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.

To Tweet or Not To Tweet…

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There are all sorts of opinions these days regarding horse (and livestock) judges, and whether or not they should be using social media, and/or how. This always strikes me as funny when I hear it…because social media is such an integral part of both my personal and professional life these days, it’s like someone just told me I shouldn’t communicate with a pen or a phone.

I realize that often when someone suggests judges shouldn’t be on social media, they are concerned about ethical issues. A great blog post titled “Is Facebook a Judge’s Worst Enemy?” by Rachel Cutrer sums this up perfectly from a livestock perspective, but it really isn’t much different in the horse world. (Although if someone tags me in a photo of a horse I’ll soon be judging, or friends me right before that particular show we will likely no longer be Facebook friends, I’ll tell you that right now.)

Sometimes I do wonder if people question or take issue with the fact that I’m “friends” with people I inevitably do judge. But to be honest, I know quite a few horse people, and I know most of them outside of Facebook. I’d know them even if I wasn’t on Facebook, and there are few judges who can’t say the same. As far as the rest, if I see them on Facebook, it is typically on my phone, in a teeny tiny square, at best. If people only knew how much I don’t recognize them in the show ring, they might not bother friending me, and subsequently having to endure my incessant cat/corgi photos.

Other people take issue with judges trying to get judging jobs via social media. Typically, judges who excessively self-promote are not well received by other judges, that’s a fact. The “unwritten rule” is that your work will speak for itself, and people will hire you based on that work. I totally agree.

If you are a particularly negative person, or feel compelled to whine (via social media or otherwise) about the lack of potty breaks, high quality food, or professional ring stewards, you probably should stay off social media with that as well. But come on. You’re not Beyoncé, for heaven’s sake. Have a hot dog (or a snow cone) and relax. And maybe even consider thanking whomever it is that helped you survive the day. Besides, if they aren’t bringing you water, you probably don’t need a potty break. You may also pass out, so show managers…please provide water.

As you’ve probably guessed, I actually think that judges on social media can be a very good thing…and here is why: one of the biggest threats to the horse show industry is that people often don’t understand how classes are judged, or why they placed as they did. Sometimes, they even quit, or at least change disciplines because of it. And that is a problem.

From introductory levels to world champions, most people want to know why they placed where they did, and sometimes even what they can do to improve. They are spending a lot of money (relatively speaking) to participate, and in the traditional rail classes etc., they rarely get access to judges. Social media (done well) can provide at least some of that information, and even a level of interaction that has sadly been lost for a variety of reasons.   Horse judges rarely get the opportunity to explain themselves anymore (as livestock judges always do) unless they judge county fairs or 4-H events, but even then, so many classes have been added, and everyone is in such a rush to finish, that it is often hard to do. At larger shows, time is a factor, as is the perception (and in some cases rules) in place that prohibit access to judges. Period. I understand the reasons for this, but at the same time, I think it has had a negative impact on our industry.

I’m not saying that I want everyone at the horse show to PM me on Monday morning asking questions, per say (although I have answered a few that way). What I am saying is that social media savvy judges can explain what they are doing and why, the other 6 days of the week, on their own pages. Or on any of the zillion groups that exist for that very purpose, but that are often chock FULL of misinformation. Plus, you get the added bonus of thinking about what you say before you say it, if that is actually a service you offer.

Many exhibitors truly do NOT understand how or why we place classes. This is part of the reason for the increased popularity of Reining, Dressage, Trail, Western Riding etc. Sharing other score sheets will also help somewhat, but it will need to be a score-sheet an exhibitor can actually understand without an interpreter. Yes, there is also a level of responsibility on the part of the exhibitor to understand the rules and what is required of them, I get that.

