to explain it,
to explain it,
By Karen Waite
It would appear I’ve lost the ability to count to 2. Or 3. Or at all. While there is every reason to think this is a temporary situation, it doesn’t make it any less annoying, especially when you’re showing a Reining horse and you’re actually a pretty competitive person. If you spin the wrong number of times, you’re off pattern, disqualified, Penalty score zeroed. Peace OUT. But sometimes a zero beats a 65…and I’m sure you’re thinking “Wow. She really can’t count.”. I’ll explain.Photo credit: Kristy Stecker
While it may look easy on TV, Reining is actually anything BUT easy. Especially if you’ve spent your entire life riding horses who were supposed to go sort of slow(ish). There are lots of things to change…using your legs once again becomes a form of encouragement (or lead changes), as opposed to a braking mechanism. But it’s not just the physical motor skills that need to change, it’s the mental skills as well. From a Sport Psychology/self-talk perspective, I’ve spent years telling myself to “slow down, relax, think through the next element, relax, focus, relax…” so much so that’s it’s second nature. And yes, all of that is handy in the Reining pen, too, but something was missing…
This entire show season, I’ve been working to find that missing “thing”. It’s a little bit of energy, a little bit of “let go of her”, and to be honest, I was getting a bit frustrated with the search. I mean, it felt like I WAS going fast. It felt like I WAS letting her go, at least until I looked at the videos and realized that no. My runs were still pretty “Horsemanshippy”, with about a 50% success rate, given that I’ve been DQ-ing half the time, purely as a result of miscounting, or misdirecting spins. Sigh. Good thing that Grit Isn’t Just For Chickens.
At a recent show, I was holding to my usual “50% success rate” program. I completed a run, managed to stay on pattern, and marked a 65. It was correct, but in all honesty the best description I could give was “meh”. My next run, I was planning to spark it up a bit. So I did…and spun an extra time, once again “earning” a 0. UGH. NOOOOOO. Not AGAIN!!! At this rate, I’ll be a Green Reiner FOREVER! A veritable evergreen…the pine tree of Reining! (At least that’s how it feels.)
I always find it interesting when news people interview athletes and ask them what they were thinking at a critical moment. In all honesty, at that level, they probably were only thinking strategy if anything, because muscle memory is an actual thing. Once you get the motor skills down, it’s (almost) all mental. But given that I’m a beginner in this sport, I’m still thinking an awful lot… ”Hands here, legs here, no, not there, HERE. Cue for this now. Wait..WHAT? Where are we? Was that two?”…the chatter almost never stops. But part way through that extra spin, when I realized that yes, it WAS in fact EXTRA, a switch went off in my head. I distinctly remember thinking “Well, you’ve got a set of circles, a figure eight, some roll backs, and a stop to go. You may as well ACTUALLY GO, DINGBAT, GO! What have you got to lose? You’ve already blown it.” So I did. And had the most fun I’ve ever had while DQing. Actually, it felt better than some Showmanship and rail classes that I actually DID win. I came out of the pen happy and feeling like I had ACTUALLY accomplished something. Much more so than the accurate yet boring, “meh” 65 run. And I didn’t die, or even sustain serious injury. In fact, I got better.
The next run I marked a personal best 68. And that never would have happened without that 0. Sure, there are plenty of things that I could have done better in that 68 run (obviously), but it was that 0 that made the 68 possible. So sometimes, a zero really DOES beat a 65.
By Karen L. Waite, Ph. D.
If you are a friend on my personal Facebook page, I’m sure at some point you’ve thought “Why does this insufferable woman post so much? And why does she always post about her FAILURES? Who DOES that?” Great news. I’m hoping to clear that up for you with this post. But first…one of my “failures” (in quotes because “failure” is a relative term. I was on the horse, I stayed on the horse, and was in the pen, so…). On this particular occasion, we started one set of spins with a little too much enthusiasm, and then V got VERY excited about her fancy lead changes so she threw in an extra for good measure. Plus I’m still getting used to the idea of just “letting her go”. Anything that resembles speed feels like super turbo to me.
