I wonder if enough people in the horse show industry set goals for themselves. And if they are, are the goals being set revolving primarily around qualifying for something? Pony finals, EQ finals, League finals, Devon, Junior Hunter finals, Derby finals, Regional finals, Harrisburg, WIHS, the National, etc., etc.. Horse show careers are wildly based around forming a certain resumé for a person, or an animal. The better the resumé, the better the end product, right? Sure, sure.
Trainers I would assume set goals in order to stay in business, get that overhead paid. They post a schedule of horse shows, expecting the clients to sign up for them, make arrangements, carry on through the year from show to show. They work like mad to make sure the clients achieve those goals, sit on the right mounts, win those ribbons, get those points. I wonder how many trainers are expecting to grow this year, or downsize and concentrate on different aspects of their businesses. Maybe discard a client or five, and concentrate on developing a young horse or two. Maybe take some time to consider options.
Everyone has his/her own feeling on point chasing, whether it is a broad spectrum, wanting to qualify for EVERYTHING, or maybe just one class somewhere during the show year. Hopefully people are smart enough to make time for the actual education when it comes to horsemanship and riding, find the balance between learning and these goals we are achieving. No, wait, no that doesn’t matter. There is a program for riders right? A horsemanship quiz or something.. that quiz asks all the right questions right? Everything you need to know on one piece of paper… sigh.
Since the cost of overhead is enormous for most show stables, it is rarely even possible for the entire stable to take a month or two or more off and just spend it solely on education and learning. And each year it seems the attention span of a student grows smaller. What happens when you are qualified by April for all your finals? Are you doing the bare minimum it takes to get a Medal and Maclay on your resumé, just so you can relax and coast for the rest of the summer then scramble to take a whole bunch of last minute lessons right before you walk in the ring in the fall? Do you ever seek out more knowledge? Do you have ambition? Is your manicure a higher priority?
Big operations have big bills. The people behind the scenes tend to come from the outside rather than the inside. Very few working students exist anymore compared to thirty years ago. Small operations are certainly not exempt either, and balancing the budget takes an enormous amount of energy. Every year costs go up, let’s face it, nothing will ever flatline, there is no more rent control. Trainers do favors to keep clients in the game, sometimes at tremendous cost to themselves. Other trainers don’t find any value in longevity with clients and work hard to make as much money off of them as possible in the shortest amount of time. Neither is healthy, of course, and everyone suffers.
This fall, across the country, we all watched the sudden announcement of a renowned show stable in California closing it’s seemingly successful operation, and maybe to some of us it was surprising, almost shocking, but not incomprehensible. Karen mentioned the overhead was staggering, and keeping the standards high enough for her satisfaction was just not possible anymore. Why not? How high were those standards? Were the clients expectations of their own resumés and treatment spiraling too far upwards? How many people needed to be employed for that amount of horses? What exactly was considered appropriate involvement of a rider/client to her horse or horses? Who tacks up the horse and who wraps it at night? How did we get here? The questions roll on in my head. My first experience in California was showing up as a complete stranger on the doorstep of Hap Hansen Stables in Southern California twenty five years ago, a few weeks before heading to the winter circuit in Indio, and trying to wrap my head around the ability to take 60 plus horses to a horse show. HOW WAS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE?? I still have no idea how we did it, but we all survived, and immediately I knew I had learned more in one month working for him than the past year back in Maryland. It was hard. I loved the few years I was there. But I do remember fully catering to every junior/amateur that walked through the barn aisle, down to offering to polish their own boots for them, and looking back, there wasn’t a whole lot of encouragement for me to mingle with clients outside of the show. I did anyway, for a while, eventually realizing I didn’t have much to contribute to any conversation that didn’t involve a horse, and my enthusiastic diatribes on poultices from around the world sort of flopped at any dinner table…
Luckily for us, we are not losing Karen Healey altogether, but gaining what she feels is more important in her life right now. She is going to teach the hell out of American riders who want to be taught. She quite arguably is one of the best instructors this country has to offer, and I hope all 44,000 USHJA members can benefit from her decision this year in some capacity. Interesting where she is putting her focus, though, back into teaching, and education. Shedding the burden of the hay and feed bills to help fill that void we created here in America and meanwhile doing what she loves to do more than anything — To make you a better horseman. I am confident her efforts will not be wasted.
As we set our goals for this year, what are we considering? How much emphasis is being put into actual horsemanship and education, so that the future of our industry is better prepared when the number of horses suddenly grows in the successful show stable down the road? As a junior rider, are you actually willing to spend more than the month of November without stirrups, like the rest of the world, or are you content to end it there? Your goals do not need more than one month? It is so typical of Americans to create a one month fad that sends out exactly the wrong message about learning how to ride. “Don’t worry – to be successful you only need one month without stirrups”. Are you kidding me right now? Americans need a minimum of one year without stirrups somewhere in their lives before becoming at all effective as a rider. How did we get to one month?? The bare minimum. Again.
Your resumé as a junior rider will not affect your career as a professional as much as the location of your barn and your ability to be nice to people. It is lovely to have the background for your future students, but it absolutely does not make you a better person to have a slew of trophies on your shelf. Knowing how to make someone else’s experience better than your own is invaluable, of course, so as you are going through the motions, think about what improvements to make for the future riders.
Do pony riders make goals for themselves, or are those goals coming from someone else? Parents maybe? How realistic are you as a parent when it comes to your expectations in the show ring? Short term? Long term? Fanciest bows? Best outfit? Are you seeking the best education for your child, or the best pony? Do you care either way? Are you hoping to be out of horses altogether by the time your child is 18? This thinking is what is creating a big gap by the way. Piano lessons and riding lessons are not the same thing. Dabbling in the sport of horses because you are bored is not really helping the industry as a whole. I can’t say don’t do it, but I encourage you to find more depth.
Pony Club created four manuals on horsemanship, buy the first one for your child this holiday, and make a difference. Help us all out. Amazon has free delivery.
Everyone in this horse show industry is responsible for making it better, the shift does not go to one organization or another, or one individual over another, and when you do not educate yourselves properly, you are most likely the one ending up complaining about something trivial at the in-gate, so this year make a goal you would normally make for yourself, your student, client, or your child, and make one or two more that will help the industry, no matter how small. And for pete’s sake read a book about horsemanship. Let’s learn more about riding EVERY kind of horse, developing the young ones, improving the older ones, caring for, feeding, shoeing, bandaging, BASIC attention your horse needs, turnout schedules, and maybe move further away from the politics of the sport, the so-called popularity contests, the designer outfits, by celebrating long term goals, not short term achievements. Let’s see ONE kid at Junior Hunter Finals know how to take a temperature of a horse and not be grossed out… It is not like we aren’t capable. We have everything we need right in front of us.