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Tips for Horse Show Parents

TIPS FOR HORSE SHOW PARENTS Karen L. Waite, M.S, Ph. D. candidate in Sports Psychology Equine Extension Specialist Michigan State University

Young rider with their horse and coach

Introduction Like any youth sport, showing horses provides parents and children with countless opportunities to learn and grow together. Time spent traveling to shows and lessons, celebrating success, and even treating sick or injured animals provide positive life lessons and memories that will last a lifetime. There is also no question that, given the cost and logistics of showing horses, parents typically must be involved in the experience. This is where things may get complicated. Over the past several years, the media has shown several examples of inappropriate parental behavior in youth sports. While we may not have seen this type of horse show behavior on the six o’clock news, it happens from time to time.

The question then becomes, “What is a parent to do?” Clearly, it’s important that youth enjoy showing horses, or they will quit doing it. For some children, if they do not receive a “push,” they won’t expend the effort required to practice. At the same time, some children respond negatively to the slightest encouragement. The purpose of this article is to highlight research done in the field of sports psychology, which details how to “keep the fun in swimming” for youth. This work can be easily applied to showing horses as well.

Fun is a Factor There is a great deal of research to support the concept that young people get involved in sports when they are fun and stop participating when they aren’t (Weiss, 2004). A 1996 survey completed by USA Swimming reported the results of interviews with 48 youth swimmers (aged 8-18) from three separate swimming clubs. The general focus of the survey looked at what made swimming fun for youth, but two questions focused on the things that parents do to “make swimming fun” or “to take away from the fun of swimming.” It doesn’t take much to realize that the responses would likely be the same whether we discuss swimming or showing horses.

Young showman in a halter competition

Provide Support for Your Child One very strong theme that emerged from the swimming study was that parents “…increase the fun in swimming by providing unconditional encouragement and support.” Likewise, the physical presence of a parent at horse shows and interest in the child’s showing efforts, regardless of performance outcomes, will go a long way toward increasing enjoyment at horse shows.

Don’t Push Too Much In regards to detracting from the fun of swimming, a strong theme was that “…excessive pushing by their parents to practice, compete and perform well detracted from the fun of swimming.” Likewise, excessive focus on practicing, taking riding lessons, “winning the blue,” and money spent will certainly detract from the fun of showing horses. The financial pressures of showing horses can be great, but these are adult responsibilities that children are often developmentally unable to fully grasp. If a parent is using finances as a reason to push a child in showing horses, they should reevaluate if the family truly should be participating at the chosen level.

Learn Optimal Push Interestingly, youth in the swimming study also believed that there could be a positive side to “parental pushing.” Youth felt that “…a slight push from parents can enhance subsequent enjoyment, and…is often needed.” Likewise, some youth respond positively to a well-timed push to work with a horse. The key is that there is a fine line between a positive and negative push and the amount may be different for each child, and the optimal amount of pre-show work required may also differ from horse to horse. Knowing how much is enough for each child, and horse, is critical!

Be the Parent…Not the Coach or Horse Trainer The final theme that clearly emerged from the swimming study quite easily can be applied to showing horses. “When parents take on the role and responsibility of the coach, it takes away from the fun in swimming.” Likewise, unless the parent actually has credibility as a horse trainer or coach, and the child has agreed that they would like their input, the role of the parent should be to provide unconditional support, if showing horses is to remain enjoyable.

Recognizing the Signs of Burnout While the purpose of this article is to help parents keep riding fun for children, it is important to note that riding may become less enjoyable for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with parents. When children begin to feel that riding is becoming less enjoyable for whatever reason, they may demonstrate signs of burnout. These signs include “…avoidance of training sessions or the barn itself, lack of effort at lessons or shows, a lackadaisical attitude about riding, irritability around the barn or during discussions about riding, an extended slackening off in performance, crying spells, impatience with one’s horse or frequent battles of will, among others.” (Edgette, 1996). When you notice these signs in your child, it is time to look more closely at the situation and ask questions before they decide to stop riding entirely.

Conclusion Without parental support, it would be extremely difficult for most children to experience the fun and excitement of showing horses. In order to keep competitive activities fun, including showing horses, children suggest that parents should provide unconditional support and provide the optimum amount of push or motivation for the individual young person to succeed.

Additional Resources

Edgette, Janet Sasson. 1996. Heads Up! Practical Sports Psychology for Riders, Their Families and Their Trainers. Doubleday Equestrian Library, New York, New York.

HorseQuest Learning Lesson: Horse Adult Leader Training and Educational Resource (HALTER)

Skelly, Christine. 2007. Selecting the Right Youth Horse. My Horse University and eXtension HorseQuest Webcast.

Waite, Karen. 2008. Top Ten Tips for Coaching Youth Riders. My Horse University and eXtension HorseQuest Webcast.

Weiss, Maureen R. 2004. Developmental Sport and Exercise Psychology: A Lifespan Perspective. Fitness Information Technology Inc. Morgantown, WV.

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