Many riders dream of "doing the "A"s" for a variety of reasons. Some want to qualify for the indoors, some want to make the pony finals, others would like to try the big outdoor courses, others are going for the year-end points, and some riders just want a chance to ride at such historical and prestigious shows as Upperville and the Washington International Horse Show. Whatever the end goal, that first ride at an "A" rated show can be intimidating. Mary Lisa Nicholson Leffler (Rolling Acres, Brookeville) remembers her first "A" show at the Montgomery County Fair Grounds when she was just nine years old. "It was incredible, it was so different. The ring was at the end of the rides, and everything looked so big, so scary. I kept looking at the ferris wheel, but my pony was fine. I was nervous, seeing all the people that I had read about, and they all knew my pony!"
Mary describes that moving into the "A"s was a real learning experience, "a real eye opener." "It was so different from the locals; I was winning a lot when I left, and now I had to get used to not winning, I had to climb the ladder again." And climb she has, now a top contender on the World Championship Hunter Rider circuit, and the Grand Prix show jumping circuit.
In addition to being nervous about the competition, some worry about the rumored politics of the "A" circuit, but Nancy Faulkner assures her students what they will really find at the "A" level is better judges who pin more fairly.
Ed Lane (Tartan Farms, Poolesville) emphasizes that the first step is to find a good trainer. "So many people in Maryland keep their own horse, or board at a small facility, and you can see it at the shows, they have no direction. A trainer imposes discipline, without discipline there is chaos. Also, I avoid private lessons for my students. In group lessons, they learn to judge themselves, and they become more competitive."
Ed Lane, like many of the other trainers in this article, also specializes in helping riders move into the national ranks. He emphasizes the importance of finding the right qualified trainer, especially for children, and the right mount before attempting the big shows. And sometimes, he points out, students may have to try several trainers till they find the one with whom they communicate the best. "I always say, you wouldn't send your child to the same school with the same teacher his whole life, would you? Well, it's the same thing."
Lane also stresses the importance of children having a good trainer who emphasizes horsemanship, not just riding. "The children, and the parents, have to be willing to support this and make the time commitment. The children need to be at the barn at least 3 to 4 times per week so they can be in tune with their animals." It is also important, he insists, to find a trainer with compatible goals. He explains that if a rider's goal is to make the transition from the local shows to the "A"s, then that rider needs a trainer that is here year round, instead of one that moves to Florida for the winter. If, however, a rider wants to compete in Florida, is ready and has the time and the money, then a trainer who winters in Florida makes sense.
Jamey Prettyman (Pickwick Stables, Sykesville) also emphasizes the importance of finding a trainer that will honestly evaluate you and your horses ability. "It's a hard transition to make, you really need the outside help, someone with the experience, to know how to set goals. You need a ground person with a good educated eye."
If you are thinking of doing the As, one of the first items the trainers emphasized is the monetary commitment. And the first item of purchase is the horse.
All the trainers emphasized the importance of investing in the right horse. It is just as easy to spend the money to buy a bad horse as it is to spend the money to buy a good horse. Kim Williams (Willow Wood Farm, Woodbine) describes the right horse as being appealing to the eye, at minimum a decent mover, and jumping ability. "Maybe not real high, if he is only going to do 3', but a horse that does 3' well." Kim advises riders not to try to buy that diamond in the rough horse: "Finding a horse like that for under $5,000 is one in a million. The more money they are willing to spend, the better the horse."
But the trainers also emphasized that that does not necessarily mean buying a horse that is already "made," one that will do the riding for the rider, and pack the owner around for the ribbons. They all stressed that it is the ability of the horse that an owner needs to recognize. "A good horse," insists Ed Lane, "will let a rider fail if he or she is not riding correctly, and sometimes failing can teach a rider more about riding than can a horse that does it all correctly, no matter what the rider does. And that doesn't encourage good horsemanship."
