Our columnist would like to see young horsemen replace their blaring iPods with solid horsemanship skills.
When times get tough people have different reactions and demonstrate their feelings through how they behave toward others. A lot of the mess the United States is in right now is because we have become a nation of “I and me” instead of “we.”
As I’ve looked around the shows and my everyday life the past few months I’m amazed at the lack of manners I’ve witnessed. Manners just don’t seem to exist anymore, and maybe that’s an outward manifestation of our times. I see a general lack of courtesy between fellow professionals, amateurs, juniors, management, staff and so on.
I think one of the problems we have right now is a lack of forward thinking. It seems that few people set long-term goals anymore, so our junior riders and up-and-coming professionals are left floundering and don’t develop a serious work ethic. We need to help them refocus and think ahead and, most importantly, learn from those horsemen who have been in this sport for many years with much success. You don’t have to try to reinvent the wheel or the system when others have already done so for you. You just have to plan ahead and take the time to absorb their experiences.
When I was a junior, amateur and then a professional I was lucky to have mentors and great horsemen to guide the way. They all worked hard—drove the van, braided (manes and tails!)—and were always at the barn at dawn’s early light. They knew their horses’ every move—how they acted in the stalls, what they felt like to ride, and what it took to win.
I began going to the top shows in the 1970s with trainer Roger Young. His horses were always turned out the very best—shiny coats, clean tack and thus great performances. We always knew our goals for the year, whether it was qualifying for Devon (Pa.) and the fall indoor shows or year-end awards for our local chapter.
We also had the benefit of observing top professionals like Dave Kelly, Red Frazier, Kenny Wheeler, Rodney Jenkins and Dan Lenehan who produced top conformation horses year after year.
This younger generation of horsemen, currently in their formative years, needs to read and review the tools and knowledge the past generations have taught us. Many of these younger horsemen don’t know top horse people like Rodney Jenkins or Michael Matz and grew up after these horsemen had left their respective marks on the sport.
Some may remember Michael from his famous race horse Barbaro who won the Kentucky Derby, but they probably don’t know how Michael came up through the hunter ranks to became one of the top riders and trainers of our time. Michael’s and Rodney’s barns are run with the horse front and center. That’s why they were able to move to the racing world with ease and success. Those of us who watched and learned from them were fortunate, and we didn’t try and change the system they followed.
We Must Take Action
We as teachers, parents and mentors should seek to educate these younger professionals and help them on their way. It’s too easy now to just hang out a shingle and become a professional. But, in reality, to succeed in this sport over the long term you have to work hard and climb the ladder. Sure, some people have done it the hard way on their own, but why not move up the rungs with someone more experienced showing you the correct way?
Sadly, there’s a reason many people simply print up business cards and call themselves professionals—we’ve become a country of easy short cuts, and taking time for long-term goals and educational opportunities are fewer and farther between.
I’m disappointed to say that the hunter/jumper world is currently producing mostly a group of arrogant and self-serving professionals and students. It’s too easy to text instead of speaking one on one. It’s too easy to go to a website or bulletin board and say whatever you want about someone under an alias. Well, guess what? The days of slacking are gone.
The economic downturn is showing us that we need to get back to basics, hard work and learn from those established horsemen who have come before us. They have survived hard times of the past because of their work ethic. Today’s young professionals may now be forced to learn how to braid, drive the van, clean tack correctly, bandage and manage the lives of the horses and students under their care. The era of having “a complete staff” for all of the day-to-day work may now be behind us.
It’s all too common for top junior working students to rarely be seen back at the barn taking care of the horses they’ve been allowed to ride for customers. At the ring I hardly ever see these juniors checking their tack—bridles and saddles, girths, pads, stirrups—before they get a leg up! We need to insist they have a thorough education from the ring to the barn.
Bandaging a horse is also a lost art. If the professional hasn’t learned to bandage correctly how will he teach the next generation? More importantly, do these professionals actually monitor how their horses are cared for? Do they care what their barn aisle looks like or do they check the cleanliness of their tack at the end of the day or beginning of the next?
