This blog will chronicle the life and training of Heavymetal Thunder (aka Saxon), a 2009 chestnut Standardbred gelding who didn't have the makings of a racehorse and so will be retrained as a show and pleasure horse. Stay tuned, as we're sure to have lots of great adventures together!

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Ups and Downs of Showing

As my devoted readers know, having a three year-old show horse in the making can be very trying.  One day they make you want to pull your hair out, the next they make you burst with pride.  Throughout the summer, Saxon and I have been struggling with inconsistency in the show ring.  When he's good, he's fantastic.  He makes me want to sing his praises and lavish him with hugs and treats.  When he's not, it's a full scale meltdown of nuclear proportions.  I'm finally starting to have some success abating these meltdowns, so that the calm, quiet (relatively lazy) horse I have at home is the same animal I bring out in public.  They say "idle hands are the devil's playground."  Idle hooves, it seems, can turn the showring into the devil's playground, too.  My new motto is "a tired 3 year-old is a well-behaved 3 year-old."  Case in point, before the August OCSC show, he got himself worked up that morning and spent 10 straight minutes galloping around the pasture until he was soaked in sweat and out of breath.  At the show, (after a good bath!) even though we arrived too late to walk the grounds and arena beforehand, he was a perfect, quiet gentleman (other than still wanting to suck on my hunt coat sleeve like a pacifier during showmanship).  Some of it may be that the whole trailering and showing thing is starting to become more routine for him, some of it may be his new pre-show preventative dose of omeprazole (I've noticed that his appetite at shows is much better now), but I have to believe that a little tiredness doesn't hurt, either.  I certainly don't want to overwork him, since he's still young and growing, but I've found that a week of steady riding with no days off and a preshow exercise session makes for a much more relaxing show for both of us (he gets his day off after the show).

Since I started this new regimen, he has been stellar on his last two outings.  At OCSC, he was so tired that he was almost lazy (a 10 minute pre-show gallop will do that!), but he cruised through his classes (including equitation and trail -  where he had to canter a bit in the patterns) like a pro.  [They gave us a dry run in trail before we did the course for real, which was a good thing, because we might not have made it past the horse-eating rain coat otherwise!  Once he thoroughly sniffed said horse-eating rain coat, he was totally unfazed by it the second time around.]  I was very pleased with his behavior, and he had the placings to match, placing well in full classes, with several wins (including the eq and trail where he had to canter!).   

Our next show was a real test of his fortitude.  I took him to the Pioneer Saddle Club open show.  From the photos on their Facebook page, I could tell it was a pretty casual show in terms of dress, the kind where people show in whatever tack and casual clothes they have and spectators back their vehicles up to the arena to watch.  I wasn't sure how distracted he would get by the cars and spectators, but it's something he'll have to get used to if I want to start taking him to more of the county fair shows next year.  The show grounds was nice, but the atmosphere was pure pandemonium.  It was almost exclusively gaited horses, and riders were weaving behind and around the parked trailers at a high rate of speed.  I arrived plenty early, but they had the arena closed up so I couldn't walk him around in there.  I walked him around the outside of the arena, but was stopped after a few laps because they didn't want horses near the (completely empty) bleachers.  I found a grassy area as far away from the packs of random riders as I could and lunged him.  He seemed calm enough, so as long as the ringside white cinderblock building (that he snorted at on our walk) and spectators starting to park ringside didn't faze him, I thought he'd be ok.  Nevertheless, when I registered for his classes, I asked if I could enter both the English and Western halter classes.  I explained that he was just 3 and I wanted to give him as much chance as possible to get comfortable in the ring.  They said ok, so I signed up for those two and one riding class.  I wanted to see how he reacted to the ring atmosphere before I committed to more under saddle classes.  I later overheard someone talking to the registration person and mocking me for entering both halter classes.  

He was good in halter, though he was the only non-gaited horse in either one.  The judge didn't seem to spend much time looking over the horses, barely glancing at just their front legs.  We only placed so-so, and I had another competitor motion me over later that night to tell me she thought I'd been "ripped off" in the halter classes.  (Which made me smile that she was complimenting my horse.)  We had a pretty good break before our first riding class, so I spent some time chatting with the older gentleman showing out of the trailer next to me, and rode Saxon around the show grounds for a while.  I was pleasantly surprised by how calmly he handled the chaos of the spectators around the arena, horses stomping around inside and next to their trailers, children jumping around, the ice cream truck at the nearby neighborhood, and the speed racking horses careening recklessly past him from all directions. 

The sun was going down by the time my class was ready to go.  Just as we were ready to go in for our class, wouldn't you know it, they turned on the arena lights, the wind kicked up, and it started to spritz rain.  There were eight of us, and I was the only non-gaited horse in the English Pleasure Walk-Favorite Gait (No Canter) class.  As one lady in a tank top entered the ring ahead of us, she whipped her horse sharply with the end of her reins.  It was a sign of things to come.  I stuck to my plan of staying off the rail and away from the other horses.  A little girl opened her pink and purple umbrella by the rail as we walked by, and Saxon hardly noticed (As luck would have it, we had been working on sacking out with grocery bags and umbrellas earlier that week.  How convenient!).  He was a superstar.  He was steady at both gaits, stayed on the bit, and remained calm about the racking horses snorting and racing by on the rail.  It was a nice enough trip to win just about any class we'd gone in all year.  He was just a little antsy in the lineup about having to face away from the flagpole (with blowing flag) in the center of the ring.  As they called out the placings, I started to wonder what I was missing. We were finally called in DFL.  Eighth out of eight.  I know showing is subjective and you are paying for someone's opinion.  Some days, the judge loves your horse, and other days it's just not your day.  But to have horses place above us that were actively spooking, alternating between the running walk and trot, and lugging on the bit barely in control was an absolute insult.  It seemed the faster, higher kneed, higher headed, and more frantic your horse went, the more this judge liked you.  There was clearly no place in his modus operandi for a relaxed, low-headed, efficient-moving hunter horse. 

I knew my "victory" was how well my three-year old handled the chaotic atmosphere of his first nighttime show.  I also knew there was no point in entering any other classes.  I couldn't have asked for a better performance from Saxon under those or any circumstances.  There was absolutely nothing to be gained by sticking around, or ever coming back for that matter.  Nowhere on the showbill did it say the show was for gaited horses only.  The only stipulations on it were that show tack/attire were not required, no artificial equipment other than plain bell boots was allowed, and 1/2" or smaller pads were allowed, but no wedge pads (though I saw that the top placing horses in most classes had wedges).  Though I am proud of my horse for his stellar behavior, met some pleasant people there (particularly the older gentleman at the adjacent trailer who, incidentally, also left early because the judge didn't like his natural moving, lower-kneed, well-behaved gaited horses), and I generally liked the showgrounds, I will never attend another show by the Pioneer Saddle Club again.  If it's supposed to be exclusively for gaited horses, so be it, but please advertise it as such so that other owners of non-gaited horses don't make the same mistake I did.  As for me and Saxon, we'll chalk it up as a learning experience, and I hope he continues his calm and mannerly ways.  Maybe at our next show we'll once again have the results to match (as we did at OCSC).