If you know me very well at all, you will know I have a particular disdain for ponies. My chemistry does not work with ponies. You could offer to pay me a million dollars to train a family full of ponies, and i would actually hesitate, force back a full facial grimace, then the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up, then I would picture Ed, and a million dollars would abruptly float its way out of my life.
However, I am not stupid enough to not have a tremendous amount of respect for what pony breeders have done for this country, and enjoy other people’s success in the pony ring. It is truly astonishing. In my mind, what works so well for pony divisions is the insistent concern for conformation and movement as part of the final score for a pony in the regular hunter divisions, as well as for pony finals. Now some will argue that they really concern themselves with the quality of canter and the jump over the rest, which is not wrong, BUT, aside from personal differences, a show pony in America is of very high quality and is generally put together very, very well. Some judges might grumble from time to time about having to move a pony back in the order over poor conformation and the look on the kids face is despair and disappointment, but really that’s just a life lesson, come on. That kid is going to see far worse disappointments, believe me. And hopefully, the kid will know better than to love her pony any less, and refrain from telling her mother she needs a better model because fluffy monster is too sway backed. …. just kidding, that never happened.
If you don’t know, ponies at Pony Finals are scored in three parts – Conformation, movement in the hack class, and an over fences score. This Holy Grail of the pony world, which takes place currently in Kentucky in August, has worked hand in hand with the one amazing thing equine America has to offer – Great Pony Breeding. When we are searching for the next bright and shining pony star for our precious child, we aren’t going over seas. That much. Maybe a few here and there come from some random German Sport Pony Line, but not that many. We are going right into our own backyard, looking for the Woodlands, Farnley’s, Glenmoore’s, Land’s End the Foxhalls and dozens and dozens of other lines we have created here in the United States. I looked into where all those ponies originally came from and had to write a whole separate piece about it……Who knew the history would be so interesting? See this….https://deloiseinamerica.com/2016/12/09/the-pony-side/
Despite tiny signs of progress, I still have concerns about breeding for the hunter and sport horse in this country as it pertains to the show world, and worry we are seriously missing the boat on an integral change in our show world. So what are we doing with the horses? Anything? We have some major changes in divisions coming our way for 2017 for the USHJA and USEF, including the Young Hunter division, and a complete revamp of the Green Hunter division, which is an evolvement of the Pre-Green, First and Second Year Hunter divisions. The Young Hunters will consist of horses under the age of 7, the Green hunter division is open to all ages, and will probably take a year or two for everyone to sort out where they want their horses competing in, but it will serve all horses showing in the hunters, with strict guidelines, it has all has changed, we have to deal with it. But still one thing is missing. Whatever we have done with the ponies, we aren’t seeing with Young Hunters. The format is not including conformation, which might be really important.
In the horse show world there is one existing division for Green Conformation hunters (3’6”) and one existing division left for High Performance Conformation Hunters (4’) . Few horses in this country participate in these two divisions, and it is no surprise why. the lack of education is astounding. The judges are left to look for SIMPLE Conformation flaws, like splints, and sickle hocks, crooked toes, small feet, whatever, but what a shame. The best out of the worst wins? ok. Why the resistance to judge conformation?? Too much of a chance of more level playing field? If your response to me is stop whining and go put your horses in Green Conformation, I think you might be missing the point. This is not about me, this is about taking a hard look at what we do in this country for horses, riders, judges, and an industry. The dominant divisions in the Hunter horse show world today are at 3’. Hundreds of horses are sold BEFORE they make it to 3’6”, and some NEVER compete to 3’6” because they are sold to child/adult riders as soon as they have a year or two under their belts in the 3’, 3’3” rings. That means HUNDREDS of riders never have to look at their horses for conformation. So, by NOT incorporating it into divisions with more people, we are making that education gap even wider.