Back to the matter at hand, there are two main reasons for my either daily, or several times daily, Seinfeld-esque posts about “nothing”. First, my almost 83 year-old mother can’t get out quite as much as she once did, but she can use Facebook. She loves people watching, and now she can do it from her chair! Facebook is a great way for her to keep up with what’s happening and I want her to know what’s going on…and even more importantly, when she “Likes” something I’ve posted, I know she’s ok. The peace of mind that comes with that is priceless.
Second, Mark Zuckerberg says I can. Facebook is my personal scrapbook, diary of daily events, or whatever else you want to call it. Russian hacks not withstanding when I’m 83, my memories from 30 years ago will pop up in that delightful orange box, asking if I want to share them. You betcha, I do, Mark Zuckerberg.
In addition to those two things, however, there is one additional reason I post so much about the good things, the bad things, and the totally mundane, ridiculous things. I think that Facebook, and social media in general, lacks the authenticity and “realness” that makes up an actual life. Success happens, failure happens, happiness happens and sometimes, very, very hard times happen. I work with a fair number of youth and college age students, and sometimes even adults, and I try to be a good role model. (And yes, I fall down on this front consistently as well.) I want them to see that a person can have a pretty successful life full of things they enjoy, judging horse shows, being blessed to travel all over the country and even world, while at the same time being afraid of chickens, and forgetting which way or how many times to spin in a reining pattern. Repeatedly. And they can own all of it. It’s 100% theirs. Someday, they’ll realize that IRL (in real life, for those who don’t know), the journey to the success makes up a much larger and more interesting part of the actual success. Oh sure, your mom cares that you won, but honestly, If someone wins at a horse show, I’m MUCH more interested in the effort that went into it for weeks, months, or years prior. How they fell down 7 times and got up 8. What they had to overcome, and just how much grit they have. That to me is much more interesting than the (nifty) cooler they won.
But what if you’re just not particularly gritty and you can’t possibly imagine that you’ll EVER be as successful as “those people” you see on Facebook? What if grit is genetic, or you’re born with as much as you’ll ever have? The good news is that grit isn’t just for chickens anymore! Grit is an actual psychological skill that you can develop if you’re lacking. There is an entire book about it, in fact. You might want to check it out: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perserverance Duckworth says of the high achievers she has studied “Apparently it was critically important-and not at all easy-to keep going after failure. “Some people are great when things are going well, but they fall apart when they aren’t.” This book shares accounts of those who learned to keep going, and in all honesty, that’s what sets them apart from others. That’s why I post the good and the bad…a failure is just a step on the staircase. And yes, I realize that in the big scheme of things, “failing” at a horse show is pretty small…but we learn to handle big things by surviving the small ones.
If you don’t have time to read an actual book, you can get the audio version and listen while you drive, clean stalls, or even while you work out. And one day (probably before you’re 83), maybe Facebook will show you that memory of the day when your horse leaped into a spin in Green Reiner. And hopefully by then you’ll have stuck with it long enough that your Green days are long behind you, “speed” is actually fast and maybe you’ll even be a Rookie by then!
Remember that time you went to the ER for that broken arm and thought “You know, I could really do a better job of setting this?” Or when you took your car to the mechanic and thought, “That’s not the way I would have fixed that carburetor.” (Note: It took spell check for me to properly spell carburetor. Twice.)
Anyway, you haven’t? Why not? Probably because you aren’t trained in either of those fields so you went to an expert for their opinion. So why do we struggle so much to accept the opinions of horse judges? Does the fact that we have a horse automatically make us an expert in evaluating any and all breeds and disciplines? I have driven a truck around the farm since I was 12…legally on the road since I was sixteen, but guess what? I’m no expert. The same can be said of horse judging, I think.
When a judge obtains a judging card, more often than not they have gone through a process of proving themselves to a governing body. They have taken written rulebook tests, apprentice judged, been interviewed, evaluated, and asked to jump through more hoops that one can possibly imagine. And yet for some reason, when they step into a show pen, suddenly they don’t know WHAT they are doing…and everyone outside of the pen is an expert.
