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How to Be an Amazing Equestrian Athlete

A Behind the Scenes Guide for Competitive Equestrians and Their Families


Carol M. Hawley

Whitestone Farm, LLC.


What’s Important Now:

The Horse

The Judge


Each other

I am so glad that you are a part of the Whitestone Farm Show Team! If you are reading this, you are either just getting started, have been competing for years, or are somewhere in between. This guide doesn’t contain tips for flatwork and jumping. Your training includes all you need in those areas; this guide’s purpose is to educate students and their families about the inner workings of equestrian sports. Understanding these concepts will enhance everyone’s experience and accelerate a rider’s progress!


What’s Important Now

“Winning” in horse sports comes in many forms. Some days, a “winning” experience involves ribbons; other days, it doesn’t. There are shows where a rider’s level of accomplishment is minimal, and he or she walks out of the arena with a blue ribbon. Other times, big breakthroughs and personal bests yield no tangible prizes. And some days, a great ride also includes a great placing, what I call “whipped cream and a cherry on the sundae.” There are more variables in equestrian competitions by far than any other sport on the planet…far too many for riders to control. What is of paramount importance for success is how you HANDLE those challenges, your ATTITUDE (smart, strong, positive), and (with regards to junior competitors) educated family members with the correct outlook and attitude. Students whose family members struggle with these basics DO improve and enjoy some successes to be sure, but their progress is much slower, and their enjoyment is diminished.


“What’s Important Now”

  • Be prepared to focus on your quality of riding, your relationship with your mount, how well you treat your teammates and fellow competitors, and how you handle the ever present variables and challenges associated with showing horses.

  • The Best riders of every age and level strive to correctly SELF-EVALUATE (with the help and guidance of their trainer, of course) after they ride in a schooling session or class at a show. They explore the strengths and weaknesses and then work to “judge” their ride accurately, regardless of the “placings.” If you place and have a great ride, the ribbon is an ADDITIONAL thing to celebrate.  If you don’t place and you ride well, congratulations are in order…and making mistakes, overcoming challenges, and enduring “ribbonless streaks” are opportunities to shine. We ALL get these opportunities…relish these moments; judges, trainers, your teammates, college recruiters are WATCHING.

  • What are they hoping to see? Positive, calm, strong attitudes…even a sense of humor…and perseverance in the face of adversity.

  • Want to be an Equestrian Athlete standout? Handle yourself beautifully in these situations and you will be remembered.


*Ribbons come and go….RESPECT lasts forever!*

Memorize this universal “horse show law” and you will avoid using the wrong instrument to measure your progress:

  • Pinning doesn’t necessarily mean you are on track…NOT pinning doesn’t necessarily mean you are falling short.

Understanding the Most Important Things:



The most important aspect of your equestrian life is the horse, your partner and your most challenging variable in competition. Horses are large, strong creatures of fear and highly unpredictable. They also get sick and injure themselves CONSTANTLY. On a practical level, you must understand that they will, by their very nature, do things (spook, trip, get too slow, go too fast, poop, attack other horses, decide to stop, turn, etc.) at the wrong time and cause your performance to suffer. As riders, it is our job to help them avoid/overcome/organize those tendencies if we can. However, at times they are unavoidable. Remember: Even when it is not your FAULT, what happens is ALWAYS your RESPONSIBILITY. An amazing equestrian athlete NEVER blames the horse. She/he understands the nature of the horse…accepts it and works with it. Horses will, at inopportune times, get sick or unsound the week, the day, the night before, or the day of (even at the ingate!) of a major event and you have to scratch (sometimes losing entry and stall fees). Yes, that is disappointing, but it is the very nature of the game. Sometimes there is a backup available, most of the time there isn’t. Handling these inevitable events with grace and acceptance is the hallmark of a great Equestrian Athlete. Make sure you “step up” the very first time it happens to you…make sure you “step up” when it happens to you six shows in a row!

