In South Africa, the Costume Class is one of the most popular events at Arabian shows. Competitors wear extravagant versions of costumes based on the traditional outfits used on high days and holidays in those countries of the Middle East that still regard the Arabian horse as the most significant form of transport.
As in the Middle East, men are the main competitors in this class. It takes a brave rider to gallop into the arena without the safety of a riding helmet and wearing, instead, a headdress that flaps in the wind and long flowing garments likely to terrify the average horse.
Riders are probably motivated to enter this class because it is a challenge. It also attracts more spectators than any other Arabian class. In the Costume Class, the competitor either walks, canters or hand-gallops. The trot is regarded as too ‘safe’ and is actually grounds for elimination.
Too fast for comfort
Some 30 years ago, the entire class was conducted at a full gallop, but showing bodies have become more aware of the dangers associated with riders racing around an arena at breakneck speed without protective headgear. Even so, the crowd cheers wildly as the riders accelerate from a sedate, collected canter to a faster pace.
Most of the body and chest of the horse is covered in tassels and an intricate costume, so only a well-arched neck and high tail carriage can be observed by the judge and spectators.
Control vs costumes
Animation and alert eagerness are very important in creating a vision of the Bedouin charging across the desert. However, the horse must be under perfect control at all times.
The overall picture should be one of spirited enthusiasm on the part of both horse and rider. Judges base 75% of the final marks on performance; only 25% goes to the originality and eye-appeal of the costume.
Riders enter the arena at a walk or sedate canter and are then asked to hand-gallop. After this, they are asked to proceed calmly at a walk (without changing to a trot) and turn around in the opposite direction before showing a canter and hand-gallop on the opposite rein.
They are then requested to come in and line up at the walk and stand still to be judged.
During the class, the horse is expected to be calm, obedient and responsive at all times; extreme or reckless speed is penalised. Occasionally, much to the delight of the crowd, a horse gets overexcited and runs away with its rider. Under these circumstances, the class is usually requested to walk, or even halt, while the runaway is brought under control.
Helping the horse to adapt
Although it may appear difficult to persuade a high-spirited breed such as the Arabian to accept a flapping costume, in reality they behave better than expected. It’s a good idea to present the costume gradually and long-line or lunge the horse while the costume is introduced a piece at a time. The part most likely to cause trouble is the small oval headpiece attached just behind the ears.
Positive reinforcement works well with Arabians and soothing words or carrots can help the horse to accept a costume without panicking. It should be remembered that, although an Arabian carries its tail high and snorts at every strange sound, it was originally a war horse that could be ridden into battle. Even today, the traditional Arabian horse is used for hunting and falconry in the Middle East.
In fact, the Costume class is almost the ideal way of demonstrating that Arabians are high-spirited rather than nervous and all that curvetting and snorting are only a way of showing off.