Attending your horse's very first show can be an exciting, fun time for both of you, but it can be stressful too. Preparation and planning are vital if you are to survive with your pride and enthusiasm intact. Do your homework at home; not just before you enter the arena!
First of all you must ask yourself if you and your horse are ready to be judged in public. And answer the question honestly! If you are unsure, ask an experienced friend, or better still your instructor, for their honest opinion. There is no point in over-facing yourselves. At best you could end up looking like a fool and at worst you could frighten your horse and ruin his (and your) confidence.
Always ride at home at least twice in the kit you are going to be wearing at the competition. This may sound silly but long leather riding boots can feel like splints if you usually ride in jodhpur boots and half-chaps and a show jacket with a stock or tie feels awfully restrictive if you're more accustomed to a comfy sweatshirt. Similarly, brand new tack can feel stiff and awkward and never be tempted to use a different bit on the day, just because it looks shinier! If you feel uncomfortable, your horse will instantly pick up on this and wonder what the problem is.
You will have to warm your horse up in the company of others at the show. Do practice this at home. If the show is in a field, make sure that you can ride your horse safely in company in a field! Sounds daft, but if your horse is only ever ridden on his own, on an artificial surface in a small, fenced arena, you could find yourself in a world of pain when faced with a crowd of cantering horses in a wide, open space! Grass will feel different to ride on for both of you, so practice before the show. Think ahead and have stud holes put in your horse's shoes just in case the going is wet on the day and you want some extra security. Make sure you know how to fit studs correctly and that your horse will stand quietly while you do so. Again, ride him with the studs fitted so that he gets used to way they feel.
When deciding what classes to enter, I've always found it best to choose a class which is at least one level below that at which you are working at home. Your horse is bound to be excited in the unfamiliar environment of the showground and will probably not be at his most attentive. If the work he is asked for is well within his capabilities, you have a much better chance of producing a reasonable performance and making the experience an enjoyable one for both of you.
For your first few public outings, always pick a small, low-key event. Your local riding club is perfect for this. For a start, there will probably be fewer competitors milling around and the standard is likely to be a bit lower than at an affiliated event. The atmosphere will be less intense and you won't find yourself riding against professionals which can be intimidating. If you do have a problem during your class, the organisers might even allow you to use the arena after the classes have finished for the day. You can then school your horse quietly in the competitive environment without the pressure of actually competing.
If you are unsure of how your horse will behave himself at his first show, you can opt to enter 'hors concours', or 'H/C'. This means that you are riding non-competitively. In the case of dressage classes, you will still be judged but your scores will not be posted on the score board at the conclusion of the class nor will your marks count in the final placings. This can be very useful as you still have the benefit of the judge's comments and scoring but your marks are not made public.
Don't despair if your horse is not quite ready for a competitive outing. You can still allow him to experience the atmosphere of a competition without actually competing. In the case of baby horses it can be sensible to have a 'dry run' at a little local event before you actually enter a show. There is no reason why you can't practice plaiting your horse up and getting him used to the show day routine of bathing etc. Pick a local event so that he has a short trailer/lorry ride to get there and work him in just as if you were actually going to compete. You should always phone the organisers prior to the event to ask if they are happy for you to do this. Most are more than happy to accommodate but it's courteous to ask first.
If lunging is permitted, take your lunging kit with you if you think your horse is likely to become 'lit up' by the show day atmosphere. Find a quiet corner away from other competitors and take the edge off him on the lunge before you ride. Better safe than sorry!
Prepare and pack as much of your kit as possible the day before the competition. Make lists! You would be surprised how many people turn up at a show only to discover that their carefully soaped saddle is still at home! Allow plenty of time to get your horse plaited up (if necessary) and groomed. It's a good idea to have a couple of practice runs to see how long it will take you to get him ready and if you have an early start, get him ready the night before so that you're not panicking on the day.
Make sure that you know where the show ground is and check how long it will take you to get there. Leave yourself plenty of time for your journey. Don't forget your horse's passport, a fully charged mobile phone and the numbers of your insurance company and breakdown recovery provider. Take plenty of extra haylage and water.
Once at the show ground, don't be in a hurry to jump on board. Lead your horse around; let him take in all the sights and sounds. Give him chance to acclimatise, recover from his journey and relax before you tack him up. Allow yourself plenty of time to warm up.
Good luck, have fun and remember to smile at the judge!