BY PIPER KLEMM
While struggling with my depression last week, a consequence of a chronic chemical imbalance that has nothing to do with horses or situations from them, I made the mistake of looking at TPH Facebook comments. It’s always a mistake. I often struggle with them, even when my mental health feels strong.
If you were to just look at the comments, championing someone’s hard work to gain success is tone-deaf and ignorant. Stating our sport requires a level of privilege is depressing and defeatist. But as I see it, neither stance is 100% correct. It’s just not that black and white.
There is a lot of discussion about privilege in this sport. It’s a big issue. We need to address it. This sport is expensive—there is no way around that. Our country has almost historic levels of income inequality. While that gap has grown, so have the luxury optional purchases in our sport that many people seem to have reached the point of viewing as necessities. Beyond money, it is a physically demanding activity. Anyone with a chronic illness or injury will tell you that hard work can’t erase pain. If it did, no one would ever be sick.
I get why it all seems impossible. I do just fine and don’t want for anything in my personal life. But then I get to the horse show and feel like a pauper. I turn down dinner invitations when I can’t afford the restaurant. I have slept in my car while showing way more recently than I care to admit. When you’re surrounded by the amount of excess our sport can contain, it feels so unfair. What did these people do “better” than me to “deserve” to get bring more horses and forgo a budget and buy the exquisite items at vendors? Or, you know, sleep in a hotel.
After I read some comment outrage, I clicked to see whose birthdays were that day. At the top of the list were two trainers who do a fabulous job and have achieved substantial success in this sport. A common grip about birthdays is that those born just after December 1 (and thus being the most mature when competing at their show age) are the most successful, but these successful trainers were born on July 17. It got me thinking about all the factors other than money that make up a rider.
So many sports have all their top players with clustered birthdays (hockey as an example), like a predestined future from when their parents conceived. Riding gives great opportunity to participants born around the calendar. Your talent doesn’t have to peak at puberty like it seems for so many gymnasts and figure skaters. Take the expense out of the equation for just a moment. Our sport has room for all of us. No matter when we are born, how old we are, what gender we identify as, how tall we are—the sport does not predetermine us with artificial “winning talent.” We all have to earn that ourselves.
Yes, my earlier comment about how I don’t want for anything in my personal life means I’m sitting here writing this with the privilege that I acknowledge. But I still believe that if you want to “afford” to ride well, competitively, in this sport—it’s achievable.
It will take decades. You will have to sacrifice other activities in life that cost time and money. Your relationships outside this sport might suffer. You might edit and revisit what success looks like a million times. It’s different for everyone. One rider’s success is competing at the International Derby Finals. Another’s is cantering outside the ring for the first time. As I see it, spending time in the barn loving and appreciating these animals is success initself. Regardless of the level, there is something to achieve.
We have to separate riding success from the lifestyle of the sport’s elite. If you want the “lifestyle” of the sport—you’ll likely never have it. That is where the income inequality truly is.
If you want to do a horse show on the budget, you can choose one close to home, bring packed sandwiches, and braid yourself. It’s something that someone with a good paying job and potentially no children (see: sacrifices) can make happen for themselves. If you want the VIP table, comfortable travel, as many golf carts as you need, time to sleep in, dinners out with friends, and clothes to dress the part, that’s where the inequality arrives with great force.
While “work harder” (as others say) or “work a longer timeline” (as I prefer to say) are awful things to hear, they are the only tools we have. Hard work doesn’t solve everything, but I still see it as a path forward.
Even on the days when I feel depressed, this remains the truth. Support the people fighting structural inequities. We have a lot of problems to fix. Encourage those organizations and governing bodies making our society and our sport more democratic. I actively work towards those goals with myself and my business every day.
But on a personal level, you only have one tool at your disposal: Put the sustained time in over weeks, months, years, and decades toward your goal.
Can you make this sport happen in some meaningful and interesting way for yourself? Probably—with a lifetime of work. Can you make the lifestyle of this sport happen for yourself? If you weren’t born into it, probably not. It’s up to you what is most important.
If the horses are your end goal, there are endless fulfilling careers in this sport. There are endless (often sleep-depriving and unpleasant) ways to make something happen for yourself over time. Your success might not look like someone else’s, but that’s okay. There is a pathway.
About the Author: Piper began her tenure as the Publisher of The Plaid Horse Magazine in 2014. She received her B.S. with Honors in Chemistry from Trinity College [Hartford, CT] in 2009 and her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 2012. She is an active member of the hunter/jumper community, owning a fleet of lease ponies and showing in adult hunter divisions.
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