We Ask the Industry: How do You Handle the Chaos of the Congress?
“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is a popular Christmas song written in the 1960s celebrating the holidays. This song may be associated with Christmas, but when it comes to the horse industry, Christmas comes early in the form of the All American Quarter Horse Congress.
The familiar tune ushers in ideas of the Celeste arena, Congress Hall, trophies, and of course – American Quarter Horses galore. The sounds, the smells, and the feeling of the crisp October air are all things that bring goosebumps to those who make the journey to Columbus, Ohio year after year. The smell of fresh cinnamon rolls from the Sweet Shop, crowded warmup arenas, and endless equestrian shopping. Though the experiences may be somewhat nerve-wracking, win or lose, this show is just simply magical.
Thousands of people walk through the doors of Congress Hall as if they are a child on Christmas morning, eager to open their presents. There is no doubt that the show offers a unique experience that holds a special place in so many exhibitors’ hearts. We talked to some veteran exhibitors who offered their helpful tips on successfully navigating the beloved craziness known as the Congress. No doubt about it, the Congress is…still the one.
Melissa Shetler – Congress is a challenging show for even the most seasoned riders/trainers to handle well. So, being a newbie to it can be overwhelming. However, taking it one day at a time is how I have always done it. I try to focus on each day, show individually, and plan for everyone (where to ride, when to ride, when to be ready, etc.). If someone is new, I try to spend a little more time early in the show focusing on them until they get the hang of things and know where all the arenas are (and how to get there). We also try to go practice in groups for riders that are in similar classes. It helps the new riders feel included and know how to handle themselves by watching clients that have been there previously. After that, we hope and pray all goes well.
Congress can seem daunting to a first-time exhibitor due to the size of the facility and show. The best advice I can give is to be organized and start planning now. Begin with a checklist and start ticking off the boxes immediately. It is not too soon to start packing and making sure you have all your equipment organized. Buy your supplies early as there is a national shortage of some everyday grooming items. Pack for 75-degree weather, 20-degree weather, and rain for you and your horse – literally. Being organized helps so much with jitters and anxiety.
Be armed with the Congress entry book, which has essential information, including schedule, phone numbers, and maps. Ensure you have extra copies of all your paperwork, including membership cards, registration papers, copies of your entries, Coggins, and health papers. Head to the entry desk ASAP upon arrival to check in with the state vet, then proceed to the windows to get your packet. If you are missing something or owe additional fees, this gives you extra time to produce things rather than waiting until the night before you show and not having what you need. Line up your braiders and banders now, in some cases. They are already booked.
Get into the longing lines up to two hours early as there is typically a wait. Don’t underestimate the time a schedule requires with so many exhibitors. The great thing about Congress food vendors is variety, but pack healthy snacks and beverages and plan crockpot meals at the stalls. Sharing the burden in a large barn can help make things economical. Also, make sure that you collectively help your busy horse trainer who may not get a break to have a nutritious meal.
Pack a first aid and medical kit that includes an assortment of common over-the-counter meds in case you need them. The emergency departments in Columbus are experiencing waits over ten hours. So anything you can do to avoid them, except for serious emergencies, is good planning.
Ohio State football has a home game at noon on Saturday, October 9th, which means we share some parking areas with fans. If possible, do not attempt to leave or enter the fairgrounds that day as the lines are unbelievably long, and you may have trouble getting a parking spot.
We all have experienced a first Congress, so don’t be embarrassed to ask for help or directions. The staff at OQHA is excited to be receiving exhibitors from all over the country, and their information desk staff is amazing. Last but not least, set “realistic” personal goals for the event. You don’t have to be the winner to have a rewarding and memorable experience. Good luck to all.
Olivia Tordoff – My most significant piece of advice for all exhibitors trying to battle the chaos of the Congress would be to create a detailed plan with your trainer. If you guys are both on the same page about everything, things will run very smoothly. With that being said, be on time. If you and your coach decide to ride at 4 am, make sure you are saddled and ready to ride when your trainer gets to the barn. Being punctual shows your respect for them, and this time of year is undoubtedly stressful for horse trainers. I also try to nap every chance I get. Whether it’s your first time showing in Columbus at the Congress or your 20th time, enjoy it. Particularly with all our country has been going through over the last year, we are very fortunate to be back doing what we love.
Ellexxah Maxwell – The Congress is always a little hectic, that’s for sure. When showing at the Congress, the best thing to remember is that you try and control and plan every second of your day when it becomes more work and less play. Go out and have fun! We show animals with a mind of their own. Something can always go wrong, so go out, have fun and enjoy the Congress! It’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
Margaux Tucker – Staying on the grounds is easiest. Renting a camper from a camper company or a private person can be a lifesaver. And the earlier the arrival of your accommodations, the better. Always have a wet weather plan! Whether it is close for you, your horse, or even to keep your stalls clean and dry. Take your vitamins and Emergen-C. Eat healthy to keep the congress crud away. Depending on your barn, wash racks can be hard to come by, and with the weather being colder, it is hard to keep your horses and things clean…find the nearest wash rack early, or invest in a good horse vacuum to help keep clean.
Miranda Sams McIntosh – Take everything in stride. It can be overwhelming, even for the seasoned horse show person. Listen to your horse trainer and be flexible with their schedule. They are working countless hours and making everyone’s dreams a reality. A smile and a thank you mean more than you’ll ever know. It’s just a horse show – a huge horse show, but just a horse show. Take a deep breath and enjoy the ride.
