Another week, another opportunity to take the horses on an outing. I am not entirely sure what possessed me and my friend Alice to decide to compete in ridden pleasure classes at the Whanganui A&P Fundraiser Show, except that it was fairly local, cheap to enter and there were classes for Best Walk and Best Trot, which I figured even Flea could cope with…
So we loaded the horses onto the float (something Flea is getting progressively better at) and headed 1 hour’s drive north to Whanganui Racecourse. (Not every show in NZ is held at a racecourse, I swear – just all the ones we go to, apparently.)
The horses both travelled well and tucked into their hay nets when we arrived. We paid our entries and gave them a bit of a brush, flicked on some hoof oil, had some lunch, and discovered that Ace loves falafel (as in, will stick his nose in your tupperware and try to push you aside to get to it, LOVES it). We tacked up, brushed ourselves off and headed over to the ring. Flea had been very good when we arrived, but once I was on board and we were riding across the field, he became a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of other horses (100 or so) milling around in the large area. Some were walking, some trotting, some cantering, some standing still, some being led, but they were all horses he didn’t know (except for Ace) and his brain started to short-circuit from the overstimulation. Ace became his security blanket and Flea was quite unable to function without Ace within his line of sight at all times. I walked and trotted Flea around, attempting to get him to at the very least pay a marginal amount of attention to me, but aside from walking and trotting as requested, he was far more interested in LOOKING at everything and trying to see where Ace was and threatening to have a small hissy fit if Ace disappeared from view. So that was…fun.
There were 12 (?) or so riders in our division, Recreational Pleasure 16 years & over, with a broad range of horses on show.
The first class was Best Presented, and given that Alice and I had read “Plaiting and Jackets optional” on the programme and had thereby opted not to plait our horses’ manes or wear show jackets, we were not placed in this.
We then moved on to Best Walk. I positioned Flea behind Ace, and he walked extremely briskly to keep up. Ace was doing his best Morgan Horse walk, energetic and forward and exuding charisma and presence, as always. Flea was still wound up and yawing at the bit from time to time. We changed direction, during which Flea took the opportunity to itch his head on his foreleg and almost fall on his face. Once we were going the other way, Ace was behind us and Flea’s speed halved from brisk to hesitant shuffle with eyes rolling back to try and find Ace. This, it turned out, wasn’t precisely what the judge was looking for. Ace, on the other hand, was exactly that, and was called in first. Alice was delighted to have achieved her goal of getting a ribbon, so her day was thus declared a success at this point and she didn’t much care what happened next.
The next class was Best Trot, and Flea again participated with some unnecessary extravagance and flair. Now that the other horses were moving around him at speed, and some of them started to pass him, he got more and more wound up to the point where I had very little control over his speed and direction. He was determined to follow Ace, and when he got passed by a third horse on the outside of the circle, he threw a small temper tantrum and burst into canter. Not ideal in a Best Trot class! I got him back to a trot and kept him moving but unsurprisingly he was, once again, not what the judge was looking for. Nor was Ace that time around, and we both stepped aside while the ribbons were presented.
Next was Best Mannered, which at this point clearly wasn’t going to be Flea’s strong suit. Also, we would now be expected to canter all together, and I just wasn’t sure whether he would cope. He was very tense as it was, so although we started the class, once everyone began trotting and he again got very wound up and anxious, I decided to remove us from the ring and see if I couldn’t get him to calm down so he could actually process what was going on. He thought that Ace trotting past him as he stood by the side of the ring was a bit alarming, and when everyone started cantering he became even more worried, so I decided to dismount and see if I could get him to stand still and relax. It took a while – two more classes, in fact, in which Ace was a good boy but didn’t earn himself any further ribbons – before Flea finally decided that he didn’t NEED to move his feet, or push me with his head, or whinny to his friend, and that he could in fact stand quietly, lower his head, half-close his eyes, and sigh.
Once he could stand like that for a couple of minutes, I remounted and sat on him, aiming to get the same relaxation from him with me in the saddle. I don’t usually like sitting on horses at shows and using them as a grandstand, but felt it was important that Flea learned that he could still relax even with me on him. He did tense up quite a bit once I was on board, shifting around a little and calling out to Ace again, but he eventually found a more relaxed headspace and managed to stand still and wait.
Ace, meanwhile, had decided that it had been too long between winning ribbons, and picked up another win in the Best Learner’s Mount (Novice 0-3 wins) class. He was also getting a bit over it by this point, but Alice coaxed one more class out of him to place 3rd in Best Rider. He was then called forward for consideration for Champion and Reserve, and was just pipped at the post for Reserve by another horse that had been a little more consistent across all classes. But he seemed quite pleased with himself and Alice was thrilled with him.
We then rode the horses back down to the other end of the field and Alice dismounted to let Ace have a well-earned graze on some clover while I spent about 10 minutes schooling Flea. Once he’d stopped spooking at the practice steeplechase fences (and the tape reel, and that oddly shaped patch of lawn clippings), he produced some pretty nice work. His left rein canter transition was a little dodgy, but we got it after a couple of attempts. Back onto the right rein, and he cantered nicely, then back to the left and asked again. He was getting tired, more mentally than physically I think, and really struggled to pick up the lead. I let him go back to trot and decided to get some relaxation in trot before asking again, and he actually trotted so nicely, taking the rein forward and down and staying soft on the contact while being relaxed and rideable, that I decided to finish on that good note.
Although the day wasn’t a success as far as ribbons won (for Flea, anyway), it was still a good learning experience for him. By not pushing him to perform when he was already so tense and distracted, he had the time and space to calm down and actually process what was going on. I’ve been told by a lot of people that Spanish-bred horses are slow to mature, and he is just SO busy in his little brain that it’s hard for him to process a lot of new things at once. He’s also pretty herd-bound to Ace, which is not ideal, but they’ve been partners in crime for six months now without any other friends so it’s not exactly surprising.
Before we left for the show, Alice and I both filled in a page of a new project that I’m working on, a ‘Horse Show Diary’ where you fill in your goals and focus for the show before you go, then add in your successes and ‘homework’ afterwards. My goals were for it to be a positive experience for Flea, and for me to get him relaxed and attentive, and we achieved those goals, even though we didn’t participate in much of the actual showing part of the day. (Alice’s goals were not to fall off, to win a ribbon and to have fun, all of which she also achieved. Good job team!)
I have always found that it’s really helpful to write down your goals, especially with young or green horses, because success isn’t always measured in ribbons and prize money. Since I had decided beforehand what I wanted to focus on and what I wanted to achieve, I was able to think logically when Flea’s level of tension and adrenalin early on at the competition started causing problems. Although I was tempted to just grit my teeth and keep going, I was aware that the goal I’d set was to help him find relaxation when he was out in a group. So I had to think about how I COULD achieve that goal, and work towards that. So often when we come home from shows without ribbons, we think that means we haven’t gained anything from the experience. But hopefully the show today will have taught Flea that he doesn’t have to freak out when he’s overstimulated, that he can be out in a situation with lots of horses all doing different things and still be able to focus and stay calm. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s a small building block towards having a more relaxed, rideable horse.
Pictured: Alice and the incomparable Moon’s Ace with their ribbons at the end of the day.