Wednesday, May. 29, 2024

We Need Horsemanship, Not Glamour

I, like hundreds of others, have read and agree with George Morris' article "Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?" (July 7, p. 8). Most of the responses I have read reflect on the "old days" of horse showing.

I was lucky enough to be a junior in the 1980s, which was a big transition period regarding the focus of competition. I was one of the kids who galloped across Pennsylvania with the foxhunt one weekend then competed in the ASPCA Maclay the next.
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I, like hundreds of others, have read and agree with George Morris’ article “Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going?” (July 7, p. 8). Most of the responses I have read reflect on the “old days” of horse showing.

I was lucky enough to be a junior in the 1980s, which was a big transition period regarding the focus of competition. I was one of the kids who galloped across Pennsylvania with the foxhunt one weekend then competed in the ASPCA Maclay the next.

Even then, I had quite a few experiences of other juniors treating me like I was a “backyard” competitor since I enjoyed riding outside the ring as much as in the ring. Since that time, the hunter/jumper competition rings continue to move further away from the hunt field. It’s a sign of the times.

Many kids don’t have the opportunity to hunt and trail ride. Because their experiences are limited, they cannot relate the field experience to the show ring. With that lack of reference, the feel of a show ride has no correlation to the feel of hunting. We have to face the fact that because the focus of competition has changed, so have the goals.

To the majority, showing is no longer about gauging your personal success in developing the right ride and the effective relationship with a mount. The horse show world reflects how the rest of the society judges success–recognition. Using this trend, we can shape the future of competition.

It starts with identifying the war and choosing the battle.

The War: A division has been created for everyone who owns a horse. So, a rider doesn’t have to stay at home and practice until he or she reaches a level of education high enough to show.

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Show management developed these divisions as a service to the riders and to make money. I have long lost hope concerning the hunters. I don’t see the return of rewarding a horse and rider combination that has an effective forward ride as if in the hunt field. The trend of lopey horses has now become the “hunter look.” In addition, anyone can be a jumper rider these days, starting at 2’6″ if he or she wants. Again, customer service, not horsemanship, but accepted in today’s show world.

So, the only arena to reinforce the ideals of horsemanship is the equitation ring, as many have said.

The Battle: The issue then arises, again, that recognition is the way to set goals in this day and age. It’s the responsibility of the governing organization to regulate who is recognized for their ability and performance.

Today, the equitation judging is strikingly similar to the hunter judging. But there’s not room for equitation to be as subjective as the hunters.

The U.S. Equestrian Federation attempted to implement a national standard with the Hunter Seat Equitation Manual in 2002. Unfortunately, left to their own discretion about implementing the standards, many judges fail to follow the manual. The USEF leaders need to uphold the manual as a contract with equitation judges.

The USEF leaders need to crack down on those judges who do not demonstrate the ability to recognize this standard by temporary suspension and continued education requirements. Eventually, only the judges who uphold the standards will be available for work. That means there will be a competition between show companies to hire them. As demand increases so will pay and prestige. Again, recognition is a strong tool.

More qualified people will be attracted to judging. Because of the small number of qualified judges, standards have been lowered. Show companies continue hiring unqualified judges. Until the judging pool becomes larger, the availability of higher-level equitation classes may decrease. Therefore, the competitiveness will increase, weeding out the riders who do not truly have mastering equitation as a goal.

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Trainers aren’t going to teach their kids proper equitation if they’re going to lose the client due to a lack of reward at the show. When I watch my students in the equitation ring, I find myself cringing if one of their horses lands off an oxer and plays because he’s having a good time, is interested in his job and isn’t at the point of exhaustion due to excessive longing.

At home, we laugh and say it’s nice to see the horse enjoying his job. At the show, I know it’s going to knock my kid to the end of the line because her horse wasn’t acting like a numb hunter. It should be that the rider guides the horse through the moment of distraction by keeping the rhythm and flow to the next element of the course. Then, the rider should be rewarded for dealing with the nature of a horse through recognition from the judges.

I’ve taken on the project of coaching an Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association team. The hours are long in addition to my private barn, and the financial return is minimal. But, it keeps me grounded in the meaning of equitation.

I coach kids who come from all different backgrounds and teach them to uphold the old equitation standard of a balanced, quiet position and a workmanlike ride. These kids have one practice jump to figure out how to be effective with the horse they draw, and they do it. No glamour, just horsemanship. This is the type of equitation we need to recognize in our show rings.

At this point in time, we’re not going to change the fact that recognition is a large part of showing. And, we’re not going to change the fact that recognition is a measure of success regarding riders and trainers.

Unfortunately, the riders and trainers who mature in their horsemanship past the point of needing recognition for satisfaction are overshadowed by the attention getters. I believe that there are masters among us and mentors ready to emerge from the next generation. We just need to develop a system that recognizes those who we want to mentor our sport instead of those who glamorize it.

Thank you, Mr. Morris, for continuing to be outspoken about this issue. I’m happy to see so many people talking about the trends in the competitions today. One trend never changes. Our great equitation riders go on to be our great international competitors. Let’s not lose the ideals that shape our future masters.


Katie Brown Maxwell is rider and trainer and operates her Sovan Hill Enterprises in Landrum, S.C. She coaches the Clemson University (S.C.) Equestrian Team and is an American Riding Instructors Association-certified instructor.

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