At this stage of the season, young horses are getting used to their job. Even a few experienced ones who haven’t been out much are feeling their feet. Inevitably, you see the occasional unscheduled departure from the ring when things don’t go to plan.
It’s disappointing when it happens, but we’ve all been there and it’s why preparation and warm-up tactics are important. You can’t assume that because a horse wears a halo at home, he’ll wear it in the ring.
You’ll often see professionals hacking young horses round a showground to get them used to sights and sounds without putting them under pressure. It’s a good strategy even if a horse has behaved well at indoor shows, as big, open showgrounds are a world apart.
Time spent walking round, stopping to talk to people and letting your horse take it all in is never wasted. Then, when he relaxes, you can ask him to concentrate.
Warming up is an art and you can learn a lot from watching a collecting ring. There’s a fine line between doing enough and doing too much. Young horses are like small children and if they become tired, they can also become fed up.
In the ring, you need to do the equivalent of holding your horse’s hand. Use the ring boundaries to help you and think “dressage”. That might surprise a few readers, but using your ring fence to help keep straight and riding proper corners will make it easier to keep your horse balanced.
Unless you’ve been able to practise riding with other horses at home or in clinics, don’t get in a position where your horse is pinned against the rail by others coming towards him during a change of rein. Minimising the risk of bad experiences now will pay dividends later.
A competitor asked me recently what she should do about a horse who always gave a little squeal as he went into canter. The answer is nothing — as long as he behaves, don’t worry about it. Sound effects mean he’s happy and, as a rider and a ride judge, that’s what I want to see.
We’re seeing new producers as well as new horses, which is good news. Some are bringing out lovely youngsters who have obviously had good starts to their careers and it’s heartening to hear that they are doing their best to give to give them varied lives.
I won’t name names, but I bet that, by the end of the season, their results will speak for themselves.
Young riders often tell me they’d love my job. When I ask them what attracts them, they think being a show producer is a glamorous occupation.
I hate to disappoint them, but though I love what I do, glamorous is the last word I’d choose to describe it. I always tell them that if they want a 9-to-5 job, to look elsewhere.
That’s something my team understands, too. I appreciate that a survey by the British Grooms Association has found that some people are working for appalling rates and in circumstances that contravene employment law. But employees must have realistic expectations.
We have a good team and some members have been with me for many years, but when I hear from applicants starting their careers, they sometimes want the impossible. Sorry, but you can’t work with horses, expect to keep office hours and do lots of riding and no routine stable work.
I always ask people if they think they are team players. Inevitably, they say they are, because they know that’s what you want to hear, but it’s so important to be able to get on with other people as well as horses. If I think someone won’t fit in, it isn’t worth the risk.
Young people looking for their first job sometimes get in touch. I can remember what I was like aged 17, so I appreciate an employer’s responsibilities! At that age, you’re developing your personality and you want to make the most of life, outside as well as inside working hours.
Living away from home, especially for the first time, offers challenges and opportunities: some good, some not so good. I feel like a substitute mum and, occasionally, I’ve wished an employee’s real mother would come and take her offspring away.
Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often and it’s lovely when former team members tell us how happy they were. I often wonder how Ruth McMullen, whom I trained with and worked for as a teenager, survived…
Katie’s column was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (24 April, 2014)