show behavior

Is your horse the chatty type when he’s at a show? Get some insight into this behavior, and how you can redirect it.

One of the most frustrating and troublesome behaviors a horse can exhibit at a show, competition or demonstration is to “act up”. Not only can it cost you the competition, but it can also be very difficult, even dangerous, to manage. The obvious questions are: “Where does this behavior come from?” and “What can I do about it?”

Can anything be done?

Generally speaking, horses communicate in whispers. Most of the time, they communicate through subtle cues and gestures – sometimes so subtle, they are missed by their human companions entirely. It is a learned language, best taught by the horse’s herd members and elder equines. In fact, wild horses rarely make any noises because they could alert predators to their whereabouts. The odd whinny and rolling nicker can certainly be heard, but overall, the herds live harmoniously, peacefully and quietly together.

If taken out of their natural habitat, wild horses will often be seen huddled together for security. They can be easily startled and confused by the call of another horse. It takes time for them to settle into their new home and realize they are safe. In fact, it is a compliment when a wild horse or mustang whinnies in your presence for the very first time, because it shows his trust in his home and in you.

Their domestic counterparts, on the other hand, will not have lived this natural lifestyle, and come from quite another perspective. They can be very comfortable expressing themselves vocally.

However much a horse’s senses have been dulled by domestication, he forever remains a herd animal and will revert back to natural tendencies and habits during high stress situations. A horse that finds himself out of his comfort zone will often call out to his own kind, be it to seek comfort, a response to another horse’s call, or to give a simple “shout out” as a hello. It is even possible for a horse to identify a long-lost friend by his or her whinny, and greet him or her from across the arena, pasture or parking lot.

Encouraging calm and quiet

So what can you do to minimize and/or prevent these disruptive outbursts? There are several support systems you can put into place to create a positive experience both offsite and when showing.

First and foremost, consider your horse’s life experience. Preparing for any new experience takes time. Some horses take everything you present naturally in their stride, while others require some nurturing and a bit more care. If your horse is one of the latter, here are some ideas you can try to help him through those stressful moments.

Before the show:

• DON’T wait until the date of the show to take your horse out for the very first time, and then expect perfect performance. You never know what will happen. The more opportunities you give him to prepare for the show, the better chance you’ll have that he won’t be stressed when he gets there.
• DO take the time needed to prepare him fully for what is to come. Many of my clients will take young horses on adventures in preparation for the big event. It may be a journey with a seasoned horse or simply a short trip to the show grounds.
• DON’T expect your horse to naturally accept all stimuli at the showground. Remember, horses are flight animals and if they cannot get away they will begin to fight, which can be misunderstood as “acting out”.
• DO desensitize your horse to a variety of objects and scenarios well before the event. Gradually increase his tolerance level, all the while releasing pressure to praise his tries. We offer many suggestions on our ROTH Horsemanship YouTube channel to help you with this.
• DON’T practice solely in the comfort of your own farm/arena and expect it to translate to all new situations.
• DO practice in multiple locations. Horses are associative thinkers; they see in pictures and will associate the exact location with the act you performed. They need opportunities to extend this thinking to new locations and feel comfortable with the new environment.

During the show:

• DON’T arrive at the show under time constraints, thus creating pressure on yourself and your horse(s). Horses are sensitive to energy. They feel your agenda, intentions and emotions while you are handling them on the ground and in the saddle.
• DO give yourself plenty of time to settle in and prepare yourself and your horse physically, mentally and emotionally. Consider ways to remove all the pressure you can.
• DON’T simply saddle up and go into the warmup or show ring!
• DO give your horse as much time as she needs to settle in. Does she require the morning, a full day, or even overnight? Does she appreciate being shown around the facility the way you would walk around and familiarize yourself with a new location? Take the time needed to listen to your horse’s needs. Providing home comforts away from home is also a great help.
• DON’T become a dominant rider, allowing your frustration to come through. Be it towards yourself or your horse, he feels the tension and believes it is directed at him. Frustration signals a lack of patience, understanding and creativity. Who you are when a situation is challenging demonstrates who you are as a person. When life gives you lemons, its time to create lemonade.
• DO recognize your and your horse’s strengths and weaknesses, and be prepared to be the leader he wants you to be. Understand his needs and provide them with the inner strength and awareness of a true leader. Step up and recognize what your horse needs from you in the moment, acknowledge those needs and provide the right resolution. After all, it is not about your success, but the success of the team!

After the show:

• DO reflect on the joint experience. Ask yourself:
– What could we have done differently or improved on?
– What were our strengths, best moments and successes?
– How can we make it even better next time?
• DO praise your horse, no matter what! Understand that, just as you have, he has made his best effort.
• DO celebrate!

Everything our horses do, they do for a reason, even if we may not understand or recognize those reasons. Our job is to do our best to uncover those reasons and support our horses through any issues they might have, especially during events, competitions and rides. A key element of good horsemanship is having a plan, but not falling in love with it, and being willing to be flexible when the occasion calls for it. Perfect planning and training certainly prepares horse and rider for a positive experience, but flexibility and open-mindedness continue to play an important role. Give yourself and your horse the space to have fun and succeed! After all, this is the very reason you entered the world of horses to begin with.