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Strategies to Help Horse Show Parents and Teens Beat the Losing Slump

Horse showing provides an incredible opportunity for learning some important life lessons for both teens and their parents. Sportsmanship, competition, and learning to deal with losing can serve as the basis for significant teachable moments for parents. We have a unique role to play in helping our children keep their perspective, and we can provide important emotional support during tough times, as well.

Good parenting skills come into play, especially when the child who is accustomed to winning doesn't win. A situation like this certainly does provide a dose of what real life is like. Even the best rider will experience some type of slump sometime during her career. The slump may result from a bad fall, a change in horses or fence heights, a green horse with some bad habits, or just an off day that leads to a fall and a loss of confidence.

When something happens to shake the rider's confidence, a difficult cycle may ensue with additional problems, more loss of confidence, and more tears and frustration. Riding is tough, as it requires two athletes who must be well matched in what they are doing. It is not like swimming, tennis, or golf where the "equipment", in this case, our horse, can stop, get spooked, or have an off day. It is not like basketball or soccer where the team members can come to your rescue and cover for you. Riding requires that both the horse and the rider be in sync with each other. As parents, it's painfully difficult to watch your rider during a slump.

You watch the frustration grow and your child's attitude become more difficult, which is how many preteens or teens cope with the situation. When you observe the team out of sync, you ask yourself, "Is it the horse or the rider?" Oftentimes, we can find opportunities to provide some insight and guidance that might help a child grow up and gain perspective on the situation. Other times our mere presence can be cause for an outburst and harsh words, which is really a reaction to the situation, not to the parents.

I know first-hand what a slump can feel like and all of the agonizing questioning that plagues the parent. It's a struggle to figure out how to help, how to stay out of the way, and what words of encouragement to give to keep going. It can take all the fun out of horse showing and turns some weekends into mini-dramas. However painful they are, these experiences are important learning experiences for children.

It is a particularly important time for us to step in as parents and figure out how to help a child work through whatever the issues are. Some action steps include: 1. Talk with the trainer privately and get her/his take on the situation. Determine what he thinks might be happening, what might be the cause of the slump, and what kind of plan is needed to help the child. Does it mean more or fewer lessons, more or less time riding, a different horse, a different show schedule, or a change in fence height? Would more time in the ring (what our trainer calls mileage) make a difference? This is your opportunity for a frank conversation and to share each of your perspectives. As the parent, you may be able to point out some information on your child.

I always trust my trainer with regard to the horse and the lesson plan, but I know my child very well and can add some insight or information on her emotional state. Please make sure the conversation is private, between you and the trainer, not at the ring for all to hear. Above all, don't use this conversation as an opportunity to accuse or challenge the trainer. 2.

Talk with your child in a supportive way when you sense there is an opportunity. Oftentimes, the most important thing you can do is simply listen to her frustration, fear, concern, burnout, and worries. Listening can be hard at a time when you're tempted to offer advice, but jumping in to offer advice may not help the child face her own inner voice.

The child needs to be able to tell you what she feels and thinks. Actively listening to her gives her the opportunity to voice what she feels. 3.

Adjust expectations. Maybe this will not be the year when your rider qualifies for national finals or indoors. Instead, maybe this is a practice year of helping your child try to do her best by helping her set realistic expectations so she isn't constantly disappointed. Perhaps your horse's performance is at peak this year, and despite it being below the level you desire, you have to accept his level of jumping and preparedness. I know many riders dream about having the perfectly-made horse, but the reality is what it is, and you need to help your rider cope if this is the case. 4.

Set other types of goals. Help your child set some other goals related to riding, or perhaps, not riding-related at all. Perhaps the goals are focused on how how many jumps she does well or how she rides rather than the ribbons that she wins. Perhaps recognizing how she keeps trying and working is what is needed. Point out other things that are going well in her life, like grades, school activities, a new relationship, a volunteer opportunity, or whatever you can identify as a goal to be accomplished. Look for positives in her performance and acknowledge her hard work.

5. Review if you have the right horse for her level of riding. This can be a difficult evaluation, given the cost of horses, but a serious review may be in order. Adding to the difficulty is that kids fall in love with their horses.

If you determine there's a rider/horse mismatch, consider leasing a horse for a few shows to help your child regain confidence. Or, maybe there are other horses in the barn from which to pick for competition. Include your trainer in the conversation to ensure that the horse is well matched to the skill of the rider. 6. Make sure that there is an adequate amount of preparation, training, and sleep before a show.

Do your best to make sure the rider shows up rested, well trained and ready for the level of show. Do not underestimate the value of a good night's sleep and rest. Consider trying some local shows, a lower distance, or whatever else might assist in better preparation before a show. 7.

Watch for signs of burnout. When your rider seems burned out, the best remedy may be to get some distance from showing. Constant frustration takes its toll.

Worries, bad dreams, and anxiety can bring on some of the symptoms of burnout, indicating that some time off is in order. The child may need permission from you to take a break or even quit altogether. Through it all, remember that the job of the parents is to be the unconditional fan - that person that cheers them on whether they win or lose. We have to provide the support, encouragement, and listening ear to help our children grow into strong adults. Trying to keep your own cool and sorting out your own emotions with other adults is not easy, especially when we're trying to play cheerleader to a rider who isn't doing so well.

Stay encouraging and supportive, and most importantly, keep your own box of Kleenex handy. Copyright (c) 2007 Kathy Keeley.

Veteran show mom Kathy Keeley is founder of, the first online community created especially for horseshow mothers and daughters who want to learn how to successfully navigate the horseshow circuit and maintain a great mother-daughter relationship. Sign up for our free email newsletter, The Savvy Show Mom, at


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