Reframing Competition as Relationship

We were playing around after a lesson, laughing about the curse of being spokesmodels for my blog photos. She leans forward and “gets” his ear for the photo. Another laugh for the less-than-professional technique, but later we remember when she first got this horse. He was terribly head shy and worse. Things have changed.

Some of my clients compete and some do not, but when I ask each client about their goals, there’s just one answer. They all want a better relationship with their horse. Period.

We chose a few specific concrete things they’d like to improve. If you want a responsive horse, change things up. The same dull repetition gets boring and a bored horse is a dangerous horse. It’s not to say that everyone needs to become wildly ambitious, but it’s smart to keep the conversation interesting.

Start here: A horse with a history and a personality. Maybe the horse is a scraggly PMU baby with a halter grown into his head. Or maybe he’s a well-trained, bomb-proof dream horse that you spent a fortune on. It’s all the same.

Add a human with a history and a personality. It might be their first horse ever or they might be a lifetime horseperson. It’s all the same.

Day One: Something happens to the human. It could be watching a video clip or glance into a pen, but intellect and emotions collide. Money changes hands; a horse trailer abduction follows. Horses are not the sort who fall in love at first sight, especially if it means leaving their herd. As much as we wish they’d love us the way we love them, they’re prey animals. They put survival first.

Now, it’s the two of you, beginning a relationship. You each have a past, not that it matters. It’s about the present, with hopes for a future. Let’s call the relationship a bubble. In the beginning, it breaks as easily as a gust of wind or a bump on the bit. It’s fragile when you’re figuring each other out.

Horse training can feel complicated, but this is the simple secret. The more positive experiences you share, the more trust between you, and the stronger the bubble. So, you stay positive, say please and thank you, and let the trust grow.  Focus on the relationship; less correction and more direction.

Then later, on the day that the helicopter lands or the fireworks explode or the bear waddles into the barn, life inside the bubble has become so safe and pleasant, that your horse ignores such silly distractions. The real question is how does real drama become a silly distraction?

Universal Law: Life is change. Nothing stays the same. A sweet ride one day turns into a rodeo the next. The perfect horse comes apart or the rescue finds a way to trust. In my experience, horses are always on a tendency of getting better or getting worse.

We dance between complacency and possibility because both horses and humans struggle with change and trust.

Strengthening the bubble is necessary because maintaining status quo isn’t enough. Our job is to provide small challenges that grow confidence. Not being distracted by the random baby stroller or hot air balloon but staying true to each other. During a challenge, a horse knows the bubble is the safe place because you only allow good things to happen there.

How many of us mentally abandon our horses when we feel anxiety? And if we doubt them, why shouldn’t they doubt us? Now we’re getting to the heart of what relationship with a prey animal means. We have to focus on them, no matter what is happening outside the bubble. Outside the bubble is none of your business. Riders must keep the connection inside, regardless of external distractions.

If you’re a trail rider and there’s a difficult bridge ahead, you stay connected with your horse, giving him confidence and not fear. If you shift priorities and think the bridge is more important than your relationship, things will go badly. A good leader holds their own focus and always puts the horse first, while also pushing the edges to keep the conversation fresh. It’s testing the bubble.

Consider competitions the equivalent of a weekend horse camping trip. It’s a way to leave home, have adventures that test your bubble in a safe environment, and it’s totally legal to love your horse and bring friends. There’s even a “bear” in the arena –a scary judge.

Disclaimer: Movies like National Velvet, where there’s a miraculous win by an unknown pair? That’s fiction. In real life, showing is usually a bigger challenge for humans than horses. It’s easy to get distracted by a judge or other competitors but they’re none of your business. How you can tell is they’re NOT inside your bubble. If you let those silly distractions cause you to mentally abandon your horse, it’s on you. If you allow your emotions to overcome your relationship, whether at a bridge on a trail ride or at a show, you have work to do on your half of the relationship. Sorry.

It’s the judge’s job to score five minutes of your lifelong relationship. Five lousy minutes. And if their opinion hurts your feelings, that’s an opportunity to work on your bubble. Excuse your ego, proud or frail, from the bubble. Showing isn’t personal; it’s simply a training aid like a bit or saddle.

Agreed, there are bad riders and bad judging. In Dressage, we report abuse to the technical delegate and the show management has judge evaluation sheets. Judges are not ordained by God; they’re our employees. Please do rant about abuse and bad judging. It exists in all riding disciplines; it takes no skill to recognize it.

It does take skill to hold to your ethics and ride your own ride. To look past the haters and lighten up. The majority of the competition world are amateur riders trying to do their best for their horse. We aren’t the minority. We just act that way.

Showing can threaten our sensibilities; we don’t like judgment. Even as we judge others. Even though our horses make that call about us every ride. Competition feels like a dirty word for many. Let’s petition the USEF to change that word to something more truthful. Like Bubble Challenge.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning upcoming Concept Clinics. 2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 


  1. Bubble Challenge certainly could alter the entire showing universe!! Somehow, doubt that will happen. But its a good picture for anyone who does show to put in their head.

