Tuesday, March 30, 2010


by Laura Crum

Lately I’ve been exploring all the gray areas we face as ethical horse owners. I got started on this because I would read a blog that bashed something and I would start to think about it and realize that the subject wasn’t that simple (see my post “What Is Lame?”). And then I would read a post extolling something and think, again, but it isn’t that simple. There’s a dark side, too. For instance, in a recent post Terri described a three day event in which a little girl won her class and how thrilled the girl was and how much support she got and how great it all was. This post made me smile and I felt happy for the little girl. I know from reading Michele’s posts and Terri’s, too, how hard this girl has worked to achieve such a goal. But I have to admit, it crossed my mind—what about the others?

When I was nine years old I was not nearly as advanced a rider as the girl in the story. I did not have a horse of my own, but I took riding lessons at a nearby riding school. I was about nine when I participated in my first horseshow. It was a walk/trot/canter English equitation class—nothing fancy. It was only open to the riding school students. But it was a big riding school and there were at least twenty entries in the class. I was one of the more beginning students.

Now, I know you think you know where this is going. My tears when I didn’t win. As a matter of fact, I placed second in that relatively big class (I’ll never forget). I was thrilled. The truth is, I beat many students who were far more accomplished riders than I was. I was a beginner, some of them were advanced students and jumping three foot fences. I had yet to jump anything higher than a cavaletti. Why did I place against them? I have no idea.

I’ve always been good at test taking, whether on paper on otherwise, so perhaps I performed well. The judge was an outsider and had never seen the riding school students before and had no preconceived notions. It was the first class of the day, so she had no idea how well we rode other than what she was seeing. I had entered very early and managed to request and get as my mount a mare named Melody who was an old, experienced “schoolmaster”, with smooth gaits. Some of the others were riding much more difficult horses. Who knows? The fact is, I placed above many others who really rode better than I did.

There is a photo of me at this show and my grin is a mile wide. But I also remember going back to the barn and seeing the tear stains on the face of another little girl, who had not placed at all. Even at nine years old I was aware how much it galled this girl to have been so thoroughly beaten by a rank beginner when she was undeniably the better rider. And it bothered me, right through my joy. It didn’t seem fair. And even if, by some odd chance, I had appeared the better rider that morning, what was the point of glorifying me at her expense? We had both tried hard and done well.

And today I ask myself what I think about this. Would it not have been better to give us all a ribbon? My son’s school has changed the Science Fair to this system. Everyone who participates gets a ribbon. Competition is eliminated. I sure see a lot of happy faces and no tears.

I know there are two sides to this coin. It’s a gray area, like so much of life. I have many friends who love to compete, and they’re good people who treat their horses and their friends/competitors very well. I, myself, competed for many, many years. I know about the fun in competition. I’ve also written a lot here on the blog about the very real evils. But more than that, I question the underlying nature of competition, just as I’ve illustrated above. Like most everything else in life, it is full of paradox. I’ve come to the conclusion that truth resides in paradox—which doesn’t make it easy to describe or come to terms with. And perhaps that’s the point. Life is not simple.

Anyway, having got that far, I asked myself if there wasn’t something about the horse world I could extol in glowing terms and feel unequivocally happy about. Something simply good. And there is. There’s lots, really. But I’ll just tell one thing for now—keep it simple.

There’s Henry. Henry, my son’s twenty-two year old bombproof, lazy, red gelding. Henry that I spent way too much to buy and then had to dump $10,000 into for colic surgery..and followup. Henry who colicked again back in Jan (there went another $500). We don’t compete on Henry. He’s not worth much of anything on the open market. And you know what? Every time I look at Henry my heart just fills up with gratitude.

I love, love, love this honest, trustworthy little red horse who has done so much for us and brought us so much happiness and kept my son so safe and taken him on so many wonderful adventures. I love riding Henry myself. (He’s a fun horse for an experienced rider—will slide and spin a little…etc). But mostly I just love what he’s given us as a family. I love turning him loose to graze on our property and seeing how happy he is. I love seeing his bright-eyed, white-striped face come marching up to greet us. I love how my son loves his horse. I love watching my little boy lope circles in the arena or march up a hill on the trail. I love seeing how my son is becoming a competent horseman as he learns to make lazy Henry stay in the lope. I am completely happy every time I look at Henry—I don’t begrudge any money or time spent, and even if we lost him tomorrow, I would be glad that we had him while we did.

