Five Things I’ve Learned Returning to the Show Ring Five Years Later

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BY Summer Grace

A few weeks ago, I showed for the first time in over five years and at a venue I’d never competed at before. I first came to Traverse City Horse Shows in 2021; it was the year I left my old job and my longest relationship, and the year I lost the thing I loved most in this world – my horse Abraham.

Coming to the venue and being in the stunning scenery and weather of Northern Michigan left me reinvigorated and reignited the desire I had to compete once again. Achieving that actual goal however, took a few years. It was a horse show experience unlike any of the ones I’d had prior, and I’m grateful for the experience. It also taught me, or reminded me, of some important lessons. Let’s jump in: 

1) The right trainer/horse combo can make it possible.

So, while I had big dreams of competing at TCHS, the problem was I was terrified of actually jumping around. A few months following my last competition in 2018, my heart horse and show mount became a bolter. Whether from age, pain, or something else we couldn’t figure out his bolting episodes continued at random for several years and each time I hit the ground full speed.

Long story short, I developed a serious anxiety jumping and right when he and I had finally found our way back to where we were and were entered to show again, he passed away unexpectedly the week before. I’ve helped develop several young horses since but never quite regained my confidence and after having not ridden in months, I pretty much thought my jumping career was over when I started with Northern Pines Farm this past June.

Despite that thought, I was stubbornly determined to give it one more shot and I signed up for a lesson with a trainer I had never met and horses I didn’t know. It was the best thing I could’ve done for myself. With the help of a different training style and some incredibly saintly horses (like sweet mr. Dylan here), I quickly rediscovered some confidence and landed back in a show ring faster than I ever imagined possible. 

Photo by: Megan Giese Photography

2) Let any expectations you have go and it will probably turn out better than you planned. 

My last show was the Low Adult Classic during WEF12 and it was the biggest class I had ever competed in. I had shown strictly jumpers for a long time and had worked so hard with my horse through multiple WEF seasons to finally be at the point that we could show in the Low Adult division. It was something that I was so proud of, and also something that I felt like it had taken me so much longer to accomplish than it did the people around me.

The students I had once groomed ponies for were now riding in the Low and Medium Juniors and I was over the moon to do my first 3’3” class. Needless to say, the Summer of that time frame would’ve been condescending and judgemental of herself for getting back in the ring to the tune of the 2’6” Low Adult Hunter/Equitation. However, that may be one of the best things about my break (and my jumping crisis) is that I truly did not care one bit what anyone thought.

After so many years of not being able to finish a course, panic attacks, and complete loss of faith and enjoyment in riding, I could not have been happier with the fact that I managed to lay down three days worth of full courses at one of the most prestigious summer events (and I thank Melissa and Dylan for making that possible!) 

3) Take care of your horse as much as you can yourself. 

Back when I used to show my own horse, I did all of my own care. He was bathed, groomed, tacked, hacked, wrapped, packed, fed, and blanketed by my own two hands. I’ve been fortunate enough to have many experiences competing at one of the world’s best venues, but only because I finessed my way into it as cheap as I possibly could. This time I had a full barn behind me complete with working students and a bill that could cover his complete care should I choose not to participate.

But guess what? I absolutely did as much of his own care myself as I could because a vast majority of what I enjoyed about showing in the past and in the present is the time with my partner. I am overly grateful to the girls on my team that helped make it possible to juggle competing and working in the same weekend, but I am also especially glad that I was able to be so involved.

Our morning hacks in the show ring were COLD and they were EARLY. I typically had to go straight from a hack to shooting coverage of a class, but I am grateful for the time I spent with him in the morning as it helped me understand how he was feeling that day, how I was feeling that day, and where I needed to make adjustments.

Wrapping his legs and removing his braids after the class felt right after he took such great care of me and delivered such beautiful trips, and taking him out for nightly grass was the only way I could try to make up for the fact that he was stall-bound overnight whereas he normally would’ve had the field to himself overnight.

I know not everyone has the time to do this and that many people are juggling spouses, family, work, and more throughout their day, but my point is to give to your horse what you can. I am a firm believer that your mount, whether you own him or have ridden him for a week, will always do more for you if he knows you and knows you care. 

Photo by: Megan Giese Photography

4) Practice your breathing.

This one seems kind of odd but it’s more important than I think many of us realize. I began working with a personal trainer in the gym this summer and there has been one thing she has had to remind me of repeatedly more than anything else: BREATH. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not good at thinking about that minor human function when in a stressful state or high-intensity environment, but guess what your breath affects your nervous system and your nervous system affects how you perform.

I’ve always got show jitters walking into the ring and I am the worst at holding my breath while jumping, therefore I was nervous to say the least about how I would handle my first course in a new arena. I mentioned this concern in passing to my coach at the gym and she quickly walked me through the 4x4x4 technique (breath in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, then exhale for four seconds) and I executed it as I sat outside of the ingate. Nerves = gone. 

5)  Appreciate the older horses. 

The horse I competed on at TCHS is 15 years old and is up for sale through the farm. He is not by any means the oldest horse you will see in competition; however, it seems to be becoming rarer and rarer that horses in their mid-teens are still considered capable athletes. McLain Ward’s best mounts are 15, 16, 17 years old and still competing at international level. These horses are fierce competitors on their own, but their age and experience brings another depth of value to their performances.

I appreciate the young horses and I appreciate the ability of every capable rider to bring them along. Prior to riding up north, the last horse I had ridden was a four year old and before him I had purchased a freshly six year old mare. They were both excellent horses, but they were not the horses I needed to regain my confidence. Most of my time in the saddle with them was spent developing their presence, rideability, and demeanor instead of being able to focus on and work through my own crippling anxiety.

While I have had fantastic lessons on other horses besides Dylan in my time at my new farm, I don’t know that there would’ve been an animal I trusted more to take me back into the show ring. His experience and wisdom made him completely unflappable as soon as we hit the warm up no matter if it was windy, cold, or loud and I trusted that even if I made a mistake to a fence he had the experience to get through safely for us both. 

Photo by: Megan Giese Photography

My added bonus lesson: Surround yourself with supportive people. I’ve always been one to keep to myself in the barn. Most of the time I had my horse he was on self-care and I was one of few, if not the only person in the barn. The few times we stayed at boarding or show facilities I found myself hurrying to leave as I didn’t enjoy the drama that was associated with boarders or grooms.

However, the group of girls and women I have found at my new farm are tight-knit, funny, and overwhelmingly supportive. There has been no judgment in my efforts to regain confidence, no sense that they think I am not one of them because I am a paying client or because I no longer make my money in the stable.

While the majority of my weekend was made incredible by the amazing rounds Dylan put down and the feeling of having such confidence to do so, I think what truly made it special was to be able to share it with this group of like-minded women. So thank you to Melissa, Megan, Abbey, Kaily, Missy, Ava, Laura, Melody, and overall Dylano for helping me find my way back.

Author Bio

Summer Grace started riding at age 7 and, with close proximity to the Winter Equestrian Festival, and has worked in a variety of facets of the horse show community. She obtained her degree in Multimedia Journalism and jumped right into equestrian media. Summer founded her own Flaxen Mane Media in 2021 and lives a full-time RV life, traveling to horse shows across the country with her dog Hank and cat Charlie.