ProequestSport Psychology for Riders: Benefits of the Small, Unrated Horse Show
Featured on, July 2015

By Tonya Johnston, MA

Competing at a friendly, well run, practice horse show can be wonderful for so many reasons. I was recently reminded of these positives when I attended a lovely practice derby and horse show put on by the barn where I ride, Sonoma Valley Stables, in Petaluma, CA.

In any competitive sport it is easy to get caught up in winning and a “bigger is better” perspective. However, it is valuable to remember what small competitions can do for you. Usually people focus on the benefits of small shows for horses and riders who are young or learning—they get quality miles, the atmosphere is low key, entries are less expensive, etc., but in fact riders of varying backgrounds can use a practice horse show as a fun experience where real growth can occur.

  • Focus on F-U-N: Being in a more relaxed atmosphere can allow you to channel your energy towards your partnership with your horse and your relationships with your trainer and barn friends, instead of your more serious, competitive, outcome-oriented aspirations. This can provide a healthy balance to the rest of your show calendar where big rated shows, points, qualifying and year-end awards may come into play. Unrated shows often have only one or two rings so there may be less buzz, less traffic and more time to concentrate on the simple joys of whooping for your friends or staying close to your horse throughout the day.
  • Mental Skills Practice: A show that does not relate to your season’s outcome goals creates extra energy with which to work on your mental skills. For example, you may be working on trot jumps with your trainer who wants you to keep your eyes up at the base and over the top of the jump (instead of the habit you have of staring down as if you may find a hundred dollar bill tucked under the flowers). Use your extra energy to commit to doing some ring research before your class, finding a focal point and then visualizing that section of the course in particular to feel your eyes up, your horse leaving the ground in a balanced manner and successfully cantering away.
  • “Dress” Rehearsal – Pre-Ride Routines:
    Green riders: If you are new to showing, there is a lot to learn about how it all works. Hopefully, thinking about your personal preparation routine is part of that process. Figuring out what tools, habits and skills you can use to get focused, handle nerves, and walk into the ring feeling confident is vital to your long-term success. A small show is a terrific practice ground to build a system for when and how to: use breathing techniques for relaxation and/or focus before your class or in the warm-up ring; memorize and visualize the course and course plan; focus on personal performance goals; and maintain and communicate a positive, proactive attitude.

    Seasoned Rider: The unrated show is an opportunity for you seasoned riders to work on fine-tuning your pre-ride routine. Thinking about the typical sequence of your mental skills is useful to do before you get to the unrated show so that you can plan productive adjustments. For example, perhaps you typically visualize your course quickly at the back-gate. You can use the unrated show as a place to practice visualizing your course while sitting quietly in the tack room/car/quiet place at least 10 to 30 minutes before you get on your horse in order to increase the value and quality of your mental practice.

  • “Dress” Rehearsal – Clothes: Riders new to showing or seasoned riders making a change of divisions (jumpers to hunters) or adding new classes (hunter derbies) or getting back into showing after a break can benefit from the “dress” aspect of a practice show. For example, wearing a hunt coat and/or shadbelly can trigger tension and discomfort, and the practice show can allow you to focus on de-programming this reaction in a more relaxed setting. At a small show clothes don’t really matter as much (and there may not even be a mandated dress code), so choosing to wear all of your fancy show clothes puts you in the driver’s seat and allows you to take control of the situation. For example, you get to treat your shadbelly as a clothing option you chose to wear, instead of an imposed cue for a “big deal” class with it’s accompanying (often self-induced) pressure.
  • Team Practice: A smaller show is also great training ground for family and friends to learn about what roles they can take on and how they can help you at bigger shows. Describing and then practicing what you would like them to do throughout the horse and rider preparation process, warm-up, and back-gate routine will go a long way to creating a smooth, happy day. For example, would you like them to offer you water when you are waiting at the ring or give you space by staying somewhere that has a great view, ready to video your round? Family and friends have wonderful intentions to support you, but a little training can go a long way to reducing accidental confusion and stress during the show.
  • Menu for Success: Healthy eating is essential and sometimes tricky at horse shows. Packing up your equipment and taking it with you for the one-day show is also a great opportunity to experiment with foods that are easy to bring with you. Making sure you have snacks you like (and can tolerate in a competitive environment) can build positive habits for bigger, away shows where you may have to deal with airplane travel and hotel stays.
  • Trainer Communication: An unrated show with one ring can be a great place to build communication with your trainer and discuss what works best for you—the hope is that these strategies then carry over to venues where you both feel the pressure of a more challenging atmosphere. Proactive suggestions and positive reinforcement are some of the best ways to communicate. “It really helps when you give me time to ask you questions at the back gate.” Or “I like having time to walk once or twice in the midst of our jump warm-up because it gives me time to breathe.” Always remember that you and your trainer are a team; staying mindful of what you can do to increase positive communication is tremendously valuable.
  • Appreciation: A small, low-key venue is a wonderful opportunity to slow down and be reminded of what you love about showing. Spending time with your horse, laughing with barn friends, supporting your team, helping others, cheering for everyone, focusing on progress, and keeping a balanced perspective are all valuable things to keep front and center. Take this attitude of appreciation to your unrated show and then anywhere you show to help you stay centered and bring your best effort to the ring.

Tonya Johnston, MA is an equestrian mental skills coach and an A-circuit competitor with a master’s degree in sport psychology. Her book, “Inside Your Ride: Mental Skills for Being Happy and Successful with Your Horse” is available on Tonya can be reached through her website or on Facebook at