Photo by Mike Darrow
If you know anything about judging or scribing reining, western riding, or trail, you know that each individual maneuver is given a score ranging from -1 ½ to +1 ½ in half point increments. A -1 ½ represents an Extremely Poor maneuver…you know…the kind of thing that makes you wish you had located the nearest exit in case the horse appears to be headed for your lap. On the other hand, a +1 ½ is an Excellent maneuver, which may be accompanied by the heavens opening, a chorus of angels, and a plate of chocolate chip cookies (still warm). Oddly enough, a 0 just means you were Correct. You did it right. It was fine, but no one is scared and there are no angels, and sadly, no cookies.
Each maneuver is scored separately, and just to shake things up a bit, each maneuver could also earn penalty points…even in the case of a positive maneuver score (WHAAAT?). For example, the horse takes a few steps into a spin, freezes up (earning a 2 point penalty), but then settles in and knocks out 4 of the best spins ever (there are those angels/cookies again). That horse should incur both the 2 point AND a plus on the maneuver. All of these penalties and maneuvers scores are added to 70 in the end, and that is your final score.
I learned how to score Reining from my friend Trevor Walton. He is an NRHA carded judge, has scribed some of the biggest Reining shows out there, and always puts horses first. Which makes him an Excellent, +1 ½, human…but I digress. One thing I always hear him saying when talking about scoring horses is this: ”don’t hold a grudge.”
What he means is…just because you score a horse a -1 on their spins does not mean that you can’t score them a +1 on their circles to the right if they earn it. Every maneuver is a new “ballgame” so to speak. A new opportunity to make a good impression, and to succeed. And even if you screw up one of them, it doesn’t mean that you can’t wake up those angels 30 seconds later. This is also why sometimes, when all you focus on is one maneuver, you may wonder why a horse that botched that particular issue goes on to win the class, when YOUR horse didn’t botch that maneuver. (Harumph). This scoring system is the reason why…you can always go on to do better next time, and the time after that. It’s about the pattern as a whole…not one piece of it.
Naturally, as with all things horse related, there are some pretty important life lessons to be found in this scoring system. If you screw up one phase of your life, there is always, always, another opportunity to do better. To plus your next maneuver. To score a 70 or better, thus making yourself above average. And, there is always another horse show if you manage to DQ yourself completely. There is always the opportunity to apologize to a friend, to do something for someone else, to encourage someone…even a total stranger.
As a relevant and very current example, in many cases, this election cycle has brought out the worst in people. But if you think abut it, it’s one maneuver in a much larger pattern. Despite what we might want to think, the world probably won’t end if our preferred candidate doesn’t get elected. And our friends should still be our friends when this is over, no matter how many penalty points they have incurred with their “crazy, misguided, uniformed viewpoints” in the last year and a half. If they were our friends before, they really should still be our friends. We always have the opportunity to do better.
As usual, Trevor is right. Don’t hold a grudge. And make it a +1 1/2 day!
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.
I have lots of hopes and dreams for this blog, not the least of which is to have guest bloggers who can change our perspective on certain things, or at least provide food for thought. As luck would have it, there are lots of those kinds of people in the world! So I’m happy to introduce my first guest blogger, one very special cowboy, Max LaMee! (PS: He’s also a great show announcer for hire, if you need one. email@example.com)
The equine industry is a huge industry with a lot of different niches. There are small things different disciplines do that their counterparts don’t. However there is often a lot of crossover between these disciplines that often gets overlooked because we horse people are very opinionated. I was one of those stubborn people myself, generally falling into the rodeo category I thought “what in the world can I learn from English pleasure.” It turned out there were a lot of things. Not everyone gets to look behind the scenes of rodeo so I’ll share some things that could be helpful to riders of other disciplines as well.
Keep your equipment as clean and functional as possible. Your tack is generally the physical link between you and your equine partner. It will make you and the horse more comfortable. I don’t like to wear dirty clothes that don’t fit well so I figure horses don’t either.
Stretch, if you go to a rodeo you will see competitors stretching. Stretches don’t take much time and they prevent injury. You warm your horse up, why shouldn’t you get ready to compete as well? Another thing you might see at a rodeo is a horse in the chutes and a cowboy holding onto a mane pulling a horses neck back and forth. This is to loosen the horse up, they get nervous just like us. Horses will lock up their jaws and necks when they get nervous. Getting the jaw or neck to release that tension will often relax the horse.
From a personal safety perspective, rodeos have an increasingly growing number of helmets being worn nowadays. One thing rodeo contestants have been doing for years though is wearing mouth guards. Sure it helps protect your teeth but they also may help prevent concussions that can lead to brain damage. It’s a mouth guard, cheap, easy to use, and some will even come with insurance if your teeth are injured wearing them. Also your boot soles should be taken into account. For safety PRCA rules require competitors to wear leather soles to prevent getting hung up in stirrups. The leather slides easier than rubber soled boots. Hopefully you never get hung up in a stirrup but it happens. If you find yourself hung up try to tun onto your stomach, this will turn your foot allowing you to get free.
