Unless You Know Me, You Don’t Actually Know Me. (Or Anyone Else)

Photo by Jaye Nevins
Photo by Jaye Nevins

Last week I started my post by suggesting that I was the “world’s worst blogger” because I only wrote when I was inspired. Well, what a difference a week makes. I’m “inspired” now, I tell you. I’ve got enough material to last quite awhile.

It’s hard to know where to even start. What was intended to be a balanced approach with respect to “Congress Western Pleasure-Gate”, and a commentary on social media, somehow twisted into not just an even bigger bashing of western pleasure as a whole, but a good old fashioned bashing of me personally. Wow. That was weird. (And completely supported my primary point, to be honest).

So I learned a lot about blogging last week. And I learned that once you drop a video or somewhat inflammatory picture into a blog post, many people stop reading and start typing, even if it wasn’t your video. (It’s also sometimes bad when you mention another discipline, evidently, even if you’re trying to be complementary of it.)

I knew going in that not everyone was going to agree with my perspective given that it was pretty neutral (many people aren’t “in” to neutral. Donald Trump is living proof of that). I also knew that some people would flat disagree (my favorite comment: “best written article I still don’t agree with…”). But I was completely unprepared for the personal attacks, because unless you know me, you don’t know me.

My life with horses began a very long time ago, like many, with snotty Shetland pony types, and lots of books from the local library. I somehow managed to convince my parents that I simply would not survive another day without my own pony, and the rest as they say, is history. (I expect that by now some of you have gotten bored and left. Ponies aren’t that controversial after all, unless you’re actually dealing with one).

Through my youth, I participated in 4-H with a grade Quarter Horse type mare. We showed at the county fair, rode trails and subdivision streets, occasionally barefoot and bareback (both of us). My life revolved around horses, the fair, horse shows, and trying to qualify for the State 4-H Horse Show. I also dreamed of one day showing the AQHA circuit, and after I finished college and got a job, I did. Like most experiences, it made me a better horsemen in a myriad of ways. I was able to meet people that I had only seen in magazines, and sometimes, I even was able to compete with them. (Once again, some of you have left, I’m sure, since I said AQHA, but thanks to those who are sticking with it.)

Professionally I was like every other “horse show kid”. I went to school and wanted to be a veterinarian, because I didn’t know what other options there were, and I’m no horse trainer. (At least not intentionally, anyway.) Ultimately, I wound up with a Bachelor’s degree in Education and Teaching, then a Master’s Degree in Animal Science with a Nutrition emphasis. I decided that I wanted to work with people to help them manage their horses, and hopefully make things better for horses AND people. Fortunately, I have been blessed to be able to do that on a daily basis for the past 15 years.

After working for a bit, and showing horses pretty intensely for a bit, a couple of things happened. Number one, I got very interested in the psychology of sport, and how successful people become successful at anything, not just showing horses. Second, I started to see some things both inside and outside the show ring that I really didn’t like very much, and I decided that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice the well-being of my horse to fuel my own ego. Finally, I lost a beautiful yearling gelding out of one of my favorite show mares very suddenly, and unexpectedly. Life has a way of making decisions for you.

At this point I did what any normal person with a somewhat stressful full-time job and a competitive ego would do…I gave up the Amateur card, started judging horse shows, and worked on a Ph. D. in Sport Psychology. Because, really, why wouldn’t you? Plus I wasn’t sure which direction I wanted to head next from a horse perspective. I was very interested in the things that people do with and to horses in the name of competition, because frankly, I had lived it. (Lady who called me “uneducated and classless”, if you’re reading this, while I can certainly be less than classy at times, I’m not sure that uneducated is really fair. Thankfully for both of us, I don’t think we travel in the same circles. ).

I also decided that it was as good a time as any to give back to some of the organizations that had given so much to me. I took on some leadership roles including president of both state and national equine organizations and I developed an appreciation for every equine breed…if I want a smart, gorgeous horse with a lot of heart, I’ll ride an Arab. If I want a smart, gorgeous horse that enjoys chasing cattle, I’ll ride a Quarter Horse. (They’re still out there.) Anyway, hopefully you get the point, and like it or not folks, we really are “all in this together”.

I’ve also developed a strong appreciation for the people BEHIND those horses (all of them), and the things that make them tick. Let’s face it, there are things that go on in every breed and discipline that shouldn’t, and those people should be stopped. But there are also some absolutely fantastic people in all segments of the equine industry…some of the very best you’ll ever meet, and they shouldn’t all be painted with the same negative brush any more than ALL dressage people should be, or all reining horse people, or racehorse people or any other kind of horse people. The vast majority of horse people that I know are passionate about horses.  Yes, our viewpoints may get a little foggy from the competition of it at times, and not everyone approaches things from the same direction, but we’re all pretty similar in the end if we actually get to know one another.

So who am I? I’m a kid who started with ponies, who loved 4-H,and  who went on to show at the highest level I could afford. I’ve lost some great ones, bought some less than great ones in spite of myself, and I have too many cats (relax blogosphere, they’re all vaccinated, spayed and neutered). Finally, I have chosen to give back to the industry in the hopes that it will continue to exist for years to come so others can experience it too. Our paths may not be exactly the same, but in many respects, I’m a horseman, just like you.

