Saturday, May. 25, 2024

Let’s Distinguish Between Observation And Copying

Our columnist believes blind copying is a huge detriment to the sport.

Observation has been the single greatest skill in the development of my and Beezie’s careers. Though often discounted, observation is a necessary tool for learning. We can all easily agree on this last point, but what we need to make clear is that observation is required, but copying can be extremely detrimental.
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Our columnist believes blind copying is a huge detriment to the sport.

Observation has been the single greatest skill in the development of my and Beezie’s careers. Though often discounted, observation is a necessary tool for learning. We can all easily agree on this last point, but what we need to make clear is that observation is required, but copying can be extremely detrimental.

What I’ve seen far too often is people trying to copy successful people while not analyzing enough to understand how or why. The problem with this is simple; when copying, one has no clue as to the motivation, rationale or thought process of the person he’s copying. Worse yet, one tends to mimic the things that are easily seen or easily done, but have little to do with the reason for success.

An example that comes to mind is the exaggerated crest release to the ears and subsequent extravagant laying on the neck for several strides after the fence. We have all witnessed this in the hunter ring, and
I have no idea who instigated it and was so successfully copied to the detriment of an entire division. I’m happy to say this abomination of riding is slowly fading from fashion.

Another example to illustrate my point, this one with a positive outcome, happened years ago when a former teacher of mine (yes, I did ride briefly and very poorly) came to visit us at a show. After watching for a few days he told me he had to change the footing at his farm. I asked him why, and his answer was that he needed to copy the footing at this prestigious,  well-supported event. He reasoned that since the event had such high prize money, the best horses and riders, and that the event held such a high stature in our sport that the footing must be good. Fact of the matter was that the ground was rock hard and awful.

What he didn’t know, prior to our conversation, was that all of the riders that were jumping on the footing were cringing, kicking and screaming, and fretting over it. They were worrying and trying to decide how bad is too bad and how hard is too hard?

Through one simple conversation, my former teacher educated himself and made the transition from copying to observing, in doing so, saving himself and his horses from a dreadful mistake, and that makes all the difference.

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At the Rolex FEI World Cup Final in Gothenburg, Sweden (p. 22), Rich Fellers finished second overall. First, I’d like to congratulate Rich on a tremendous feat. Rich’s performance, and the performances of all of the American riders, was something as an American for which we should be proud. Unfortunately, I was only there for Round 2 of the final on Friday evening.

I know Rich fairly well, and I think he demonstrates the point of this column.

A family man and student of our sport, Rich is an independent thinker. Not closed-minded, but not a blind follower, an excellent example. His character and experience have carried him to the top. Watching Rich work at shows, one will soon observe that he and his wife Shelly stick to their system, follow their plan and are not influenced by what others are doing.

At the same time, I know Rich has been influenced by many people, including George Morris. He has used this influence to supplement his own riding and training and folded it into what is now his system. The Fellers’ program, I’m sure, is dynamic but also steady and solid. Rich, Wilsonville, Ore., has developed many horses to a high level. This is no accident. To observe the process, even from a distance, it’s quite clear that Rich and Shelly have a keen eye and ear for observation and a disdain for copying.

It’s interesting to have observed a small part of the World Cup Final and then to have analyzed the results. I think it’s fair to say that some of the riders are victims of too much copying and not enough understanding. This fact is especially true with less experienced riders.

As George Morris once wrote in an article for L’Annee Hippique, in which he critiqued the styles of the 10 best riders in the world, “while these style flaws have worked for these riders, any one of them could ruin the careers of thousands.”

It’s difficult in this world of show jumping for an inexperienced rider, or even an experienced one for that matter, not to grab onto and try to copy what the biggest winners are doing. If one could accomplish what they do by copying that would be fine, but that’s not what happens.

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I often equate copying to fashion. These trends come and go but are nearly always started by blind following. This problem extends to all facets of our world, including horse show management, veterinarians, blacksmiths, owners and trainers. These trends can lead to big problems with our sport: exorbitant entry fees, rushing through the day, gimmicky shoeing, sending horses to foreigners and implementing every gadget known to mankind.

This thought brings me to my final point; while there’s a time and place for high entries, hustling through the day, special shoes, sending horses away and even some training tools, these things must not be copied, but done only when necessary.

So what is the difference and how do we recognize the differences? The answer is through knowledge gained by careful, thoughtful observation. We must know the point of view and intention of the person we are observing. Is the intent of the person we are observing success or suicide or somewhere in between?
We must question the intent, the action and the consequences as well as the result. The detriment of blind copying is to exponentially lower the level of our sport. The benefits of careful observation are the opposite, and I prefer, as we all do, the latter. 

John E. Madden



John Madden, Cazenovia, N.Y., is married to international grand prix rider Beezie Madden. Together, they operate John Madden Sales Inc., where they train horses and riders. The horse business has encompassed John’s entire life, and in addition to his business he’s the Organizing Committee Chairman for the Syracuse Sporthorse Tournament (N.Y.) and on the USEF High Performance Show Jumping Computer List Task Force. He began contributing to Between Rounds in 2008.

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