The "Rail-Bird" Effect

Pam Stone humorously explains how to cope with what you think you hear coming from show spectators.

It’s the rail birds!” I once had a student bemoan (actually, whine, but she reads this column so I’m trying not to pile it on from the very beginning) to me after a disappointing class. “I see the other riders leaning against the rail and watching my warm-up, and I know what they’re saying. It made me so nervous that I just lost it when I went into the ring.”

“What were they saying?” I asked, as we made that depressing walk back to the temporary stalls without bothering to check the scoreboard.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. 

“That you’re an awful rider?”


“That you have no business showing at this level?”

“No,” she replied, a little testily. 

“That you’re an embarrassment to the sport?” I pressed.

She halted abruptly and, with a thunderous brow, snapped, “I don’t know what they were saying.”

I held her horse’s head while she slid from the saddle and began to untack. “Exactly.” I smiled. “You don’t know what they were saying. You just believed they were saying all this awful stuff about you. Maybe they were saying, ‘Wow, that girl’s doing a really good job with that horse. Did you see him spook in the corner and spin and buck? I’m glad she’s on him and not me!’”

The point being, if we’re going to take part in a (hear me, here) spectator sport, we must assume there will be spectators: the judge, our trainer, assorted moms, someone’s bored cousin who got dragged to the show, friends and complete idiots. And they all have opinions. But that doesn’t mean everything that comes out of their mouth is going to be as snarky as comments anonymously posted beneath an online article about the President or Kim Kardashian. 

Neither am I completely naïve. Sadly, I’ve witnessed someone’s trainer picking out a noticeable spot to watch a former student warm up with a new trainer—it’s an obvious ploy to rattle the nerves, as is the same behavior from someone who has left a barn amid acrimony. But these instances are rare and a little silly, really. Why waste a moment of your big day feeding someone’s neurosis?

I tried another tack with my student. “Kyra Kyrkland once said that you’re having a great show year if just three or four times your horse gives you 80 percent of what you usually get from him at home.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Yep.” I went on. “Because pretty much all horses get tense or tired or stressed at a show. And then our nerves pile on, too.”


“Steffen Peters is known to weep in his horse’s stall before every class.”


“Of course not,” I said, clapping her on the back on my way to grab her halter. “He’s Steffen Peters. But I’m sure if you asked him, he’d have all kinds of stories to tell you about dealing with tense horses in the warm-up before, you know, something mundane like CDIs or the Olympics, with the entire world being rail birds.”

“Right,” she said, taking a brush to her gelding. “But he’s Steffen Peters.”

“He wasn’t always Steffen Peters.” I shot back. “He used to be a talented, inexperienced, rider. And then he earned a tremendous amount of experience and used it to become super effective. So look at it this way: Today was about getting a little of that experience which, if you use it the right way, is going to bring you success in the future.”

Not wanting to be overwhelmingly annoying, I left her to chew on her thoughts for awhile.

Look, no one wants to have a difficult day in front of others. We do have to learn to deal with it, however, if we plan to compete—even if we get dumped in the middle of the warm-up ring or our horse decides the judge’s booth is Mount Vesuvius—who cares? What, maybe half a dozen people? The majority of the American public seems far more interested in Honey Boo Boo or Kim Kardashian’s butt.