Beyond the purchase or lease of the horse, the monthly boarding and the regular training fees, and the tack and clothing, there are the actual costs of showing. Riders can to expect to spend $50 up per division, $35 -$100 for coaching, $100 to $150 for shipping, and $25 for per braided mane, $15 for tail. They can save money if they can braid themselves and ship their own horses. However, as Ginny Edwards (Hidden Hollow Farm, Poolesville) points out, there are more affordable options: "People can do it on a budget, they don't have to spend a fortune. Adult amateurs can show a couple divisions at a weekend event, ship in for just one day, with about the same amount of training time that they had been maintaining."
The jumper divisions can be even more expensive than the hunter divisions, but with the prize money, riders have a chance to recoup their fees and then some.
Set Goals (or Learn to Count Your Strides)
Because the monetary commitment is so significant, the ability to go to the big show and to be competitive is an oft stressed requirement. Williams stresses the importance of setting and maintaining goals. "You've got to have a goal, whether it is to get to that class at Washington [Washington International Horse Show], year end points, whatever, and work towards that, choose the right shows... if you want to try for the Marshal-Sterling [League Finals], you are going to have to make a commitment to show 2 to 3 times a month."
Prettyman stresses the importance of making the goals attainable and having a practical plan that makes sense. "Don't expect to jump from a local show series to an "A"; move up from circuit to circuit, then do MHSA, which is a mini-AHSA, and then go compete in some unrated classes at some "A" rated shows.
Carolyn Krome (Persimmon Tree Farm, Westminster) emphasizes that riders should only go to the big horse shows when they can compete competitively with a talented horse of quality, because it is so expensive. "It's a huge investment, $700 to $800 a weekend. It is not worth spending $12,000 a year showing a horse [if you can't be competitive].
Knowing When and If You Are Ready
It can be tricky knowing when you and your horse are ready to make the move. Nancy Faulkner advises those unsure to try the unrated pre-children and pre-adult at the rated shows. "This gives the not-quite-good-enough horse and rider an opportunity to ride, and perhaps see why they are not ready."
Ginny Edwards reassures riders that the difference from local shows to "A"s doesn't have to be all that different. "Many "A"s have short stirrup, children's hunters... lower levels that are not nationally rated. If a rider can compete a 3' course comfortably, do their flying changes, get the correct number of strides, they feel comfortable, and they are consistently in the ribbons and the tri-colors, they are ready to move on."
What To Expect At the Big Show
"Riders need to expect perfection at the 'A' shows," explains Nancy Faulkner, "You've got to be a star at the B in order to be competitive at the A. If you add a stride at the A shows, you can kiss it all goodbye."
All the trainers emphasized knowing the rules and the etiquette before hitting the "A"s. "Know your rule book," insists Prettyman, " get your AHSA membership and learn the rules and regulations. Watch some "A" shows, compete in some unrated classes at the big shows, like children's hunter or amateur owner, and see how they do it. Determination is not enough, you need to do your homework, you need to be polished. At a rated show, everything is controlled, measured. You need to know distance, be able to count strides, know your pony's stride and size."
Williams echoes this point: "The worst thing is to see riders that don't know the simple things, like how to count strides, the number of strides in a line, how to keep a horse balanced and in rhythm. The "A" shows are not the place to school."
Williams, who is also an AHSA judge, adds that it is quite easy to spot a rookie. "The biggest mistake people make in moving up is not knowing the etiquette. And they are not enforcing it at the lower levels; when I judge the local shows, I see riders who don't know how to turn out themselves or their horses, clip ears, whiskers; I see pony tails, britches too big, whips in boots...[when] you see colors at a big show (blue bell boots, blue saddle pad, blue reins), you think, my god, they are from a local circuit. Look the part, or you stand out."
The Bottom Line: Showing Should Be Fun
Ultimately, every trainer insisted that you must enjoy yourself. As Ginny Edwards said, "Everyone that shows should do it to have a good time, to have fun, and not just for the ribbons."
Perhaps Carolyn Krome said it best when she just laid it on the line: "Let's be realistic, when it is not affordable, it is not fun, and this still has to be fun."
Nancy Faulkner agrees: "There is no sense in going to an A-2 show, spending all that money, and not be competitive. You don't spend $500 dollars just to have fun." And Faulkner notes, you don't have to do the As, given the choices Maryland offers. "There are excellent "B" rated series and local shows," notes Nancy, "that are very strong competitively, and that are affordable and fun."