Of course, this varies substantially from place to place, and show to show. The more educated horsemen become, the more they tend to understand the process of becoming a judge. And similarly, from a judging perspective, the longer you judge, the more your skills develop and ideally the more you grasp the concept of “riding for the brand”.
So what does that mean? Riding for the brand means understanding and supporting the mission of the organization you’re carded by and/or working to uphold that mission. For example, I’ve had the opportunity to judge quite a few 4-H fairs this year…or at least more than is typical. In a nutshell, what makes 4-H different than any other horse show is the educational component that goes along with the concept. A 4-H (fair) horse show is NOT JUST ANOTHER HORSE SHOW. It should be designed as a place for young people to show what they have learned, and to learn some more. It should be a place for leaders and volunteers to support and admire what their young people have learned, and to learn some more themselves, to in turn help those kids going forward. As they say, “Team work makes the dream work” and more often than not, judges are on your team. Young people can (and hopefully DO) take those skills and show elsewhere, but on that day, at that fair, the focus should be on what has been learned AND rewarding accordingly in the form of prizes and all the other fun things that go with participation at a fair.
How can we do that? Giving judges the opportunity to give reasons on the microphone is one way that can be achieved, and based on what I’ve heard, exhibitors actually DO appreciate that feedback, at least at certain times, places, and time frames. To quote G.I. Joe “Knowing is half the battle.” Yes, not every judge is conversationally gifted but if their heart is in the right place, and they really want to help, does that really matter so much? No, we don’t want to make kids cry and hate the experience, but many judges started in 4-H and want to give back in some way. Sometimes, judges may actually share the things that need improvement, which is the only way we can ever really improve (as the anti-participation ribbon movement is typically quick to remind us). If we want a thriving and successful horse industry going forward, young people and their families deserve to at least have some information as to why they placed the way they did, and sometimes they may even need to hear the hard things (within reason), and maybe even the unsafe things. Yes, scribes and score sheets are valuable to this end, but sometimes clear and immediate feedback about a rider’s skill is even more valuable, and that information isn’t always represented in a ribbon or placing. As I’ve said before, “Losing doesn’t mean you’re bad (and winning doesn’t mean you’re good).”
It was bound to happen sooner or later. I’m not sure why I wasn’t more prepared…in hindsight, I should have been. I was speaking at a scientific section meeting on the topic of the human aspect of show horse welfare (part of my “day job”, so to speak). The conversation turned to educational programs to address the topic, including parent education programs.
Afterwards, a young man who had been enthusiastically engaged in all of the presentations of the morning, and who was likely a graduate student approached me and said “I have a question. What if your mom is “that mom”?” I asked for a bit of clarification to which he responded “My mom was “that mom”. She showed horses growing up and she had no interest in being educated. About anything really. I had to go to clinics and workshops by myself. She was the one who yelled at me across the arena, and all the way home in the truck. What should I have done?”
Ouch. Poor kid. We all know that person, but hopefully, we don’t have to go home with her. You young man, should not have done anything. You were a kid. What were you supposed to do, I wondered, as I formulated a response and said a little prayer that something useful would come to me. Something eventually did.
“You shouldn’t have done anything, but someone should have. Maybe the judge or other parents should have asked her to stop “coaching” from the rail. Maybe the show managers or other leaders should have asked her to be quiet or leave. But whatever was done, it shouldn’t have impacted your participation. You should have been able to show even if your mom couldn’t be there. I know that would have been difficult, but you obviously loved it, because you’re still working to be involved in the industry, right? I mean, you’re here.”
He got a little teary and said “yes”.
I told him that I was very sorry he had that experience growing up, but that he could make a difference going forward. Naturally, he asked “how?” And fortunately I was ready by this time.
“In the future, or even now, when you see a young person in the same situation, be extra kind to them. Find something they are doing well and point it out to them. It may be the only kind word they hear that day. If you’re around them frequently, be a role model. Take them under your wing and model good sportsmanship. If you can, get to know the mom as well. It may be that she is hurting too, or feeling like she can’t contribute anything positive. It doesn’t excuse her behavior, but it might explain it. Ask her to volunteer. Give her a job so she has something to do other than yell at her kid. And let her know when she does a good job too. When you were a kid, you couldn’t really do anything, but as an adult, maybe you can help another kid.” He seemed satisfied with that, smiled and thanked me. And I thanked him.
