BY ELYSE SCHENK
Unpopular opinion: winners aren’t villains, and losers aren’t victims.
Accusing competitors of winning without genuinely earning their success is a harmful, trendy habit at modern-day horse shows. Susan Schoellkopf, USEF R-rated judge and top hunter and equitation trainer, discusses the fault in this attitude and her hope for more positivity in a post-pandemic circuit.
“We teach juniors that it’s okay to use excuses…[but] they just can’t keep going with that kind of mentality [or] they’ll never be a winner,” says Schoellkopf, criticizing the industry’s disappointing enabling of negative attitudes. From blaming judges for unethically favoring certain horses and riders to accusing winners of cheating, “pulling strings”, or using wealth to their advantage, Schoellkopf believes these common accusations only limit a rider’s potential.
Yet, these excuses are tempting. It’s easy to deny responsibility and instead blame judge corruption and incompetence, or unfair, unethical advantage of the winning rider.
Part of the temptation to complain comes from the judge’s limited view of each round. “We do miss things. We’re human,” Schoellkopf admits. Judges will never be omniscient. Riders need to understand that and be more sympathetic to it. “If I’m an exhibitor and I’m going to complain about the judging, I better have sat exactly where [the judge is] sitting, see exactly the view they’re seeing and everything that happens within that. You can’t judge a round by standing in the in-gate, [yet] that’s what people do,” says Schoellkopf. Perspective matters.
Similarly, it doesn’t help that the nature of hunter and equitation classes permits a degree of subjective interpretation or personal preference in judging. Without perfectly objective standards for deciding a winner, it’s possible to be cynical about the results. This doesn’t mean, however, that every class pinning warrants controversy.
As an experienced judge, Schoellkopf understands “it’s very easy to blame the judges. It’s very easy to [blame politics] and claim [the judges] were looking at who’s at the in-gate.” This particular myth persists that certain privileged trainers and owners have corrupt relationships with judges, tempting them to note who’s next in line to perform. Schoellkopf denies this, as it’s simply impractical.
“I wish, as a judge, I had that much time,” Schoellkopf jokes. Realistically, judges don’t have the time to consider their own biases. She explains that “[exhibitors] don’t understand, when you’re judging a big class at most good horse shows they come in the ring, one right after the other. You better have the score and you better have your thought process and you better have what you like and your card organized and everything like that. By the time you get through with that, there isn’t a lot of time for other things.” Judges have enough to get done in a short amount of time without politics. There are already hundreds of things to consider and score. Applying personal biases would just be inconvenient, let alone obviously unethical.
Ultimately, Schoellkopf believes in the ethical integrity of judges. “Most judges want to do a good job. They want to do the fair and the right thing. There aren’t judges out there trying to do the wrong thing.”
How, then, could a rider feel victimized for not winning if judging is indeed fair? Who remains the villain? Part of the systemic attitude problem includes trainers. Schoellkopf wants to encourage trainers to foster better attitudes in their students, as they often fuel the victimhood fire.
“Trainers have to decide how they’re going to train kids and amateurs from here on in. How are you going to be as a trainer? You have to be truthful with [your clients], not because you sold them a horse and it didn’t win. Don’t make promises that you can’t keep. Don’t do it.”
Schoellkopf suspects that trainers also sometimes suffer from a denial of responsibility, and “may not be able to admit that maybe [they] didn’t train a kid that well for a class” when a client doesn’t succeed. Instead of honestly assessing their role in the results, blaming judges becomes an easy way to avoid facing their own shortcomings.
“What [trainers] do is they teach the child or the adult to use excuses,” Schoellkopf explains. Often as an honest attempt to advocate for their clients, trainers will encourage blame on judging, instead of challenging their riders to accept the faults in their performance. Overly advocating for a student ultimately enables a sense of entitlement.
“And that’s what’s wrong with this country. Everybody’s entitled. We’ve got to change that. It’s got to happen,” Schoellkopf insists. Trainers have a crucial role in shaping their clients’ attitudes. Yet, entitlement comes from many sources.
For example, paying expensive entry fees makes it easy to feel like you’re owed something in return. Riders invest a lot into the sport—financially and emotionally—and when expectations aren’t met, devastation manifests as resentment. The disappointment of an unexecuted entitlement leads to finger pointing, blaming judges, or accusing the winner of cheating. What’s to blame for the villainization of winners and victimization of losers? Entitlement.
What can be done to fix this widespread attitude? According to Schoellkopf, the solution to entitlement is encouraging a stronger work ethic. “Let’s teach our junior riders what it is to have work ethic and what it is to be part of a bigger picture, not to be entitled to [winning or accumulating points].” The true winners win consistently through steadfast work ethic.
“Those people (McLain Ward, Kent Farrington, Beezie Madden, Scott Stewart, Hunt Tosh, Peter Pletcher), their work ethic is so strong… I think work ethic is something that’s really gone by the wayside in this country, in the horse business, and I think that a lot of young professionals start out coming to you for a job and they want to be the trainer and the rider and everything else. Forget mucking stalls, forget grooming horses, forget cleaning tack, they don’t want to do any of that. When you look at the top of our sport, they’ve all done that. That’s what makes a winner.”
The real winners win regularly with a foundation of great work ethic. With horse shows canceled due to COVID-19, Schoellkopf hopes riders use this time as an opportunity to grow their work ethic and horsemanship skills.
“Let’s use this as a time to become a better horseman, become a harder worker, become something that you want to be better at, that you know your horse better, that you talk to your farrier, that you talk to [your vet]… go do a clinic with somebody that you wouldn’t normally even think about doing a clinic with.” To her, the disruptions caused by current events will show who actually wants to get better. To learn more, read books, and refocus our definitions of success.
“Let’s all [use this extra time] and try to make our industry come back with a really strong purpose. Let’s teach our junior riders what it is to have work ethic and what it is to be part of a bigger picture, not be entitled,” she says. Best case scenario, horse shows resume with a new crop of winners who’ve used the extra time to develop as strong horsemen and hard workers. Hopefully, we’ll see less entitlement, especially after thousands of riders had to face the hard reality of an expectation-crushing pandemic.
Now is the time to accept that consistent winners aren’t villains. The riders on top only remain there through extreme effort. Realistically, yes, cheating sometimes happens, corruption occurs, and riders will win without honestly deserving it. These riders won’t succeed long-term, however, as cheating is not a sustainable route to success. Corruption doesn’t hold you up. Buying your way only gets you so far.
The only reliable approach to consistently winning is to try with all of the effort and grit you possess. Let hard work erode your entitlement. That’s what makes a winner heroic.
Elyse writes with a passion to inspire and inform the equestrian community. After two decades of riding and competing on the hunter-jumper circuit, she now focuses on transforming her love for horses and the equestrian community into words. Most of her time is spent caring for her two kids, riding whenever possible, and writing. Follow her on Instagram @equestrianwriting to learn more.