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October 24, 2013

Trading Up

"For all the talk of what horse a person needs, and what kind of horse wins, and when you know how to move on to a new mount….for all of that I just wish the horses had equal voice."

I think you can tell more about a person by how they handle a loss than how they handle a win. There are often two categories of riders: those who blame themselves for everything, and those who blame the horse for everything.

The reality, of course, is always in the middle. In my mind, to compete is to challenge your partnership with your horse. Over the course of the weekend your partnership will shine, struggle, and hopefully emerge stronger.

As a competitor, I try to always be accountable for my horse’s welfare first and foremost. Only after that do I consider the results of a given weekend and make myself accountable for what I can do to improve the partnership moving forward.

There is a trend in the competitive horse world I can’t help but notice: trading up. There seems to be some formula installed in the collective head of much of the horse world that is something like: failure = new horse.  Well actually, failure = new something (horse, saddle, trainer, vet, feed with the oats minced instead of rolled, special clay from Ecuador….you get the idea).

However, the horse part is what bothers me the most. Horses are far from disposable, and when a rider elects to purchase one of these creatures, the horses deserve a lot more than “judgment by placing.”

For the failure = new horse model to exist, riders have bought into some very misleading information. First, the model is built on the assumption that anyone, if they are willing to invest the money and time, should be able to win.

While I will cheer on any person who wants to ride and compete, let’s just be honest here, it is a sport. And somehow it is one of the only sports that a large population seems to think that with proper investment, they should win…and that that’s what it is all about.

Failure = New Horse?

Let’s detour for a moment. I am not a dainty flower of a woman. I have cankles and I can eat a whole pizza myself. While I might one day decide to be a dancer, I would never assume that just because I sign up for dance classes, attend religiously, and buy the nicest shoes that I can perform in the top in one year, or five years, or ever.  Further, I wouldn’t dance because I wanted to win, but because I love to dance.

Riding horses is a sport for everyone, as there are literally levels and experiences that any dedicated rider can enjoy. But the top? Well it is the top because it is, in general, not accessible to everyone.

The idea of buying your way to the top isn’t new, but I find it fundamentally at odds with this sport of choice. At its very core, we ride because we enjoy a sport built upon partnership with a horse. We ride because we value the emotional connection, physical demands, and at times spiritual moments with a horse. We compete because we want to showcase our partnerships. There is just something about riding we can never get from a tennis racket.

It is a big perversion of the bond which this sport is built upon to give the burden of winning entirely to the horse, and to trade up to another life when the results don’t match expectation.

But in horses, the failure = new horse model serves a lot of people. The trainers get to go shopping and get commissions, the breeders and sellers move product, the new horses need to be stocked with their saddles/blankets/etc. However, the two patricipants guaranteed to lose are the rider and the horse. The rider loses because they, well, aren’t being taught how to ride, or held accountable to improve their own performance. The horses lose because they aren’t being given a fair shake.

The Blame Game

If the first misconception is that everyone should be able to win, the second great lie is that when a person loses, it is the horse’s fault. I find it comical to ponder if it was a two-way street. One weekend I took Lizzie out and we had four rails. FOUR. Hearing the last two hit the sand was like being slapped in the face with a paddle of despair. 

After that performance, I could have left the show and decided to trade up to a horse with a quicker front end. In one way, I could be “solving” the problem, assuming the problem is actually 100 percent my horse. Alternatively, Lizzie could have stood at the corner with a sign that read, “Would like a rider with upper body control and a basic level of depth perception.”

For all the talk of what horse a person needs, and what kind of horse wins, and when you know how to move on to a new mount….for all of that I just wish the horses had equal voice. Perhaps their dressage score would be better if they didn’t feel like a rabid raccoon was tied to the other end of the reins. Perhaps having two rails today was amazing, considering the rider missed at all 12 jumps.

I compete because I want to showcase my partnership with my horse, not because I want to judge it. If we fall short one day, or win one day, it is on both of us. Our weaknesses are ours to share, as are our strengths. Whenever I feel a sense of frustration that perhaps she isn’t progressing that well in a certain area, I just remind myself that I have spent the past year trying to gain control of my right hand and she has yet to march out the barn and demand a new rider.

Dance With The One Who Brought You

The best riders are those with a real sense of compassion for and dedication to their horses. Those who understand that they are far from a perfect rider, but that the horse forgives them for that every day.

When Mary King was interviewed after cross-country at Rolex when she was holding first and second, she said she was enjoying it because her homebred mare King’s Temptress was a pretty terrible show jumper, but she loved her anyway. King’s Temptress put in her first double clear at that level the next day for Mary. When Andrew Nicholson finished third on Calico Joe at Rolex, he said he only kept the horse all these years because he could never find someone to buy him. Then he simply said, “…to be honest [I am] very proud of him.” I imagine the horse feels the same way.

Imagine if all the partnerships we see at competitions were locked in, and trading up was not an option. Would we see better riding? Better horsemanship? More compassion? We aren’t all Mary King or Andrew Nicholson, but all of our horses deserve the chance to experience the partnership our sport is built upon. They all deserve care, patience, and the opportunity to do what they love.

Even if Lizzie isn’t going to be an advanced horse, I won’t be “trading up” any time soon. We have a lot to learn from each other that has nothing to do with winning.  I will be a better rider for her weaknesses, and she will be a better horse for mine. Some days, that might make us the best pair, but every day it will make us both happy to see each other and go for a ride.

Kristin Carpenter juggles her riding with running her own company, Linder Educational Coaching, running the shows and events at Morningside Training Farm in The Plains, Va., and riding her two horses, In A Trance and Lizzie. She grew up in Louisiana and bought "Trance," a green off-the-track Thoroughbred, as a teenager. Together, they ended up competing at the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships and the Bromont CCI**. She's now bringing another OTTB, Lizzie, up through the ranks.