Emily Ham’s driving blog: desensitising your horse ready for the showring

  • You’ve sorted your equipment, carriage is gleaming but have you done everything you can to prepare your horse for its big day at the show? It’s well groomed and looks a winner, but have you put in the sort of work that will help the day run smoothly and allow the horse to show its paces and manners in the ring to best advantage?

    Shows are busy noisy places with a lot going on (see picture above of Victoria Kedward in the exercise class at Brecon County Show) that might upset your horse. Not only are there crowds of people and many other horses but often also other animals — cattle, sheep and possibly pigs.

    Some horses are not keen on donkeys, yet donkeys are fantastic driving animals and rightly becoming more popular in the showring as well as for pleasure driving at home. I suggest that it would give your horse confidence to become familiarised with all these animals — especially donkeys who can be disconcerting when they bray!

    Get your driving horses used to driving past fields with farm animals before attending a country show and they should also be familiar with the sight and sound of heavy farm machinery. It’s not uncommon at country shows to have vintage tractor displays in the ring.

    Show hazardsAt 1 show we were kept waiting in the collecting area alongside the ring while 15 tractors came by and proceeded to do their ring display, passing within yards of the carriage horses on every circuit. At another show vintage engines spluttering and popping along one side of the main ring had to be passed on every lap. Many of the horses were unsettled and some shied. One started bucking and had to leave the ring — not quite the way you hope to catch the judge’s eye!

    Other noises at bigger shows are guns, tractor pulling competitions and music of all forms. Sudden noises inevitably startle, but horses can be desensitised by getting used to such sounds at home using recordings.

    A rattling lamp or knocking swingletree on a carriage or horse breathing heavily behind you in the ring is unsettling and it’s definitely worth driving out with friends in other turnouts so your horse should be used to the idea of other horse and carriages going past as well as travelling in front and behind.

    All too familiar is the show tannoy system that crackles and hums with frequencies that particularly irritate animals. As prey animals horses are very alert to sound and hissing can provoke a strong reaction!

    So desensitise your horse to sounds by using recordings in a situation where they can develop confidence. You should also get your horse used to scary sights — for example umbrellas, balloons, flag banners, bunting and pushchairs!

    It’s a good idea to get the pony used to walking over rubber matting and carpet as there are sometimes protective layers over cables or in poached gateways at big shows. Start quietly and reassure. There is a wealth of excellent advice on bombproofing your horse including the methods used by the mounted police.

    In-hand training with Emily HamAll desensitising work is best started in-hand, perhaps with the headcollar so you are at the horse’s head to give confidence, progressing to working on long reins and only putting into a carriage when your horse seems totally relaxed . It is probably a good idea to have helpers on the ground. Of course, this “bombproofing” work will pay off handsomely when you ride or drive out on the roads, along tracks or across the common too.

    It goes without saying you should get your horse used to travelling with the carriage set-up that you use. If your carriage is partitioned within the same area as your horse it can look unfamiliar and is also bound to make some noises in transit. You don’t want to arrive at the show and find your horse sweated and unsettled.

    The rest of your pre-show preparation focuses on your ringcraft and ensuring your horse will show its paces off to the best advantage. Your horse needs to work well at walk and trot on both reins and be able to easily execute circles and a reinback of 3 to 5 paces. It should be able to perform a square halt as part of the driven show and also be able to stand in the line-up patiently. Good extended trot on command is a crowd pleaser and valued by the judge.

    Remember that to impress the judge your horse should be driven using the coaching hand with your reins in the left hand and your whip in the right, with the right hand assisting in rein control.

    There are specific whip signals to use when driving in company. When the turnouts are driving together and asked by the steward to change the rein you hold your whip pointing out to the side to show turning right and horizontally just above your head to indicate left.

    Your voice is an important aid when driving so be sure to use it in the ring.

    When the judge has made his/her final decision and is going down the line it’s well worth asking them for advice as to what you can improve on — they are usually happy to give their opinion especially if they feel you will value their advice. It might well be you are going back in the ring with the same judge for another class or series of classes and they will notice if you actually put their advice into practice and your placing will be improved.

    Now you are well prepared and should thoroughly enjoy your show!


    Emily’s H&H blogs

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