I didn’t always love Henry, mind you. When I bought him I saw him as the best and most logical choice for my son. And Henry is not a sweet, cuddly, easily lovable horse. He is a reliable, honest trooper, with a heart of gold, but he doesn’t much care for petting—he would far rather you fed him—he’s a real chowhound. Our pony, Toby, was much more “personable”. A year after buying Henry, when I had to spend a fortune (for me) to save his life, well, I won’t say I begrudged it, but I wondered if I would have done it if not for wanting to spare my son the pain of losing his horse. But you know, sometime in the in between, as I took care of Henry and rehabbed him, and rode him and went on rides with my son, something shifted. And when Henry colicked last January and I walked him up the driveway, the realization washed over me like a wave. I love Henry. I’m happy to spend what I have to spend (both time and money) to do the best I can for him. And that’s a joy.

So, there’s my answer. Loving a horse is not a gray area. Loving a horse is all white and shining. You may have to make difficult choices, and these can be hard, but if love underlies them, the bottom line will be good (though sometimes also sad). Its easy to bash what’s “bad” and I find that truth does reside in rather conflicted gray areas, yes. But love is something we can all do for our horses, if we choose, and though it will not make life simple, or truth black and white, or take pain away, it can shine like a beacon, bringing us through the hard times. I love Henry. So, that’s what I’m grateful for today.

So how about you? Any thoughts about competition, for good or ill? And who else finds joy in loving their horse, with all his quirks and drawbacks? What are you grateful for?


Jackelopette said...

In my 4-H competitions, I always found it interesting to compare the equine/livestock competitions with the presentation days. In the first, we used the American system - first, second, third place and so on. In the presentations, we used the Danish system - 90-100% = blue, 80-90% = red, 70-80% = white, 69% and below = recognition ribbon.

I love Danish-system judging. It works best when we aren't looking for The Champion, and simply want to allow the kids to learn. Instead of competing against each other, they're competing against a rubric. I would rather get a scoresheet that tells me how well I did, where I lost points, and that I ranked in the blue, red, or white group vs. a ribbon that tells me I beat eight kids and was beaten by six other kids.

But that's me.

Susan said...

My attitude on competing has changed from wanting to beat everyone to doing the best I can (not that I compete anymore). When I was a teenager, my horse Snowball and I competed a little, but didn't have a lot of success. When we jumped, we were competing against 16+ hand thoroughbreds and Snowball was a 14 hand grade quarter horse. It was scary at times because back then there were no schooling shows or beginner or pony classes in our area. If your horse couldn't jump at least 3'6" you didn't compete. Only one time did I feel like an equal. That was in an equitation class that we placed fourth in. The judge, instead of only seeing the "classic" English horse and rider, recognized what we had. I'm still proud of that moment and grateful that the judge rewarded a better rider even though I wasn't on an expensive horse wearing expensive clothes.

Anonymous said...

Jackelopette--What a great concept. I had never heard of the Danish system, but it makes all kinds of sense. A way to recognize quality and effort, and at the same time not cause us to want to "beat" each other. In the Danish system, then, could all competitors get a blue ribbon--if they were all in the 90-100% category?

And Susan, I so hear you. I think it is rare for a judge to recognize a "better" rider when that rider is on the grade horse and minus the fancy accouterments. Even leaving politics out of it. I've had my fair share of such shows. It can be quite disheartening. As you (and others) have said, one must compete to do the best one can. But that can be very hard to explain to a child. My friend's little girls's tears when she did not place in the "leadline class" at our county fair were really heart wrenching. Believe it or not, said leadline class turned out to be both very political and extrememly competitive (unknown to my friend when she entered). A little girl in a homemade outfit on her mom's gentle rope horse did not cut it at all. Those that placed had been showing in this category all year. They had very expensive horses and outfits. They had trainers. The whole thing was really sad.

Anonymous said...

That last was Laura. Drat. Blogger now dislikes me and will only let me post as Anon.

Anonymous said...

I never knew there was a offical system for how that was done back in 4-h. Our equine stuff was the danish system as well. You knew what you had to work on for next year. But I do think there is a place for 1st,2nd,3rd etc as well... like those in the blue group get placed accordingly as well.

