Endangered: Small, Special Horse Shows

May 5, 2014 - 1:37 PM

Our columnist wants a variety of types of shows to thrive—and to keep showcasing the hunters and specialty classes.

My last two articles about hunters have caused quite a stir, both good and bad, amongst the hunter community. But isn’t that what we are supposed to do—write articles that bring to the forefront discussion and exchange of ideas?

We have many, many shows across this country, but I worry that we’re headed toward a horse show monopoly by several show managers. We have shows with 12 weeks, 10 weeks, eight weeks, all on one showground. Are these shows hurting our top smaller shows? I think yes.

The winter circuits are healthy because people want to get way from the weather, and this winter really took its toll on shows, lessons and the general mental health of people and horses who had to stay home. Whether you were in the North, Midwest, East, South or Northwest, you were hit hard by storm after storm.

But not everyone can go to these winter circuits. We have to protect these shows and exhibitors. I’m not sure what the answer is, but we aren’t staging shows that are allowing the hunters to shine and to be special, especially in the classes such as the national derbies, classics and the international derbies. The shows with 11 rings have to wait for exhibitors. The spectators, owners and exhibitors have nowhere to sit, and they have a hard time understanding the format.

Are we creating “Walmart” horse shows with the same old, same old? They don’t have to make anything special for the exhibitor. If the jumps are dirty week to week, that’s OK. If the judges are treated poorly, that’s OK. If the staff is rude and uncaring, that’s OK. Our country is full of the Walmart mentality, and the small boutiques are becoming extinct. At the same time, the smaller “A” or “AA” are becoming extinct because they don’t have the numbers of exhibitors to meet their bottom line and make a profit.

The powers that be are making rules and regulations that make it impossible to go to a smaller show that is heavily sponsored and caters to the trainers, exhibitors and to the horses. Pretty soon our choices will be gone.

People want to attend nice shows, whether they have 100 horses or 2,000 horses. We are overlooking quality, and numbers have become the norm. The mileage rule has been reduced in many parts of the country, and the shows are popping up all over. But soon that will come to an end when these multiple week shows keep becoming popular. I’m not saying these marathon shows are wrong, but let’s make sure that the smaller, special shows can also work.

The Devon (Pa.) horse show qualifying lists just came out, and the divisions are full. This leads me to believe that the hunter world wants to be at a special show, and they still want to qualify to be part of the best and to be part of tradition. When I hear that the professional divisions are down, and I look at Devon, where they are gathered in one place under that sign “Where Champions Meet,” I know the hunters are still alive and well.

I wish, however, that Devon would put the five junior hunter classes back in and take 25 in each section. Do we really need the USET or Washington classes at Devon? The junior hunters have to qualify, and the equitation is open to anyone who enters. Management changed the time schedule to put the USHJA International Hunter Derby right after the professional days instead of four days later. They did it so people would stay and do this class, exhibitors could save hotel bills for four extra days, and they have a captive audience. They have almost doubled their entries for that class. Let’s get back to highlighting the hunters across the board! If the USET is so important for that show why not run it the day before the show starts and allow more junior hunters?

If we keep putting rule after rule and regulation after regulation on top of all the other obstacles of running a show, we will be left with circuit shows that have a monopoly. It’s expensive to put on a show, and it takes the hard work of many people. There are non-profit organizations that want to run charity shows that are heavily sponsored because the show believes in the cause they are benefiting. Why do the derbies and classics and extra classes that offer money not count 100 percent toward their money offered? Why can a manager not provide specialty money classes? If they do not fill, then take away that money and offer it the following year.

This year I decided SBS Farms would revisit Houston for the Pin Oak and Spring Gathering horse shows. Jennifer Alfano attended those shows two years ago and loved them. This year I had four of my owners with me, and they were so excited to be a part of these shows. They are well run, the jumps are beautiful, the courses fantastic. There are pavilions—with cement floors—between each ring with table and chairs, fans and shade! You can watch two of the main rings from one pavilion. Staff and trainers and exhibitors ask if you need anything. Trophies are from Tiffany & Co. in the blue box. So now I know what the reaction will be: Well, we don’t have time or money to build permanent pavilions and treat exhibitors with respect and with their comfort first and foremost. There were five rings going for the two weeks. Not two rings and not 11.

This is a customer’s sport, where the customers must be served. Are we losing interest in the hunters because some shows have grown so big that they’ve forgotten to cater to the people who are paying the bills? These Texas shows gave beautiful presentations to the leading hunter riders and the leading hunters. The derbies were beautiful classes, highlighted in the schedule and with beautiful presentations. Entire barns had their customers watching and clapping. The pre-green incentive classes were packed, and of course the pre-green Texas stake classes were full of prize money, which really made the owners happy! Not only were the pre-green classes full of money, but they were also full of horses.

They had food trucks from all over Houston each day, which was unusual and fun. During the important hunter classes, they always had a very nice bar and a delightful spread of goodies. Bags donated by sponsors were filled with horse treats and various items. All special notes of appreciation. All catering to the owners and riders and horses. Hats off to everyone who runs these shows, which were all reminiscent of the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. I realize we cannot go back to the way they were, but there has to be somewhere between how it is today and how it could be.


Susie Schoellkopf, of Buffalo, N.Y., is an active A-rated judge for hunters and equitation. She was a successful hunter rider and now is the owner and manager of SBS Farms, a training stable, as well as executive director of the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center. She’s a member of several U.S. Equestrian Federation committees and a founder of the Horseman’s Advisory Council. Susie’s first Chronicle column appeared in November 2002.

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