Show Strategy for Success

You might have everything perfect at home, then it all falls apart at the show. A solid strategy can help.

By Andrea Fappani, With Jennifer Paulson, Photos by Jennifer Paulson

I think a lot of people do a very good job riding and preparing their horses at home. The problem is, it’s a totally different situation at the show. What works at home isn’t likely to work the same when you’re at a competition. Planning how you’ll implement what you do at home in the show pen and which parts of your routine you must follow is critical to developing a solid strategy. 

Here are the considerations that can make or break your show performance, based on your own preparation and decisions. 

Know Your Horse

Your exercise routine at a show sets you up for success or failure. I’ve seen people who might not have the most talented horses but do a really good job preparing them at the horse show do well. They know their horses and exactly what they need before they show, and they stick to that. They’ll beat the riders whose horses look really good at the beginning of a show but fall apart by the end when it matters.

The key lies in being secure in your own ability so you don’t feel like you have to prove yourself every time you swing a leg over your horse. He shouldn’t be doing everything the best he can when you’re exercising him. Horses can’t maintain that level of perfection and precision for the duration of a long show. Instead, focus on helping him be his best when it matters and have the confidence that what you’re doing on the days leading up to that important moment will get him where he needs to be.

This is especially important at events with multiple go-rounds. If your horse is the best he can be for the first go, he might not be able to reach that peak again in the finals. Depending on the level of your competition, it might be best to try to get 75% or 85% out of your horse in the go-round and then build up to the finals.

When developing your show strategy, it’s important to really know your horse and how he reacts to your training, whether at home or at a show.

Take Your Time

I don’t panic if my horse doesn’t seem to feel his best the day we get to a show, especially after a long haul when he’s going to be physically tired. When I arrive at a show, I unload my horse and put him in his stall to rest, get a drink, and eat; I never ride first thing. Then I longe or ride him around for exercise—not to tune his maneuvers.

When you ride, your horse might seem fresh, but he’s mentally fresh, not physically fresh. Get through his mental freshness the first day or two so he can physically recover from the trip. Once his body is recuperated, you might have to ride him down a bit, but that’s better than not letting him recover.

Arriving at a show one day before it starts isn’t enough time to get your horse ready; however, showing up 10 days before the show isn’t good, either. 

Manage Your Schedule

Many riders try to do too much in one single training session at a show. This leaves your horse exhausted and not as sharp as he would be if you better managed your riding schedule.

In the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time strategically planning to ride every 12 hours at a horse show. If I can estimate that I’ll show at noon on Tuesday, I plan to ride at midnight and noon on the days leading up to my run. This allows me to break up what I need to do in each training session so I don’t feel rushed and my horse isn’t overworked and overtired. Keeping my sessions short lets my horse concentrate on one thing at a time instead of doing it all at once.

I find it’s easiest to work on spins midday, even in a crowded warm-up pen. I find a space to trot a few circles, then start tuning up my horse’s turns.

In addition to setting a time schedule, I plan what to work on during each session in terms of maneuvers with a focus on keeping my horse fresh, alert, and ready to work when I need him to. By planning to ride twice a day, I can ride for shorter time periods, helping to save my horse physically and mentally.

In the scenario I described, riding at noon and midnight, I’d start with turns in my noon session. Space and footing don’t matter as much, so I can find a corner in a warm-up pen no matter how busy it is. I usually spend 15 to 20 minutes jogging and turning, and then I put my horse back in his stall to rest. Because my horse is still fresh when he’s done, he’ll have more energy and a more positive attitude. By contrast, if you work on turns at the end of a long training session, he’ll relate it with being tired and will try less and less. It’s a mental connection they make with not being worn out all the time.

When I ride at night, I focus on circling and stopping for about 30 minutes each. I don’t have to cram in turns, because I’ve already covered them earlier in the day. I can spend 15 to 20 minutes circling, let my horse rest, and then go stop and he’s still pretty fresh—I have a lot of horse left, and my horse gets plenty of rest because I won’t be showing him for another 12 hours after his last ride. 

Use Paid Warm-Ups Thoughtfully

If you’re going to use a paid warm-up before the show starts, be sure it’s far enough ahead of when you show that you have time to address any problems you uncover, or use it to address a single issue at the last minute. For example, if your horse is antsy in the middle of the arena, sit there for two to three minutes, lope some circles, and get out. The show—even during a paid warm-up or a schooling run—isn’t the place to fix big issues. Handle those at home. 

I often see people haul a great distance to a show and do a paid warm-up when their horses are tired. If you do that, chances are you won’t like what you feel, you’ll want to fix what you don’t like, and then you won’t have any horse left when it’s time to show. If you haven’t fixed the problem at home in two months, you’re not going to fix it at the show in two days. Be smart: Do your homework at home.

At home, you can work on stops anytime. That’s not the case when preparing your horse at a show. Use your time wisely and to your horse’s advantage.

Stick to What You Know

Once you implement a successful strategy, stick to it. Don’t be influenced by what someone else is doing or their opinions about what you’re doing if you know it works. Dramatically changing your system will negatively affect your riding—the absolute last place to change anything is at the horse show. If you decide you want (or need) to change something, do it before your next big show while you’re still at home. You won’t successfully change anything at the last minute before you compete. 


Andrea Fappani

Andrea Fappani is an NRHA Five Million Dollar Rider and has won every NRHA major event multiple times. Learn more at