As I've just returned from my team's third horse show in practically a row (oof), I've had a lot of time to dwell on what makes horse shows great, the details that separate the wonderful shows from the chaff. And while the Wellington shows are great productions and make our little Morven Park affairs seem quaint, the big shows aren't necessarily the most memorable. It comes down to some small points that make a competition wonderful, and worth coming back to.
1. Stellar Volunteers
Of course, this is the hardest to regulate - how can shows staffed by volunteers only "hire" excellent and experienced ones? They can't. But a huge thumbs up for the ring stewards at this weekend's PVDA and the early May CDCTA shows at Morven Park. They were ON IT, communicating, paying attention, but respectful as well. They deserve some kudos. And we as competitors, spectators and coaches can all be better about thanking the good ones, and letting management know that they did a nice job. If they have a good experience volunteering, they're more likely to do it again!
2. Pre- and During-Show Communication
Before the show, we want easy access to ride times and stable charts. And doing the stable charts like a chart instead of a list can be really helpful - some places, like Morven, have permanent tack stalls, and so we could know ahead of time what to pack. And as my friend Chris discovered upon his arrival this weekend, sometimes mistakes are made and two horses ridden by the same person could get put in barns a quarter mile apart. Could have been prevented - or at least corrected - by a visual stable chart online.
Ditto for ride times. Show management has one of the toughest jobs in the world, and computers help a lot, but sometimes the program will accidentally give a rider with multiple horses some VERY quick costume changes. Having a leg up on the ride times lets the riders and coaches plan better.
During the show, regular announcements of who's in the ring and what time it is is big. The announcers should be clear and articulate - we get spoiled by the announcing prowess of the inimitable Brian O'Connor at many a show 'round here - and venues need to be diligent about making sure the speakers around the facility work. Lexington, Va., gets a big high five for me on this front.
3. Correct and Safe
Management has to know the rules. Simple as that. They have to have the correct tests, have the correct number and location of judges, know that you can't use a chain ring anymore. The competitors have a HUGE responsibility to know the rules, too, know that they have to get to the ring on time, whether the announcer is announcing or the ring stewards are ring stewarding or not. And the judges bear this responsibility, too. No, a rider does not have to either withdraw or be eliminated after two errors of course.
4. Ready In Advance
We arrive at shows as early as we can - usually around 1 the day before the show - because traffic in our area stinks, and because we usually have a bajillion horses, and we like to get things done before 10 p.m. And so, so often when we arrive, rings aren't set up or labelled. This is directly related to having great volunteers, or at least enough volunteers, which is hard to guarantee. But I've seen clever GMOs offer double credit for volunteer hours towards things like year-end awards and prizes for setting up the show early and striking the show at its end - a smart way to get people to come and help out.
5. A Great Venue
This is easier in some parts of the country than others, but we as competitors need to be so, SO protective of our venues. Ones with permanent stabling that is safe and well-lit, with matted stalls and regular water and electric outlets. Ones with permanent bathrooms and ample parking. Ones whose arenas and stabling are reasonably close together. One with lots of cover from the sun, and spectator seating. I hope we build lots of venues like these, and fight to protect and improve them. There are ways to make horse show venues profitable, if you can think outside the box.
6. Spell Check
This may seem silly, but it's a bummer when your name isn't capitalized in the program, or is spelled wrong. Now, some of us have ghastly handwriting - guilty as charged - and these days it's too easy to type your show entry instead of filling it by hand. But there's no excuse for a lack of capitalization, or for omitting breeder information when you know you've included it - let's support those U.S. breeders. And I think we'd all be way more keen on e-entries, which I would think would be WAY easier for show management to deal with, if there wasn't a hefty charge for entering online. Some of the shows in Florida added a $35 fee to enter online. No thanks.
7. The Little Details
Last but not least, some little details can really make a show stellar. Having water for competitors after their tests (all the shows around here do this - yay for them!). Bobby and safety pins in the bathrooms. Pinning classes by Amateur/Jr. or Open status (for lots of competitors, the ribbons are a HUGE part of why they show - let's make sure they have a chance at getting some!). Good prizes (here's looking at you, VADA/Nova and CDCTA! I love that you guys give super prizes.). And an atmosphere of let's-make-people-want-to-do-this again: officials who are on the side of the competitors, explaining rules instead of simply crushing people with them; giving greener riders the benefit of the doubt.
Here in northern Virginia we're truly spoiled for good horse shows - we have lots to choose from. I know other parts of the country aren't so lucky, and I'm sorry for that. And competitors, who support GMOs with their membership dollars and volunteer hours, are the ones who bear the brunt of the responsibility for making competitions exceptional. We can all try harder and do better!
What do you, dear reader, like in a horse show?