It would be unreasonable for a sport, so deeply entrenched in tradition, to change much over the years. In truth, having grown up riding in the same area where we still live, shows today look very much like the shows did 20 years ago. It’s not uncommon for to me showing at the same venue, with many of the same people. The clothes look the same (with some exceptions – more on that in a minute), courses are similar, divisions are basically the same… I guess you cannot expect a sport, that has remained vastly unchanged for hundreds of years, to evolve too much over one generation.
To be fair, some things are much improved! The transition to higher technology fabrics has made life much easier… and cooler. Charleston Summer Classic, I’m looking at you with your 100% humidity and triple digit temps!
Kids today have NO IDEA how good they’ve got it with zipper tall boots. Once you’ve tried to get off custom pull on boots, after a full day of showing, when your legs are swollen and sweaty, only to have your calf cramp mid-pull, and your boot get firmly wedged on your now cramping calf, THEN we can talk about uncomfortable tall boots. Until then, zip it, tiny people. You have no idea what you’re talking about.
And how, in the name of all that is good and holy, did it take us this long to invent elastic pull on garter straps?! Game changer, right there! Gone are the days of “stepping inside the map” to figure out which way those things should wrap. Though I do miss the trends of full chaps and secretly relish the cold days when I can dig mine out of my tack trunk.
But, even though things may look the same years later, the feeling at shows has shifted dramatically. I might be nostalgic for the “good ole days”, but things have changed — and not always for the best.
I remember riding unsupervised a lot. Doing things that were probably a bad idea, but learning true lessons along the way. I remember days of being a barn rat, that included legitimate hard labor. Now, we are told, in a world of law suits looming on the horizon, that liability insurance means little Susie can’t help reset the jump course. Jumping outside of a lesson is often forbidden, which I really do understand, but that means little Jenny isn’t figuring out how to jump bareback. When I was a kid, we were encouraged to go ride outside of the ring. The options for this are now so limited, that it’s hard to find the places for kids to just get out and go ride.
We were expected to know what went into the care of our horses and ponies: I knew what they ate, how to handle an injury or illness (including taking a temp, respiration rates, listening to gut sounds), how to wrap legs, and if I didn’t know, another barn rat was ready and willing to teach me. I learned most of this just being at the barn when the opportunity to learn presented itself. Kids today are so over-scheduled, that riding lessons fit neatly into a one-hour time block, and our kids are missing the lessons that will make them not just good riders, but great horsemen.
Having a mom who rides gives my kid a huge advantage, in that I can show her how to do these things. I can tell her the importance of cleaning her tack on a regular basis (not show her, you understand, because I’m not always so diligent about it now). I can tell her that she better not ever hang her bridle up without wrapping it up properly. And I learned these lessons because it was not uncommon to arrive at the barn as a kid, and find your saddle sans stirrups, because you failed to put things away correctly the last time you rode. And guess what, that lesson stays with you pretty well, when you have to ride your OTTB sans stirrups for a week!
It was common for kids, back in the day, to be on a green bean. We learned through trial and error. We got bucked off, and got back on (thank you George Morris, for the infamous “hospital or back on” quote). We learned that the best way to get your pony to learn what you were asking was with empathy and understanding. We learned through bringing along these greenies, how to RIDE – not just how to sit pretty on a horse, but how to truly ride. The ponies that challenged us, are the ones we learned the most from, and those lessons make us better partners and mothers and riders.
I see so many kids now at shows, even local shows, who show up at the ring, take their pony from their groom, hop on and ride, then hand the pony back to the groom. Their job is limited to just riding. What are we teaching our kids, except that their pony is a lovely (and expensive) accessory? How can we expect them to form a bond with their pony, to truly grow as riders, when we treat their partner as a machine?
I have a clear memory of being caught letting the groom tack up my pony one time, and it is one of the few times my parents left a show angry with me – not because of my riding, but because I wasn’t holding up my end of the responsibility.
To be fair, the good kids – the kids who show up early and stay late, the kids who wrap their own ponies and tuck them in at night at a show, the kids who watch and learn at every available opportunity – are still there. You just might have to look a little harder to find them. They are usually trailing just a couple steps behind their trainer. They watch as many classes as they can, so they can see what works, and also what doesn’t. They take every opportunity at home to sit on anything they are allowed to ride.
At the end of the day, we owe it to the next generation of horsemen to remember why we are in this crazy horse world to begin with. Bring the focus back to making improvements, not just winning. Be the hard working, role models of horsemanship and care for our youth. Make sure these kids understand how much work goes into caring for our 4- legged partners. The younger riders at the barn aren’t just sharing the ring with us – they’re learning from us too.
For me, this means shifting the focus in my house/barn as well. I need to find the balance of celebrating a well deserved win, and also celebrating the less exciting moment of being able to pull your pony’s mane correctly. We are responsible for making sure our kids can look back on their “good ole days” and reminisce about how it used to be all about the animals we love so much.
I’ll do my part – I might even try and find the kid an old-school pair of pull on tall boots so she can actually appreciate how far we’ve come.