If you find yourself being “that parent”, stop and think.
When you were a kid, you couldn’t really do anything, but as an adult, maybe you can help another kid.
It was never really my intention to write solely about horse judging and horse shows here, although there is typically no shortage of material in that “arena”. It certainly was never my intention to write specifically about Western Pleasure either. I think it’s safe to say that now that the dust has settled, I’ll avoid that topic for a bit. (Unless I get annoyed again.) Although really, if you think about it, all of the collective hullabaloo last fall did have an impact. Think “It’s a Southern Thing” aka Moonpie: (https://www.facebook.com/ItsASouthernThingQH/videos/1142647335754221/?theater) . And if you think I’m talking about a chocolately dessert, never mind. It’s obviously not YOUR thing. Even if you’re from the south.
Anyway, the original intent of this blog was to write about horse showing, social media, the psychology of competition, AND anything else I feel like writing about. Because I enjoy writing. And I really enjoy helping people, even if it is just to get them to consider a different perspective than their own. To be honest, I enjoy hearing other people’s opinions even if they are different from mine. No, I don’t so much like it when people take a particular subject so far into the weeds that you’d need a map, a compass, and a week’s worth of provisions to find it again, but as I have learned, that will happen when you put yourself out there. And maybe that is really what this blog is about…putting yourself out there. Trying different things and expressing opinions, including opinions others may not like. Which is A-Ok, with one caveat, at least if you’re going to hang around here. You have to listen to other opinions…and try to figure out which part of what they are saying may actually have a bit of truth to it. Even if it’s truth you don’t want to hear. You may even act on that opinion and make changes for the better at some point. Giving and receiving criticism is probably one of the most important skills I’ve ever learned in school and it is a pretty useful skill both inside AND outside of the show ring, come to think.
First, the giving. At more entry-level shows, judges may make suggestions about your performance directly when time allows. At upper level events, those suggestions may come indirectly, in the form of a low placing, or (shudder) the gate. The response by exhibitors, family members, or trainers is a sometimes a defesive one. Something on the order of “those judges don’t know what they are doing…” . I am not going to say that it is never the case, but I will say that more often than not that is absolutely NOT the case. Most judges I know work very hard to hone their craft, want exhibitors to enjoy themselves, and take their job very, very seriously. It really doesn’t do anyone much good if people stop showing horses, now does it? The suggestion that they don’t know what they are doing (if they are carded in some way) is simply a form of consoling oneself. Perhaps stuffing cookies in your mouth would be a more enjoyable option. For everyone.
A couple of points to consider might be that they know exactly what they’re doing. They just don’t like what YOU’RE doing at the moment. (And maybe you should do some educated soul searching to try to figure out why.) It also may be possible that it’s NOT that they don’t like what you’re doing. They just like what someone else is doing better. In the words of Cal Naughton Jr. (yes, I’m quoting Talladega Nights) “…ain’t no shame in that.” So consider whether or not your ride was better than your last one, and if it was move along to the next one. The ribbons, points, or hoof picks will come eventually.
We also have a tendency to think that all the criticism we give is constructive. This is especially true when it turns out that someone doesn’t appreciate our commentary. The problem is that unless you are specific about the issue, and can make some suggestion about how to improve it, there really isn’t much “constructive” there. Constructive criticism builds people up. Anything else is just criticism. And if people don’t think you care about their improvement, again, just plain old morale sinking criticism. (In the interest of balance, and so I don’t use Talladega Nights as my only source, I think I read that in the Harvard Business Review once. That or something close to it.)
Learning to give and receive criticism is actually pretty valuable for navigating the world in general. For example, the next time you get a lower grade than you think you deserve, rather than assume your teacher (or boss or judge) doesn’t like you, or doesn’t know what they’re doing, think about what you did and ask yourself if it was really your best work. Ask questions to improve future work. But don’t ever assume that it couldn’t possibly have been something that you did (or didn’t do). And if it IS something you did (or didn’t) do, that is something you actually have some control over. And that is really something to get excited about.
I’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.