When I registered my first horse up for the Pre-Green incentives, I went along for the ride, thinking this must be a good answer for us, everybody is so hyped up about it, the money being thrown around and talked about is glamorous, spectacular, breathing life into a dying division, which made me pause, because usually the Pre-Green divisions are the strongest of divisions at National and Premier Horse shows, compared to First Years, Second Years, or sadly, High Performance. I traveled to Kentucky for the Final, my horse jumped around two courses, there were 150 in my class, and I witnessed a fair amount of wild and outrageous competitiveness, and thought to myself, well this is an interesting event. Might as well be an auction, but ok. AND……why does it not reflect a working and logical format we already have in place?? If the Pre-Green Incentive Finals were really a true showcase of young horses in America, it would follow exactly the same format as Pony Finals, having a conformation, under saddle, and an over fences portion. That way it would be more of an even playing field, say your horse had spectacular movement, but lacked in the jumping technique, well, this would be noted, as years and years of Pony Finals have been noted. And eventually the best overall horse WOULD win, not just the best jumper, which may or may not have had the best pilot on it’s back. I discussed it with several people, filled out all the forms feedback questionnaires with the same thoughts, asked why is the format the way it is? “Time in the schedule, people like it the way it is. blah blah blah. This works for us……” Who? Who is it working for? I don’t expect it to work for people, I expect it to work for the industry, and the sport.
And then a new division crept into our lives, shaking up competitors left and right. Talk about a frenzy, geesh, the backlash of adding a new division has been comical, if it weren’t so depressing to listen to the feedback. And it hasn’t even begun yet. Which makes me feel that there are still so many unhappy members out there.
So, are we missing the boat with the new evolvement of showing Young Horses?? We have a brand new division, which excludes Conformation entirely, which will provide no education to Sport Horse Breeders, no incentives, and in short, people will still insist on shopping abroad, despite the difficulty in finding the next hunter superstar over there. Hence, American Breeders once again, get the short stick. What if we could just add a class in the Young Hunter Division for conformation like we do the ponies? First over fences, there done. Slowly, riders would start to get an idea of what conformation is all about, what to look for, what will help, what will not help, I see it! A slow, painful, decade or more long education, but I see it. I can envision it. I can see a pipeline into the regular working conformations. If your argument is going to be time, I think you need to find a new argument. Or, not horse show. We absolutely need to use horse showing to evolve into a more educated, more thought provoking group of professionals, and if not through horse showing, where?
I threw myself into the Young Horse Show Series this year. If you followed me on Facebook, or any social media, I was rabid about it, drumming up interest for it. I truly believe in the series, in what Jean-Yves Tola is doing for breeders in America, all over the country, and for baby horses. He offers options for all horses, from yearlings on up to six year olds, and it is amazing. Jump Chute, In Hand, At Liberty, Dressage, Flat classes, Jumping Classes, all reflecting what is done for horses in Europe, where Sport Horse Breeding is miles ahead of what happens in America.
The finals take place currently in Tryon, at the Equestrian Center, and the judges are given a microphone, and all weekend long, they explain what they are looking at, why they scored the way they did, and what they want to see more of from a horse. Each Horse. Every Horse. If you read that long, run on sentence too fast, go back and look. The. Judges. Are. Given. A. Microphone. Do you think this happened because a couple of German guys like to hear themselves talk and it was an ego trip? Really? All weekend long I had three years, at least, worth of education thrown at me for over 100 horses. So did the boy next to me helping with the jump chute on the final day. He was from Atlanta, I think his name was Travis, and he had followed his girlfriend up to help her with her adorable Haflinger to compete in the final, and meanwhile we borrowed them to guide the babies through the chute on Sunday.. She helped at the ingate. The first half of the day we all just listened to every word they had to say about each horse, but by the afternoon, we were using what had already been discussed to apply to the older horses coming through, and we all could start identifying and PREDICTING whether or not the horse would jump well in the chute…. Just looking at the quality alone compared to last year was remarkably improved. Horses from EVERY registry showed up. This kind of exposure was a dream come true for a kid like Travis, and his girlfriend, not to mention the crowd listening in and watching, and learning. Travis may never have the means to have a full blown breeding operation, but you can be damn sure he can spot a good jumper from a mile away now. That will be useful in his future. And that is the kind of education which sticks for a lifetime.
