When people ask the question, "should I go to XXX ride?" they often do not have a single concern that is causing the hesitation. Usually, it's a laundry list of concerns, which might include some or all of the following:
- Saddle fit (horse) -- "He's always been fine in this saddle, but when he started to shed out I found some white hairs..."
- Saddle fit (rider) -- "My back (knees/hips/shoulders/butt/feet) hurt if we go more than an hour..."
- Footgear (horse) -- "He's always been barefoot, but people say..."
- Footgear (rider) -- "My toenails have all turned black..."
- Camping (horse) -- "Will my electric fence/panels/origami rope creation be sufficient..."
- Camping (rider) -- "I don't have a living quarters trailer, how will I...?"
- Travel (horse) -- "He loads and unloads just fine but if we drive more than 20 minutes..."
- Travel (rider) -- "I've never driven my horse trailer in a city (mountain pass/desert highway/narrow bridge/major construction zone/unpaved road)...
- Fitness (horse) -- "We did a lot of conditioning last summer, but then my son had chickenpox and I haven't ridden since...
- Fitness (rider) -- "I'm a couch potato and I've been working out a lot lately but..."
- Metabolics (horse) -- "He's a picky eater and..."
- Metabolics (rider) -- "I have asthma (celiac disease/artificial heart/bee sting allergy/hangnails)..."
- Lameness (horse) -- "He's okay at the walk and canter, but he's intermittently lame at the trot..."
- Lameness (rider) -- "I'm 55 (65/75/85) years old and I can't run alongside him..."
- Training (horse) -- "He's okay by himself but in a group..."
- Training (horse) -- "He's okay in a group, but by himself...
- Training (horse) -- "I'm worried about the vet check..."
- Training (horse) -- "I'm worried about the water crossings..."
- Training (horse) -- "I'm worried about the gate..."
and most especially
- (rider) -- "I'm worried..."
I am perfectly capable of second-guessing my own judgment, and I hold a black belt in self-doubt. However, I have learned some stuff about how to assess readiness, so now I’m going to share!
When you should stay home:
- If any of your gear (including the truck, trailer, saddle, and helmet) is marginal. Your safety—and your horse's life—can depend on dependable gear. It doesn't have to be the most expensive thing in the catalog or the tack store, but it does have to work.
- If you haven't done your homework. If your horse isn't fit for the event, if you know his shoes aren't going to stay on for the whole distance, if you think his saddle is causing him pain, if you suspect that he's brewing a fever or a major ulcer, if you've been intending to practice working out in the heat of the day but haven't got 'round to trying it, or if there's anything else that you know you should have done to prep but haven't done, it's time to put on the brakes. There will still be events next month or next year. Do your prep, and then go.
- If your horse is dangerous to you or others. I lived through several years of overcompensating for a "kicky horse" by throwing her (and myself) off the trail and into the bushes rather than endangering any horse and rider that wanted to pass us on the trail or in camp. My mare still wears a red tail ribbon, however, after YEARS of work her rear "cannons" don't fire randomly anymore. If your horse is likely to bite the vet, kick the timer, or run over other horses or riders, and you don’t yet have all the skills needed to keep everybody safe, stay home.
- If your worries will keep the event from being fun. This is huge. In my early days of competition, I swallowed my concerns and just held on. Guess what? It wasn't fun. I’ve learned to ask (a lot!) more questions about the event before we leave home, so I can choose appropriate venues for us to attend.
When you should go:
- If you've done everything you can to prepare, and your horse is sound and happy and waiting for you to open the trailer door so he can load up. If your horse looks forward to these outings, it's okay to swallow your butterflies and take him for a fun adventure.
- If your gear is safe, well-maintained, and fits reasonably well. It may not be perfect, but it's comfortable and it's clean.
- If you have a support team to help you through rough spots, on the road or at the event. This doesn't necessarily mean a "crew"! Sometimes your support team are other riders who can hang out with you, ride management folks who can lend a hand, a family member who will drive the rig home when you're tired, or even somebody you can call from the road (or the trail) who will cheer you on.
- If you and your horse will have fun together, even if your ride does not go perfectly. Most events have glitches. If you're likely to still enjoy your horse’s company at the end of the day, load up and go!
Still not sure? Here's what not to do:
Don't ask for advice from Facebook or any other online board. If you do, you'll get tons of advice, of course. However, most of it will be (at best) nonsensical and (at worst) dangerous, offered by people who (at best) don't know you and (at worst) don't know diddly.
Don't stick with a plan that is no longer working. Even if the event has been on your calendar for yonks, if it’s not a good idea, stop and back away from it.
Do ask advice from people who know you, know your horse, and know the nature of the event. Your trainer, your riding partner, your veterinarian and (sometimes) your spouse will have more reliable advice for your situation than a rider half your age, or a total stranger who has exactly zero competitions on his record. (Yes: I do look up the records of people who give advice online. You should too.) People who know you will be able to give a fair assessment.
Do ask for advice from ride management. The event manager can give you good suggestions, either before you leave home, or after you've parked the rig. Maybe the event plan is harder (or easier) this year, and you should choose a different level of difficulty. Maybe the weather is better (or worse) than the stuff you’ve trained in this month. Be specific when you talk to ride managers--they want to help you succeed.
Do ask for advice from your vet. Like ride management, veterinarians want you to enjoy your event with a horse that is happy and healthy.
Do be prepared to change course if your plan isn't working. If you arrive and your horse is obviously "not quite right," it's okay to ride in a different class or to pull yourself from competition entirely. If you get midway through the day and your favorite socks start to blister your feet, or his bridle is rubbing a raw spot, stop and change something to make it better.
We do this for fun, remember?
If you aren't having fun, change things until you are having fun!