Sunday, March 27, 2011

I’m a Recovering Hay Bale Critic

As I struggle with my place on the horse world, aka what I want to do with horses when I finally grow up, I thought about writing a piece exploring whether or not you can move up the levels in dressage without showing. While that’s definitely a worthy subject, it reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend last summer.

Rebecca had just returned from a show. She hung out with a mutual acquaintance of ours, Sheila, in the evening at the show and had a somewhat disturbing experience. You see, Sheila wins everything. If she doesn’t score in the mid-sixties or higher, she has a fit. Blaming everyone from the show management, judges, footing, and the horse, even when she’s won the class. Now her lack of humility might be another topic for a future post, but it’s not where I’m going either. Sheila wanted to spend the evening going through the show program and criticizing every rider in it. Rebecca didn’t want any part of it, yet couldn’t find a way to discourage Sheila from her mission.

Now back in my showing days, I’d seen Sheila and her cronies sitting near the arena as I rode in at A and thanked God I never knew what they were saying about me. Yes, I, too, been near them in the stands and heard their remarks and exclamations over certain riders. I knew the types of things they were saying.

Ah, yes, the hay bale critics. We all know them, whether you show dressage or some other horse sport. Often, they don’t compete themselves, or they tried it a time or two and gave it up because the judges didn’t award them a “fair” score. Or maybe they never showed at all. Showing was beneath them. They’d seen the light, and showing was the root of all that ails the horse industry, bringing about all sorts of horse abuse. Or perhaps, like Sheila, they’ve had enough success they feel tasked with detailing others’ faults. Actually, this particular quality of the hay bale critic doesn’t require success just a sense of self-righteousness.

You see, I know of what I speak, as I am a recovering hay bale critic. Yes, I admit it. I was one of those women, superior in my knowledge of dressage, certain others were ruining their horses with their jiggling hands and bouncing seats, convinced the judges just didn’t get it. Add to that, my extensive reading on the subject of classical dressage, and I became even more unbearable in my righteousness. Not that reading classical dressage books is bad, but I’d gotten in with a group of catty women in my younger years who were essentially armchair dressage riders. We endlessly pursued the perfect circle, feeling superior in our quest. We turned our noses up at those poor souls who just didn’t get the deeper artistic meaning of dressage, certain we were better or more enlightened than they were.

We attended shows, now to show, but to watch and criticize. Our leader, Martha, had been kicked out of every dressage barn in the area because of her troublemaking and talent for spreading discontent. She's one of those disciples of classical "artistic" dressage who give classical dressage a bad name. I’m not a mean person or a catty person, but I was easily misled by Martha and sucked into her catty little world for the next few years. I even followed her around to a few barns in the area. Yes, but this was in my younger days, much younger days.

When I purchased Gailey and started showing her, it was a humbling experience and marked the ends of my hay bale critique days. My mare had talent, but I never did her justice. I became that fumbling, bumbling rider that previously Martha and I would have gasped at in abject horror. I was the one struggling so hard to do it right, to not embarass myself, or cause discomfort to my horse. And now, I was the one Martha criticized, her nose up in the air and disgusted expression on her face as she whispered to her cohorts.

After a particularly bad show, I expressed my frustration regarding my lack of dressage success to a close friend. I mentioned Gailey deserved a better rider than me. She laughed and said: “The horse doesn’t care what color the ribbons are. She adores you. You love her. Enjoy the journey. Don’t worry about the bling. It doesn’t mean anything.”

And neither do Martha or Sheila’s catty remarks, made by insecure people attempting to tear others down in order to build themselves up. I thought about this for a while. She was right. Gailey didn’t care about the ribbons. They were of no use to her. In fact, they weren’t of much use to me either. If I felt good about my test, that was what mattered. Not the opinions of a group of people who shouldn’t have an credence in my life.

Now when I go to shows, I hang out with positive people. We still discuss people’s rides, but we do it with kindness and empathy and as an educational tool among ourselves, not to impress others with our superior knowledge. Always, I have sympathy for the horse and rider. If you haven’t put your foot in that stirrup and mounted that particular horse on that particular day, you have no idea what’s going on during that ride.

I’ve been there, done that from both sides of the rail. Whenever I’m tempted to let the catty evil twin side of my personality slip out, I remember my days showing Gailey, and how much guts it took to put myself out there, and I zip my mouth shut.

I bet you all know a few Marthas. :)


Mikey said...

Good post! Especially considering we've just attended a show to watch and are coming back to ride in it.
I admit, I am a hay bale critic of a sort. Not in a mean way, but I sit there and play judge the class. I asked my daughter last time, "Who's going to win and why?" I also pointed out who blew a lead (quietly) and who was hunching over, flapping arms, etc. Hopefully no one overheard me...I try to do this away from others.
I also had to restrain myself from telling total strangers as they entered the ring (one in particular) head up, shoulders square, heels down. I wanted to coach them SO BAD.
BUT, that said, as much as I like to do that, I will come back and ride next time. I will absolutely put my money where my mouth is :)
So I better hit the shower and get to it :)

Jami Davenport said...

Mikey, I think playing judge at a show for educational reasons is completely different from the type of "critiquing" Martha and her friends do.

As far as coaching people as they ride in the arena, it's tempting. But I can tell you from personal experience unless you're the trainer or a trusted friend, totally unwelcome. It's good you held your tongue.

What I've learned is that we're all struggling to do our best. Maybe it's not someone else's ideal of what's good, but we're doing the best we can at the time. No one goes into a class and plans on doing their worst.

On the other hand, I'm also not one to give false praise. If a friend had a crappy ride, I might not say anything or I might find one positive thing to say.

Laura Crum said...

Great post, Jami. This is one of the many things that turned me off to competing at shows. And yes, I can remember being a "hay bale critic" --in my teens. By my twenties and thirties I was actively competing at cowhorse, cutting and team roping and, just as you say, being out there and frequently failing to get the job done humbles you. I was no longer inclined to be so critical or hang out with those who were. I seldom observe competition now, but when we watched the cutting at the county fair, as I pointed out the "mistakes" each horse made and explained why they scored as they did (to my child), I was very careful to do it in a way that did not imply that the rider was lesser. And yes, I could pick the horse that won, and was careful to tell my kid that this might not be the best horse, simply the horse that had a good day. If I ever return to the world of competition (because my son wants to try it), I will ignore both the hay bale critics and the score and focus on doing a good job and treating the horse well--which is the place I had reached when I quit--twelve years ago. Great subject.

Jami Davenport said...


There's a big difference in criticizing to tear others down and using it as an educational tool. I'm no longer interested in hanging out with those who use it to make themselves feel more superior to others.

Susan said...

Some people are going to be negative no matter what. Last summer I complemented a turn back rider at a cutting and the woman I made the remark to immediately turned it around and repeated it as a negative remark. Now I am careful what I say to who about riders.

Jami Davenport said...

Susan, I know what you mean. I only make comments to a good friend of mine, other than that, I keep my mouth shut anymore.

Gayle Carline said...

This is what turns us non-dressage riders off of dressage: the perception that everyone is judging/criticizing/snooty about THEIR discipline.

I know, in each event, you've got the hay bale critic, but I've thankfully never been around any of them in my trail classes. When someone messes up, we all know what it feels like, so we only point it out in that "oh, noooo," kind of empathetic way.

IMHO, there's no room to be catty once you've been in the saddle, in front of the judges, unless you're so perfect you defy all judgment.