Many of those in the past generation consider feeding an art. Can you recognize the early stages of moldy hay? Is monthly deworming something you’ve discussed with your veterinarian? What are the pros and cons of each deworming method?
Does your staff know why feeding times should be on a set schedule? Do they know what happens when a horse isn’t drinking? Would they know the difference between a pawing horse simply rearranging his bedding or one showing the distress of colic?
Shipping horses is another topic that’s largely been ignored. Shipping a horse in a two-horse trailer, a four-horse gooseneck or a semi-tractor each requires different skill sets. One bad shipping incident while loading, unloading or being placed in a shipping stall is critical. Now it’s the norm for our young professionals to hand their horses over to a shipper and just show up at the competition. They don’t know enough to give the shipper any tips on each individual horse or pony because they’ve not bothered to watch or learn how it’s done. That’s unfortunate.
A Fresh Start
In order to succeed in this sport, trainers and riders must have a passion for the horses and know them inside out. There should never be a day that goes by that you don’t learn something new from your horse or from another professional. Now that we are seeing smaller shows and fewer people showing, an economic silver lining might be that we have the time to watch the best in the schooling areas, the ring, teaching lessons, giving clinics and more importantly back in their barns.
We’ve heard countless stories over the years of people who have run their businesses based out of greed. It’s all about bonuses and commissions. Many in this industry have allowed their horse businesses to run without consequences to certain actions because there’s always another opportunity down the road. Has that road reached a dead end now?
In the past, courtesy and respect took precedence over dollar signs. Not so much now. What happened to calling other professionals when a customer intends to leave a barn? What happened to making sure all bills are paid when you leave? Not long ago professionals protected their fellow professionals whether they were friend or foe. Now it’s easy for people to switch trainers and leave owing money. You cannot switch schools or lawyers or accountants while owing money without facing the consequences. Why have we allowed this situation to become the embarrassing norm in our business?
Today’s economic climate is providing us with a fresh start; we simply have to take it. Professionals with established barns will always have to employ people to help them. In the past we’ve paid cash to foreigners who ended up making a small fortune. Our justification was that we couldn’t find U.S. citizens who wanted to work as hard or had the knowledge. It wasn’t always that way.
Top horsemen of the past and present have spent long hours working with their employees to educate them and make them the best. In these tough economic times we need to return to those roots and take the time to train all of our staff members to be horsemen, whether that’s young working students or established workers. In return, we have to bring their salaries in line, provide health benefits and workers’ compensation. We have to train our staff for the future—not for short cuts.
In many countries grooms are proud of the care they take of their horses. The young and upcoming staff and riders need to know and understand that working in all aspects with horses is crucial and rewarding–not just riding in the ring for the blue ribbon.
I’ve read that our youngsters have the nickname the “iPod Generation.” And, unfortunately, I see this is true even in our world. It’s becoming the norm to ride with an iPod and tune out everything around you. I would seriously doubt that you would ever see any of our top riders preparing a horse while listening to iTunes. They are great riders because they have great focus.
It’s time for us in the “older” generation to take a stand. I’m not saying we ignore beneficial technology and return to antiquated ways. I do believe, though, that we need to reconnect with the past to make a better future.
We’ve coasted for a while now and have allowed, for example, this formative generation to take the easy way out. Now our junior and pony riders speak to us through texting instead of speech! Face to face communication is vital to succeed in our world and to develop manners and courtesy. If you can’t communicate well with a person, how are you going to relate to your horse?
I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful kids ride and train with me in the past and now. I find the ones who are dedicated to their horses and have focus in the barn are the ones who do well in school. They are the ones who go on to good colleges and succeed in life. They are the ones who have “we” in their vocabulary not “I”.
Susie B. Schoellkopf serves as the executive director of the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center, which is the home of the Buffalo Equestrian Center and SBS Farms in Buffalo, N.Y. An R-rated U.S. Equestrian Federation judge, Schoellkopf has trained numerous horses to USEF Horse of the Year honors, including Gabriel, Kansas, Big Bad Wolf and GG Valentine. She started writing Between Rounds columns in 2002.