Does Our Sport Still Have Tradition and Discipline?

BY PEARL RUNNING DEER

The generation before us are regarded as the best equestrians in the world. They taught us skill, discipline, and tradition. Bert De Nemety. William Steinkraus. Frank Chapot. If we didn’t learn from these three, it was alright because they passed it along to other instructors. 

There were certainly others who were gifted: Gordon Wright, Rodney Jenkins, Ronnie Mutch, Cappy Smith, Marion Coakes, and so many more. If you learned how to ride from them, count your blessings.

The late 70’s to the latter 90’s are known by many as the best years for our sport. Sponsors, television, endorsements, and world-wide recognitions. Collectively, we pushed the horse world in the forefront. 

We gave our horses the best names. We rode Thoroughbreds right off the track. We trained them ourselves—even to fox hunt! Color breeds were common. They were great for teaching our beginner students to A shows. There you’d see flat saddles, rolled bridles, spit and polished. Many of us braided, and trailed our own horses.

When we got to the show, we would look around to see who came and say; “So and so is here! Oh look! Here comes Mr. or Mrs. so and so in a horse van. Look out, we have some competition now!” We knew the horse’s name before the rider’s name. 

Oh, and the shows! The East coast ruled. Keswick, Snowbird, (Snowbird’s outside course was to die for!) Foggy Meadows, Middlesex, Ludwigs Corner, Woodedge, and so many more. Once Memorial Day came around, it was time to get ready for Devon. “It rains for the first three days—get out your duck boots.” Upperville was next. “Meet me at the Coach Stop for strawberry pie!” Coppergate, (a must in August!) The Hamptons, Harrisburg, Washington International. Then, Madison Square Garden. Walking your horse down the New York City streets? Priceless. 

Shows were more than rated or unrated. We had schooling, C, B, A and sponsors paid for most of the cost. The sport was expensive, but still affordable. $8.00 a class for A shows. But truth be told, I really loved to show in C rated and schooling shows. My students had a blast. It was affordable and fun. 

But in the early 2000s, I stepped away from the sport for a while. I still had horses, but just rode for pleasure. Now that I’m back giving lessons, doing clinics and getting ready for shows, I hardly recognize my sport. 

What happened?

We haven’t lost our mentors. We even became great because of what they taught us. But our major mistake was that we were supposed to pass it along like they did. And have we?

Our trainers counted on us to pass these lessons along, not make it “easier” for the next generation. Not to keep them from getting dirty and having a groom do all the work. It’s all part of letting them enjoy horses like we did, like our mentors did. 

Enjoy them by going trail riding and jumping over anything in the way. Learning to be aware of your surroundings. Ride the horse in the pond/lake and jump off its back and swim. Drink from the hose. Smell fresh cut hay. Ride bareback, fall off, laugh, wipe off the dirt, and keep going. 

When it came to lessons, we paid attention. Be ready, do the work yourself. Get your horse, brush, check for cuts or burrs in the mane and tail. Tack him up yourself. Polish boots, clean tack, ride in the ring and wait for your instructor. Respecting others in the ring. You have to be determined to ride. Focus. Feeling your horse under you. Is he going to jump because the horse ahead of you bolted? Is he scared of that plastic bag blowing this way? Sit deep. Be ready. Your ears are perked up. You could see what they see. You’re a true barn rat.

It all prepared you for life. 

I still have my Prix De Nation saddle, old style stirrups and leather girth which would make them proud. But, am I out of date? After watching my generation ride (and win) on the horse network last week I decided I wasn’t. Spit and polish—even old school—equipment still counts. 

And I wonder, what happens with the current generation? 

Where are the courses up and down hills with no counting strides, just riding off the eye. Why are hunter classes going sooooo slow on the courses? What happened to the colorful attire in the hunter classes? Rust and canary breeches, green coats? Why are hunter riders flopping forward after a jump? What happened to the quiet elegance in the hunter world? What is this “bling” on a horse and rider? Bling is supposed to come from the spectators wearing top hats and gowns at the Washington International Horse Show or The Garden.

I see saddles with thick padding so your legs lay properly. And sticky pants to stay on the horse instead of working to stick naturally? There are no spectators at shows. And the cost, the cost!

We were responsible to continue the tradition and discipline. To show it’s okay for kids to do their own braiding and tacking up. Clean your stall. Heck, clean many stalls. Let them get dirty. Wash your horse, take him to graze. It’s called bonding. It takes work to be a good equestrian. Work isn’t a dirty word. Make them put their phones away while at the barn. Let them be barn rats.

Instead, many parents—yes, our generation—took away the fun. “Let’s make it easier for them,” we thought. Soon the grooms did everything. And those kids grew up, and handed their kid’s pony to the groom. Some of us are grandparents, and our grandkids know nothing about the fun we used to have with horses. Some don’t know the greats who paved the way for us. Just, pay the bill parents. They get on to ride, and get off—back to their phones.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem having grooms. Sometimes you need the help. Especially if you have many students and travel the show circuit. But what is wrong with brushing your own horse once in a while?

So what do we do?

Help has always been around. But it’s clouded by “me-ism.” Many of our generation still teach. But a lot of this current generation wants instant gratification without the work. 

It’s hard for people like me and others who have accomplished far better than I did to teach the basics. Because it takes work and patience. Yes, that non-dirty word again—work.

Hard work, mixed with patience, understanding, love and bonding with the horse. The rewards are priceless. We are out there. If you’re willing to learn and get dirty. Tradition and discipline still thrive, it’s just harder to find.


Pearl Running Deer was the first Native American who rode on the circuit in the 80’s-2002. Her trainer was Maurice Honig from the French Equestrian team. She would follow Frank Chapot or Bert De Nemethy teachings. In the 2003-13 she was a high fashion model at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in NYC. In between, she worked with film directors, being a girl Friday. Ms. Running Deer teaches, coaching at horse shows and gives clinics.

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