Being a trainer and instructor in the horse world for over 25 years I have attended my fair share of competitive events. Being a horse lover I have, each and every time, come away with a bad taste in my mouth – most likely due to the constant biting of my tongue.
People and horses gathering together on a beautiful bit of countryside in the spirit of play and/or shared knowledge is a centuries old tradition. Sharing your passion and experiences with other horse people is a lovely way to spend a day. However horses and people that are quietly and happily going about their day are far too rare on today’s show grounds. A pleasant sense of camaraderie and partnership, no matter where it takes the horse/rider pair, should exemplify all equine events – sadly this is often not the case.
From my observations many competitions in the modern day horse world have little to do with the horse and everything to do with stroking the human ego. On the surface there is nothing wrong with pursuing something that makes us feel good about ourselves but if this amounts to the horse being nothing more than a vehicle to carry us into the winner’s circle – most times at a cost too high for the horse to bear – than that cost is far too high for us all.
Show horses put up in fancy barns and stalls 24 hours a day care nothing for the polished wood walls and ribbons lining their lacquered surface. They don’t care if the sun bleaches their coats or they are dusty or that their hooves are not polished. What they do care about is that their meals are on time, that they get to spend most of their day outside with a few equine friends and that their caretakers actually take care.
Competition by nature is a stressful event. The push to win often supercedes courtesy, sense and anything that resembles a “normal” life for both horse and human. People are free to choose such a life but if one reaches for the top on the back of a horse consideration for this noble creature must be paramount. Bloodied and blistered mouths from the over-use of bits and open sores on the ribcage from spurs are not that uncommon a sight on the grounds of any level of show, race or polo match. Broken necks and legs and an unending list of chronic health issues plague our equine showboats. This should be an obvious red flag and one that easily points to something not quite right with horse showing.
Over the years, while walking the competition grounds, unhappy people and horses were, and still are, the norm. Kids and adults alike blaming their horses for everything that has gone wrong spend the day yanking on the reins and smacking their ponies and horses with the crop, or worse. Horses, at a loss to escape such unexplained and abusive behavior, either acquiesce and leave diminished, or retaliate with unproductive and dangerous actions. Why create misery for an animal that first caught your eye as a grand beast with which you wish to share some time and love.
Trained and cared for with proper consideration horses happily indulge our desire to show off the beauty on four legs that is our friend and ward. Taking time to prepare horses for a show should consist of patient trailer training, many short trips for a pleasant romp until the horse is no longer worried about leaving home, proper physical conditioning to ensure the horse can bear up under the long competitive day and a human mind that stays calm throughout the entire day. Rushing a horse in its training is never appropriate but do so to compete you risk both the health of the horse and perhaps your own as well.
As long as winning does not take precedence over the mental and physical well being of your equine partner friendly competition can be a rewarding experience for both horse and rider. In the end though you must walk away with a contented and healthy four-legged beast and know that you cared more for your equine ward rather than a ribbon’s worth of blue, red, green, yellow or pink silk or satin.