Wouldn’t you love to be known as the coolest horse show parent around? To be raved about by your own kids proudly as someone who has not only nailed their role but rocks it? Yes, it can be you!
Know your role
There is no doubt you will wear many hats as a horse show parent. As an integral part of their team, you are part pit crew, part sponsor, part groom and certainly lead cheerleader. But there is one thing you should not be and that is a coach.
Coaching when you are not the coach, whether it’s at home or from the sidelines, can cause considerable stress for your young rider. You could be offering advice opposite to the coach, leaving your child confused and worried about pleasing you both. You could be sending a message you don’t intend to, such as “I don’t think you’re riding well” or “you’re disappointing me.”
Want to know the most important reason for you to curb your coaching? Because your child needs a parent, regardless of their age. The day they are overwhelmed, disappointed or worse, they will need you. And they will not be able to come to you if they think they’re going to be judged or corrected. So make it easy for them to access your support in times of need and leave the riding stuff to the coach.
Respect the bubble
Every rider, regardless of their age, has their own preferences when it comes to their personal space at horse shows. The younger rider may need more hands on help, physically and emotionally, right up to ring time. The teen usually requires a lot less, but may still want to know where you are in case a need arises.
Never assume that you need to do everything for your child at a horse show. Ask them what their needs are both in terms of physical assistance and emotional support, then ask when you should not be around or at least be silent. When is “bubble time”? Respect the bubble.
Be a team player
Even though riding is an individual sport, keep in mind that you are part of a larger community. Take care not to gossip negatively about other riders, coaches or parents. This is behavior that, while tempting, can create conflict for you and your rider. You are not going to like everyone and not everyone will like you. But you can practice being a leader in your horse community by being respectful and helpful.
By doing so, you are contributing to an atmosphere of respect and value for all performers. We all know those individuals at a horse show who are ready to help someone in need, be it a parent, volunteer or rider. Be someone who promotes all aspects of good sportsmanship, including those that relate to your child’s equine teammate. Insist on fair and respectful treatment of horses as partners and not just tools in competition. Be that person.
Watch your alignment
It’s easy to have lofty goals about horse show parenting—to believe you will never be the kind of sport parent you read or hear about on the evening news. You know the kind. The ugly sport parent. The one who is clearly living through their child, taking things too seriously and ruining it for everyone. The truth is, it can be you if you don’t take care to make sure your actions support your goals.
Maybe you say you want your child to learn good sportsmanship but then complain about other parents. You say, “I just want you to have fun, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get a ribbon” but then ride home in disappointed silence from the show. Take care to make sure your behavior is in line with what you say you want for your young rider. If in any doubt, get brave and ask them—do I walk my talk? Most will be happy to fill you in on their opinion and even offer suggestions for improvement.
Some riders will go on to become elite riders, but many more will not. At some point, they will leave the sport, richer for their experience, and move onto other endeavors. So keep competition in perspective for both yourself and your young rider. Always separate riding disappointments from personal failure for your child. The loss of a ribbon should not reflect on their value as a person, or suggest they are a “failure.” And remember that ribbons are not the only kind of wins. Make sure you celebrate participation, effort, horsemanship and planning with your rider. Horse sport has so much to offer, there is no reason to miss out.
Get your game face on
We can and do get engaged emotionally in sport, it’s part of what makes it so much fun. So yes, you will experience anger, anxiety and elation. The problem is if you are not aware and in control of these emotions they can negatively impact your young rider’s experience. Like a world-class rider, be ready with your own tools for regulating competition stress. Know what your triggers are: unfairness, your child’s attitude, tiredness. Everyone is a little different. Then develop some tools for yourself in the form of distractions, positive tasks or perception checks.
When emotions are intense, physiological changes occur that compromise decision-making. It’s a fact, and we have to work with it, not ignore it. Be prepared for a self-directed time out when necessary. Practice damage control. Remove yourself from the stands, edge of the field or any proximity that would otherwise leave you vulnerable to interfering behavior. Know that if you have to communicate with your rider, coach or someone else you will. But only after you have had a chance to come down from your emotional response. Only then can you ensure your intended message will have the best chance of being heard.
Get your funny on
One of the most underrated de-stressing tools has to be the use of humor. It can help diffuse tension and provide perspective. So in your quest to be the best horse show parent you can be, do cultivate your comedic side. If you’re having fun and being relaxed, your rider will feel free to do so as well.
About the Author
April Clay is a rider and sports psychologist in Calgary, Alberta. Read more about her at www.ridingoutofyourmind.com. Want to learn more about mental toughness for horse show parents and riders? Check out the course offerings at www.outofyourmindcourses.com.