Along with any horses’ unpredictability and fragility, they are ALL different and NOT created equal! They all have different genetic potentiality. There will always be riders competing on horses with lesser natural abilities than yours, and there will always be riders competing on horses whose natural abilities exceed yours. This fact of equestrian competitive life should be neutrally acknowledged so as to increase your understanding of the sport, and that is where it needs to end! 99% of the time riders and their families are making the best use of their personal resources, and the rule of thumb is this: ALL horses have something to give, something to teach, and are of incredible value in what they offer us in this life. DO NOT waste precious time that you could use growing, learning, and accomplishing with the lovely horses in you world worrying about what others achieve on more genetically blessed animals…and NEVER indulge in a superior feeling when you are better mounted than another rider. FOCUS on the opportunities that you enjoy NOW, and you will move forward and achieve great success!

“The Takeaway”

  • A show is another day to spend time with horses and love them; learn from them! Train consistently, work hard, and stay grounded in this gratitude and your days as a winner are on their way!



Along with equine unpredictability and fragility, the “Judge” piece is perhaps the hardest one to understand and accept. Particularly for family members, who want to follow and watch the show, much like they would view another sporting event, with a set of rules, patterns, and a somewhat mathematical organization of cause and effect. Equestrian sports possess none of those ingredients, making that “watchable” process impossible! I judge horse shows, and my hope is that sharing some background information will help show riders and their families take the frustration out of the inevitable statement that I hear every family member eventually say: “I just don’t know what is going on!!” And I always answer, “that’s okay; there’s no way you CAN know what’s going on! Don’t try…just enjoy the horses, the performances, and your child’s progress!” Enclosed are some facts on judging:

  • The knowledge of horses, riding, and competing required to even be eligible to train as a judge is extensive. On top of that skill set, a specialized level of knowledge and experience of HOW to judge equestrian events is ALSO required. No spectator, even a knowledgeable one, would be able to accurately judge a class.

  • Judges are hired to sit in a sequestered area with special cards and well trained staff, meticulously organizing everything in the environment so that the judge can tame the “chaos” of a show class and come up with placings in a timely manner. The judge cannot talk to anyone and the show must stop if he/she needs anything. This is due to the extreme focus needed to do the job. For this reason, even a trainer/show judge who is spectating or coaching riders could not give accurate results…unless you have the knowledge, experience, and training to be a judge AND a sequestered spot, class cards, and staff with NO OTHER DISTRACTIONS, the hard truth is you can’t judge the class. So many times I am asked, “What happened??” I always answer, “Without sitting in the booth and working the cards, I can’t explain judging the class.”

Other Judging Facts:

  • Judges cannot see everything that happens in a class (even over fences where one rider is in the arena at a time. One view from the box cannot cover all the angles. Sometimes this works to your advantage, sometimes it works to your competitor’s advantage. But in “cosmic fairness” we all get a turn!

  • Judges are not always placing the “best rider” first and then working their way down, and they are not necessarily placing the “best horse” first and working their way down. A judge is hired to organize WHAT HAPPENS (and “stuff happens” with every horse/rider combination, and the judge uses certain criteria [a complex set of guidelines learned through specialized training and experiences]) in that two minute jump trip or 4 minute flat class in a timely manner and stack the performances in a logical order. The order is “logical” from that person’s perspective, not their OPINION. Judges are not doing their jobs randomly, or on “whims” or “personal taste.” They use their training and experience to produce a result; often times because of the endless variables present, 2 or 3 sets of logical results could be used. But the judge must choose which way to go. Don’t let the uncertainty get you down! It makes this sport more exciting…too much predictability is boring!

  • Judges have to sort out all these variables quickly; management needs the show NOT to run into the wee hours of the night! They have to be as swift and accurate as possible. The person holding the card isn’t necessarily making a list of which riders they’d like to have as working students, who’d they love to teach, which competitors they’d recommend to their collegiate trainer friends as recruits, or which horses they’d like to ride or purchase for a client or teach on. Sometimes it DOES work out this way, but there are many instances, as a judge, you HATE it that your top riders/horses have something going on that makes it impossible to use them in the placings for that class.

  • During those moments BETWEEN classes (and during warm up trips, jump adjustment, schooling breaks) we judges cannot help but see how riders are handling themselves and their horses. YOU NEVER KNOW who is witnessing your attitude and behavior! Body language is a big “tell,” make sure yours stays open, positive, and engaged throughout the day. The judge that watched you today could be the head of the college program whose team you hope to be on tomorrow…and trust me on this: What “place” you got they will NOT recall, or care about…your attitude, demeanor, and how you carried yourself they won’t forget those things…Guaranteed.



