AQHA
Congress Warm Up Arena Survival Tips
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"Off Hour Riding can also be better for your horse, because the footing is fresher and less packed. Photo © GoHorseShow.com

The bright lights, throngs of people and horses, trucks galore, late nights and early mornings and apple dumplings means one thing to quarter horse people: The All-American Quarter Horse Congress. So with thousands of horses starting to descend upon Columbus, Ohio this week, you can imagine that the roads will be packed with pick up trucks and the restaurants with cowboy hats! 

The other places that receive high volume traffic are the warm up arenas at the Congress. Lots of horses, various disciplines all sharing the same riding space can create a number of problems including horses running into each other, banged up knees, spooked horses (and riders) and exchanges of not so nice words.

So how do riders survive the Congress warm up arenas?

1. Know Your Horse 

Hopefully, you have spent some time with you horse and know how he behaves in traffic and how much time he needs for warm up. 

Brent Maxwell, Ohio Professional Horseman and longtime Congress exhibitor shares, “Know how much traffic your horse can handle and how much prep he takes. The Overhang by Congress Hall is the worst for mixed disciplines, because it is so close to the show arenas.--avoid it if your horse can’t handle the traffic.”

Not only do you not want to cause a wreck or injury, but you also want the most comfortable and relaxed horse prior to your performance. Running into someone else is not going to help your horse get ready to show.

2. Make a Plan B 

Whether you are driving on 64 bypass in rush hour or the Congress warm up arenas, you have to be a defensive driver. Some riders get distracted or at times, have a horse behavior problem--so you have to make a Plan B all the time. 

“There are lots of quick turns, stops and squeezing through tight spots between other horses so a horse that will trust the rider makes these maneuvers much easier. Then, it comes down to being alert and a defensive driver,” says Multi-Congress Champion Trainer Jerry Erickson. He suggests keeping your eyes always surveying the crowd and looking for a path that will work. 

Last year’s Congress Hunt Seat Masters Reserve Champion, Scott Jones, agrees, “Ride ahead of yourself and have a plan where you can go if you need to change course.”

And remember this is “practice”, so if you are working through a horsemanship pattern and someone cruises through your cones, take a deep breath and try to remember that everyone is trying to make the space work. Then, set out to redo your pattern, or even break it down in pieces and parts. If your horse knows the pieces, you can put it all together in the arena. 

Trainer and past Congress Champion, Karen Evans Mundy, recommends, "Do your homework and training of skills before you get to the show. It is extremely hard to work to teach new maneuvers at the show--let the warm up arena be for exercising and reinforcing parts of your ride."

3. Off Hour Riding 

Overwhelmingly, riding in off hours seems to be the best situation for horses that have a difficult time with traffic or are simply green and need a little more space and time to settle in. 

World and Congress Champion trainer, Katie Jo Zuidema says she hits the arenas before the crowd does around 9:30 to 10:00 am. “I try to get all mine rode by nine or ten in the morning if the schedule permits. I've always had luck getting the most effective rides in before all the traffic and the people show up,” she says. 

The main arenas also have discipline focused riding schedules posted each day allowing exhibitors to ride in the main arenas with similarly ridden horses. Make sure you check the arena schedules so you can plan your night and set your alarm.

Off Hour Riding can also be better for your horse, because the footing is fresher and less packed. AQHA Professional Horsewoman Lainie DeBoer says, “When I school at the shows and we can school the course, I try to get in the earliest times available so I can utilize the best footing for my horses to jump on. When there is a lot of horses jumping the ground gets chewed up, and it can cause a horse to sustain injuries. So, I do my best to give them the nicest footing possible.”

As a side note, the Sweet Shop is open 24 hours a day, so there is always something warm and a coffee pot brewing for those late shift riders!

4. Look Up and See the Signs 

One of the most basic skills of riding is often ignored when we get busy evaluating where our horses heads are set. As experienced riders and trainers, we should have a feel for this way before we get to this show, but it is a good reminder when riding with more people. 

AQHA Judge and Author, Stephanie Lynn suggests watching for signs as well, ”be aware of the negative signs the horse ahead of you is giving (tail swishing, ears pinned, sideways motion, active spurs) will help you avoid mishaps."

Also, recognize that various disciplines have different challenges and ways of training, and those don’t always mesh well. So identify types of riders and horses to help anticipate how they will respond. Western horses can stop suddenly, have their hips pushed in, and have fast turnarounds, where hunt seat horses can have a harder time stopping quickly and move faster. Simply identifying types of horses and knowing their typical reactions and movements can help you plan your path and create a Plan B.

5. Be Courteous 

If your horse is really broke, and traffic isn’t really a problem, it doesn’t mean that you should be in your own world. Everyone is trying to produce a great ride for their horses and although, we are competitors it is best to be pleasant, courteous and attentive. 

Stephanie Lynn suggests, “Do not wear ear buds and pay attention to the path others are on. Riders cannot assume that others will get out of their way. It is a give and take situation at all times.”

There are simple ways we can make riding easier for all just by considering the situation. Amateur Competitor Chad Sandoval suggests, “Don't fake left if your going to go right. Please only use one lane. Stop taking up three lanes. If you’re going to stop fast and back up, please look behind you.” 

The Congress is a great place to catch up, but try keeping your focus on your riding and do your walking and talking on a golf cart or in Congress Hall. It's already hard to make it around traffic but when three people are all walking together and taking up the lanes it's hard for the rest of the riders to be effective and safe.

6. Communicate 

If you are looking up and anticipating problems, you can also be better about communicating with other riders about where you are going. Congress Champion and hunter rider, David Miller of Showstring says, “Call your jumps (even if you think you are clear), and be considerate of everyone's need to school over limited jumps”. 

The same applies for riding in any discipline, don’t be afraid to say, “On your outside” or “behind You”. Often times if you are aware and can let someone know that they are about to back over you or turn on top of you, they will stop and settle and let you pass. 

Select rider Maggie Bellville compares the warm up arenas like trying to cross a street in Thailand. With many years of showing experience, Bellville recommends, “keep your eye up and go with purpose-and do as I do--as a Select-yell at them if they get too close! Just make sure you are nice about it."

7. Follow the Rules

Almost every specialty discipline has their way of warming up, know those rules and follow them to keep you safe. For example, hunter riders are often brought up to know, “Left shoulder to Left shoulder” when approaching each other. That way you don’t have to guess someone’s direction. 

Reiners warm up completely different. It is amazing how organized reining warm ups tend to be, everyone does circles at the same time, and then spins and stops. As fast as these two disciplines go, it is important to know the rules and keep yourself safe!

8. Crashes will happen 

Even if you are prepared there is a good chance you will have a little mishap or two while warming up. So if does happen take MJ Fowler’s advice, “If someone crashes into you (and they will) just try to settle your horse as best as you can and go on. Good luck and try to keep your sanity.”


About Sarah Elder Chabot:
Competing on the AQHA circuit for more than 20 years, Sarah Elder Chabot has grown up showing American Quarter Horses in all classes from the hunter ring to the roping pen. With a diverse background in showing, Sarah is also a past contributor for the American Quarter Horse Journal, GoHorseShow.com and other equine publications. She currently competes on her horse, A Well Dressed Man, in amateur hunter classes, and can be seen traveling around with her favorite companion Elise, an Irish Jack Russell and her ever supportive husband, Andy. Outside of showing horses, you may see Sarah putting in a quick run, traveling to far off lands, and tasting great wine--all a part of her day job!

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