A lot of the time we take a good idea and turn it into a stupid idea. It seems there are few limits when it comes to people stuffing things up that could otherwise be brilliant. I know this view can be applied to most human endeavours, but let’s look at a few examples that pertain to the horse world.
The idea of testing your skills and your horse’s training against those of other horse people and before a group of expert judges has a lot of merit. It’s a way to assess your horse’s progress, gain valuable input and receive positive recommendations. It’s also a great way to give people goals to strive towards and maintain the enthusiasm for the sport they love. There is a lot to recommend about competition.
But then we give out prizes and human nature screws it all up and tosses out most of the benefits that competition bestows. When people get competitive very often the horse becomes just a vehicle for winning. Instead of the horse being the object of our joy, it is the ribbon or medal or prize money that brings us happiness. We are happy when we win and despondent when we lose.
But worse than that, the desire to be successful in competition has meant we adopt training programs and practices designed to suit the fashion of competition. Instead of the horse telling us how to train, our training is dictated by ever-changing rules and judging standards. This is particularly true in professional ranks where a person’s livelihood is dependent on meeting those standards and regulations and satisfying sponsorship demands. Few things are more corrupting of a good idea than money.
Yet, the problem extends to even non-serious or casual competitions. These days there are horse-starting events held all around the world. They began as an opportunity to showcase some of the best practices of some of the best horse people when starting a horse. They were meant as an educational event for the public to learn more about the process of beginning a horse’s life under saddle.
However, it has taken hardly any time at all for these events to turn into a race to the bottom where the goal is to get as much done with an unbroken horse as possible in 2 or 3 days. Just about every trainer I know who has competed in such competitions would say that starting a horse should take as much time as a horse needs. They all say what they did in competition is not how they start horses at home. Yet, put them in front of several hundred people and challenge their skill against 2 or 3 other trainers, all their good intentions are instantly forgotten.
It is made worse by event organizers requiring that in order to win the event, a trainer should put their horse through an obstacle course. There is no judging of the calmness, relaxation, willingness, and softness of the horses. It is 100 percent about what a trainer can make a horse do. As a result, the horses are flooded with enough pressure to create mindless submission. The opportunity for this type of event to be an educational occasion is lost because making it a competition has put the trainer’s reputation and business on the line.
Is the problem entirely to be blamed on calling these events “competitions” and pitting people against each other or vying for prizes and rewards?
I have noticed over several years how many people have built obstacles in their paddocks or arenas. As I go to different places I often see an assortment of poles, bridges, see-saws, stand alone gates, pedestals, tyres, roping dummies, large logs, barrels, trotting lanes etc all scattered around where people ride their horses.
The intention behind the obstacles is to offer a horse jobs that engage their mind, develop responsiveness, challenge their comfort zone and build confidence. These types of toys are fantastic tools to assist in this purpose. That is until people screw it up.
Even when there is no competition, people seem to find a way to make something into a competition. In my experience, when people start working their horse in a horsey toyland the intent of building focus, confidence, softness etc is quickly replaced by the need to successfully complete the task. When asking a horse to stand on a pedestal or walk across a bridge, we feel a sense of achievement in just getting it done. Our ego and self-esteem are given a boost when our horse successful negotiates an obstacle challenge. The goal of helping our horse feel better becomes a nice idea rather than a mission. We turn a good idea of using obstacles to help our horse into a crappy idea about what we can make our horse do for the sake of our ego.
I think fundamentally, the problem stems from the fact that people find it nearly impossible to be selfless. It’s part of being human. In the preface of The Essence Of Good Horsemanship, I wrote that winning ribbons and teaching obedience is just stuff, but first prize really comes from the happiness of having a good relationship with a horse.
If we could look at first prize in all these different endeavours as having the softest, most relaxed and correct horse, then perhaps our need to be a winner would be directed in a way that benefits the horse. But while we continue to reward riders for the wrong thing, our desperation to be winners will remain misdirected.
Photo: This was taken during a 3-day horse-starting event in the USA called, Road To The Horse. On the final judging day Australian trainer, Guy McLean stands on the back of a horse while cracking a stock whip.