This year Jean-Yves wanted a Stallion exhibition. He envisioned around 25 Stallions to be showcased over a three day period, with each stallion allotted up to 15 minutes to show itself off, along with music, video, ballerinas, or whatever you wanted as part of your Sales Pitch for your stallion. This is what takes place all over Europe, and is super important for attracting mares, and potential clients, plus offering education to people who may not have been exposed to this all of their lives. Since this years Final was also coinciding with the American Trakehner Association’s Convention, it seemed like an ideal achievement. The ATA also brought many Trakehner stallions and had a fairly impressive Showcase of their own Saturday Night in the ever impressive George Morris Arena. All disciplines were represented, dressage, eventing, and showjumping, and an incredibly well orchestrated verbal and musical display of horses was viewed by the spectators.
He took me up on my offer to volunteer my services to find stallions in America to participate. We both thought what a great opportunity, we will have no trouble finding stallions to showcase,and I assured him I would even successfully lure a sponsor to offer Live Feed for the three days, and won’t America be blown away with this amazing event!!!
In reality, I struggled to convince any stallion owners to talk to me, much less attend. I am a serious traveler on the struggle bus when it comes to cold calls, but I pushed my way through the fear to make dozens and dozens of calls to unfamiliar names only to receive a bit of silence on the other end of the phone. I was surprised, there may have been dozens of reasons why Stallion owners would rather not attend a showcase. In the back of my mind, I keep thinking how does one miss this opportunity? Too many other shows to attend? Too much travel? Bad timing? What is it exactly that needs to happen to get a group of stallions together for the world to see? In the end, we had about 6 stallions for the Showcase. All Ages, disciplines, and I learned a lot. We used the GM arena each day, and I more or less organized them all to show up at the right time, enter the ring, get their bios read, a photo op, and if they wanted particular music, the Tryon staff was patient to find the requests and work it out. (I owe those electronic geeks lunch, by the way.) Some horses were ridden, like the beautiful Hero, showcased by Justine Wilson, and some were handled by two of the most amazing runners I know, (Quinnten Alston, and Klaus Schengber), like Balta C’zar and Finishing Touch. Spy Coast Farm had a couple of stallions, one ridden over fences by young Irishman David O’Brian, and the other handled by a member of the Spy Coast staff, which was cute. I had to pull the mane comb out of his back pocket before he entered the ring, but he seemed very proud to lead the stallion back and forth in the spotlight for a moment.
We set up the spectator area for sponsor tables, and four or five people maybe showed up to watch each day. I tried not to let the lack of participation get to me. JY seemed very French about it, saying you have to keep trying until it works for the people. He also shared a story about the time of his life he was in a band, and so excited to do his first few gigs, where they played for empty rooms more often than not, but never got discouraged, eventually, after time, the rooms slowly started to fill up, and his music was heard. So I looked at the Stallion Showcase we put on as a sort of dress rehearsal for the next time…. it was super successful in our eyes, and the participants, but next time or the time after, we hope you all will be watching, too. Having the ATA convention coincide with the YHS Final was a great idea, and I learned a tremendous amount just from watching their program alone.
Improvements? Breed Registries? Can we all just get along now? Work together? Some registries in the United States have recognized Jean-Yves work and are now on board with using his shows as a viable resource for approvals. The young horses competing now must be a member of a breed registry recognized either by USEF or the World Breeding Federation for Sport Horses (WBFSH). Why? Responsible breeding. Furthermore, the registries of Selle Francais (SF), Belgian Warmblood (BWP), and North American Studbook (NAS) are using certain classes in the YHS to count toward life time approval status for stallions, which is tremendous, and smart, giving stallion owners more opportunity to achieve a higher status. More registries really need to get on board with this. The formula Jean-Yves for his shows is the exact formula which has been the standard in Europe for a very, very long time. The distances for the jump chute are calculated, and measure for each age group, all of which is explained in great detail in the prize list. Since the classes and rules never change, the format is practiced and proven over and over again, and the horses get the same experience over and over again at each show.
