The Riding School: A column about the people who teach us how to ride

This week, “The Instructor” offers some tips on making your schooling show a fun, positive, educational experience.

From “The Instructor:”

The fix is in.

The game has been rigged.

Strings have been pulled, plots thickened, the con is on….

Yes, just as the COTH Hunter/Jumper board has always suspected, the horse show results have been pre-determined.  Are we talking the Equitation Finals?  The Small Juniors?  The (gasp) small ponies???

It’s worse.  Much, much worse. The Riding School Spring Schooling Show.  And I’m guilty.  I admit it.  I have fixed a horse show.

Now, before anyone gets their britches in a twist, let me explain what I do and why.

A couple of times a year, The Riding School sponsors a little schooling show.  It’s a chance for the kids to get a taste of what competition feels like without breaking the bank; there are a million variations on the walk/trot and walk/trot/canter division – maiden, novice, limit, open – in part so the kids can be grouped by ability, in part because there’s only so many school horses (and Dragonbreath gets very upset when people watch her! Look away!), and in part because we want everyone to take home a ribbon.  We hire a judge for the day, sometimes a boarder, often one of my riding buddies.  And before the day starts, the judge and the instructors have a, ummm, a little sit down.

No, we don’t do anything as ridiculous as handing over our picks for each class (as I did when I was a teenage horse camp counselor – everyone got a blue ribbon!).  We just make sure we inform the judge of all the schoolies’ quirks and habits: Romeo’s rider can’t be penalized because Romeo ONLY canters on the left lead – tracking right, tracking left, ya gotta give him credit, he’s consistent – and the kid who had the bad luck to get assigned Skippy merits a medal if she gets him to go around without him diving into the corner while everyone else is trotting without a care in the world.  Then we talk a little about the riders in each class: what they’ve been working on, what we hope to see.  And we end with our final mandate: no one comes in last in every class in a division.  No matter what, we just don’t do that.

Because, in the end, what’s the point of this show?  It’s for the kids to have fun, get some feedback on how they’re doing, experience the rewarding hard work of preparing for the show, and, of course, take home a pretty ribbon.  We want everyone to come away feeling like they’ve learned something, not been discounted or demoralized.  We want to foster a sense of accomplishment, not anguish.  No, I don’t think everyone should get a trophy just for participating, but a schooling show is just that: part of school.  And I think most people will agree that feeling like a failure doesn’t make anyone want to work harder at anything!

Here are a couple of tips on making your in-barn schooling show a success:

  • Be sure to ask the judge to give the participants a little feedback at the end of each class.  Sometimes hearing it from The Judge will make a concept really stick.  I still remember to check for twists in my reins after a comment from a judge, oh, 33 years ago.
  • As the instructor/coach, focus on the positives of each student’s rides first and keep the “things-to-improve” feedback limited to one item per class.
  • Try to incorporate some classes that involve teamwork – the “appointments class”(more commonly  known as grooming and tacking up the school horses) can be a team event –as well as some demonstrations that are non-competitive, such as vaulting or a drill team routine.
  • Don’t skimp on the ribbons; they don’t cost much.  And don’t put a date on them, because you always have leftovers.  If you can, don’t even put placings on them; all those leftover fifths and sixths – I mean, pinks and greens – make for great summer camp souvenirs and art projects.
  • Have several sportsmanship awards. These are what I call (after something my non-horsey mom said to me at a horse show once) the “But You Got Back On So Well” Perpetual Trophy.  Recognize kids for helping each other out, for being persistent, for being brave, for overcoming challenges.
  • Use your barn’s social media platform to celebrate the experience of the day, not just the winners.  Draft a couple of the older kids to capture images and videos – reminding them to look for all kinds of little moments during the day – and post them on your website or Facebook page.

How do you make your barn shows special?

Illustrations by Wylie, age 10.

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