Carey Nowacek – It can get chaotic at most horse shows, but the Congress is a whole new level of chaos. I think it is best to stay within yourself and not let your mind focus on anyone else. It’s easy to watch the warm-up arenas and have self-doubt. Get as much rest as possible (I know this is a hard one) and stay positive. Enjoy the horse show for yourself, and don’t get bogged down with everything else going on around you.
Shannon McCulloch-Bacon – So, for newbies, I’d say to pack clothes for different types of weather as the Congress usually starts with nice weather, and then it may end up snowing, so you want to be prepared. Take the chance to sleep and rest up any time you can, because the long days will add up, and you want to try not to end up exhausted. As tempting as it may be, please don’t get caught up in using all your energy to watch all the classes because it’s easy to use up your energy and emotions on watching and not save enough energy for your classes. Trust your preparation and don’t get off track or intimated by watching your competition. And most of all, enjoy the entire experience.
Carrie Warren – The All American Quarter Horse Congress is a magical show for anyone who loves the horse industry, especially the AQHA horse world. There is no place like it – so much to see and experience from showing to all the vendors and the food. Don’t be too tempted at puppy alley. For first-time exhibitors, my advice would be to take it all in and take your time. Give yourself and your horse time to adjust and prepare for the classes. Expect late nights and early mornings – because you will need to get in the show pen to practice, and you can only do it in the dark hours. Also, take lots of Vitamin C, try to rest when you can, and pack layers – it is 65 degrees one day and 35 the next. Soak it in and enjoy the competition and the fact you are at the world’s largest all-breed horse show, and you made it.
Joetta Bell – For us, we have two girls showing in multiple classes. We try to have all the hard work done before arrival, like knowing patterns and outlines when practicing at the show. Also, asking others for help is good advice like having your makeup done by someone, getting extra help at stalls for saddling, etc. There are enough nerves in the air there, so doing a few things like this may take off some of the pressure so that everyone in your camp can have a fun experience.
Ashley Dunbar-Clock – The Congress for sure is my favorite show of the year, but it can be very stressful as well. The big thing I do to keep things organized is make lists. I have lists of horses…walker appointments…classes each horse shows in…basically if I can make a list for it, I do, so that when I head there, I feel like I have a plan for everything. But, then, it’s always nice to get there early, especially if it’s your first time….then you have a day to settle and get the lay of the grounds. I always like knowing the options for longing spots…riding arenas…ponying horses. Then, of course, there’s the packing aspect. Always pack clothes for every season. I have been there when we were in tank tops at the beginning and snowing by the end. So you have to be prepared for anything. And last but least, take lots of vitamins to try not to get sick. I mean, there’s no stopping it, but you can try to be preventative.
Beckie Peskin – I feel like it’s been 100 years since my first time there. I always tell folks if you can afford to go a year before you think you will be truly competitive, do it – to get over the “awe” of it all. And other than that – control what you can control. Realize there is more for your horse to see and react to, so make sure you prepare for all of those things. If you show at night – get them out at night. If you show early, practice that prep too. And then have fun.
Rebekah Kazakevicius – My tips would be, don’t try to do anything that you wouldn’t do at home. Stick to what you know. Make sure you get up to the pen with plenty of time to warm up – nobody likes to be rushed. Also, be nice.
Sarah Lebsock – Ohhh man, what a task! The Congress is such a spectacular event. My best advice for those competing would be to prep and practice like you have all year and trust that you’ve done the work. If you’re someone who practices at night, keep doing that. If you only practice the pattern once because your horse anticipates, don’t practice it more. Try not to get so caught up in the show’s hype that you forget what you’ve done to get you there. On the contrary, realize it is an event like no other and take a minute to take it all in. Be grateful you get to experience such a high-caliber show with so much history, but don’t forget, in the show pen, it’s still the same judges you see at every other show, with the same maneuvers in the patterns you see on the weekends. In the show, the pen is no different. Outside of the pen is the magic of the Congress.
Johnna Letchworth – Handling the Congress is a lot of work, but so fun. A couple of ways to keep up with the length of the show are trying to take naps. Find a couch and a blanket and get an extra 30 minutes of sleep if you can. Also, make sure you take in all aspects of the show. The trade show is a must, food alley, of course, and watch classes you don’t usually watch. Finally, bring clothing for every season. I’m serious. Winter coat and a tank top. You never know. Most of all, try to enjoy being at the world’s largest single-breed horse show. There is nothing else in the world like it.
Grant Mastin – My biggest advice is not to stress. While it is the Congress and a super prestigious horse show, it is just a horse show at the end of the day. If you go into the show with confidence, trusting yourself and your horse, you will be just fine. But, most importantly, enjoy the experience.
Kristy Starnes – Treat it like any other horse show. By adding more pressure on yourself and your horses, you are not going to do any better. Prepare at home and do your homework so when you arrive at the show, it is simply muscle memory. Your horse will appreciate you not making significant changes at the show as well.
Violet Shetler – It is still nerve-racking for me to step into that arena sometimes. I understand how scary it can be the first time at Congress. The first time I went to Congress, I was six and showing in the Cooper. I was so nervous that when they called me off the wall to warm up, I didn’t and went straight to the cone. So, my advice would be, no matter how nervous you are, you should probably still warm up. It’s easy to let your first-class get in your head, no matter how you do when showing more than one day. If something goes wrong, remember tomorrow is a new day with a new class. On the other hand, if you do well the first day, the pressure rises the rest of the show. Just remember, no matter what you’ve already placed, you’ve already had a good ride, and that’s all you can hope for.
What advice do you have for exhibitors showing at the Congress? Let us know in the comments.