Monday, May. 27, 2024

A Study In Contrasts

 Harrisburg, Pa., isn’t the kind of place where there’s much international anything, so when the Pennsylvania National comes to town and riders from five countries book hotel rooms, locals are happy to shell out $20 a ticket to attend.

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 Harrisburg, Pa., isn’t the kind of place where there’s much international anything, so when the Pennsylvania National comes to town and riders from five countries book hotel rooms, locals are happy to shell out $20 a ticket to attend.

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I photographed this year’s World Cup qualifier while sitting among a full section of local show jumping fans. One excited couple in particular had looked forward to the class since last year. We bonded while handicapping the field, and they clapped politely for riders who had difficulty and cheered enthusiastically for those who did well. Between gasps of awe, the husband pointed out to his wife what they both could learn from each rider to help them with their own more modest mounts.

The lovely evening contrasted sharply with the morning I’d spent sitting in the riders’ section listening to a pair of railbirds two rows back loudly critique every rider, trainer, horse and judge in their sightline during the amateur-owner hunters. 
And later that afternoon I watched an usher try to enforce the no-dogs policy that few horsemen had bothered to note. After a man trotted his German Shepherd boldly past the fluorescent “No Dogs On The Concourse” signs, the usher asked him to please take his charge back to the barn, only to be blatantly ignored. His pleas didn’t even earn eye contact until he took down one of the signs and held it in front of the offender’s face. 
Normally these commonplace transgressions wouldn’t have stood out to me, but surrounded by the unpretentious and welcoming people from Harrisburg the lack of common decency we’re all used to enduring at horse shows stuck out.
Why do we see so much rudeness at horse shows? In her column this week, “Does Our Sport Have To Be So Exclusive?” Linda Allen cites the “unfriendliness factor” as one of the biggest hurdles for newcomers to show jumping. But I think the problem is bigger: we’ve allowed a culture of entitlement to pervade much of the sport and earn us a reputation as snobs. 
But why should the average horseman truly care if anyone likes the sport or decides to join in? Of course in theory everyone would like spectators, and we don’t want others to think that we’re all badly behaved. And, also theoretically, no one wants to discourage a future Linda Allen—one of the greatest assets to the U.S. show jumping program—who got her start without the benefit of the “right” introduction. Unfortunately, I doubt any of this will convince individuals to mind their manners.
Harrisburg also served as a reminder that at the upper echelons, riders largely understand that they serve as ambassadors. I watched grand prix riders sign autographs all weekend, Hillary Dobbs give a poised and articulate interview on the local news station, and Rodrigo Pessoa happily pose for photos with excited fans after his win in the World Cup class. And when I watched the $25,000 Pennsylvania Big Jump Class from the exhibitors’ section on Thursday night there was plenty of discussion among the riders, but all about how the course rode and how to do it well.
Maybe that’s the best endorsement for banishing some of the unfriendliness at horse shows: If you want to make it to the top, to accept sponsorships and wear a team jacket, it’s going to be a long road there. And if you arrive, there will be people watching your every move, so you may as well get used to it now.

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