The phrase “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” couldn’t apply more to horse show competitions. If you’ve never been in one before, all the preparation can seem overwhelming.

Here are tips to make your first experience fun for both you and your horse!

Go to a few horse shows as a spectator first, and bring a friend. While it may sound thrilling to “jump in the saddle,” participation for both you and your horse will go smoother if you know what is expected of you and your animal; by the judges, but also other participants, and their horses. Different shows may have different etiquettes, so going to the ones at which you are interested in showing your horse a few times will help give you the lay of the land. Bringing someone else with you helps, as you have a second set of eyes to notice things you might miss with all the action going on around you. Plus, you can also see how multiple people handle the same horse, in case a stand-in or assistant is needed.

Develop and maintain a grooming and training schedule well in advance of the show date. Good grooming is always vital to an animal’s health and welfare, but especially important for showing. Overall cleanliness goes a long way with judges.

Learning to fashion the mane and tail in the required banded or braided style will ensure a smooth, neat appearance, and save you time on show day since you’ve practiced enough!

Purchase your first curry brush, or replace old ones now. If you’ve never used one before, it is a tool used in daily grooming. The horse is rubbed or “curried” to help loosen dirt, hair, and other detritus, plus stimulate the skin to produce natural oils. The curry comb is usually used in a circular motion to work loose embedded material. Select curries according to the season. Winter curries are actually shedding blades that aid in removing hair as your horse sheds. Summer curries are round rubber brushes that come in a variety of sizes and styles. Choose a small, soft curry brush for the face and a larger one for the body. Brush the hair in the direction the hair grows.

Also important is keeping current with your horse’s medical history. Update vaccinations, keep an eye on potential issues, and keep thorough records, and you’ll be prepared for any situation.

Developing a regular training schedule sets the pace for both you and your horse to get accustomed to learning new skills together, so by the time you go to the show, you’ll both be comfortable with what each of you is supposed to do. That relaxed nature translates into an easier and more successful show for you both.

For training, choose a discipline suited to both you and your horse. Talk to other horse owners and research online about the many different horse sports available, and choose one that you and your horse will both enjoy. If you need to employ a trainer to get started or to fine tune your efforts, turn to your local resources and word-of-mouth reviews for your desired results. Remember to be realistic about the amount of time you and your horse can dedicate to your chosen discipline, so you aren’t rushing through training. That’s when problems and accidents can occur.

Give yourself extra time to prepare on show day. The big day arrives, and the last thing you want to do is cause extra stress. Do as much as you can in advance, like:

Groom your horse. Give your horse a good bath the day before the show, clipping, and making sure that all white markings are spotless. Groom the mane as your discipline requires: either braided, banded, clipped or natural.

Clean and pack all necessary equipment. In addition to the required items, small things are just as important. You don’t want to find that you’ve left behind a curry brush for last minute touch ups. Bringing water for both of you is essential since you’ll be expending extra energy showing, and just being excited about being at your first show! Food and snacks are necessary, since you shouldn’t count on things being readily available.

Ready your trailer, and bring a companion horse as needed. There are horses that may do great once at the show but are nervous travelers. Bringing a companion horse along for the ride in these cases can help keep the show horse calm, and easier to direct during the show.

You made it! Now, what? Sometimes the rings are open for use if you arrive early enough. Walk or ride your horse in the ring you are starting in, if possible, to get your horse accustomed to the new surroundings.

Ride around before your class. Breathe, and don’t get nervous. Don’t drill your horse, either. Just do simple, relaxing exercises to help him warm up and relax. Remember that even though this is still a competition, your goal is for both of you to enjoy the day. And don’t forget to smile!

Creating a bond between rider and horse can go a long way; maybe even all the way to a ribbon!