Making a contribution on social media is certainly not for the faint of heart. I’d also suggest you avoid seeking out commentary about a given show you judged, because invariably there will be someone who didn’t like your decision(s). If you can’t stand the heat, as the saying goes, then STAY OUT OF THE KITCHEN. But you can actually learn about what exhibitors truly think about our industry (and sometimes non-exhibitors as well). Is it sometimes a headache, sure.  Is it enjoyable when someone blows up your page with a question about western pleasure that turns into a firestorm, when all you wanted to do was enjoy your Friday?  Not. At. All. Making a contribution on social media requires a thick skin, and the ability to maintain your composure when it feels like you are under attack for your view-point or perspective…just like judging a horse show.

The Power of -Er…It Ultimately Comes Down To Comparisons

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One of the most difficult things to remember when showing horses is that it is ultimately a game of comparisons, and while you have control over some things (how much effort you put in, how well you take care of your horse etc.), you don’t have control over others (like when the World Champion shows up at the horse show, the weather, if your horse happens to be lame that day, if YOU happen to be lame that day). But even if everything goes perfectly, you need to always be aware of what could be called “The Power of -Er”.

So I know you’re thinking “What on E(a)rth is she talking about?!” What I mean is this: when judges place horses at horse shows, they are always comparing one to another, and even if you do everything perfectly, there is always a chance that someone (or someone’s horse) is doing it better. Or bettER.

As an example, I occasionally get approached by exhibitors wanting to know how they can improve, and typically, depending on where we are in the horse show, I have no problem sharing (when they seem to be polite, and don’t argue).   I am all about people doing the best they can to improve. The trouble comes when there is no realistic way it can be improved upon, or when it’s just a matter of someone else’s horse doing “it” better that day.  That’s usually when judges get a bad rap (and typically that’s not fair).

For example, in Western Pleasure (with stock type horses) I am looking for a horse that is demonstrating true gaits, flat through the knee, using it’s hock, and staying consistent throughout the class (and before anyone gets upset, that was in no particular order there). The winner is usually going to be the horse that is truER gaited, flattER through it’s knee, driving hardER through it’s hock, and more consistent than the horses placing below him.   At all gaits. Both ways. Except when all are close in ability. (See Losing Doesn’t Mean You’re Bad (and Winning Doesn’t Mean You’re Good), for more on that situation).

When making comparisons, we use the “Power of –Er”, and some horses when compared to others, are just flattER through the knee. It’s a matter of stride length, shoulder length and angle, and several other issues of equine anatomy.   In short, how flat a horse is through it’s knee is ultimately pretty hard to change. Sometimes, how true gaited they are can also be hard to change, although how they are shown can influence that. The point is that sometimes, no matter how good you thought your ride was, it’s physically impossible for a horse to change enough to beat a particular horse that happened to show up that day, and for some people, that is a difficult pill to swallow.

Similarly, in equitation classes, I like to see riders who are deepER in their heel, strongER through their leg and seat, and quietER with their hands. You may execute a pretty good pattern, but if you want to actually win the class, you also have to do all of these things, or at least do them bettER than everyone else in the class. Classes like equitation, horsemanship, and showmanship, are all classes judged on the rider, and typically things that the rider has much more control over.

I really think that as people start to grasp this concept, they can also start to enjoy showing horses more…and this is also true for parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.   Just because your rider does well, does not always mean that they did bettER than everyone else in the class at everything that was evaluated, and likewise you can’t let a judges placing dictate whether or not to be happy and proud of that rider (or yourself).

This is why setting very specific performance goals (execute a perfect 360, a straight trot line, the correct diagonal), and making a big deal of it when these things happen, and subsequently taking the primary focus off of placing, can increase the fun factor considerably. If your rider takes the correct left diagonal when they typically struggle with it, it’s ice cream for everyone!!! (Or whatever). But you have to agree on this with them ahead of time…or they’ll just roll their eyes, and think you’re weird. Heck, they may do that anyway, but you’re getting ice cream, so who cares? Seriously, though, if you make this kind of non-placing based goal setting part of your regular routine, you’ll be amazed at how eventually, the placings you’re after will become a reality…and if they don’t, there’s always ice cream!

