By: Julie Alonzo
Since 2012, I’ve helped organize slightly more than 100 working equitation competitions, ranging from schooling shows with six entered to national championship competitions where we capped entries at 50. Overwhelmingly, I’ve found that the vast majority of North Americans participating in this sport are in it, primarily, for the opportunity it gives them to improve their partnership with their horse and create positive memories with friends.
In my travels around the U.S. and Canada, I’m often asked for advice about how best to help the sport take off in a particular area. I’ve pondered the question and believe the answer really comes down to three things:
- Make events welcoming, especially to those new to the sport.
- Spend the time it takes to build a solid foundation.
- Organize well in advance.
Making Events Welcoming
Working equitation is a complex sport, and there are many ways in which a rider can be disqualified, particularly in Ease of Handling and Speed. Few things are more disheartening to someone just starting out than to come to an event and be rung off the course. There are many things an event organizer can do to help reduce the number of disqualifications.
In designing the course, it’s important to keep in mind the experience level of the people and horses who will be riding. For a show with a lot of relative newcomers, for instance, it might be wise to avoid having riders carry the pole through additional obstacles. Remember that those riding in the Children and Introductory level are not expected to be able to do more than walk and trot, using two hands on the reins. Keep this in mind when thinking about the technical aspects of the course being designed.
I like to make the course maps available ahead of time. A couple of days in advance, I publish them on the Event’s Facebook page, as well as emailing them to every competitor. Giving people the chance to memorize the course ahead of time helps reduce errors due to memory challenges (making the scoring a better reflection of horse/rider partnership and skill than the ability to memorize a course in a short period of time).
Particularly when there will be new-comers at an event, it is important to schedule sufficient time for the course walk to make sure people understand what is expected. At minimum, I like to schedule 45 minutes on the course with the judge. I’ve found that having the judge and/or course designer walk the course with competitors, reminding people of the ways in which they can be disqualified in EOH/Speed, and pointing out key things to consider when planning paths between obstacles can make a big difference in reducing the number of disqualifications.
Along this same general theme, I try to schedule the course walk so there is sufficient time for people to think about it and warm their horses up after they’ve walked. For a one-day show, I try to have the course walk take place before lunch. If we’re running a two-day show, I prefer to have people walk the Ease of Handling course in the afternoon of the first day, after all the Dressage rides are done. This gives people the evening to think more about their path, which again helps reduce tension and anxiety-induced forgetfulness.
Early on in a season, or when there are a lot of people new to the sport in attendance, I sometimes will allow people to school all the obstacles that we will be using at a competition to help ensure that lack of familiarity with a given obstacle’s appearance/smell will not cause an otherwise-prepared competitor grief on the course.
During the 2017 season, I started offering “Training Wheel/Clinic Rides” at the B-Rated shows I organize. When people sign up for a Training Wheel /Clinic Ride, they come to the show and participate in every way as though they were competing, but rather than being on their own, they are assigned an experienced WE competitor to be their coach. The coach can either be right outside the dressage court or — if needed — even inside the court to ensure that the rider is able to successfully complete all the movements in the dressage test. Unlike a reader when someone is actually competing, the coach is allowed to provide additional help. For example, if the rider is to make a 20m circle at B, the coach might say that, and then go stand at X and say, “OK — now, pretend you are on a lunge line, and I am holding the end of the line. Keep the same distance from me as you are now, and ride all the way around me, in a big circle.”
During EOH and Speed, the coach is in the arena with the rider, assisting with any obstacles that are too much for the horse that day (for instance, the coach might ring the bell for the rider, as the rider steadies the horse in the corridor, or might physically move the gate as the rider maneuvers the horse through the motions required for opening and closing the gate). The coach can also give advice such as “Make sure you use your right hand to lift the jug, since you used that hand when you were ringing the bell.”
