It is the middle of July, and the high-water mark of summer in rural America is fast approaching… Fair Season. For many equestrians, this means that we’ll be packing our tack boxes and heading out into the world. Whether you are a fair-long exhibitor, or trailering in for an open show during a fair, here are some fair prep tips and tricks to make the experience a smooth one for you and your horse.
Before You Sign Up
As with any show, make sure that you have your class/exhibitor entries and fees sent in and paid according to the guidelines of the particular fair. Also, take time to read over the fair’s premium book in detail and become familiar with the rules that will govern the event. Often, these will differ slightly from breed or discipline association rules, especially with smaller local and county fairs.
The exceptions to these rule differences are breed-specific classes (i.e., Registered Quarter Horse Geldings, etc.), in which case the judging will typically reflect breed or association standard.
If you intend to exhibit for the duration of the fair, familiarize yourself with the general grounds rules. Most fairgrounds restrict livestock to specific areas. Many also designate times for arena or wash-rack access, and have guidelines for decorating your stall and identifying your exhibit. Also, get as familiar as you can with your horse’s accommodations, especially what kind/size stall he will have and tack and feed storage availability. This familiarity will help you pack and organize yourself for the event.
It is also worth familiarizing yourself with other activities occurring during the fair. Even if the arena is open for you to exercise your horse, you may want to note that the chainsaw carving contest is running just on the other side of the rail.
Another consideration ahead of loading the trailer is your horse’s vaccination history. Besides the standard negative Coggins test and Rabies Vaccination Certificate that the fair should require, study up on the communicable equine diseases prevalent in your area and vaccinate accordingly. Nothing is less fun than going to a fair and catching something inconvenient at best and deadly at worst. Except maybe bringing that something back to your home barn. Your fair premium book will explain vaccination and testing requirements for your division.
Fairs vs. Horse Shows: A Different Atmosphere
Even the most seasoned and battle-hardened weekend show warrior will feel a difference in the atmosphere of a fair. Shows can certainly be busy, electric affairs, but the very nature of a fair means that there will be hundreds-to-thousands more spectators and bystanders. Odds are very good that most of them are not very horse-savvy. Wagons and strollers with balloons tied to them travel in herds. There is other livestock around making sounds and smells that might be strange to your horse. Whether you are trailering in for an open show during a fair, or are an exhibitor for the duration, a fair will test your bombproofing homework to the max.
Coping as a Fair Exhibitor
If you are signed up for the week, there are a few things that you can do to set yourself up for success and comfort during your stay.
If you are traveling any distance at all to the fairgrounds, zipping home for that girth you forgot isn’t going to be feasible. Definitely utilize a packing list to make sure that you haven’t forgotten any necessities. Remember that you not only have to bring your show tack, show clothes, grooming kit, water bucket, and maybe a meal’s rations… you need to bring everything you use on a daily basis. This includes stall mucking equipment, feed and hay for the week-plus. It includes schooling gear and everything you need to prep for a mid-fair show, like shampoo, braiding kit, and overnight sheets.
Alongside basically taking your barn with you, you’ll need to pack a good chunk of your house as well. Many fairgrounds offer camping onsite or nearby, or perhaps a hotel might be called for. Either way, you’ll be packing everything you need to survive, too.
Label Your Gear
If you are sharing tack stalls or storage areas with other exhibitors, do yourself a massive favor and label your gear clearly. Your name or barn name in permanent marker on buckets and cleaning tools works well. I’ve been known to also use permanent marker on the inside/underside of older gear or schooling tack. Silver/white marker on the black liner of leg boots works well and stays unobtrusive. If you cannot clearly label an item, try to make it as distinctive as possible. It is a lot harder to mistake a chartreuse and lavender striped lead rope for someone else’s than a plain blue one.
For your more valuable equipment and show gear, think discreet monograms or engraved name plates. Use your own judgment, but also consider not storing prized show gear in community tack stalls. Keep it stored inside your vehicle, camper, or hotel room instead. You may trust your fellow exhibitors, but also consider that the general public will be coming through your barn space as well.
Listen To Your Horse
For most horses, life as a fair exhibit differs dramatically from their norm. It is imperative that you put your horse’s wellbeing first and foremost. If you know that your horse tends to be sensitive to changes in environment, consider carefully before you sign up. Even horses who mentally cope well with upset in their routines can be put off their guard by the demands of fair exhibition. Here are a few common issues that can arise due to the change in environment, and suggestions to cope with them.