Ages ago I used to show my gelding at local open shows, and we did ok. Never won but placed pretty decent and had good rides. haven't shown for a few years now and gasp I am thinking of doing it again. Not only showing but showing my half arab mare in ARAB HALTER of all things...LOL

little K said...

I really like showing because to me it's less like competition and more like an exam. I don't really like cometition, it's too much like conflict and makes me squirmy but I am one of those nerds that loves school and I live for exam time. I get a real sense of accomplishment when I sit down to a test and feel confident in my answers. To me showing is similar because if you attend class religiously, do your homework and keep your focus you will do a good job. I know when I leave the ring if I had a good ride or not and to me that is all that matters. If I get a ribbon that's just icing. That's why I'm so excited about my switch to eventing because it is so much more objective than the hunter world. I also really like the sound of the Danish system of judging. I've never seen it used before but I might investigate it... I think it would work well at schooling and beginner shows!

And Laura, I am so happy you finally posted something I can totally agree with, I love my horse. I have never owned a horse before Stormy but have ridden for over a decade. I thought I really connected with some of the horses in my past but never have I bonded with a horse like I did when I bought my own. And even though owning him causes financial and time managment stess in my life I couldn't imagine not having him. He is the coolest thing ever and I feel so lucky to be able to spend time with him.

Anonymous said...

This is Laura:
Little K--yeah--isn't it the coolest thing in the world? I usually try to raise interesting questions for discussion, but I just wanted to say something one hundred per cent positive for once, and loving a horse is that. I don't know if you have to own them to love them, but I think it helps.

Funder said...

I really like Jackelopette's description of the Danish system. Laura, you know I usually agree with you, but I can't get excited about everyone getting a ribbon. Even as a kid, I knew the difference between "we're all winners!" and winning. Percents of ideal, sure, that's better... but not letting everybody win. It cheapens the experience.

I think horse showing is part and parcel of being human. There's always going to be favoritism, etc., and it sucks that kids have to learn that - but it's part of growing up. If they don't learn about show politics in middle school, they're just going to find out about it in high school or college.

Henry sounds like a good fellow. :) I know what you're talking about - it took me a long time to love Dixie. She's the opposite of my sainted dead gelding in a lot of ways, and of course she can't measure up. But she's a good honest horse in her own way, and I do love her, wicked hateful ways and all.

Funder said...

Edit: Laura, I'm really curious. Would you ask your son what he thinks about the ribbon thing? Would he like a ribbon just for competing or a ribbon only if he won a class?

You know, I know your horses' names, but I can't remember your son's. I don't know if that's because you've never said it, or if it's just my usual forgetfulness...

Jackelopette said...

Here's a good link from... 4-H in Washington State that may explain things a bit better.

Here's my experience with it.

When I competed in my home county's schooling shows or presentation days, anyone who scored 90+ got a blue ribbon. If this was a qualifying event (i.e. county -> regional -> state), medals were awarded to the best blue ribbon competitor(s) in each category - so while there was a "best of the best", the whole group was not put into a hierarchical 1-2-3...X placing. The idea was to limit the number of people who went on to the next level without making the rest feel terrible, while still giving everyone something specific to work on for next year. In the schooling shows, the scoresheet was emphasized way more than the ribbon color, and there was scheduled time for participants to talk with the judges (briefly!) after each class.

This system only works if you have an easily quantifiable ideal that can be put into a grading rubric. Depending on the event, you may have a standardized scoresheet (i.e. 4 seconds for a dropped pole in a speed event, or not dropping the bunny in a beginners rabbit showmanship competition) or you may not. Unless you have that standard against which to judge, you can't get a true percentage.

Danish works best with young/developing participants, not so well with the advanced set.

Once I hit junior high/high school, I was doing more direct competition... some of it worked out well because I was good at it (rabbit showmanship) and some didn't. While I would have loved to get the scoresheet back for the events where I didn't do so well (anything involving hoof polish or glittery clothes), at that level it becomes a real pain for the judge to have to fill out tons of individual scoresheets for participants who didn't really differ all that much. The scoresheet only goes so far when everyone is at a comparable technical skill level and the competition becomes about subtlety and panache.

