By Sherry Cervi
In a rodeo setting there can be so many unplanned obstacles to overcome before your run ever starts. The positive aspect is that everyone entered on that given day must deal with the same elements. I think four of the most common elements to negotiate are atmosphere, warm up, score/alleyway setup, and ground. There will always be many other variables, but these are the same for every horse and rider. Depending on the rodeo, your reaction to these can be an advantage or a great disadvantage.
A rider’s ability to plan around the elements outside the pattern, which you have no control over, is often what makes or breaks a run. Rodeo competitors must train both themselves and their horses to adjust to rodeo’s ever changing situations. I personally try not to look at these things as a negative, but instead as part of the overall competition at hand. The ability to deal with these elements comes with seasoning for both horse and rider. Flexibility is the key. Changing your game plan at a moment’s notice, and making adjustments without letting it affect your focus is hard, but I feel like it’s very important in a rodeo atmosphere.
The atmosphere at a rodeo is much different from jackpots. For example, Puyallup, Wash., rodeo has a great arena, but in order to get there, you must follow a small motorized utility vehicle on the asphalt, down the midway through the carnival. You literally have to walk your horse saddled through thousands of people who all want to come up and touch your horse. There are carnival rides, trash on the ground, loud music, and all the strange attention-getting noises associated with a midway. You must be able to keep your horse quiet through all of this, while ensuring your horse’s safety and the safety of all the people. Being able to arrive at the arena calm and in one piece is the very first part of Puyallup’s competition.
Jackpots are usually held at places built specifically for horse events, so they tend to have plenty of warm-up space. Warm-up pens at rodeos however are usually an afterthought. I have unloaded at places where the only spot to warm up was the small grass patch between the parking lot and the street curb. More often, your warm-up area is just a small, makeshift dirt square in the parking lot for everybody to use – barrel racers, calf ropers, team ropers, and steer wrestlers. Again, it’s important that you not consider this a negative. Where you have to warm-up is just another element in the overall competition, and it’s important to adapt and create a strategy. If I have a horse that needs a lot of time to warm up, I will usually get there early and warm him up before the other contestants arrive. Then I will walk him around until it’s time to run. By planning, it helps me overcome the crowded pen and keeps my horse calm while giving him all the time he needs to warm up.
The score and the alleyway setup can vary greatly between arenas. The score is the distance from the start of the run to the timer line. Some places will run into a closed gate, while others have a true alleyway. Some arenas will have a long score, while some may be just a few strides. This becomes a major factor, especially with older horses or green horses that may not run hard all the way through the timer line. It’s important to prepare your horses for these situations so they are in the habit of running through the timer line. I do exercises with Stingray trotting from the third barrel all the way to a closed gate, so she knows she can keep moving past the eye before she stops. You may have the fastest pattern of the entire rodeo, but if your horse does not run through the timer, it will add tenths that can easily knock you out of the money.
The ground at a rodeo is usually less than perfect, and is never the same from one rodeo to the next. Sometimes you run in an indoor pen, sometimes outdoor. The ground may be dry, hard, shallow, deep, muddy, sticky, or even slick. It may take some horses longer to learn how to run in different types of ground. I had one horse that worked much better in deep ground, but deep ground and rodeo don’t usually go together. However, he did handle all the other outside elements extremely well, so I kept entering him on other types of ground until he was more confident. By planning this way, I helped him overcome the conditions and excel. With others, I did not have to worry about the ground, but the atmosphere affected their performance more and I had to plan accordingly. If a horse can’t handle a particular situation, I don’t see it as a fault. I just try to look at what that particular horse is good at and focus on that.
I look at the entire rodeo as a part of the run, from the way I handle the drive until the run is over. Warming up, negotiating the alley setup, ground, and dealing with the rodeo atmosphere is part of what sets rodeos apart from jackpots for both horse and rider. Instead of letting these things upset me, I think of them as another challenge that I have to negotiate well in order to make my run as good as it can be.
Remember not to let the elements outside the arena dictate your attitude and performance. There are only so many things you can control, so focus on those and make the best plan for both you and your horse.
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