My Soap Box—How Can We Play The Game On A Level Field?

Sep 10, 2015 - 6:57 AM

Young hunter/jumper professional Priscilla Godsoe wrote this in response to Chronicle Associate Editor Molly Sorge’s blog on Sept. 9, “Of Sunshine, False Fairytales And Calming.” Would you like to add to the conversation? Email Molly Sorge.

Sometimes I think the horse business is a tough nut to crack. I’m a professional—not by choice but by necessity—and I sit back and wonder, “How do I make a living when I don’t want to play the same game that so many people feel the need to play?” 

So, here is my soap-box theme for the moment in light of all the U.S. Equestrian Federation and Federation Equestre Internationale medication and potential training scandals happening around our horse world: where do we go from here in promoting our sport? 

How do I convince clients to invest their time and money in the sport when we are riding for second and third place (if we are lucky). I’m not even talking politics here, just performance “enhancement.” How do I teach the younger generation how to be horsemen, when many of today’s “horsemen” are found at the end of a tube of calming paste, and holding a lunge line and that’s because they actually don’t know any better! I guess the question really boils down to, how do you play the game when it often seems rigged?

I’m not a bad rider or trainer, I get in some nice horses, I do my everyday best, and I know how to work hard. That doesn’t need a medal or pat on the back, I signed up for long days and nights when I decided to play the game of horses, that’s what it is about because I love them.

But, I’m also a competitor. I love to win, I love to train to win, and to challenge myself and my training, but no amount of training competes with drugs or “tuning up” a horse. Seriously—no amount of training can make my horses look like they just woke up from a nap as they canter down a line, and no amount of training is going to keep my horse jumping a foot above the rails in the jumper ring week after week. I’m not any less a rider or trainer. 

I’m not trying to condemn everyone at the top—I’ve met some extraordinary people in this game who have shown me a lot of support. They play at the very top of the game and they are my inspiration to keep plugging away. Do they have articles written about them every weekend, or does anyone really know them? No, not really. They chose to enjoy the game out of the limelight by picking and choosing their moments to shine.  

They prepare, plan, and make sure their horse and their training is going to peak, and they have a handful of horses and a small number of students because of it. They don’t have the week-to-week results because they rest the horses, they keep the same horses for the most part, they work through their problems, treat their animals like animals and enjoy the sport for what it is, a love of horses and being your best.

I respect these few and far between trainers and horsemen but some of those less fortunate then me on the grass roots level don’t have these people to look up to.

Further questions we ask ourselves: “What is fair play anymore?” People are opting out of showing because it’s not a level playing field, but who does this hurt? It hurts the grassroots trainers who are trying to make a living by making horses and teaching young kids how to ride. It hurts the population of horses and ponies that doesn’t fall into the “mold.”

Grassroots trainers are the heart of the industry. Look at the prize lists from the A shows—cross-rail jumpers and shortest of the short stirrups, and countless 2’6 hunters—it’s all about the dollar for sure but it has lessened the sport. It makes people think they are playing at the top and it has wiped out the local showgrounds and shows. The middle ground, much like the middle class economy today, is evaporating quickly.  

Fortunately I live in a part of the country where we are lucky enough to have several “middle ground” horse shows. Some horses and riders outgrow them—then you have to choose whether to be the big fish in the small pond or to go after the gold?

I’m not afraid to lose but let me lose fairly. Instead what happens is that I train the horse or the student to be the big fish and then I explain to them, you’re a great rider but you don’t have the finances to play at the top and by the way I’m not going to prep your horse the way it “needs” to play at that level and can you guess what happens next?

They move on to the trainer who plays the game and they find out really quickly they don’t have it and away goes the good rider who quits and the decent horse they trained gets sold because they think they are disgusted with the game and forget what led them to start in the first place.  

In the wake of the drug scandals I’m sure we will see more people stepping back to the local levels (not to mention the fees and costs of showing at the top these days, which is a totally different topic). But how we can be better promote these small circuits? How do we revitalize the middle-class market to play the game and just love horses again? Who do we give as role models to the younger generation?

Can the media highlight these characters? Can the professionals at the top reach down and support the grassroots efforts or have they too forgotten where they came from? Have we forgotten why we do this?

Do we make certain drugs legal like in the horse racing community where they list the trainers who use Lasix? It still remains a horse welfare issue but hey, at least we are being honest. 

I’m not sure where I expect this to go exactly but I hope I can help to open up the minds to some people out there. Let’s figure out a way to enjoy the game, let’s teach kids to be horsemen, let’s work with the horses we have, whether we get them off the track or you’re fortunate enough to buy a nice horse ready-made, let’s be our best and train our best and not give in to the unwritten rules in the game at the top.

Let’s use social media to promote our local trainers and riders and get a grassroots promotional effort at the horse shows. It’s not that we have to go out and become famous, but if we are going to give happy endings to stories, let’s start with the right characters to follow.

Priscilla Godsoe grew up riding on her grandmother’s farm and riding school in Chester Country, Pa. She showed as a junior rider and at the age of 12 began foxhunting as well. As a teenager, she worked her way up to serving as whipper-in the hunt field and kept showing in the jumper and equitation rings under the guidance of James Paxson. She showed in her first grand prix in 2010 and also showed multiple off-the-track Thoroughbreds in the Young Jumper division, including at the Devon Horse Show. She’s also worked as a racehorse exercise rider.

Priscilla now runs her training and sales business out of The Covert Farm in Nottingham, Pa., and she’s a big supporter and fan of off-the-track Thoroughbreds. 

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