If breeders are joining breed registries to help with promoting their mares and stallions, then it would be extremely helpful for registries to advertise the shows, remind breeders to attend one in their area, and figure out some sort of way to offer an award for the high point horse at the Final. The more participation the better, because this is what drives up the quality of horseflesh at the end of the year. We want to see participants keep sharing their experiences with other people, promote the success stories online, or in publications, and keep giving feedback, good, bad, or indifferent.
The more people pay attention to this series and start to get involved the quicker expansion can happen. The possibility of franchising the series is very real, and ideally having multiple Finals in the Midwest, Northeast, South, and West Coast would benefit everyone. Like everyone. The format works, it has been proving itself over and over again the last five years, and it is VERY inclusive. Just ask the exhibitors, not many frowny faces around these shows.
When I returned to the hunter land after the YHS was over, I spent a great deal of time thinking about the two worlds of horse showing I witnessed this year, and wondered if there would ever be a fluid cohesiveness between the two. I hope the ship hasn’t sailed for the opportunity to see conformation in the new Young Horse division, even if we tried it for a year or two then abandon it because….people. I don’t know what to think about the Incentive Finals, maybe it works for some people, but I wish it would follow an actual SUCCESSFUL Format which already exists with the Pony Finals. Hack classes are used in the division for a reason, SO many people WANT to BUY good movers, so excluding the movement from the Incentive finals is a bit weird. But maybe this has already been discussed, and is not a popular opinion. I am ok with that, but I feel sad for the next generation. You will have your work cut out for you for sure. Good luck with that. We didn’t provide too much of a horsemanship background while we were too busy getting you prepped for the show ring, and now we are furthering the basic knowledge gap each year, but hopefully you will find your way back to horse anatomy, and understand what sickle hock is. or a splint. or what an upright pastern is. roach back. or WHY that horse is a hack winner. etc, etc. Maybe its all in the Horsemanship Quiz, and maybe your trainer will suggest you take it. Who knows.
What about the people who argue Conformation means nothing to the current Sport Horse?
I will NEVER be an advocate of “every horse has to have perfect conformation”, because I know better. I am not striving for the perfect horse here. I am striving for a new generation of horsemen who know what to look for. IN. A. HORSE.
In Germany, Holland, and Belgium, there have been generations of horsemen who can look at a FOAL, and predict whether or not it has the POTENTIAL to be successful as a sport horse. Not just this generation, mind you. We are talking about a massive amount of real, true horse people who can see something pop out of a mare, stand up on its spindly little limbs for the first time, and go DAMN, I’ve hit the lottery. Or, damn, this is toast. meh. You think I am exaggerating? ok. These geniuses have stared at enough horses, done their homework, experimented, failed, and succeeded on so many levels, that they will continue to hold the advantage over us for a long, long time. So in my mind what could possibly be the solution to this vast gap in American knowledge? Aside from recreating European breeding on this side of the ocean, I would have to say, we should start with following the formula which already exists, but on a better level. Get the conformation, anatomy, and structure of the horse ingrained on every young person we can reach, and insist, beg, plead, and implore them to run with the format.
I am aware of the exceptions, most notably recently with the little shade thrown at KWPN for long ago not approving Valegro, whom has since danced into the hearts of a million fans world wide, including mine, and is retiring as an Olympic champion. Not every successful competition horse needs the approval of a registry, but maybe if we can all appreciate the standards which were set in place for a reason, then maybe we will all have a more solid foundation for American Breeders and horse show competitors in the future. Let’s hope we can work together for it. Wouldn’t that just be amazing.