Whenever I’m not covering the Washington International, I swallow my distaste for District of Columbia traffic and spectate on puissance night.
There’s something exciting about a historic class at a city show, and it reminds me of one of my favorite childhood movies, “The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit” (which, fun fact, features Kathy Kusner on Aberali). But it’s more than that. My non-horsey friend can tag along and understand the sport and become engulfed in a crowd excited about witnessing the power of the horse.
Rodney Jenkins, one of the horsemen I interviewed for “Where Do Equestrian Traditions Belong In The 21st Century?” (which subscribers can read now, p. 16), won anything and everything, and
yet, even at his pinnacle, he still competed in classes geared to the spectator.
“To be honest I felt more spectators for [the puissance class] than I did the little jumper class or grand prix,” he says. “They get excited when the fences get up there, when that old wall gets up there around 7′. You could just see them stomping their feet a little bit. It was fun.”
As I dug through the Chronicle archives, I found photos of legends like Kusner and William Steinkraus tackling the wall as a sea of blurred faces watched in the background. Between Jenkins’ comments and these photos, I felt a connection between rider and spectator.
Though this article centers on the events falling to the wayside, the “Where did the spectator go?” question surfaced as well.
“In this country, horse shows are an exhibitor sport,” says David Distler. “If you run classes that the competitors don’t like, and you don’t listen to them at all, they’re not going to come.”
John Madden said no one goes to watch U.S. shows. “So why have a competition like the six bar and the gambler’s choice?” he asks. “It’s only something interesting for spectators, and we don’t have spectators. Most organizers and most people don’t care
about spectators. It’s more of an effort to get them than it is what they’re going to bring.”
The competitor refuses to compete in spectator events, so the show doesn’t run them. Then fewer spectators attend, and the show depends even more on the competitor. And the cycle continues.
Spectators dot the ringsides in Europe, where these traditions persist healthily, leaving this predicament an American one. As I punched in the final period for this article, I felt disappointed with our riders for the sport that we’ve created just for ourselves. Doesn’t this just perpetuate the sport’s elitism?
While this article looks at the past, it carries a question into the future. What did these traditions bring? Could they continue to better us in the future? Do competitors have a duty to entertain? After all, there’s nothing like a humming from the stands in appreciation of a great performance. Surely this sport is something we want to share with as many people as possible.
This commentary ran in the Feb. 10 & 17 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse as part of our Legends & Traditions Issue.
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