Our disciplines can be very different but there are amazing horses and humans in every one of them.
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.
It has been exciting (and interesting) 2015! Thank you for your support and here’s to an even better 2016!
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 32,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 12 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
Well, as previously mentioned, I’ve got enough material to fuel a few posts now. I know some of my friends are probably thinking ”LET IT GO, ALREADY. JUST STOP TALKING. OR WRITING.” Sorry folks. It’s a process. If it makes you feel any better though, I’m nearly all the way through said process. A couple of days of total confusion as to how what I perceived to be a neutral post (as did many others) could spiral so wildly out of control, a few days of anger (Uneducated and classless, SERIOUSLY?!), and now, like any actually EDUCATED person, trying to analyze what, if anything, really DID go wrong. Although I feel compelled to say, that the only people who would call a total stranger uneducated and classless tend to be, well, uneducated and classless. (For those just joining us who feel like you’ve stumbled onto the rant of a crazy person, please review the last two posts. https://outoftheboxstall.wordpress.com/2015/10/19/god-is-great-beer-is-good-and-this-western-pleasure-thing-has-gotten-crazy/ & https://outoftheboxstall.wordpress.com/2015/10/26/unless-you-know-me-you-dont-actually-know-me-or-anyone-else/ That will bring you up to speed.)
Anyway, I don’t feel as though I can legitimately suggest that (to quote myself):
“…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.”
Unless I do it too. (Sigh. Adulting is a pain).
So why did I totally offend so many in the dressage community with that initial post? It appears that this is probably the offending comment, but why?
“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 underlined that last part because many missed it the first time around. I should also point out that not everyone in the stock horse world likes or appreciates this. That’s part of why western dressage is a thing.)
As usual, the answer to the question didn’t really come from ANY of the people who resorted to name calling and other unpleasantries. People do seem to think they can change hearts and minds via social media nastiness. I mean, seriously, if a complete stranger walked up to you in a restaurant just as you were about to dig into a fabulous pizza and said “Hey, stupid. That’s bad for you, you shouldn’t eat it.” Would you stop eating? Of course not. You’d cut two slices, order a root beer, and chow down. If a friend or family member said it, you’d slow down a little. And then cut them a slice, most likely, so you could be together in the afterlife. But I digress. Back to the matter at hand.
As is typically the case, the answer, or at least the beginning of the answer, came from a horse. Specifically this horse.
Her name is Virginia. She’s a reining horse. And last night when I went to bring her in, she was a very IMPATIENT reining horse. So impatient that while I was getting feed around, she knocked out some +1 rollbacks. Better than any rollback she’s ever executed with me on her, by far. (Rollbacks are harder than they look. Let me just say). When I finally brought her in, the ground looked like this:
And suddenly “the ISSUE” became clear. My off-hand comment intended to illustrate a point (that we ask horses to do lots of things that aren’t terribly natural) was so inflammatory because sometimes horses naturally really DO the things we ask of them under saddle. Sometimes they piaffe, and sometimes they rollback. In that regard, I stand corrected. I am indeed uneducated in the intricacies of classical dressage. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them or try to understand them. And THAT is really the point of the original post and the entire sordid affair: we all need to try to understand where others, including western pleasure riders, are coming from, even if it’s painful to watch and (evidently) far more fun to blow up social media. Otherwise, they’ll just keep eating that pizza.
Trust me, anyone in the stock horse world is WELL aware that there are issues, and were well aware prior to any recent Congress video. But there are issues in every discipline (rollkur, anyone?). There are people in all disciplines who use bad training techniques, and they should be stopped. Yes, sometimes western pleasure horses are ridden too young…but few ever think to ask why that is. It’s not because all western pleasure people are monsters…it’s because once upon a time there were breeders in the horse industry that made their living producing horses. And they weren’t independently wealthy. Many of them needed horses shown as soon as possible to have a fighting chance of surviving, so futurities were born. Should it continue, or should we have amazing purses for horses 4 years old and over? That’s something to suggest…and I’m sure people with higher pay scales than mine are considering it. Yes, some western pleasure horses are going too slow…but when they are bred to do it, they may lope and jog slowly, yet beautifully, in the pasture, too.
We can’t get completely distracted by what goes on in social media if we really want to fix things. For example, I think dressage is amazing, and I am not going to give up my bucket list dream of participating in it because there are mean people who resort to name calling. There is plenty of that everywhere. I also didn’t believe it was fair for some people showing western pleasure horses to suggest that those who criticize it are “ignorant” (or worse). I’d suggest you seriously ask yourself why people say those things about western pleasure horses…
Personally, I’m going to learn as much as I can, ask lots of questions, and make my own decisions about what is best for my horse. Just like I did when I showed a western pleasure horse.
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. 😉
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.