  2. Creating our bubble while schooling in the arena has helped our relationship immensely. I don’t tense up when another rider intersects our path and my horse keeps moving forward as I guide him to a different path. When I allowed myself to get distracted, he’d stop. I recognized that he was taking care of me. Being an OTTB, he could have used other means of getting my attention. Good boy!

  3. I decided in December 2016 to either sell my TWH gelding or to start again at square one, the mounting block, and see if telling people to shut up “just ride, you are overthinking, if you would just do what I tell you and other non-helpful comments” ut instead to make a journey that would be just the two of us – would that help us both to learn to rely on each other? I could not deal with the fear that developed from my horse bolting when faced with separation anxiety or worry about what I was asking. And he could not deal with my lack of trust and being unable at any point in a ride to just relax, either of us. As I read your words I relived the months since January 2017 when I set the mounting block inside the round pen, asked my horse to stand so I could mount, took a deep breathe, and asked him to join me on the journey to see if it would take us where both of us needed to be. Last Sunday we were riding in a local state park with a friend. Part of our path took us along side an adjoining cattle/horse property by its main area. A calf came close and starting crying out to us. I could feel my horse tense a bit as his mind and instinct was trying to sort this out. But I could also feel him asking me for help in deciding. My response was to breathe deeply but so he could hear and give him our signals for “all is well.” Telling him he is a good horse, rubbing his withers, keeping a loose rein. 18 months ago neither of us would have been able to speak above our fear to hear each other. That day he said “I am listening” and I said the same. We spoke at the same time to tell each other we knew our bubble was safe because we were in our bubble together. It was awesome to feel him relax beneath me even as the calf continued to bellow. Our blue ribbons, fancy buckles, and shiny trophies do not come from competitions and are not visible to others but at times like this they shimmer in the air for him and I to treasure together. Thank you for your blogs. They are just awesome.

  4. I recently very very nearly sold my best friend. Thinking that we were just not suited.. In reality I was just filled with anxiety and doubt about my own ability – I stopped trusting her and she stopped trusting me. Somehow, I changed the conversation, as you say, and the realization that I nearly let her go is unfathomable. Loved this piece, Anna..

  5. I love this so much. That central point about being present for the horse all the time is the single most important thing in horsemanship, I think. And of course, “less correction, more direction.” I always say that my horses believe me when I say it’s okay because I make sure that I’m aware of what I ask them to do (is it fair? are they prepared?), and I make sure never to lie to them. By the way, your line about “abduction by trailer” is so very apt, and such a good reminder of how easily the horse’s needs can be forgotten if we don’t stay aware. And I really appreciate your use of the word “ethics.” There is always a power dynamic at play when we work with our horses (and in spite of their greater physical strength, we’re the ones with the power over them). That should obligate us to think about how we use our power. In many ways, I think the old (and new) discussions about might vs. right in human interactions also have some bearing on what we do with horses. There is a whole book’s worth of wisdom in this short essay.

  6. Oh, wow, I love that bubble image!

    It’s the judge’s job to score five minutes of your lifelong relationship. Five lousy minutes.

    I had a buddy who competed in Western Riding. He and his little mare were well matched and great fun together, but they always had ‘stage fright’ when it was time to show off their skills in front of judges.

    I remember one time he was sitting at our kitchen table, trying to get my dad’s advice (dad never competed, never coached, but knows his horses like a farmer knows his soil and grain). So my buddy poured out his troubles, what happened, what went wrong, and what the judges said.

    Cue dad: “Yea. But what did your horse say?”

  7. Perfect Anna, thank you 🙂 Competitions well….. I always fall apart, I try to avoid them. This was perfect timing. I am due to do a Working Equitation Competition which includes a dressage test with my young Morgan next month, our first competition together. Dressage tests do my head in. This was a huge help. Bucky and I will get into that bubble and just have a lot of fun 🙂 Thank you ! 🙂

    • You know I love dressage; is there a way you could think of that test as a slow dance with your young horse? Good luck. If that doesn’t work, enjoy the ride!! Thanks, Melissa.

      • Perfect, yes I will Anna. In fact, practicing for this test, I do believe both Buck and I are rather enjoying it 🙂

  8. Thanks for this lovely post – you have put into words the way I feel about being with my horse.

  9. Hmmm…another day when your post just happened to coincide with something in me and my mare’s relationship. It was sort of warm today (40-ish, “warm” for Michigan) and we rode in the large outdoor ring. A coyote jogged by in the adjacent pasture just as I was about to mount. I know from experience that our horses, who always live outside, are very wary of coyotes. I took the whole thing very casually, even verbally inquiring if she had seen it, as if it were as innocuous as maybe a rabbit. She stared, did nothing, stood quietly at the mounting block, and we went on our way. That just felt so good!

    • Yay, I love moments like that… a shared non-spook. This is extra great because coyotes are real predators, compared to, say, plastic bags. Good girl! Thanks for sharing this, Alli.