Giving people the option to sign up to compete or to participate as clinic riders helps address the needs of those who want to get involved but are not yet ready for a licensed competition, while also helping to support those who are ready to begin moving up the levels. Although they do not receive awards or points, Training Wheel / Clinic riders receive written feedback from the judge on their scoresheets and can get their feet wet without drowning in all the details.
Another part of making events welcoming is providing the ride schedule in advance and doing your best to stick to it so that riders know when they need to be ready. Although most Intro and Novice riders can complete their dressage tests in about 6 minutes, I tend to schedule at least 8 minutes (10 if I have enough time in the day) between rides to give the judge the chance to write more comments, and to give riders the chance to make a sufficient number of circuits of the court/arena to help settle their and their horses’ nerves before the bell rings them on.
Spend the Time Needed to Build a Solid Foundation
There is a lot to be said for starting out with schooling shows, giving people sufficient time to learn about the sport and to build a critical mass of riders/horses ready for the next level. Although it is tempting to jump in with licensed shows from the start, when the sport is new to an area, it likely makes sense to begin with schooling shows, giving organizers and participants alike the time to work the kinks out before raising the stakes. Schooling shows give an area the chance to recruit and train volunteers to fill important positions such as Gate Steward, Scorer, and Scribe without the stress of a licensed competition hanging over them.
Event organizers may want to think about the possible ramifications of offering higher-levels (Advanced/Masters) before people in their area have demonstrated the ability to perform well at the lower levels. It takes time to build a horse’s physical and mental capacity to perform the maneuvers expected at the top two levels, and it does the horse a disservice to push it beyond its current capacity. I generally advise riders to think about staying in a lower level until they and their horse have achieved at least three scores in the mid 60’s from at least two different judges. This is not a requirement, of course, but helps the events continue to be enjoyable for the horses.
Organize, organize, organize!
There is a lot of paperwork involved in putting on a working equitation competition. For a 20-rider show, I figure I’ll spend 3-4 hours getting the paperwork organized. This includes creating the ride schedule, printing the course maps, filling out and printing Dressage and EOH scoresheets for each individual competitor (as well as blank copies of each Dressage test and an EOH scoresheet for the judge to have as a reference, and extra copies of each of the Dressage tests for competitors who need them at the last minute), and the Speed scoresheet for each class, as well as filling out the Placings Worksheet (rider and horse names and WE United numbers, organized by class).
To help reduce errors, I prefer to bring my computer and use the electronic Placings Worksheets developed by WE United’s Show Licensing and Oversight Committee — they automatically apply the rules related to breaking ties and places each trial as well as the overall competition.
If bringing a computer is not an option, I fill out the information on the Placings Worksheet in advance, and then print three copies of it. I have my scorer write in all the dressage scores as they are tabulated, and then have my judge/TD review the actual placings / point assignment before posting one copy at the show office for competitors to review. The scorer then continues to fill out the remaining two scoresheets with EOH scores, and once the EOH classes are done, the judge/TD review the placing / points assignments, and I then post the second sheet. The scorer retains the third copy to write in the results from the Speed trial, which is subsequently posted after judge/TD have completed their review.
I try to have all the paperwork printed and organized at least 48 hours prior to the show. For a one-day show, I put the ride times, dressage tests (in the order in which they will be ridden), and 2-3 pens on one clipboard for the scribe, and blank dressage tests on another clipboard for the judge. I keep the EOH and Speed papers in a big manila envelope so they stay together, and give that packet to the scribe once the Dressage tests are all done. For a multi-day show, I organize the paperwork by the day, putting each day’s paperwork in its own large manila envelope, along with spare pens. This helps make sure that all the material stays in the correct order, and because I live in a damp climate, helps keep the paperwork dry and usable.
Keeping Important Goals in Mind
The goal at my events is to have riders and horses leave feeling more confident and knowledgeable than they were when they arrived. A secondary, and also very important, goal is to help nurture the culture of camaraderie and fun that so many people say are part of what has drawn them to the sport. When we meet those important goals, we succeed, as a group and as a sport.