Horseback Riding

Making Horse Shows Fun for Kids

June 22, 2009

How to help youth succeed in the horse-showing ring while having a great time.

Natalie Leuci of Lisle, New York, shows Justa Good Deal in small fry showmanship. (Journal photo)

Natalie Leuci of Lisle, New York, shows Justa Good Deal in small fry showmanship, proving just how fun horse showing is for youth. Journal photo.

By AQHA Professional Horseman Tom McBeath with Jody Reynolds

AQHA Professional Horseman Tom McBeath of Union, Mississippi, makes sure that showing is both fun and educational for youth. He sees to it that his youth riders get the most out of their horse show experiences, because he believes firmly in the benefits of youth showing. It builds character, confidence, leadership, responsibility, persistence and countless other life skills. Tom offers some tips on how to help kids succeed in their show ring endeavors.

Find the Right Horse
For kids to have fun in the show ring, they’ve got to have the right teammate, and they’ve got to start with classes they’re interested in, Tom says.

“I always give them the option to do what they want, and I try to find a horse for it,” he says. “We try to buy horses that have a foundation that we can shape.”

Many of today’s Quarter Horses, both in and out of the show pen, have Doc Bar blood flowing through their veins. Learn more about Doc Bar with the Doc Bar Bloodline report.

He looks for horses with talent, gentle dispositions and willingness to tolerate young riders.

“The toughest part is finding broke horses that the kids’ll like, and that the parents and I want to have around,” he says. “Their personalities must click, or you’re wasting time and money.”

Tom often suggests older, all-around horses for beginning riders.

“The kids’ll stay in the business longer if parents worry more about buying a nice horse that’s fun to ride and show, rather than one that’s going to win every time,” he says. “It’s a problem when parents buy an expensive horse the kids aren’t ready for and can’t get along with. There’s too much pressure because of what the horse cost, and they’ll burn out sooner.”

Start Small
For kids to enjoy the competition of horse showing, they need to feel a sense of accomplishment and reward for their efforts. So Tom starts his youth riders at levels in which they can be competitive.

“That’s the great part of AQHA — it has novice, youth and different divisions,” he says. “Without novice, we’d all be in trouble. We have many kids who’d quit if they had to show in the regular youth classes against kids who’ve been showing a long time.”

Then he makes sure to reward his riders based on their efforts and improvements.

“If you don’t win, I’m happy as long as you do your best,” he says. “If you win, and you happen to be the best of the worst, I am not happy. Being first is not always good. You have to go out and do your best. You can be horrible, and I’ll be tickled to death if that’s the best you can be that day. I try to encourage the people around me to keep in mind that it’s not bad to be last. It’s bad to be bad. If you go out and try your best and do your best, you can be satisfied with that. If the kids understand that, then they’re not disappointed if they don’t win.”

Give Honest Encouragement
Tom makes a point not to lavishly dish out praise. He wants his riders to know he’s being sincere.

“When I tell you you’ve done a good job, you know you’ve done a good job, and you better be proud of it,” he says. “I see too many people who tell their kids, ‘That was so wonderful,’ when it was horrible. If you lie to kids, you cheat them. I let them know when I’m proud of what they’ve done.”

If your Quarter Horse doesn’t have Doc Bar on his papers, you probably know someone whose horse does. Learn more about Doc Bar in the Doc Bar Bloodline Report.

After a while, Tom’s riders learn to judge their performances for themselves.

“They learn what’s good and what’s bad,” he says.

Children will thrive from knowing their hard work is helping them become better, more competitive riders, Tom says. And seeing improvement makes showing fun.

Teach Responsibility
“It has always been my goal for the kids to be able to get on their horse, ride it, school it and go show it on their own,” he says. “We have so many kids at our barn, that it’s impossible for me to wind all the horses up, put the kids on them and send them to the pen. Plus, I don’t want a bunch of wind-up kids, because I think it’s a waste of time and money.”

Know When to Switch Gears
If show life becomes mundane for kids, Tom suggests spicing things up by working on a new event that’s within the child’s and horse’s capabilities Maybe a new show scene — such as rodeos, cuttings or ropings — is all the rider needs to be challenged and have fun.

For instance, allow them to switch from English to western or from horsemanship to trail.

“It’s got to be fun, and it’s got to be what they want to do,” he says. “We should focus on the classes they want to show in, so they can become better in those. Then maybe they’ll want to do other classes as they become more comfortable.”

Tom’s Tips:

  • Set realistic goals.
  • Stay organized at shows.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on children; don’t be too serious about winning.
  • Kids remember the little things, not how they placed in a class.
  • There will always be another weekend and another horse show.
  • Teach and practice responsibility.
  • Guide them; don’t do it for them.