  10. I wish there was a love button for posts. I really, really needed to read this tonight. It’s not even just showing. It’s a normal day to day experience in dealing with the horse world. There will always be people judging others and quick to criticize our rides, and we need to keep all those others out of our bubble as well. Thanks for the reminder!

  11. I was talking to a couple of my colleagues about this post yesterday, and how often I use your horse stories to figure out how to respond to problem relationships with my students. One mocked me; one said “absolutely. Did you know I was a ‘horse girl’?” I believe it is always about the relationship.

  12. Well there’s another smack in the back of the head for me. I have abandoned my pony..A LOT. I get anxious, he gets anxious. Focus gone. My emotions just overcame our relationship.This so hits home with me. Smack! Distractions…”They are non of your business”, why? They Are Not Inside Your Bubble! ” My poor pony…his body gets hard like a rock when I begin to harness him. He knows. I’m gone and he is on his own. Other drivers frown at us as they know I have a high strung “hot’ pony. So…I have been working daily to strengthen our bubble, focus on us, be present. Mr Wynn first! I love having you as our teacher, Anna! You have a knack for sharing the right info at the time. For all of us! Thank you so so much!! =-)

    • You flatter me and I don’t deserve it, Deb. Thank that dead and gone Grandfather Horse. He went as stiff and tense as Mr Wynn, and he taught me. Spirit, this comment is for you. (He says thanks, Deb.)

  13. Judges, sometimes they just don’t “get it “. (yes, I know, they can only have an opinion on what is presented right in front of them). I am quite good at staying in our bubble, and inviting the horse to join me. Am lucky enough to have lovely horses who are happy to be with me. I took my 3y to her very first horse show, just to get her through the process, into a foreign arena, to just get out there. She was SO good. She looked at the arena fence, and I allowed her. She figured it out, went right back to our trot work. On the reverse (other eye), she again needed to look, again I said yes, look, figure this out. Again, right back to work. Good circles, straight lines, happy to go along. I could hear her thinking about it all, and I was SO proud of her, her ability to think, figure, stay with me, and be happy to go along!!!!!! Goooooodddd giiiirrrlllllll… Judges opinion (at intro level): nice mover, needs more contact, frame, etc, blah blah blah…… really? My filly just wrote quantum theory in her head, and was politely coversing the entire time! And that’s why showing is an important step, but not an important destination, for me and my partners.

    • You know the truth of your ride, the judge didn’t know it was her first go. Some intro tests are beginning riders. Some riders are new to dressage and the idea of tests with letters. Judges have to go to the directives rather than the individual horse. Could she have used more flattering terms. Probably. Did she judge you as fairly as possible in this infinite world of experience, both horse and rider. Probably. Judging is imperfect by definition. That’s what bubbles are for, and it sounds like yours held. Yay. Thanks Laura.

  14. Anna, once again you have written an absolutely brilliant composition. I do not compete as I rarely have the courage to ride even just for fun. I find myself spooking at things my horses does not even see (or seem to care about). I love the idea of us being “in a bubble” together as a pair. I will definitely work on this as I try to regain my courage to ride. I thank you for sharing your knowledge and talent with us. You are a true inspiration.

  15. My Wee Beastie Girl has allowed me into her bubble more often than I can count. Just this morning a kleenex fell out of my pocket on a ride. I saw it and I rode her up to it quietly, worried that it may cause her trouble. Nope, nada…I got off and picked it up, flipped it at her a bit, and she looked at me the way only an 18 year old mare can and said, “look mum, you’ve been crying your way through broken marriages, wayward children, and menopause for years. Do you think I haven’t seen the odd kleenex?” I have ridden that horse through several emotional war zones and, although we never once considered competing with anything other than my own demons, we are a team to be reckoned with.

    PS…I love your blog. And I’m watching for when you’re in Canada.

    • Talk about an obstacle course! 🙂 Such a great comment, thank you. I’d love to come to Canada again. It’s beautiful. In the SUMMER. Thanks, Penny.

  16. I just spent the last three days scribing an open show. In the trail arena was a paint horse that had just been shipped to California from Michigan. Four whole days ago. The rider said the horse knew how to do trail, she did not. They were not doing well, the horse appeared upset and anxious. Frustration fueled their rides. I felt so sorry for that animal, like you said, kidnapped by the equivalent of a greyhound bus, driven for hours away from all familiar smells and sounds and thrust into an arena under an unskilled rider. I am sure it did not appear cruel to this inexperienced woman, she had a shiny new toy. Having spent years preparing before attempting to ride in a show like this it made my heart hurt. You described what I witnessed so eloquently.

    • I’ve seen this sort of thing at shows, too. Sometimes followed by temper tantrums about the horse not being trained. It’s a hard situation; she can’t know what she doesn’t know. It’s hard to know how to help. At the very least, we can breathe for the horse. Thanks, Kathy, for this important comment.

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