to your cues in new areas no matter what other stimuli surround him.

Take your horse to some horsemanship clinics. These are great for giving him exposure to new venues and horses without the added stress of a competition. Not only will your horse need to learn to perform in unknown places, he’ll also need to be able to work through the distraction of being around strange horses. While you’ll want to reassure him when he’s nervous, always require him to respond to your commands and don’t let him socialize with other horses.

At the show Long before you enter your first competition, plan to haul your horse to a few small shows, but don’t enter him in any classes. Instead, just allow him to get comfortable with his surroundings. Simply hang out and let him take in all the new stimuli – horses, PA system, trailers, dogs, people. Let him stand tied at the trailer and/or spend the night in a strange stall, if this is something he’ll have to do once you start showing.

You might ask the local show manager if you can ride in the warm-up pen before a show. You’ll be calm and stress-free because you aren’t gearing up for a show, and your horse will have the opportunity to experience the sights and sounds of other horses and riders. Riding in different locations will let him “take in” the new environment before you ask too much of him, and before your show day stress adds to his own insecurities. Be careful, though – I think one of the scariest places at any show is the warm-up arena. Be very cautious with your horse’s first few experiences here. Strange horses in a strange arena, going different directions at different speeds can definitely overwhelm an inexperienced horse. Use a great deal of caution when introducing your horse to the warm-up pen; consider schooling at off times or align him with a stress-free, seasoned horse to guide him through the chaos.

Eventually, you’ll be able to enter your horse in some classes, but don’t expect much at first. It’s better to underestimate his readiness than push it and have a bad experience. It takes a long time and many shows to truly season a horse, and it’s really important that his early experiences are positive. By investing some time in seasoning your horse and letting him get accustomed to the demands of competing, you’ll ensure a long and successful show career.

Julie Goodnight lives in Colorado and often competes in Versatility Ranch Horse competitions. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. For more information, or for training DVDs and publications, visit or