The Academic Equestrian: Ring Presence

The difference between good and great.

Haley looking fierce and riding like a winner. Photo by Ellie Woznica of Counting HoofBeats Photography.

Haley looking fierce and riding like a winner. Photo by Ellie Woznica of Counting HoofBeats Photography.

Across many disciplines in riding, competitors seek to catch the judge’s attention, whether it be with show shirts encrusted with bling and fringe that sashays when you lope, riding on the quarter-line to stay close to where the judge stands, or even calling out or making other noises. These methods all center around one idea: strengthening ring presence. No matter how correctly and effectively you ride, your efforts can be (and often are) overlooked if you lack that extra spark, the look of confidence and competence that convinces a judge to look twice.

Although this effect can be replicated partially by flashy attire or strategic circling of the judge, there is no true substitute for having the poise to impress the judge as soon as you step into the arena. In intercollegiate horsemanship especially, where solid-colored shirts, black chaps, and black hat are standard over flashy colors and patterns, riders have to rely on their overall expression to catch the judge’s eye. Listed below are five ways to improve ring presence.

1. Fake it till you make it.

If you enter the arena with square shoulders and your chin up, you can look confident even if that’s the last thing you feel. Those horsemanship pants may be giving you the worst wedgie of your life, you could be thinking about that essay you really should have started last week, or you could be downright terrified that you won’t get along with the horse you drew. If you focus on these misgivings, both you and your horse will tense up, leading to a less fluid and smooth ride. Take a deep breath, say “I am confident,” and continue on your way. Use it as a mantra if necessary, repeating it to yourself until you believe it well enough to convince the judge it’s true with your body language.

2. Keep riding.

If you make a mistake, don’t let it change your riding style. Don’t sigh, don’t slump your shoulders, don’t grab your horse’s mouth in retaliation. Continue on as though it didn’t happen, and sometimes a small mistake might go unnoticed if you show no reaction to it. Even if it was a major fault, show no difference in attitude—if nothing else, this displays good sportsmanship and that you understand the value of perseverance and working past problems. Oftentimes, the ability to lose with grace offers more valuable learning experiences in the long run than if you had placed well in the class.

3. Make sure everything fits.

Clothing that is clean, neat, and fits well can showcase a good rider’s equitation, and on the contrary, clothes that don’t fit well or are otherwise distracting make it nearly impossible for a rider to look his or her best. Spending $50 on a plain shirt, tailored to fit perfectly, is more appropriate than wearing a $2,000 shirt that doesn’t fit correctly. Too-big clothing hides the rider’s position and can flap around while riding, inhibiting the judge from being able to draw an accurate conclusion on equitation. Similarly, too-small clothing is unflattering and, in the case of chaps that are too short, can make a rider’s legs look shorter than they really are.

4. Learn by example.

Watch videos of other riders you admire, and strive to emulate their styles of riding if that’s appropriate for your discipline. If you show against someone who consistently places above you, study the way they ride and consider implementing some of their strengths into the way you ride. In group practices or lessons, always listen to the coach’s feedback to other riders, even if it doesn’t necessarily apply to your ride that day — you may pick up a detail, however small, that could be the difference between a win and not placing somewhere down the road.

5. Make it look easy.

Maintaining a pleasant facial expression while riding is not an easy task, but it has a huge bearing on the judge’s overall picture of you. If your resting face looks angry, afraid, or bored, make an effort to hold a relaxed, attentive expression while showing. If you look like you’re struggling, the judge will notice, which undermines an otherwise solid and confident ride.

Creating a strong show ring presence has been one of the most difficult things to learn throughout my riding career. There have been countless practices when my coach has stopped me to say, “Your equitation is fine, but can you just… look a little brighter?” Based on my coaches’ input, I have become better-acquainted with the factors that make a rider stand out in the arena. They have taught me the importance of walking in with an expression that tells the judge you are the best rider in the class, and that you can prove it — not in a cocky or snide sense, but with composed confidence.

Go riding!

Haley is the author of Horse Nation’s “Academic Equestrian” series, following her collegiate experience as she balances her studies with participation on the varsity equestrian team and time with her own horse. Catch up on past columns by clicking the #ACADEMIC EQUESTRIAN tag at the top of the page!

Haley Ruffner is attending Alfred University, majoring in English with minors in Business and Equestrian Studies. She owns a Quarter horse gelding At Last An Invitation, or “Cricket.” Haley is the captain of the AU western equestrian team, and also competes in reining and loves trail riding.

Photo courtesy of Haley Ruffner.

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