A Smooth Sea Never Made a Skilled Sailor (or Rider)

Photo by Jaye Nevins
Photo by Jaye Nevins

One of my favorite quotes is “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” I’m not sure who said it first…it may be an African proverb, or an English proverb, depending on where you look on Pinterest. Anyway, I like it because it can easily be translated into “ A totally broke horse, who never acts like a real horse as opposed to a motorcycle 1) doesn’t exist and 2) never made a skilled rider.” If you show horses, there will be a day, and maybe several days, when you will struggle with your horse. Which is totally fine. Judges know this, recognize this, and appreciate it for what it is, because I’ve yet to meet a judge who wasn’t also a horse(wo)man.

Now, I am not saying that when kids (or adults) are starting out, they shouldn’t learn the ropes on an old campaigner. Provided they are healthy, sound, and of good weight, I’d RATHER see newbies start out on a horse that is very broke, that ignores almost everything but it’s rider, and most of all that will WHOA upon request. Immediately. (I’d also rather see walk trotters be able to get through a pattern before they ever do a rail class, but that’s another story.)

What I am saying is that true horse(wo)men recognize that you will never know it all, that every horse is unique, and that there will always be challenges to work through.  Those moments are what can make you a better rider, if you handle them well. Unfortunately, horses seem to be very good at waiting to share what they (or you) don’t know, until you are somewhere where everyone is watching.   Note: While it may FEEL like everyone is watching, most people, except for your mom and possibly your trainer if you have one, are much more concerned about what to have for lunch. You may be certain that the entire world thinks you are a total clown, but if you are fairly schooling your horse, they probably aren’t actually thinking about you much at all, but rather, if they should have a hotdog or a salad.

So, this is all well and good, but what should you do when your horse decides that rather than jog, he’d just as soon keep loping merrily down the rail (or worse)? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so making sure that your horse has seen the arena and what is around it, and making sure they have been properly warmed up for their temperament will help a lot. Keeping an eye on the horses around you, and refraining from riding up too close to other horses will also help prevent a ruckus. Finally, and probably the thing you have the most control over, is deciding how you will react when things go wrong. The most important thing you can remember is that when your horse gets wound up, you need to calm down. Take a deep breath or two, quietly go to two hands if you need to, look at your surroundings, and calmly and safely get your horse out of the way of other riders. Despite the fact that you may be upset, overreacting will only make the situation worse, GUARANTEED. Once you get the horse safely out of the arena, do not go straight back to the barn. Ask the horse to work a bit, if you safely are able to, even if it’s doing a few drills that you know he can do, or just walking and trotting for a few minutes.

The day you accept that sometimes you’ll have to help your horse work through problems in the show ring is the day you become a true horse(wo)man. Once the gate closes behind you, you’re the only one that can do it. You won’t necessarily get a blue ribbon (or any ribbon) on that day, in that class, but if you don’t give up, you will be one day closer to being a skilled sailor, with many more ribbons down the road.  Come to think of it, that’s a good lesson outside of the show ring, too!

I Heart Winning

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When I look back over these blog posts, one of two things tends to happen. Sometimes, my heart grows a size or two at the responses I’ve had from those who enjoy what I’ve written. I really, really appreciate all of the kind words, and find it humbling…and about the time I feel this way, my inner fourteen year-old rolls her all knowing eyes and says “Yeah, well, you don’t sound like much of a competitor…in fact, you don’t sound like someone who even likes winning…or has ever even shown a horse, much less won”. I figure it’s time to set the record straight…or smack my inner fourteen year-old. One or the other.