Many horses will not drink as much water as they need to under stress. Over multi-day events like fairs, the effects of even mild dehydration can compound on our horses and put them at risk for a host of medical problems. Electrolyte supplements can help, along with lacing fairgrounds water with something yummy like apple juice to make it more palatable and encourage the horse to drink. Use the “pinch test” to check for dehydration, as well as subtler signs like a duller appearance to the coat.
Exercise for Stabled Life
For the pasture-kept horse, stabled life at a fairgrounds is a dramatic transition to make. The most common physical issues tend to be “stocking up” of the legs, stiffness, and high-energy behavior.
I wish I had a penny for every worried 4-H kid who would flag me down (as an older member and later as a club leader) during fair week with questions about their horse’s suddenly puffy legs!
While stocking up is definitely abnormal and merits attention, it typically is not an “emergency” as such. The puffiness of stocked up legs occurs when the horse is confined and unable to move around. Fluid effectively pools in the lower legs. Treatment and prevention are the same — keep the horse as active as possible with a combination of workouts, relaxing rides, lunging/groundwork, and hand-walking/grazing. Folks familiar with their correct application can supplement that activity with stable bandages or standing wraps. The puffiness typically resolves on its own.
Stiffness tends to arise with older horses more often, but stabled life can cause any horse to move a little stiffer than he would living at pasture. Again, the fix is to maximize activity as much as possible during the event, and to allow extra time to warm up and supple those muscles during rides and pre-class warm ups.
The last major outcome to expect with your suddenly-stabled horse is for his energy level to be higher than usual. Like the stiffness and stocking up discussed above, burning off that excess energy constructively with exercise as much as possible will do a lot.
Also consider judiciously adjusting your horse’s diet in the time ahead of the fair. The last thing that most horses in a stabled environment need is to be “sugared up.” Be sure to, as always, make changes to your horse’s feed ration very gradually to prevent colic, founder, and other disorders.
Signs of General Stress
Be sure to monitor your horse closely for signs of undue stress. More extroverted and flighty horses may pace or fuss in their stalls. More introverted types may just “shut down.” You know your horse and his normal. Trust your gut.
Stress can cause a number of physiological responses in the horse, ranging from stable-vice behaviors to colic. Help minimize your horse’s stress by keeping him company, grooming, etc. You, as his herd leader, can be a profound stress reducer for him by your simple relaxed presence. Consider feeding for the occasion by minimizing hard feed, and providing plenty of good quality hay and palatable water. That exercise and activity will relax your horse in mind and body as well. Calming supplements can have their place in your plan, but if your horse is not acclimating at all to the fair environment, don’t hesitate to do what is best for him and leave early.
*Note: Most fairs have rules about early withdrawal that include forfeiture of premiums, ribbons, and winnings. In my mind, the horse’s welfare comes first, but be advised that this the typical case.*
Have a Great Time
I know it seems facetious after so much emphasis on avoiding undue stress and disaster, but, while it might not be for everyone, exhibiting at a fair really is great fun.
If you are going as a club, team, or group, this is a great opportunity to bond with your teammates and forge lifelong friendships. This is also a fantastic opportunity to learn from each other, to see different disciplines and techniques in action.
It is also a great way to bond with your horse, since it really is concentrated barn time. Unless horses are your profession, there are few other times when you literally are in the barn from sunup to sundown for a week straight. Often, horses and riders respond very well to this environment, almost like attending an extended clinic. They begin to “read” each other better, and to build up confidence and skill riding with barnmates that they don’t necessarily build riding on their own. This is especially true of youth exhibitors.
Fair is a phenomenal opportunity to interact with the public. Horse shows tend to draw folks who are already at least ankles-deep in the horse industry. In contrast, many of the people visiting the livestock barns and show rings at the fair are there to see something new and different. This is a great chance to share your passion, and maybe spread a little knowledge, too. As a fair exhibitor, you are much more of an ambassador of the equine industry than you are at a dedicated horse show.
What have your fair experiences been? Is exhibiting at a fair one of your regular summer equine events? What keeps you coming back every year? Did you take a horse to fair as a youth rider? Are you planning on taking a horse to a fair for the first time? Share your story in the comments!
Thanks for reading, and as always I (and you!) should be riding!