By Karen Waite, Ph. D.
In the last few weeks one of my (least) favorite topics has come up several times…that of the “participation trophy” and the fact that the world is obviously doomed to fail because some organizations have chosen not to place kids (gasp), but to focus more on learning and motor skill development instead. It happens in soccer, and yes, sometimes it happens in the horse industry, especially in lead line and walk trot classes. While I typically don’t say much about placing the littles one way or the other when I’m judging where it’s legal to do so, I’ve gotten to a point in life where I must say that maybe, just maybe, PARTICIPATION TROPHIES AREN’T THE PROBLEM. The problem is that people don’t like to (or don’t want to) do hard things. Case in point: Western Riding and flying lead changes. I suppose you’re wondering how I have gotten from Lead Line to Western Riding quite so quickly. Buckle up. It’s probably going to be a bumpy ride for a minute here, but suffice it to say, I’ve given this a lot of thought.
In my state, as with many others, failure to perform 4 or more flying lead changes in Western Riding results in a DQ at the 4-H level and has for 15 years. Throughout that entire 15-year period, people have howled and carried on such that many shows have simply chosen to ignore the rule because “kids can’t do flying lead changes” and given that fact, it really does become pretty complicated to score if you’re using the 70-point system. Those little scoresheet boxes don’t have enough space for all of the penalties that accompany inability to perform flying lead changes, on that point we can agree. But let’s think about this for a second…(legal) Western Riding should be the pinnacle of training. It is one of the most challenging classes in the western performance world. It absolutely IS difficult…but it’s not impossible. With time, patience, and good instruction, and some TRY young people with some riding time could learn to do it and their horses probably could too. And last time I checked, most classes in a show bill are optional. If I don’t have a horse that jumps, I don’t go in Hunter Over Fences. No one bats an eye.
Now back to lead-line and walk trot for a minute. (Told you it would be bumpy). I hear people complain regularly about how we should be placing kids under the age of 9 lest they grow up to be elitist, or Communist, or some other sort of “ist”. I’m not sure I’ve seen any research to support this theory, nor have I actually seen a high school basketball game where score isn’t kept, but for whatever reason many folks seem to think that a few years of not being placed negates the following 10+ years of a more traditional, competitive system. But the problem is that it is actually about as tough to place kids in Lead line and Walk Trot as it is to score less than ideal Western Riding, for vastly different reasons.
The majority of kids in the Leadline/Walk Trot phase are little (obviously) and cute (even more obvious). Most of the time, they are happy to be there, unless the show schedule is interfering with nap or snack, and they are happy to pose for pictures. At this stage they are often just getting started with their show career, and their bewildered parents are trying to figure out how to get child and horse from point A to point B without a wreck. And sometimes the horses chosen may or may not be the best option…they’re simply available. Of course, there are those “2 percenters” whose parents are trainers or riding instructors, and whose horses have been selected by the best minds and the hand of God as safe walk trot horses. But there is that other 98 percent to consider, who are just navigating their way into the horse industry.
From a motor skill perspective, being little and wobbly can cause some serious issues. Sometimes these kids are so little that their legs don’t reach past the saddle pad, and so wobbly that they need to balance on their hands or whatever else they can snag. Which means that steering can become a non-issue. Consequently, some horses find this sort of facial freedom an invitation to take off with the rest of their horse friends for a romp around the show pen. All of this can make for questionable equitation at minimum, and more excitement than anyone really needs. Unfortunately, the 5-6 year-old set hasn’t always installed a solid emergency plan in their brain as yet, because they are still thinking about that snack. In the midst of all of this, judges are often asked to place these kiddos, because clearly if they don’t do well they’ll have to just “work harder.” Work harder? At what? Growing legs and a cerebellum? As a result, I’m more comfortable with the cute factor. All cute. All can be first. They’ll have the rest of their lives to be sorted into piles of “You’re enough” and “You’re not”, and to “work harder.”
But wait just a second…”work harder”? Why should they bother? No one expects them to do it in Western Riding. No one asks them to reach higher for that class at all. We just change the rules so that they don’t HAVE to do hard things, learn the skills, develop their abilities. They can simple change their way through life, and the world will allow them to not work quite so hard after all. They can earn Facebook likes and Instagram hearts and edit their photos so only the good parts and the successful days show…not the days of dirt and dust and fight to “do better”.
So you see…maybe participation trophies aren’t actually the REAL problem after all.