I. LOVE. SHOWING. HORSES. I love everything about it…and most of all, I LOVE WINNING. (There. I said it.) There is plenty of research to suggest that kids start any sport…and stay in any sports, because it’s fun. And let’s face it ladies and gents…winning is much more fun than…not winning, so of course there is a certain level of fixation on winning. Nothing makes my heart race faster than the click of the announcer’s microphone just before the placings are read…especially when I know my horse and I had a great go. I also enjoy prizes of all kinds…jackets, ribbons, trophies, plaques, plastic cups…I even won a giant lucite paper clip once and thought it was the best thing EVER. (Truthfully, it was weird, and I still don’t know why it was a prize, but the point is I WON IT.)

Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my previous post “Get Out of Your Box Stall” , I enjoyed the competition end of horse showing so much, that I became fixated on that part instead of the myriad of other things that make horse showing great…like the horses, and (most) other horse people, for example.   Sadly, at times this made me a bratty fourteen year-old in a 20 plus year old body. Not a good look. Plus when I didn’t win, showing horses stopped being fun.

Fortunately, with time, a series of hard knocks, and a Ph. D. in Sports Psychology, I changed my perspective on competition, and horses and horse shows became fun again.   Looking back, there were a few other things that sped up my trip back to horse show enjoyment.

1) Judging horse shows-The view from the center of the ring is much, much different than most people assume. By judging, I developed a new found understanding of not only the rules and specs of each class (which everyone participating should know) but the fact that sometimes the difference between first and second is only a point. Or half-a-point. Or even one unfortunate look in a particularly unfortunate time frame. While it’s important to be evaluated by others, understanding the process judges go through made it clear to me that what really IS important is your ride…

2) The ride (or go)-You’re ultimately the only one that knows your horse, and what the two of you have been through or are trying to improve upon. Once I started focusing on those little details…getting my horse to respond immediately when asked, finding the softest cue I could give to get a response, and all of the other little details that go into a great performance…achieving those things became more important than the almighty win. And interestingly, the wins actually seemed to come easier.

3) True competition-There is a book called True Competition that completely changed the way I thought about competition, and the kind of competitor I wanted to be. Trying to focus on treating my horses well, other people well, and appreciating the skill and integrity of other exhibitors when I saw it, made me truly appreciate a win when I had one. And I started to think less about beating others, and more about at least trying to make it challenging for others to beat ME whenever I could.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from perfect…and my heart still races when the microphone clicks, but now it’s about things that I can actually control. Hopefully if you beat me, you had to do your best to do it. If you did, you’re welcome to that giant lucite paperclip…you earned it.

Get Out of Your Box Stall

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A week or so ago, I rode my horse bareback, in a cornfield, for the first time in well over 20 years. I suppose I should clarify…it was the first time I’d ridden bareback in over 20 years. I’m not sure I’ve ever ridden in a cornfield.

For some of you, this is not a big deal at all, and you’re probably wondering WHY it was a big deal to me. For others, you’re wondering why I even considered doing it. To be honest, I wondered that too, so I got to sorting out why something I did all the time as a kid, has suddenly become SUCH a big deal to me. At first I thought it was the fact that I managed to haul my “not so young” self onto the back of a horse who hadn’t been ridden in 2 months give or take, and who can buck like nobody’s business on the end of a lunge line. But it wasn’t really that so much. I knew that she had been ridden bareback by her previous owner, and I also knew that she doesn’t typically buck like that with a rider. I also wore a helmet. There was a bit of physical risk, but nope. That wasn’t it.

Once I started through the turn out lots toward the field, I could sense that she was also pretty excited about venturing out of the arena. Her head was up and her ears forward, and I did nothing to change it. (THAT was new). She was marching forward like she had business to take care of, and I did nothing to change that either. Once we got into the field, we started down the edge, where there are lots of trees and lots of deer, who evidently found us a bit nerve wracking. I felt Virginia (the mare) jump, but she didn’t spook much. I laughed and we kept going. (UNHEARD OF.) No one was watching, or evaluating our performance except deer…so what did it matter that she spooked? It didn’t.