I rode well. I was happy with the job Chip and I did. I was mature enough to decide that competition just wasn't how I wanted to spend my pony-and-me time, so I started focusing more on the knowledge and schooling events than the traditional horse show stuff. My pony and I were healthy and happy. That's all that really matters in the end.

Laura Crum said...

This is Laura:
Funder--I try not to put my kid's name out there--I guess I'm a little wary. And I hear you about wanting to reward those who did perform well as opposed to everyone gets a ribbon. That's why I liked the concept Jackelopette brought up. But you know, a lot of the reason I feel the way I feel is that I did spend twenty years competing pretty relentlessly at cutting and then team roping (just ask my ex-husband). I saw a lot of nasty stuff. It really ruined the fun of competition for me. Not just the politics, but the trashing horses in order to win. So the way I feel is specific to the experiences I've had. As for my kid, he once said he wanted to be in a horseshow and I said we could arrange that, but when the actual event was near at hand he chose against it--I'm not sure why. I don't doubt that my predjudice against such things influences him, though I've never talked about it openly with him. But kids know how you feel. I have specifically avoided choosing any competitive activities for my son (who is only nine years old). If he chooses them for himself as he gets older, I will support him. Right now, he seems really happy riding Henry and working on being the "boss" of his horse. He is teaching Henry to respect him and obey him at a whole different level than they were at last year, and I think the intrinsic rewards of this degree of horsemanship are prize enough for right now. We'll see what the future holds. I'm willing to be a horseshow mom if that is ever his choice. But I won't lead in that direction.

Joy said...

I'm grateful that my horse has so much try and heart. Every time I watch him lope or I lope him through the sand in the creek, I'm filled happiness. I love him very much. He's amazing and worth every dime I've put into him and his rehab.

My first horse, my mare, I did not love at first. But I fell in love with her too. She helped me to lose a deep seated rage that I'd had all my life. She was angry when I got her and together, somehow, we both found peace.

Willie (my gelding) has taught me patience. I think each horse we spend any amount of time with mirrors who we are. And to me that's amazing. I'm grateful to have them in my life. They've made me a better person.

JackieB said...

I've been horse-less for many years, but I hope to be able to change that soon. I'm grateful for the OTTB horse and the ponies I had as a kid. They all knew more about riding than I did and taught me so much. Not just about horses and riding but also about love and patience.

I'm grateful to my aunt who shared her love of horses and gave me my first riding and driving lessons and her ponies.

I'm also grateful to all the horse bloggers out there who have taught me more about horses than I learned in years of riding lessons when I was young. Maybe you are better teachers, maybe I'm a better student. Maybe both. Any future horses I have will be grateful (if only I could explain) to you as well.

I didn't have much fun at regular shows - I was another kid in home-made riding clothes on a horse that was not a "showhorse". I didn't have the best form either, so no tears over not placing. We had more fun at playday shows - western games are mostly timed events so we had a chance. (Also enough speed and skill to get in the ribbons.)

Come to think of it - I'm grateful I didn't have a fancy horse or fancy lessons. All the girls I knew who did spent at least one summer in a cast and their horses were hard to catch in the pasture. My horse was happy to go ride the trails and took good care of me.

Anonymous said...

Laura, at the show you placed second in, it sounds like the judge was doing what a judge is SUPPOSED to do - judge the performance they are seeing at that moment, without regard to anything else. On that day, in that moment, you were second-best, even if ordinarily you weren't.

And I must confess that I HATE this new politically-correct idea that everyone should get a participation ribbon. Where's the incentive to try harder, work harder, improve? (Okay, yeah, five year olds don't need competition, participation should be enough. But if you think those seven-year-old soccer players don't know which team scored the most goals just because the league doesn't keep score, you're fooling yourself.) I am in favor of FAIR competition. (And I am against parents and coaches who put too much emphasis on winning. Figure that out if you can.)

I, too, rode a backyard horse back in my teenage showing days. He was a little grade gelding that I broke and trained myself, without a lot of knowledge of how to accomplish such a thing. But I was a decent rider, and turned out to be a decent trainer and I am proud of the third and fourth place ribbons we earned together, and I was ecstatic the day we won blue in a judged trail class against some moderately tough competition. The judge told me afterward that it was the gate that put us over the top - she gave us a 10+ out of a possible 10 for the gate. I'd spent hours teaching him to be a good gate horse - I'm short and I hate getting off to open and close a gate! He'd ended up to be a fabulous gate horse, and it paid off in that class. I never would have had that sense of accomplishment, if we'd all gotten participation ribbons.

