Can’t We All Get Along?
By Kim Sanford
With all due respect to Mr. Rodney King for asking that question during a time in the recent past while referencing racial tensions, I have to wonder the same thing about the apparent intolerance, or maybe it would be better to say the lack of respect, of fellow horsemen…not everyone, but enough of us to make me scratch my head…toward those who embrace a different discipline or activity than they do themselves. Sometimes it seems astounding how deeply ingrained the stereotypes are in all of us to some degree. It is frustrating enough when we have to deal with it from our non-horsey friends and acquaintances but when it comes from those of us who should really know better the vexation reaches a new level.
The questions that come to mind are these, “Why can’t we appreciate the differences? What is it about horse people and our insistence that our favored discipline is THE ABSOLUTE BEST one and if others do not ride it or share your view point then there is something wrong with them?” We all have preferences and that is what makes the world go around. So you don’t like being “judged” by another individual, that is OK, don’t enter a horse show, but don’t dismiss those of us who choose to see how we stack up against our peers in someone else’s opinion on a given day. Frankly when someone says “I hate horse shows, it is so political” that makes me immediately wonder, well OK, you probably didn’t do as well as you thought you should so it is someone else’s fault. Yeah, I can agree, sometimes “politics” or bias can be an issue; however, I think it is not as rampant as some people like to think and more often than not your performance did not measure up in that judge’s opinion on that day.
I can only address this issue from my perspective and what I have experienced over the years. I am also guilty of having preconceived ideas about certain disciplines; but I would like to think that I recognize AND acknowledge that although there are certainly poor representatives among the riders/enthusiasts, I believe the majority of them are good people and work hard to be good horsemen/women within their chosen sport. We can all agree (I think), in every type of equestrian activity there are questionable practices. We have seen or heard about at least some of them…rollkur, tying a western pleasure horses head up or down for extended periods of time, over use of training aids and/or bits really too many other examples to list. Rest assured that I am neither condoning nor making excuses for this at all. What I am saying is please; don’t paint all of us within that particular specialty with the same brush….and don’t dismiss the entire activity as flawed.
The following is from one of those jokey emails we used to get before social media (some of us still get emails like this but I bet most of you see the funnies posted on Facebook and sites like it) listing the stereotypes we have all heard and in some cases believe:
The Hunter Rider:
Is skinny and trying her best to achieve the conformation of a 17-year-old male in case she ever has a clinic with George Morris. Field marks include greenish-beige breeches and a baseball cap when schooling or mud colored coat and hardhat with dangling chinstrap when competing. Forks over about a grand a month to her trainer for the privilege of letting him/her 'tune' up the horse, which consists of drilling the beast until it’s going to put in five strides on a 60 foot line no matter what she does. Sold the Thoroughbred (and a collection of lungeing equipment, chambons, side reins) and bought a Warmblood (also bought a ladder and a LONG set of spurs). Talks a lot about the horse's success in Florida without exactly letting on that she herself has never been south of the Pennsylvania line.
The Dressage Queen:
Has her hair in an elegant ponytail and is wearing a visor and gold earrings sporting a breed logo. A $100 dollar custom sweater (also with breed logo) is worn over $300 dollar full-seat white breeches and custom Koenigs. Her horse, 'Leistergeidelsprundheim' ('Fleistergeidel' for short) is a 17.3 hand Swedish warmblood who was bred to be a Grand Prix horse. The Swedes are still laughing hysterically, as he was bred to be a Grand Prix JUMPER, but since he couldn't get out of his own way, they sold him to an American. His rider fell in love with his lofty gaits, proud carriage, and tremendous athleticism. She admires him mostly while lunging. She lunges him a lot, because she is not actually too keen to get up there and try to sit that trot. When she rides, it's not for long, because (while he looks FINE to everyone else), she can tell that he is not as 'through' and 'supple' as he should be, and gets off to call the chiropractor/ massage/therapist/psychic, all of which is expensive, but he WILL be shown, and shown right after he perfects (fill in the blank). The blank changes often enough that the rider can avoid the stress of being beaten at Training 1 by a Quarter Horse (Appaloosa, or Norwegian Fiord Pony!)
