Confessions of a Horse Show Husband and Father

BY GORDON BALLANTYNE

The horse show husband and dad is an endangered species. Rarely seen, we are a band of Sherpas loading, hauling, packing and unpacking vast amounts of gear and animals needed for shows every Thursday and Sunday most of the summer. We are the unheralded backbone of the horse show world with the sore backs to prove it.  

If we were lucky enough to have had the opportunity to stay for the show: we are the awkward looking fellows either holding something, fetching something, taking bad pictures, or sitting with white knuckles ringside. We’re not quite sure what we’re observing, but know that a round that involves our rider still on the horse at the end is great from our perspective. Hint to newbies out there: Rider smiles at the end of the round means good, shaking head means bad. 

So, why do we do it?

Photo © Barbara Dudley Photography

First the Good:

  1. Girls who have been bitten by the horse bug have no time for anything else.  It is an obsession that leaves no room for boys, parties and other shenanigans.
  2. Caring for a horse and putting its needs ahead of your own teaches responsibility, love, sharing, time management and careful planning.
  3. Competition pushes riders to try their best, constantly improve. It builds a strong understanding of teamwork, self-motivation and forms unique social bonds between people and animals. 
  4. It makes your daughter and/or wife very happy.  They love it, there is nothing they would rather be doing. 

Now the Bad:

  1. It is expensive.  A year of horse showing, training, the cost of the horse and horse “stuff” costs as much as a year of mortgage or college tuition.  Our current horse costs more than my vehicle (and my vehicle has a lot more horsepower than the output of one horse). The expense ranges from the do-it-yourselfers (who I respect immensely) to the full service show barns who do everything for the riders and wreak havoc on your pocket book.
  2. It takes all of your time. Horse show people are schedule challenged. I have no idea who runs horse shows or what goes on behind the scenes, but a 10 o’clock ring time really means anywhere from 1 to 3 PM.  Somehow the cable repair guy has been put in charge of horse show management. I have seen Bill Gates seated in the stands of a horse show anxiously checking his watch waiting…and waiting…and waiting.
  3. The barn area is chaos. The barn “set up” tent seating area is to be avoided at all costs. It is full of young girls, moms and adult female riders recreating every stride of every round and jump completed that day. “Chip,” “Lead change,” “Tight on the line to the five stride double oxer” are the type of lingo used in this area.  Do not ask questions. If you do, be prepared to receive an eye roll and be “girl-splained” to.
Photo courtesy of Gordon Ballantyne

I would estimate that I see 30-40% of the dads and husbands on set up day and take down day, but less than 10% stay for the show. They can occasionally be seen in the RV area, surfacing like groundhogs at ring times. 

There is absolutely nothing to do at a horse show for a non-horse person. I have been fortunate to become friends with some fellow horse show dads and husbands. We plan day trips and go golfing or fishing during horse shows. It is like a support group. 

Some of the husband/dad cadre actually wait to watch their wives/daughters ride, but the veterans do not. Trust me—you will hear all about how the day went in excruciating detail and there is almost always a video to watch. 

Unfortunately, eventually the bad things about horse showing overcome the good and over time the husbands and dads fade away. It is sad, since there is nothing we enjoy more than seeing our families being happy and doing something they love. To avoid this great migration, I offer the following advice to daughters and wives who ride horses to keep their husbands and dads involved.

Photo courtesy of Gordon Ballantyne
  1. Say thank you…a lot. There are a lot of places we would rather be and things we would rather be doing than being at a horse show.  We worry about how much it costs because we do not want to have to take it away from you due to economic realities. If the sacrifice is not recognized and appreciated, it quickly morphs to bitterness.  Summer cabins and beachfront resorts are wishful thinking to horse dads and husbands.
  2. Do not lament the horse you do not have—love and appreciate the horse you do.  I have been to many horse shows and seen terrible riders on half million dollar horses win and lose to great riders on five thousand dollar horses. It is a partnership, and you must learn to control what you can and strive for excellence as a team.  Great riders did not get that way riding made horses. They got there learning to make good horses look great. When we see a true commitment to excellence, hard work, dedication—and most importantly appreciation—we might consider forgoing the family vacation or home remodel to get you a more expensive horse. 
  3. A smile, wave or hug is the ultimate payoff.  We love to share in your happiness. It is why we are there.  We have learned to stay out of the way during the pre-ring prep time, warm up in the schooling ring, course memorization and final ring time preparation.  We used to hover and be available for last minute “hold stuff” and fetching. We don’t anymore because you, like us, have become veterans of this process. All too often now, the rounds are completed and the troupe heads back to the set up area. No smile, no acknowledgement, and an hour of commiseration in the barn tent area with your barn mates.  It makes us feel like unwanted outsiders, ride givers, pack mules and ATM machines. A simple 10 second stop, smile, hug and kiss at the end of your rounds will pay huge dividends; a text from the set up for when you are ready to leave will not.
  4. At the first sign of entitlement, poor sportsmanship or under-appreciation we will take it all away even if it causes bitterness on your part just to teach you the necessary life lesson.  We were already all in, and made the necessary sacrifice of time and money into your passion when we said yes to horse riding. You are the only one with the power to keep it that way.

Gordon Ballantyne is a horse show husband of fifteen years and horse show father for four.  His wife, Nicole, is an A circuit hunter rider trained at Starfire Farms in the Pacific Northwest while his daughter is a lead line specialist and shameless provider of horse treats.  Gordon is a homebuilder and author of America, The Eagle has Fallen; in his spare time (no such thing for a horse husband and father) he enjoys golfing, creating the perfect RV show set up and writing.  He is not shown in any of the horse pictures because that would violate the 10 foot horse exclusion zone he maintains at all times.

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