So, You Think You Love Horses? Some Reflections on the Nature of Horses and Man

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Equestrian Sports and Activities: Showing

The Chestnut Mare and my Wife at a Show
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Around the Ring
My Infamous
3rd Place Ribbon
Being only an accidental horseman, I have not deliberately shown. However, my spouse participated in more than a few horse shows during our marriage and even more of them before it. I would go with her and jokingly said I know why they say “bride and groom” since that was always my role at the shows.

The one and only individual ribbon that I ever won was at a judged pleasure ride and was a third place. With all due respect to the fine individuals judging, it was about as accidental as is my horsemanship. I did not consider myself a serious contender and had only gone on the ride to keep my wife company. At the end of the ride while I was packing up our gear our neighbor who happened to park his horse trailer next to us ran up to me and said, “Get yourself and your horse over to the ring! They’re calling your name.” I feared that I was about to be reprimanded for some imaged infraction of the rules, and I was totally flabbergasted to discover that I had been awarded a third place ribbon!

I should mention that they divided the participants into categories, and I was in what I jokingly called the “mutt division.” I was riding at the time a dependable crossbred mare. In the “mutt division” I was up against a collection of assorted animals that could not be categorized into a particular horse breed. My lot included at least one Missouri mule, a Confederate Cavalry reenactor in full regalia (who tried to convince me to join up), two bareback riders in Native American attire sporting wicked looking belt knives, and various other stragglers too diverse to characterize. I never did discover exactly what those knives were for and am just as happy that I did not.

As part of a judged pleasure ride you navigate a course and pass various stations along the route where you are asked to do things: for example, put on and take off a rain coat while mounted, jump a jump, slog through a mud pit, cross a stream, etc. The judges rate you and your mount’s ability to do these things. I realize now that there were three factors that accounted for my apparent success, and none of them had anything to do with my ability as a horseman. The first is that fancy riders often have purebred horses rather than those qualifying for the “mutt division.” My wife, for example, was riding our chestnut mare, a “push-button” performer, in a class only for Thoroughbreds, and won first place that day. Secondly, I was riding directly behind my wife. My horse, out of force of habit, would repeat any action her horse did without the least effort on my part. The judges looking at me must have believed that I was a great rider. However, most importantly, I was not trying to compete. I was relaxed in the saddle as can be. Were I trying I would have tensed up, which is never a good thing while riding and certainly would have been noticed by the judges. After placing in this competition, I figured that it was best if I quit while I was ahead and not risk my standing by entering other judged events.

Taking a Jump
In the course of my education I have sat for what seems to have been a thousand major, competitive, high-pressure, academic exams. I would be pleased never to need to do another one. Relaxation is the point of pleasure riding in my mind, and competing in a ring is not what I am looking for. However, I realize that participation in horse shows can develop a person into a first class rider. Competition drives a person to develop their skills in a way that just riding or taking lessons does not.

There are horse shows in most areas of the county run by clubs or organizations and designed for various types of riders with various skill levels. The focus of the class during competition may be on the horse, the rider or both. In the United States organizations such as Pony Club and 4-H sponsor schooling shows for young riders. In most local shows you pay an entry fee, and if you are lucky ride away with a prize ribbon and a little more experience. At the highest levels of competition there is prize money, but I would think the expenses in the long run far exceed anything you might win. Higher level riders are often more interesting in developing reputations for themselves, their horses, their breeding program or their facilities, and the value of those things far exceeds the modest monetary winnings.

The color of ribbons awarded to the people who place in a particular class in a horse show differs according to the country in which you are completing. In the United States these are: first place, blue; second place, red; third place, yellow; fourth place, white and so on. On an international level showing is done under rules of the Fédération équestre internationale (FEI). On a national level in the U.S. the United States Equestrian Federation functions in that role. I have attended many shows over the years and have seen all kinds of classes. It is interesting to watch a class of gaited horses and study their movements or just see kids at their first horse show, but I must admit my favorite is high level competitive show jumping. I am there with the rider facing that impossible looking jump that I would never have the courage to try myself and feel such a sense of relief when they finish with no faults. I wonder, do people watching NASCAR feel the same degree of involvement with their drivers?

Receiving a Ribbon
The Chestnut Mare's
As horsemen it is important that we support local shows and the organizations that run them. They are important in showcasing equestrianism in our communities. Nothing speaks to potential sponsors of competitive events greater than attendance, and you might take some time off and go. For many years we attended the annual Pennsylvania National Horse Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with a group of friends. It was very much the beginning of the education of my eyes to fine horses and horsemanship. Afterward we would wander around and take in the behind the scenes sites at a major show and finally all go out to dinner.

I also watched my former riding instructor compete at the Washington International Horse Show. My riding teacher was always a giant in my eyes and a horsewoman of great ability. Once at a clinic she was speaking about a rider doing limbering up exercises while on horseback and said one should be capable of doing them at a walk, trot and canter. My wife is not only a true horsewoman but also can be an ornery one. Her hand shot up and she said, “I have often heard this said but have never seen anyone actually demonstrate it at a canter.” You might have heard a pin drop but the instructor promptly got on her horse and flawlessly did the exercises. Seeing her at the show that day really gave me a certain sense of perspective. There she was just a tiny figure almost lost in that huge arena, under the lights and in a class with so many other equally gifted riders. Our education as horsemen is a continuing one, and showing is an important stop along the way for most riders. At the time we believe it’s all about winning but when you get older and gain some perspective you realize that it was never really about winning: it was about striving and growing. See you at the show…

The Accidental Horseman.

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