Practical Steps for All Types of Showing: IEA (in season, Regionals, Zone Finals, Nationals), Open Local, and “A” Rated

Equestrian Athletic Excellence

  • It’s all about the joy…start there…the beauty of your horse and your partnership. The way the two of you are groomed to the nines, the spiffed up arenas, the excitement of the unknown, the camaraderie with your teammates and the other exhibitors, watching all the other riders and sharing in their nervousness and anticipation, and the Horse Show FOOD! When the day is done, you are exhausted, but it is a good tired. Love the horses, love what you do; all the good things evolve from this place in your heart.

  • Learn all that you can about horses and your sport, each day and each show. Make every effort to get better and better at what you do. It is the greatest gift (and sometimes a huge frustration!) that there is always something more for everyone to learn with horses and horse sports; the learning curve never ends!

  • Get good at reading and following a show schedule, learn to listen to the announcer, ask the starter about what class is currently in the arena, and be ready to go ON TIME...Don’t ask if you have time to use the restroom, eat a snack, is it time to get dressed, etc. Learn to work these things out in plenty of time on your own!

  • Be dressed in plenty of time…COMPLETELY...have your hair ready(ponytail under the helmet included), your choker fastened, gloves on, your number on several classes ahead.

  • Polish your boots thoroughly and keep them clean.

  • Learn your courses, on your own, and do it in plenty of time before your class.

  • In IEA shows, be ready in plenty of time and know what class you are in, know when your horse appears in the arena BEFORE your class, and be at the arena watching your horse…Do all these things without someone having to find and remind you.

  • When you are done with you class, find me…that may involve waiting for me. I should never have to find YOU.

  • In IEA shows, bring a teammate or two to help you with stirrups.

  • TEAMMATES: Be on the ready to help each other!!

  • In IEA shows with a “live” draw, it is your responsibility to be on time for your draw, dressed with number and helmet on. Listen to the announcer!

  • Keep your clothing and accessories and barn equipment neat and organized throughout the day. I don’t want to find messes ANYWHERE!

  • Always support your teammates and the other riders at the show NO MATTER WHAT! Someone not doing the same? Stick with who YOU ARE. Who you are shines even brighter against the backdrop of others who are not so sparkly. Join in and you become absorbed into their errors and soon no one can tell where you end and they begin. We ALL have our fair share of triumph and challenges, and the BEST riders delight in others’ success and encourage each other in tough times.

  • NEVER disparage ANY horse or pony, especially at an IEA show where it seems as if no one in particular is attached to them, and draw types vary widely, and how easy or difficult they are to operate can greatly impact your day. Always remember each horse or pony is someone’s favorite baby, and means the world to that person. ALL horses, no matter their packaging and ability, have value and something to give. It is perfectly fine to discuss (only at an IEA) the horses’ strengths and weaknesses with regard to how to ride them (Just not in a condescending, unkindly manner).

  • At a non-IEA event, there is no need to point out weaknesses (unless you have a quiet question for me for learning purposes) concerning any horses. Admiring another’s horse, however, is encouraged!


EACH OTHER: Mentoring

Mentoring is so important at our farm. Our adult clients lead the way for our teens, and they in turn support not only each other, but I expect them to set a great example for our younger and/or less experienced riders. As time passes, those students nurture the newcomers.

Learn all you can…and then share!

There are times when you and your family are going to wish this sport was easier, more understandable, followable, predictable, had a different format, different rules, more “fair,” etc., but this type of focus diminishes your enjoyment of all the good things around you, and slows your progress with the wasted energy and misdirected attention. Embrace the realities of your sport and accept them. Work hard, and fully experience the highs, lows, and plateaus, and celebrate your awesome journey as AN AMAZING EQUESTRIAN ATHLETE!


Riders & Family members…

Please read thoroughly!

Ask Questions!


*Refer to this often…and I’ll always have copies on hand if anyone ever needs a refresher!*

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