You’re probably starting to understand what I eventually came to realize. For the past 30 plus years, I’ve been showing horses…typically western horses. With showing, comes competition and evaluation, which I also enjoy quite a bit. What I think I eventually forgot to enjoy though, was the horses themselves, and how amazing it is that we are athletic enough to ride them and they are kind enough to let us do all sorts of ridiculous things they wouldn’t do on their own. That is part of what makes judging so enjoyable…you get to watch people and horses do amazing things, from getting around the arena in one piece, to knocking out a flawless pattern.

This little “spin” through the cornfield reminded me of why I love horses in the first place. But there was a little more to it. I think that sometimes when we show horses (or compete in anything) seriously, and for a long time, the competition actually becomes the focus, rather than the experience of it. I know I went through a phase where I could scarcely imagine doing anything with a horse other than compete. (Probably not my finest hour, but it’s true. And kind of sad, frankly.) This experience also got me thinking about other things I’ve neglected to try for fear of not doing them well…things like cooking, for example. Yikes. Cupcake Wars would be the one of the scariest things I can imagine, to be honest. (And how did we get to the point where even cupcakes have to be a contest?!)

If you look at the header for this blog, you see the quote “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” When I started Out of the Boxstall, I wanted to share thoughts and ideas about the horse industry, judging, and horse shows, and I’ll definitely keep doing that. When your life revolves around those topics, it’s kind of hard not to. But I really wanted to encourage people (myself included) to do some “out of the box stall” thinking in other ways as well. One of my New Year’s Intentions (Not resolutions. Those are the kiss of death) is to write more regular blog posts…if you like them, great, but if you don’t, that’s fine too. That’s probably one of the most important things I learned from riding bareback in a cornfield…sometimes the experience of doing it is much more important than the ribbons, points, numbers of “Likes” or any other external reward. I really think 2015 is going to be a great year…and I hope it is for you, too.

What will you do this year that gets you “out of YOUR box stall?”

Get out of your box stall

Success Doesn’t Happen in a Straight Line

I bought a Reining horse this summer. After 35 plus years of All-Around events, Showmanship and the like, I bought a Reining horse. I was looking for something new, something different, and something that I would have to learn more or less from scratch. Fortunately, I have great help about an hour away, so weekly lessons were on the schedule for much of the summer (which may be why I didn’t have time to write a blog post. Or not.)
Anyway, on the way to one of these lessons, Virginia (the Reining horse) and I were traveling through a small town and suddenly came upon a detour. But not just any detour…the Mother of all Detours. Before it was all over I went in several circles, changed directions a few times, and wound up…you guessed it, right back where I started. For a minute it felt like this detour was the closest thing I’d do to a reining pattern all day…and that I’d NEVER get to my lesson. So I called the trainer and said…”I’ll be late..if I get there at all.” She said “It’s ok. Keep coming.” So I did.

After the fact, I got to thinking about my detour. And of how we often face so many detours in horses, and even in life in general. We’re conditioned to believe that success is a straight line, from point A to point B, with an upward trajectory. But that’s not how it happens at all. Horses get sick, or hurt. Heck, people get sick and hurt. Jobs change, relationships change, you may not like the judges, show managers, trainer, concession stand…who knows what, and before you know it, you’re covering the same tracks that you were just on, and feel like you’ve made no progress at all. Goals seem pointless, your wallet is empty, and you may even think about getting a boat or a beach house.

It’s easy to get frustrated during these times, but the truth is, success never really happens to anyone in a straight line (even though it seems like it on Facebook). Everyone takes twists and turns, and goes up and down, but the important thing is that you don’t quit. If you quit, then you definitely have no chance of finding success. If you’re lucky, you have that one person who says “It’s ok, keep coming.” And sometimes that person is yourself, which is ok too. And eventually, you might find success in a straight line that looks like a better pivot, a smoother lope depart, or even this:

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My first really good stop, taken when I FINALLY made it to my lesson that day. The only success I’ve ever had in a straight line.