And yes, I finished out of the ribbons my share of times, too, because I messed up or the horse messed up (which of course means that I messed up), or we just weren't good enough on that day. And I learned from those experiences, too.

And as far as loving a horse goes - that little gelding, the great gate horse? I owned him from the time he was two (and I was fifteen) until he died at the age of thirty-four. As a teenager I cried into his mane. As a young mother, I led him around with my kids on his back, or rode with them in front of me or behind me. As they got older, they rode him alone (he was bombproof with little kids - not so much with adults he thought he could snow...). And when he was very old, and blind in one eye and mostly blind in the other, I would take him for walks because he wasn't safe to ride any more, and he would give me attitude because he could. He was my heart horse. We thought alike - he knew what I was going to ask him to do before I asked, and I knew what he was going to do before he did it. I still miss him.

Anyway. Long and rambling, and perhaps not as coherent as I would wish! But these are my reactions to your thoughtful post.

Funder said...

Whew! I totally understand you keeping the kid's name private, and I'm just glad I didn't forget it. Really, I'm one of those people who only remembers the names of four-leggers.

I hope your son is adequately rewarded by the intrinsic rewards of horses for years to come. :D But yall know how I feel - showing just isn't my cup of tea!

Gayle Carline said...

Laura - re: the leadline class - wow, that's harsh. I've been to lots of AQHA shows with leadline classes and all the kids got blue ribbons, each time. At Sun Circuit, they also got a little stuffed horse!

My son showed in one little local show. He was pretty competitive and I had to explain that a pleasure class didn't work like a soccer game or a race. You went into the class because it was fun to put on some special clothes and get your horse all spiffy, then go into the arena with other kids and ride your best ride. Maybe you'd win, maybe not, but that wasn't important.

Of course, after the talking was over, he won 1st place.

Shanster said...

What a timely post! I rode my mare last night and had such a fabulous, fabulous time. When I was done I had a big ol' grin from ear to ear and I thought "man, do I love my red-headed Sera Sue!" Love her to pieces... what a fun ride we just had together!

Competition... ? shrug. I didn't compete til I was 16 so maybe being older makes a difference? I don't remember what color ribbons I got at my first show but think I got some? And life circumstances dampen some reactions ... I woulda been whalloped for crying over losing in a competition. Not for losing but for crying about it.

Now I compete in dressage - local shows - it's nice if I win but I look more at the comments and my scores for the movements and judge against where I've come from and where I think I'm at. I guess I use it more as an evaluation tool than as a takin names and kickin butt sort of event! :)


Heidi the Hick said...

I'm just thankful I read this today!

Shanster said...

OH! And after Sera, I pulled Brandon (31 yrs) away from his dinner to groom him. He got that quiver lip going to have all his old dead cushing's hair scrubbed out... once I started grooming him, I don't think he minded at ALL being torn away from his dinner for 20 minutes. So gratifying to see them happy and spend some quality time with them ... sigh.... happy smile.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks all--for the very interesting comments. I have totally enjoyed hearing your insights.

Joy, what you said is fascinating. I think I will turn my thoughts on that one into another post.

Jackie--B you know, I never thought of it that way before, but yeah, I, too, am grateful that I never had the fancy horse and the trainer and all that. All of mine were homemade horses, and I think that made me feel closer to them.

Cleone--I, too, am a fanatic about a horse being a good gate horse--I'm short like you. I never showed in trail, but all of my horses are good gate hortses, cross water well, bridges..etc. Out of necessity. Your story about your horse is exactly what I mean. Loving a horse is really the point--the rest is just stuff.

Gayle--I thought it harsh, too. I dunno, call me a big baby, but I think kids can wait until they're a little older to learn about harsh realities of competition. Soome kids are competitive from the git go, and maybe that's OK for them. My kid isn't/wasn't and I am very happy for him to wait until pre-adolescence or adolescence to discover the thrills of competition.

Shanster--That is great that you are having so much fun with Sera. And I love messing with my old horses, too. Its just so rewarding.

Heidi--Fun to hear from you. I'm glad you liked the post.