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Doing Your Part to Increase Attendance and Build Participation at Shows


It’s been said, the first step in the right direction starts with that first step. Often, people stay in a state of status quo, just because they lack the motivation to move or change their circumstances. And it is no secret that the horse industry needs to find a way to impassion the masses and invite more people who are driven to succeed in the show pen.

Horse ownership is not for the weak of heart. Their welfare and care require many owners to spend steadfast hours feeding, cleaning, training, and doctoring; which often brings joy, but it can also lead to frustration. One of the joys of ownership is the bonding and competition in the show pen.

Competition is the affirmation many need to justify their love and passion for these beloved steeds. However, complacency is a severe detriment to the horse show industry and often leaves many sitting on the sidelines. Many horse show competitors spend hours in preparation to only go to a show and find the number of exhibitors lackluster.

So, how does the horse industry direct its’ motivation for growth in the show pen and become inclusive rather than exclusive? We talked to various experts in the horse industry and asked them this very question. Let’s find out what they had to stay.

Put out the welcome mat – Show management, professional trainers and exhibitors need to share responsibility for being hospitable and helpful to fellow competitors. The bite of an ill-placed comment has just as much impact as the sweet sound of a well-deserved compliment or congratulations on a competitor’s perception of their show experience. A positive experience at a horse show will keep the exhibitors coming back and attract new participants.

Word-of-mouth is a double-edged sword that can help or harm the success of a show. Exhibitors talking about a well-run show schedule, friendliness of the staff or their displeasure with fees will affect future attendance.

Loose lips are one way to get the word out about an upcoming show, but it is necessary for organizers of a show to utilize social media, breed organizations, state affiliations, and associations to help promote their show. Across the country, shows are competing for an exhibitor’s time and resources. Organizers need to create a buzz, build excitement and give a reason for people to put the show on their calendar.

One show that has gained popularity in recent years from this word of mouth, and relationship building, is the Cornhusker Classic in Lincoln, NE. It has grown from 4,400 entries in 2016 to more than 9,000 entries in 2018. According to Jet Thompson, Kearney, NE, one reason for the growth of the Cornhusker Classic is relationship building and personal calls inviting people to the show.

Adding the Premier Quarter Sires futurity classes, and growing numbers in dual approved youth and amateur classes gave trainers and customers a reason to make the trip to Lincoln. “By providing a flat fee for AQHA entries, we are keeping the show affordable and attractive,” Thompson stated. “By respecting the customer’s checkbook, we are listening and showing people we care and want them to come. If they leave smiling because their (entry) check was smaller, and they had a good time, they will come back. We strive to keep the fees down and the fun up.”

The thrill of competition – Showing horses isn’t a sport where everyone gets a participation ribbon. However, we need to make sure those who have the desire can find success on a personal level.

Rhonda Replogle of Clear Spring, MD said, there is a fundamental need for smaller weekend shows and class leveling to build an exhibitor base. “It is important to create an entry-level experience for new exhibitors that isn’t so expensive to play.” Also, she envisions growth in the Select division, due to the fact that Select riders often have more time and resources to join the ranks as exhibitors.

The grassroots theme was echoed by Beckey Schooler, from Delta, OH, who would like to see the Rookie/Novice classes combined. Some exhibitors perceive certain shows being too big and too tough, therefore discouraging attendance at the major circuits.

By allowing beginner riders and green horses to enter respective youth/amateur/open classes for a nominal fee or even free; show management can build class size and participation and offer an economical avenue for seasoning a green horse or new rider.

Expressing concern for decreasing youth participation, Kellie Hinley, of Chino Hills, CA, encourages developing relationships with other organizations to increase interest and participation to compete at a higher level, helping build a mentoring mentality. “If every trainer found two local clubs or other trainers and invited them to be involved or attend, we would help build community within the horse industry and support for our shows.”

Some shows have offered an “invitational” experience for state final 4-H finalists or top winners of an association, to build cross-over participation at breed shows. This opportunity for an invitation-only class can help build excitement and confidence for riders to attend a breed show.

Torey Roderick from Lee, NH, feels it’s imperative as a trainer to get her customers excited about their competitive goals. By identifying realistic goals, it helps facilitate enthusiasm and a sense of accomplishment. As a trainer, she feels it is her responsibility to involve people, inviting them to join the ranks.

A benefit of larger circuits is the leveled classes, which increases appeal by allowing a common skill level for horse and competitor. Many circuits are large due to the attractiveness of being in one location with multiple judges, and the economic advantages of one show compared to the time and expense of hauling to numerous shows.

Fun – Who can forget the social media frenzy surrounding the Sun Circuit Senior Western Pleasure horse race, where the winner received a new hat? Silly games, exhibitor parties, and drawings have ramped up the fun factor at many shows. Added money increases attendance, but awarding money for placings other than the top spots, allows people to have a sense of fun, even if they haven’t performed as well as they hoped.

Bigger better deal – Enticing packages (stall, bedding, flat-fee entries) pique interest in particular shows, according to Roderick. Attractive packaging, along with the prizes, money and entry numbers all builds to the success of a horse show and increase in exhibitors. “People catch wind of a show. We can’t control momentum, but we can follow it.”

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Many things influence the success and growth of the show industry; however, it boils down to whether people want to show up. Desire is a motivational force not to be taken lightly, and it starts with good leadership to inspire the next wave of competitors. Growth in attendance will require everyone to assume the role of the leader to develop an atmosphere of inclusiveness, not exclusiveness.


About the Author: Jana Olsen, a Nebraska native, is an avid AQHA amateur competitor. She is currently showing Perfect 10 (Sweetie), in western pleasure. Olsen rides with Karen Graham and Mike Hawkins, of Cave Creek, AZ, who are continuing Sweetie’s training to include the trail, western riding and horsemanship events. Olsen owns and manages Arista Ranch in Norfolk, NE. When not in Nebraska, Olsen enjoys the mild Arizona climate as a snow-bird.

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