Fine. FINE. Y’all made me do it with your controversy and your constant bickering. When discussion of it reached my barn in a record 24 hours, I packed the sand in even tighter around my head. But then someone posted McLain Ward’s response and I read that because McLain is nothing if not a measured and thoughtful guy. So then naturally I had to roll my eyes, hold my nose, and go read Katie Prudent’s interview.
I don’t know what’s happened to nuance, or self awareness, in the recent discussions we’ve been having as a country, but it’s clear that the condition has hit us square in the equestrian gut.
I can only begin to imagine the egos and entitlement that Katie deals with on the reg. The story about the girl and the manicure? Doesn’t sound too far off, and I don’t even deal with women with familiar household surnames on the Colorado circuit.
Yet, McLain isn’t wrong either when he says that people adjust to the times, and – paraphrasing here with a terrible metaphor – that the cream rises to the top. (To other millennials: there used to be no homogenization of milk particles, so the less dense ones, the cream, floated to the top as it sat on the front porch waiting to be brought in. Quaint, right?)
The men and women or boys and girls who view this sport as a status symbol or bragging rights drop out. We have all seen this happen. Burnout, boys, getting kicked off dad’s credit card, and a simple lack of interest all contribute to culling of participants, too. When you hit a level where you can no longer hang on and kick to win, there’s a self-selection that occurs.
There’s also a level, right around the Low AOs (no offense taken, Katie; I’ll throw my money at my terrified Amateur level jumpers all circuit long!) where buying your way up the levels stops working so well, and talent and perseverance is needed, where the size of your, your husband’s/wife’s, your dad’s/mom’s paycheck becomes irrelevant. Even when you “buy your way into” it, this sport is hard. It takes a certain mental fortitude and will to continue fighting through.
All the discussions we have as a sport surrounding horsemanship and hard work are warranted. There has been a decline, even in the 25 years I’ve been participating. My first lesson, at five years old, included a tutorial in scooping poop. The shovel was twice my size, and I probably made more of a mess than I helped clean, but my trainer instilled that the fun parts came with the sometimes tedious, often dirty, definitely will get you relegated to the far side of the dinner table parts. Though even 25 years later, I still wield a shovel like an uncoordinated child. You win some, you lose some. Some kids never even learn how to do that much, however.
If our sport is currently bankrolled by the Reed Kesslers, Georgina Bloombergs, Jennifer Gates, and Jessica Springsteens (or: some of those who Katie was indirectly calling out, let’s be honest), Katie and all of the other so-called BNTs have a pretty big cross to bear in how that came to be. Trainers have an interest in keeping their clients safe, and successful. Often that does not include putting a rider with ambition on a green broke horse, or putting a rider whose parents have expectations for the ROI on their investment on horses who don’t go around. And we have to say that that is ok. There are enough of us who have had those experiences to keep chiropractors in business for the next 30 years. I’ve also seen some of these girls come off into the middle of a big oxer, get up, brush themselves off, and come right back in the ring on their next mount. Getting hurt, breaking ourselves on less confident horses, shouldn’t be the litmus test. There’s a lot of money here, but there’s a lot of people willing to work their tails off, too.
We also all know that for us to walk into Katie’s, McLain’s, or any of the other big name barns, there is a price tag that comes with it. We all know that in the interest of Katie’s own career, she did not kick out that girl who forewent riding another mount to get a manicure. Nor should she have. Trainers deserve to be paid fairly, and a livable wage, for their expertise. Trainers have families, and like us, those families have interests outside this sport that they deserve to pursue. However, every time a Katie or McLain raises rates, it ripples through the market as everything else becomes more expensive from horse shows to equipment to the animals themselves.
I don’t know who Katie is hanging out with at these horse shows, but I know there are so many young men and women in this sport who are paying their dues, who are working hard as hell to become the next crop of great riders, horse trainers, importers, and riding coaches. They are the working students who put in 16 hour days, put college careers on hold to go ride in Europe and thanklessly train the babies. I’m not that worried about where the next great is coming from, in that regard. Katie shouldn’t either.
McLain makes this point, but it bears repeating: horses have always been expensive and our sport the sport of the elite. Granted, those from 50 years ago may not have skipped lessons for manicures, but let’s not pretend that those competing at the top levels were poor farm kids who simply found a horse and trained it by loving it and hard work. In his book, George talks about the halcyon days of Madison Square Garden, where rubbing elbows with Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor was the norm. I wouldn’t call that something “normal” people got to experience.
We should be talking about these issues, and we should ensure that the next generations of horsemen and women are set up for success in everything from bringing babies along to poulticing to building the correct attitudes. However, let’s not be dramatic: the more people that are included in this sport – including us amateurs who “dumb down” the divisions – mean that there’s more funding for the top riders, top trainers, and top horses. It also means that we have the opportunity to continue the scientific advances of the last 10-15 years, and the continued use of technology, and research for top care of our athletes.
The recent issues with USHJA and the changes that have occurred at USEF over the years, including the issue of show owners, are things that should be addressed, but these issues run parallel to the heart of what it seems was the main thesis of the interview. The sport has been “dumbed down” because of safety issues, to continuing to build horsemen and top horses without overfacing them. We know more now; just because we introduce a rider or a horse to the 80 cm division doesn’t mean they can’t advance quickly after making sure everyone is comfortable. Pushing a good horse or good rider too fast is, as we know, a good way to scare the bravery out of them. We shouldn’t take advantage of a brave horse, or rule out a horse who needs a few more miles, by throwing them in at 4’3″/1.30. That’s another good way to create more expensive horses.
Our sport is relatively new in the pantheon of athletics and originally built as part of making military mounts. Naturally, we are building sport horses, not animals that will have to jump barbed wire and across trenches, while cannons boom and gunfire whizzes by. We’ve only been an Olympic sport for a little over a century, and have been evolving the sport constantly in that short period.
We should always be striving to cultivate athletes, and hearing a top trainer and icon of the sport disparage a huge percentage of us is not only disheartening, it’s counterproductive.
Also before I go back to hiding in my horse’s stall, has anyone seen the USHJA Foundation board? No?