Is bent over from carrying three saddles, three bridles, three bits, and three unrelated sets of clothing (four, if she is going to have to do a trot up at a 3-Day). The hunched defensive posture is reinforced by the anticipation of 'a long one' a ditch and a wall, and from living in her back protector. Perpetually broke because she pays THREE coaches (a Dressage Queen, a jumper rider, and her eventing guru, none of whom approve of the other) and pay trailers/stabling/ living expenses to go 600 miles to events that are spread out over 5 days. She is smugly convinced that Eventers are in fact the only people in the world who CAN ride (since Dressage Queen's don't jump, the H/ J crowd is too afraid to go OUT of a ring, and the fox hunters, a related breed, don't have to deal with dressage judges). The hat cover on her cross country helmet is secured with a giant rubber band, so she can look like her idol, Phillip. Her horse, who has previously been rejected as a race horse, a steeplechase horse (got ruled off for jumping into the in-field tailgating the crowd), a jumper, a fox hunter, and a polo pony (no bit stops this thing), and has two speeds: gallop and 'no gallop' (also known as stop 'n' dump). Excels at over jumping into water, doing a head first 'tuck and roll' maneuver and exiting the complex (catch me if you can!) before his rider slogs out of the pond. Often stops to lick the Crisco off his legs before continuing gaily on to the merciless over jump just ahead. Owner often threatens to sell, but as he has flunked out of every other English-riding discipline, it will have to be to a barrel racer or pole bender.
The Back Yard Rider:
Usually found wearing shorts and a sports bra in the summer; flannel nightgown, muck boots, and down jacket in the winter. Drives a Ford 150 filled with saddle blankets and dog hair. Most have deformed toes from being stepped on while wearing flip-flops. Has a two-horse bumper-pull trailer, but uses it for hay storage, as her horse hasn't been off the farm in 6 years. Can install an electric fence, set a gate, and roll a round bale, solo. She rode well and often when she used to board her horse, 5 years ago. Then she took horse home to 'save money' and has spent about 50 grand on acreage, barn, fence, tractor, etc. Have two topics of conversation - 1) How it's too hot/cold/wet/ dry to ride and 2) how she may ride after she fixes the fence/digs drainage ditches/stacks 4 tons of hay.
The Natural Horsemanship Devotee:
Looks like a throwback from a Texas ranch, despite the fact that he lives in the suburbs of New Jersey. Rope coiled loosely in hand in case he needs to herd any of those kids on roller-blades away from his F-350 Power stroke dually in the Wal-Mart parking lot. This “cowboy” with hat strategically placed, and just grubby enough to look cool; whose Levi's are well worn enjoys hero worship from a bevy of middle-aged, first-time horse owner women. 'Lightning' is, of course, this natural horsemanship guy's horse. Rescued from a bad home where he was never imprinted or broke in the natural horsemanship way, he specialized in running down his owners at feeding time, knocking children off his back on low-hanging branches, and baring his teeth. The hospitalization tally for his previous handlers was 12, until he was sent to Round Pen Randy; after ten minutes in said pen, he is now a totally broke horse, bowing to the crowd, and can put on his own splint boots. (With R.P. Randy's trademark logo embossed on them) R.P.R. says of this miracle, 'Well, shucks ma'am, tweren't nuthin'!' 'It's simple horsemanship.' 'With this special twirly flickitatin' rope ($17.95 plus tax), you'll be round-pennin' like me in no time!'
The Endurance Rider:
Wears Lycra tights in wild neon colors. The shinier the better, so the EMT's can find her body when her horse dumps her down a ravine. Wears hiking shoes of some sort, and T-shirts she got for paying $75 to complete another torturous ride. Her horse, Al Kamar Shazam, used to be called 'you' until he found an owner almost as hyper as he is. Shazam can spook at a blowing leaf, spin a 360, and not lose his big trot rhythm or give an inch to the horse behind him. Has learned to eat, drink, pee, and drop to his resting pulse rate on command.
