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Things to Know Before Attending Your First Congress

The smell of fresh cinnamon rolls from the Sweet Shop, crowded warmup arenas, and endless equestrian shopping; the All American Quarter Horse Congress season is almost here. For first-timers, the Congress is equally as exciting as it is intimidating.

The new sights, sounds, and smell of delicious vendor food fill the fairgrounds. The nerves of many exhibitors roots from the unknown. How will I find my way around the showgrounds? What should I pack? What should my mindset be going into the show? The list of questions feels never-ending.

Though the new experiences may be nerve-wracking, this show is magical; win or lose. The experiences made at the Congress are irreplaceable and priceless. Here are some are veteran exhibitor’s tips for survival.

It’s just another horse show

The Congress truly is just another horse show. Exhibitors become obsessed with the anxious energy surrounding a major show. This often leads to mistakes and avoidable errors in the show pen. AQHYA World and Congress Champion Emma Brown states, “The biggest thing I wish I would’ve known before my first Congress would have to be that it’s just another horse show. Everyone puts so much pressure on themselves to do well at big shows, but at the end of the day, it’s just another trip in the arena.” 

The best way to approach a major show like the Congress is to view every ride as Emma stated, “just another trip in the arena.” This will mentality help keep your nerves in check and will allow you to perform at the best of your ability.

Amateur exhibitor, Meg DePalma adds, “I would have liked to have been told back in 2004 when I attend my first congress, that Congress is just another horse show. Sometimes, you have a great ride or pattern and get rewarded, and sometimes you don’t. If you treat the Congress as “just another show,” it takes some of the stress and disappointment out of its results.” 

There are always going to be bumps in the road, whether you are at a local weekend show or the Congress. There will be another Congress next year. Do not put too much pressure on yourself to the point of not enjoying the experience.

Prepare for the “Congress Crud”

The dreaded “Congress Crud” unfortunately strikes every year. The weather changes combined with lack of sleep lead to exhibitors and trainers often coming down sick. The only way to fight against the “crud” is by preparing for it in advance.

Congress Champion Kaylee Swanigan says, “I wish I would have known the power of a B12 shot and Emergen-C. The B12 will give you a bit of extra energy for all the long days and crazy late-night riding. A daily dose of Emergen-C will help keep the dreaded Congress Crud at bay.”  Emergen-C will be your secret weapon in fighting the Congress Crud battle. Try your very best to sleep when possible, eat healthily, and take your vitamins.

Assistant trainer Colton Pylman adds, “Start taking Airborne three weeks out.” Find what works best for you and run with it. The “Congress Crud” is possible to avoid with the right steps. Amateur Meg DePalma adds, “Oh, and you’ll normally get sick with the crud there, but on the bright side, endless amounts of bourbon chicken.”

Become familiar with the area

The surrounding area around Congress is quite extensive. It would be extremely beneficial for an exhibitor to become somewhat familiar with the area before attending the show.

Simply googling a map or two will help you immensely once you arrive in Columbus. Austin Gooding states, “One thing I wish I knew before attending my first Congress is my way around the facility and area surrounding it better. The facility is so big, the first year we got our golf cart, I couldn’t figure out how to get back to my stalls. And as everyone knows, the surrounding area is not the safest of places, so you don’t want to be getting lost.” 

Becoming aquatinted with the larger surrounding area will also help you find other places to go when you are not at the show. Columbus has lots of great activities, restaurants, and stores to offer; be sure to do your research beforehand. Being familiar with the layout of the fairgrounds and surrounding area will help calm your nerves before arriving at the show.

Pack for all types of weather

Columbus, Ohio has (what feels like) all four seasons of weather during one horse show. Cold early mornings with snowflakes in the air, to a crisp wind of a fall or spring day by midmorning, to blistering heat from the sun during the afternoon.

It is essential to pack for all kinds of weather, rain or shine. Kaylee Swanigan adds, “Layers are your friend. I did discover one year when I hurt my back that those IcyHot patches are also good for keeping you warm on the frigid days. Hand warmers will help you get through those last days when it gets super cold.”

Staying in Ohio for three weeks can be stressful. However, a key component to surviving the marathon is packing smart. To compete at the best of your ability, you must also feel your best. Staying warm, avoiding the “crud,” and preparing for all weather conditions are important when attending your first Congress.

Focus on things you can control

The Congress is a magical place; despite the “crud,” weather, or high pressure, this show is a place where dreams come true. It is crucial not to let yourself be in a negative mindset as that negativity will transfer into your rides.

Baylor University equestrian, Clara Johnson, suggests, “One thing that I wish I would have known before my first Congress is the power of having a positive attitude. The Congress hosts an extreme amount of uncontrollable negative factors from the bipolar Ohio weather to the fatigue resulting from countless 3 am practices. One of the few things that you have absolute control over is your mind, so instead of letting those things drag you down and get the best of you, keep yourself in a positive headspace. A positive attitude can make a world of difference if given the opportunity.” 

About the Author: Cat Guenther is a devout equestrian and a freshman at Michigan State University. She has been riding horses for almost ten years and has loved every minute of it. Cat started and runs her successful show clothing business, Behind the Bit Show Clothing. She loves to show the all-around classes with her beloved horse, Zippos Kat Man Do, aka Teddy. Her favorite classes are horsemanship, showmanship, and trail. She is currently on a Pre-Veterinary track and hopes to also study business.