Many breed-level shows go out-of-their-way to plan and host exhibitor events such as happy hours, dinners, or coffee bars. Photo © Brian Isbell

Rolling out the Welcome Mat: Five Ways Experienced Exhibitors Can Make Newcomers Feel at Home

Will I fit in? Will I know anybody? Will I end up being a social wallflower like the new kid at a middle-school dance? One of the toughest things in life is daring to try something new. When it comes to horse shows, trying a new show can bring with it anxiety, fear, and the hope that you and your horse will fit in with the competition.

We’re not talking about the horse show regulars and veterans who know what to expect no matter the breed or circuit. We mean that first-time exhibitor who has made the decision to try a new level of showing for the first time. They don’t want to embarrass themselves by practicing at the wrong time or parking at the wrong end of the fairgrounds, but from the showing itself to the social ins and outs, breaking in can be challenging.

We were all new to breed shows or tough circuits at some point in our careers, so read on for five ways that experienced exhibitors can make the ice a little easier to break for those new to the scene.

1) Be a Grocery Store Greeter
The welcoming should start the moment somebody pulls into the horse show. It is important to see this through the eyes of a newcomer and think about what they might see and feel as they unload at a show for the first time. Is it easy to find stalls, is the show office easy to find, or do you have to be “in the know” to figure things out?

From there, whether you are show management, with a big training barn, or just stalling by your group of show friends, you can make a point to act as a greeter by taking turns meeting people at entryways or even simply walking over to a new exhibitor’s stalls to say hello.

This gives a new person a friendly face to turn to just in case they might have any questions or need a hand and is a small act that goes a long way in helping new members know that they are wanted and welcome. Plus, leading by example means that it is likely that others will see how you are going out of your way to be friendly and will follow suit.

If you’re feeling ambitious, go out of your way to find out before the event who might be new. You can make a post on the show’s event page or even ask the show management to let you know if there are any new faces registered. You might even ask to be stalled by a new person so that you can ensure the aisle is a friendly place to be.

2) Break the Ice with a Compliment
One of the things that has stuck with me over the years is the moment when a top, big-name amateur gave me a compliment on my show saddle when I was a youth exhibitor. Little did he know that this was a brand new purchase for my family that represented our tentative leap up from open shows and 4-H into the world of breed circuit showing. We had purchased the saddle on a limited budget very unsure if it “fit in” well enough with the circuit we intended to show.

You often never actually realize the impact that a few kind words can have on another person. Research shows that getting a sincere compliment can give you the same positive boost that receiving cash does. So, make a point to scope out a new face and find something specific, yet sincere to compliment that person on.

A go-to strategy can be to look for something to praise about their tack, horse, or performance. Maybe you watched a newbie struggle through a bad go; you might find that they handled themselves well, and a simple ‘I admire how you handled that’ might be just the ticket.

3) Make it a Date
Many breed-level shows go out-of-their-way to plan and host exhibitor events such as happy hours, dinners, or coffee bars. This is another scenario where a simple action can ripple into waves of welcoming because those events can be kind of intimidating if you don’t know many people. Where will I sit? Will I have to eat alone?

You can curb those anxious feelings and make sure newcomers know where to go by offering a ride to the event or saving a seat for someone. It is also nice to extend a particular invitation, especially if it’s not obvious where something will be held or what is expected.

Get kids in on the act, too. Kids make great diplomats, so help them out by individually connecting a group of established, seasoned youth with a newbie. Ask 1-2 youth exhibitors to arrange a time to grab an ice cream cone or perhaps a Sweet Shop cinnamon roll, and instruct them to invite the new kid on the block to any planned activities the show offers.

4. Play the Name Game
The next scariest thing for a new exhibitor is showing — from the butterflies in the warm-up pen to the performance itself, the nerves wake up during a competition. If you are an experienced exhibitor chances are that you’re focused on your performance and aren’t too worried about listening to all of the placings.

So, without taking away from your focus, make sure to check out the show results or score books specifically for the purpose of putting a name to a new face in the lineup. The next step can be to go out of your way to congratulate, by name, an exhibitor on a job well done.

The congratulations are nice, but it’s the extra touch of knowing that someone at the show knew your name and made a point to talk to you that will resonate.

5. Share Resources
Where can I get shavings or rent stall mats? How do I find a braider or bander? Is there a tack store nearby? What are the best places to eat? Getting the hang of the flow of a new horse show includes knowing where to go when you need something. Social media is a great place for helping direct people to resources, and as a veteran exhibitor, make sure to offer up what you know up front. If you see a post on an event page, make sure to not only suggest a resource but also personally offer to help see something through if need be. Maybe everybody at the circuit is scrambling to find a braider, so when that service is finally located, go back and touch base with the people who might not be in the “know.”


About the Author: A native Michigander, Rachel Kooiker is a lover of horses who loves to write. She competes in all-around Amateur events with her APHA gelding, Hoos Real. She graduated from Grand Valley State University with a BA in English and Psychology and an MA in Curriculum & Instruction. She and her husband Drew operate Kooiker Show Horses, where they stand APHA World Champion Im the Secret. They have a 2½-year-old daughter, Reed, who enjoys “showing” her toy horses.


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