Dressing Children for the Show Ring
What horse show participant hasn’t been charmed by the sight of an arena full of youngsters, dressed with care and riding their childish best, in a leadline or walk-jog class? There’s something special and reassuring about watching the next generation of show girls and boys making their arena debut, gripping their reins carefully and smiling with fixed intensity at every parent, grandparent, and friend that coaches them from the rail.
While many folks view these ‘tot classes’ as novelties to amuse the crowd and add a degree of charm often missing at horse shows, events for very young riders are becoming serious business to their parents, and oftentimes the small riders themselves. Where a leadline class used to be simple fun for those too young to really show, these days it’s not unusual to see a child hauled to a full season of shows to chase a year-end award in this formerly innocent class. By the time some exhibitors graduate to the walk-jog ranks, they are seasoned competitors with a clear understanding of the difference between a blue and a red ribbon.
As the parent, grandparent, or instructor of a young show rider, you have a responsibility to not only make the experience fun for the child, but to help them learn from the undertaking as well. It’s your job to help teach them about showmanship, sportsmanship, and the highs and lows of competition. You must decide how serious you want to be about the pursuit of show-ring glory, and then commit to your plan wholeheartedly so that the child has a positive experience with you and with showing.
If your goal is to have some fun with your child at club level shows, then the plan will be much simpler than prepping your youngster to compete in the Small Fry horsemanship class at the Quarter Horse Congress. In the first scenario, you’ll have a small investment in clothing and tack, and probably use a gentle, reliable horse you already own. Being competitive at the Congress level is a different game: expect to spring for custom clothing, a hand-made saddle, and quite likely, a special horse purchased or leased just for those events. Before you even consider telling your kid they’re going to ride in a horse show, give some thought to how much time and money you are willing to invest in the adventure.
Want to take your little buckaroo in leadline next weekend? Great! Your goal should be to dress them similar to the adults who will ride at the same show, but perhaps more colorfully. Your cowboy or cowgirl probably has some jeans and boots already, so next you’ll need to find a hat. Look for one that actually fits your punkin’s head, instead of faking it with an adult’s proportioned hat.
Most kids have bigger heads than you’d guess: measure their head with a tape measure at the widest part, then divide by pi (3.14) to get an approximate hat size. If you’re lucky, and the number you calculate translates to 6.75 (size 6 3/4 hat) or bigger, you may be able to use an inexpensive hat from the western store with the brim cut down to about 3 1/2". Try specialty western catalogs if you need a smaller size, and don’t overlook nicely styled kid’s straw hats.
Don’t buy a toy hat, but don’t spend a fortune, either. Kids can somehow destroy a hat while it’s still on their head, and they can lose one between the tack room and the bathroom as well. While a decent felt or straw child’s hat is hard to find, it’s worth the effort to create a proportionate, not comical, impression, in the show ring. Make sure your rider knows the hat is to receive extra-special care, and is not to be worn except in the show ring. Give ‘em a baseball cap for around the barn, like all their heroes wear.
Now, for a shirt or blouse. Small boys and girls can again usually wear something from the western store, but buy it to fit or taper the garment to look shapely and let it out as they grow. It needs to fit when they wear it in the show ring, not at some undetermined point in the future. Solid color shirts can coordinate with a boy’s saddle blanket, and beware of turning your little girl out like a frilly valentine or a Vegas dancer: strive for an age-appropriate miniature version of what the big girls wear at the same shows, with a little less flash and frippery.
Vests and jackets tend to bunch up on very small kids and make them look misshapen, so start with a basic shirt, blouse, or girl’s slinky top for your first assault of the show world. A small scarf for boys finishes the collar, and a pin or pendant looks right for girls. In leadline, consider a matching neck ornament for the leader, and possibly a matching shirt as well. Remember to keep all eyes on the child though: the leader should always coordinate with, but dress simpler than, the child.
Chaps are usually not needed for young children in local level showing. Nicely- fitted jeans will do the trick, but make them lay smoother by sewing a short length of heavy elastic under the instep to keep the pants snugged down under the rider’s boot. Big rubber bands with clips are available in catalogs to do this chore too: look for them in places that cater to saddle seat (gaited horse) riders.
Finishing touches for our young weekend rider include a belt and buckle, again proportionate to the rider. All that’s left to do is figure out how to get the stirrups short enough (try having strap fenders made by a leather craftsman to fit an adult’s saddle) give some two-minute equitation lessons (at home, please) and buy lots of film.
If your kid wins, great. If not, consider that the poor judge may simply pick the cutest or most miniaturized-adult presentation to take home the blue ribbon and glory. Winning’s important? Then get ready to spend some money to make sure your kid is the one turned out to win. Should you pursue competition at more than club level or weekend shows, or at almost any level of youth showing beyond leadline and walk-jog, the game gets serious, fast. Begin your homework by watching videotapes to see exactly how the winning children were dressed. Note how fancy and fitted their clothing was, what their saddles looked liked, and of course, how well they rode.
For leadline and walk-jog, and all youth classes at breed shows and major events, young riders will be turned out as well as their adult counterparts, in styles mirroring those of the open classes. Custom-everything is usually the order of the day for the wee ones, as few catalogs and fewer stores stock specialty show apparel for little kids. Remember, though, that the resale value on custom children’s apparel is very high: if you spring for the good stuff, you’re likely to be accosted by parents lining up to buy the outfit the instant your kid outgrows it. Expect to recoup about half of your initial expense in quality pint-size tack and apparel.
If you and your family are serious about winning in leadline or walk-jog, as well as other youth classes, make sure your child is the best-turned-out rider in the class, every time. Don’t handicap your child’s chance of success by compromising the fit or style of their clothing, or expecting them to ride well in a saddle that’s too big. Keep in mind that most kids stay in an outfit at least a full year with a few careful alterations, and again, it’s a snap to sell a child’s outfit or saddle: wouldn’t you buy quality second-hand show equipment for your little star if you could find it?
Remember, especially when competing with kids, that there’s nothing ‘fair’ about showing horses: it is, at all levels, a totally subjective event that merely represents one person’s opinion of the horses and riders presented on any given day. Be realistic, but most of all, keep a perspective about what it’s worth to you and your family to win versus to compete at shows. The cold, hard facts: just because your child sold lemonade to pay their own entry fee doesn’t make them a better lead-liner than the kid whose grandparents spent $5,000 on equipment and $10,000 on a horse. If this reality makes you uncomfortable, get your child involved in 4-H or Pony Club and know you are still helping to create a horseman.