Monday, July 15, 2013

Horse show blues

It's hard to believe but I've been showing horses for 32 years.  I started out like many folks do as a kid in 4-H with a pony.  She was a great horse.  Patient when she needed to be but not afraid to put me in my place when needed.   She was also a lousy show horse.  She had rough gaits.  She didn't like to lope much and had no clue as to leads.  She fell asleep in fitting and showing or worse just quit in the middle and dragged me out of the arena.  So, consequently, we never did very well.  I didn't really mind.  She would let me lay on her back and stare at the clouds while she grazed and that meant more to me than any ribbon. 

I advanced in skills and horses as my 4-H years continued and by my teens was also participating in the bigger open shows.  We had some small successes depending on the judge and how much he appreciated a non-quarter horse.  Every blue ribbon I ever won meant a lot to me.  That's basically 32 years of comfortable mediocrity.  

It's not that I don't understand what it takes to win in the show ring or don't have the ability to reach for those blue ribbons on a much more consistent level (rather than once every 2-3 years).  It's my unwillingness to do what it takes to be competitive in the show ring.  

First of all, I would need a different breed of horse for local success.  For the sake of this blog we are going to ignore that little detail and talk about the other stuff.  A perfect Morgan, english or western, is not going to beat even a not so perfect Quarter Horse in this area under 99% of the judges.  Believe me, I understand that.  32 years of this, remember?  Almost all of those were on a Morgan or part Morgan.  We're not going to talk about that year of the 1/2 arab.  That's better forgotten.  

We participated in the local show this past weekend.  It's a pretty big show for our area and well attended.  Like most open shows there is a large cross section of the horse world.  You have the folks that scraped together tack and clothes and entry fees to come to this show and it is the highlight of their competitive year.  You also have the folks that view this as a little Podunk show that serves as a training field for their young show horses.   I spent the Western Pleasure day watching from the sidelines and was more emotionally exhausted by the end of the day than I was after riding in the classes the first day! 

When we talk about lightness in the context of Natural horsemanship/Ray Hunt style horsemanship/ Vaquero tradition horsemanship, we mean light.  Like a feather.  Like you think it, the horse does it.  You  have feel in your hands and communicate with the horse through a vibration in the reins that is almost imperceptible to the observer but that means the world to the horse.  You feel of the horse, he feels of you.  That kind of lightness.  Of course, there are times when the horse doesn't pick up on the lightness on his end and you have to get his attention, but your goal is feather light touch.  In the vaquero tradition you have the added thinking that snaffle bits ruin a horse's mouth and you would never put that iron in a young horse's mouth, much less pull on it.  The horse's mouth is a sacred temple and you have no business ham fisting your way around his mouth.  

I know not everybody thinks that way and they don't have to.  What made my heart hurt all weekend is the banging and spurring and jerking of these quiet show horses.  I've never seen so many poor hands and jerking of the horse's mouth for no good reason.  I swear I felt every single jerk on every single horse right in the pit of my stomach.  At the same time the jerking is going on in their mouth a spur is being rammed into their side.  I took a picture of one poor horse that had a baseball sized discolored area on his hide from the wearing of the spur right into his gut.  

There were a few showmen riding that were not guilty of this kind of behavior and they weren't placing real high.  To make matters worse, a local trainer was present and coaching from the sidelines. At one point she was heard to shout to her young protege in the class, "Jerk his face off!  Spur him! Show him who is boss!"  This was a horse that was loping around slightly faster than paint drying.  She eventually got him slowed down to the point that all he could do with his big muscled frame was a short of shuffle/hop/lope that made him look lame.  It worked, though, he placed in that class.  

So, there must be a lot at stake, right, to abuse these horses this way?  You bet there is.  They were giving away coffee mugs for first place!  

Why, you might be asking yourself, do I bother?  Why am I still showing after all these years?  For a couple of reasons.  First of all I enjoy it.  I like being judged (even if I don't agree with the decision) because it pushes me to be my absolute best.  I also think it's good for the horse to be put in that environment with the other horses and asked to be concentrating on your cues and stay straight and in frame through the entire class.  And, as much as I complain about other horse folks and their methods, I do enjoy hanging with horse people.  I don't have to agree with somebody to like them and enjoy their company.   I embrace the different strokes for different folks philosophy.  I ride Morgans and show only in green.  I'm different enough for everybody! 

I won't ever change my riding or training to fit in with the styles of the show ring.  I won't ever take short cuts to make my horse look a certain way.  I am there to show off my Morgan when he is being good and make silly excuses for him when he completely blows me off.  Of course I want my horse to be moving in a quiet and collected frame.  I want him to respond to my cues and represent himself and his breed well.  I won't rip his head off in the middle of a class of 20 horses if he doesn't.  That's not what it's all about.  I will also continue to not win a whole lot.  That's okay.  As much as it feels good to have your name called as the winner, I have plenty of coffee mugs.  

Somewhere on the list of things I'd like to change about the world, right between establishing world peace and making the Morgan our national animal is changing the judging of horse shows.   It would be so wonderful if the horse that won, no matter what kind of show or what discipline, was the one that was lightest and happiest in the bridle/ had the most free and natural movement really showcasing their natural athleticism and beauty.   It would also be great if there was a class that the horse got to judge the rider and reward the most balanced seat and softest hands.  We could make that one a really big deal and give away a candy dish or something.