Better Horsemanship at Home: 6 Show-Ring Alternatives to Inspire Your Students

Without show competition or outside events as motivation, riding instructors must provide challenges that keep students stretching, learning and growing.

Long before the pandemic pressed pause on our local show schedule, we realized the importance of creating fun, motivational challenges for students at home.

Not everyone has the budget, the trained horse, the truck and trailer or the available weekends required for horse shows. Not everyone wants to show — for students struggling with anxiety or confidence issues, the pressure cooker of a crowded show ring can be a nightmare instead of a dream.

Even students who like to get out and compete may find themselves homebound for long periods of time. Horses go lame, trucks require repair, and life’s little plot twists can interfere with all kinds of plans.

But progress rarely occurs in a comfort zone.

Without show competition or outside events as motivation, riding instructors must provide challenges that keep students stretching, learning and growing

As always, we find this works best when it’s accompanied by a healthy dose of FUN.

Students love hashtag challenges

In recent years, we’ve seen the internet used in some wild and wonderful ways to keep people connected. Many students enjoy taking part in a worldwide trend, especially those old enough to have and use their own social media accounts.

Watching the enthusiastic participation in challenges such as the #onepolechallenge inspired us to create our own series in 2021. Our Level Up students were given an opportunity every month to put their own spin on a challenge — and delighted us with their creativity.

The challenges even inspired some behind-the-scenes horse and donkey training!

collage of students performing cupid shuffle challenge for #stayathomehorsemanship

You could host a similar program encouraging students to complete challenges using a monthly calendar. Award points toward end-of-year prizes; our students received special medals and saddle pads for their enthusiastic participation.

Or you could simply create your own hashtag challenge to share in your barn’s newsletter and/or social media feeds. (TIP: Make sure your challenge is beginner-friendly so everyone can give it a try!)

Obstacle courses are a fun option for lessons or home-based shows

Students of all ages enjoy the puzzle of obstacles — and you can work all kinds of little lessons into a well-designed course.

We’ve had our students practice straightness, bending, lateral work, emergency drills and transitions using obstacles made from simple arena equipment such as cones and ground poles.

For many students, negotiating the obstacles may be challenge enough. For others, you can turn the course into a timed event for individuals or relay teams. Advanced students can run two rounds, trading horses between each round to level the playing field.

Don’t forget to establish rules for missed obstacles, and cheer for every horse and rider as they cross the finish line!

horsemanship student rides mountain trail obstacle course

One of the best things about obstacle courses is that they add an element of thrill to otherwise “boring” skills that can be practiced at the walk.

For this reason, we use a non-competitive obstacle course as the main event in our end-of-camp shows. Each station on the course represents a skill that campers have learned earlier in the week, and we play music for each camper as they ride through the course to applause from friends and family.

Use versatile jumping games to create horsemanship challenges

Like obstacle courses, many traditional jumping contests can be modified for beginners — and for riders who don’t typically jump.

And while you can make good use of them, you don’t even really need jump standards and poles! There are plenty of fun and engaging activities that can be modified with “invisible jumps,” with bending poles, barrels or cones taking the place of empty standards.

student rides over barrel during horsemanship jumping game

Our students play variations on Take Your Own Line, and several times a year we mark courses for a strategic game of Gambler’s Choice. Games of Chase Me Charlie can max out at 12” step-over obstacles, or you can play a different kind of elimination game using short ground poles where the “jumps” get narrower and narrower.

Find fun ways for students to best the test

Dressage tests are an excellent — and often revealing — way for students to evaluate their flatwork skills.

Since we require students to ride tests as part of the Yellow, Blue and Purple Horsemanship Levels, we set up a dressage ring several times a year so that everyone can practice, even if they have no plans to ride a test competitively.

Dressage often gets a bad rap with children, or riders who prefer their equine activities to be high on adrenaline. Putting together a successful test requires patience, persistence and attention to detail — which don’t always come easily!

For this reason, we try to make the process of riding a test as interactive and creative as possible. Tests are practiced on foot in hilarious human trains or aboard hobbyhorses with ultra-fancy names.

fun way to learn your dressage test

Once students are ready to tackle their tests on the back of a real horse, everyone gets their ride filmed and can star in an edited highlight reel.

Test sheets are scored and filled with encouraging comments, and a crown or tiara is awarded to the rider with the best percentage score of the season, along with the title of Dressage Test King or Queen.

Help students learn horsemanship skills with mounted games

Maybe we’re biased, since we spent many pleasurable years playing games with Pony Club, USMGA and MGAA. But we still think mounted games are one of the best “sneaky” riding educations out there.

You’ll see your students learning about alignment, half-halts, bending and leg yielding, while developing coordinated aids, balance and a secure lower leg. They’ll think they’re just having a good time putting the ball in the net, or pulling the sword from the cone!

At HorseSense, we incorporate relevant mounted games into lessons on a regular basis, especially for younger riders.

horsemanship student throws ball in mounted games hi-low net

Our biannual tournaments allow teams or pairs to race head to head. Divisions are offered for Leadline or beginner riders in need of assistance; for Novice riders who can walk/trot/canter but may still play the games at a slower pace; and for Masters, or students with previous experience who can handle some more intense speed.

You do need willing equine participants to play mounted games safely. School horses should be desensitized to all of the props and equipment and comfortable with students leaning to either side. Neck-reining experience is helpful, as is the ability to work in close proximity to other horses.

Don’t forget to inspire your students’ unmounted learning, too

Students often need a challenge to spark their pursuit of unmounted knowledge.

In fact, we sometimes find they need more incentive out of the saddle than in it. Actively studying, even when it’s about horses, can feel like work to some students, especially those who struggle with school.

Regular Level Up Clinics and Camps can jump-start a student’s progress through the HorseSense Levels, as can fun, engaging unmounted lessons.

One of the most successful motivational tools we’ve used is an annual summer HorseSense Challenge.

Each unmounted objective completed earns the student a point toward a grand prize. The trick is to find a prize that students really want to earn — and to host the challenge during a school holiday!

HorseSense summer challenge leaderboard with scores and ribbons

No matter how you challenge students at home, make sure it is a confidence-building experience

students high-five for encouragement at in-house show

In-house competition should be supportive and friendly. Encourage collaboration and excellent sportsmanship.

Students should always feel like they can succeed without their accomplishment coming at the expense of others or their horse.

And if a student tries their hand at a challenge and struggles, or reveals weaknesses in their horsemanship, help them see this as an exciting opportunity. They’ve just learned new information about themselves and their horses, and can create an action plan to improve.

Most importantly, they’ve tried something new. The only way to fail at a challenge is not to attempt it at all!

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We’ve been blessed with many talented photographers over the years: students who voluntarily stood in sweltering/ freezing arenas, capturing lifelong memories of lessons, camps and shows. We’re grateful to all of them!

One former student, Delaney Witbrod, is now a professional photographer with a gift for animal portraits – see more of her fine work here. We’re also grateful for photos of Western riding donated by LLPro instructors – particularly Bit of Pleasure Horse School and Joyful Hearts Photography!

You’ll find illustrations throughout our online courses and printed materials graciously donated by our friend Rhonda Hagy. Evan Surrusco contributes additional illustrations and handles most of our photo processing. Contact us for information about their work.

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