Hmmm…methinks I recognize (own) the majority of the “characteristics” of that “Backyard Rider” referenced above, which brings me to the next point. Backyard rider really does have negative connotations that more often than not are not deserved. Yes, I do wear my flannel jammies, a jacket and muck boots when I go out to feed on wintery mornings and I am guilty of wearing inappropriate footwear (Crocs) in the barn and around the horses. I have also been saying “I will ride when (fill in the blank with whatever excuse/reason du jour). That being said though, I am always on top of any situation and have good horsemanship skills gleaned from years of experience in a professional capacity. I am always learning and paying attention to what is going on outside of our farm…which flies in the face of the stereotypical “backyard rider”.
Here’s a good question….what kind of image are YOU presenting to the rest of the us as far as your chosen discipline goes? Do you fit the negative stereotype within your discipline? In my opinion the best way to combat this type of attitude is to first and foremost become a good horseman/woman. Always, always, always put the needs of your horse first over the pursuit of that award. Make sure your horse is fit, and trained for the event and if he/she is green, take that into consideration when attending an event. Going into the ring and flogging your horse through the obstacles or even while trying to get your horse into the gate is NOT something we want to see. I have huge respect for the rider whose horses are not jacked up before running a pattern, can enter the gate, do their job and exit the arena in a manner that will not put spectators in jeopardy. I love to see a smooth barrel run where it is a team effort and not a discordant dash with rider slipping all over the saddle while trying to manhandle their horse through the pattern.
Take trail courses/trials…I would so much rather see a performance wherein the horse/rider negotiate the obstacles with reasonable speed and confidence. Many times the obstacles can be a little different or intimidating, yanking and spurring to get the horse through is counterproductive and no one likes to see it (or at least they shouldn’t). What about the western pleasure horses who are so intimidated by “yanking and cranking” that they are actually afraid to go forward. Again, as an announcer I have a birds-eye view of the pen and I have seen kids go out on their horses and be constantly picking at their horse’s faces…not because the horse needs it, he is already too anxious to leave that frame, but because they look around the warmup ring and see their “idols” constantly on the faces of these pleasure horses. I don’t even want to get started on the lope these animals are asked to perform, even now with breed associations calling for more forward movement. I guess the list could go on with all sorts of questionable practices in each discipline but I think the point is made.
With all that being said, however, there are methods that you may not agree with that are perfectly acceptable. We need to be reasonable in our “judgment” when we observe them. No one is an expert in all disciplines and methods do evolve. Even if you rode Hunter/Jumpers years ago, gasp…there may be things you do not know about…same goes for dressage. We need to keep open minds, not so open that our brains fall out but open enough to be educated before we dismiss techniques we may not understand as well as we think we do. I will be the first to raise my hand and say that I am guilty of making snap judgments where I probably should not.
There are so many people watching and a lot of them are children and many adults who are just learning. If they see someone who is winning while treating their horse badly the chances are good, especially if they are not fortunate enough to have a good instructor/trainer or knowledgeable parent available, that they will imitate those methods. Take “natural horsemanship” for instance. There is a place for it, it is a good thing, but it is not a method that can nor should it be promoted, as something you can learn from books/DVD’s and attending the occasional clinic. I believe that you have to be able to understand horse behavior and herd dynamics for it to work effectively. Those concepts need to be stressed and in too many cases the clinicians are all about marketing and showmanship rather than actually teaching. This creates the stereotype of the middle aged woman who is finally able to afford her dream of owning a horse that she has waited to follow while raising a family and nurturing a career. She really has no clue about herd dynamics and is convinced that by using “natural horsemanship” her horse will bond with her and be her soul mate. Oh and by the way, in her mind, any other method is cruel and not open for discussion.
So yeah, I tend to cringe when someone starts touting the virtues of natural horsemanship and saying they are followers of certain well-known clinicians…precisely because of the stereotype created by the hype. The irony of this is that I have many friends who use natural horsemanship correctly and effectively. Too often I have to stop myself from becoming dismissive because of my frustration with so many others who have not really learned what it is about. So therein lies my point, no one discipline or training method is the end all be all for everyone. We all need to open our eyes and our minds, listen to others, and respect their choices as long as the horse is not suffering from those choices.