Thanks for reading, mom. 😉

God is Great, Beer is Good, and This Western Pleasure Thing Has Gotten Crazy

246507_309397709150429_2062996370_nI’m pretty much the worst blogger ever. They say you’re supposed to write at least a post a week, but for some reason, I only write when I’m inspired. If I don’t have anything particularly relevant to say, I don’t write. (I find it a useful practice when it comes to actually talking as well. More people should consider it.)

But now, it’s Congress time. That month or so long Central Ohio event, where dreams are made (and sometimes go to die), lots of money is spent, and thousands of American Quarter Horses and their people travel to see who is the “best of the best”. (At least in some sense, given that you don’t have to qualify to show there.) The All American Quarter Horse Congress, if you’ve never been also attracts equine enthusiasts from all breeds and disciplines, presumably because both the pecan rolls and the shopping are so fantastic. This year, however, it seems to be attracting people for a different reason…it is Internet open season on the Western Pleasure horse. Unfortunately, I can’t even type the words without feeling like I should duck at minimum, or put on a flame retardant suit at worst.

Several videos have been circulating via social media “highlighting” the best, (or the worst), the class has to offer, depending on your perspective. Many of those who are currently involved in the Western Pleasure world are raving about how good the horses are moving these days, by and large, but a seemingly more vocal majority is condemning the horses, the people and basically everyone who has ever come within 10 feet of a western pleasure horse be they owner, trainer, judge or stall cleaner. To this point, I haven’t really said much, as talking about western pleasure on social media is about as effective as trying to negotiate Middle Eastern peace via Twitter, but after giving it some thought (a less than popular concept in the social media world, it seems) I decided that I do have something to say.

Those who are condemning western pleasure riders, trainers, and owners are typically doing so “in defense of the horse”.   Horses don’t naturally move that slow (true), horses aren’t naturally that mechanical (also true), and horses clearly have to be abused to perform that way (ok, I know that part isn’t always true).

Let’s stop and think about Grand Prix dressage for just a minute. Horses don’t naturally trot and canter in place either, yet that seems to be perfectly acceptable and highly revered in the Dressage world. I think it has something to do with the difference in animation, lift, and suspension, and training progression demonstrated by Dressage horses as compared to stock type horses, which sometimes don’t have much of any of those things. I don’t mean to pick on Dressage, it just happens to be another sport where horses are asked to perform difficult, unnatural maneuvers. You can insert reining, jumping, or even trail riding here if you like. I’m guessing not all horses think 7 hours on the trail is big fun either, by the way. It depends on the horse.

Anyway, my point is this. I don’t care for how many western pleasure horses are asked to move these days…but I DO appreciate a great one, and I do appreciate the fact that when asked, the horses can and do move differently…more forward, and in some cases, more comfortably. (If all horses moved at about the speed of a good western riding horse, that would be swell.) When I judge, I try to encourage people to move their horses forward a bit when I can, while trying to help them understand how to collect their horses and develop some self carriage. (At least as much as any judge can do in the 5 seconds the have to talk to exhibitors at open shows).

Anyway, I also appreciate great reining horses, great racehorses, great draft horses…any horse that is good at their game. Even if that game is simply teaching a little girl how to ride (which for some horses may be considered abuse in itself).  If they aren’t “good at their game” I typically don’t take to social media and drag the entire sport or discipline through the mud.  But at this point western pleasure is like shooting fish in a barrel. People seem to think there are prizes for bashing western pleasure, and they come in the form of “likes”.

But most people who own western pleasure horses aren’t actually monsters. I know quite a few, and to be honest, they love their horses, and go out of their way to make sure they are well cared for, and have the best of everything. Many DO turn them out when they aren’t showing…sometimes (gasp) with other horses, even! Many trainers will have frank discussions with owners letting them know that their horse is better suited for something else if that’s the case. And often, horses start as western pleasure horses go on to have long careers as all around horses…despite what some would have you believe.

At the same time, if you do own a western pleasure horse, it’s pretty naïve to suggest that all of those people who don’t like today’s western pleasure horse are “ignorant”, (and they aren’t monsters either). Many of those people are horse people who have left the western pleasure arena because they can’t stand to watch what is (sometimes) happening. They too love their horses, and it pains them to see horses shut down to the point where they barely move at all.  They don’t like seeing horses excessively spurred, jerked on either, by the way, and its even worse if you don’t seem to have an end point in mind. In some cases, they are still showing, but avoid the western pleasure class altogether. Realizing that you may be asking your horse to physically and mentally do things he can’t actually do to satisfy your own competitive ego can be a tough pill to swallow. I know because I’ve swallowed it. Fortunately for me, the horse is still standing in my barn, and has forgiven me, it appears.

Love or hate western pleasure, I believe that more want what is best for horses than don’t. The most important lesson I ever learned was that if we’re going to ask animals (any animals) to do things for us, we owe them the highest level of care and consideration. It may be that rather than post videos and inflammatory comments on social media, everyone needs to take a step back, talk face to face, consider the genetics, training techniques, and daily life of western pleasure horses, the perspective and point of view of both sides, and then make their own decisions about what to do.  But then, that’s not always popular in this day and age. There isn’t always a “like” button (or a bronze trophy) for taking personal responsibility.