• VOLUME 46 • © HORSES For LIFE™ Magazine
Riding By Torchlight
To show or not to show…that is the question.
There was a time when I ate, slept, breathed and trained to compete. I was in my late teens and after years of riding school nags, I finally had a competitive horse of my own, to show on a small scene where I got to be a big kahuna. Around that time I remember hearing about an apparently excellent rider and trainer who refused to show, and I wondered why she bothered to train at all? It almost seemed like a weakness to me then. That thought form is so very foreign to me now, it seems like surely it belonged to someone else.
Times and people do change. Today I do relate to this trainer I never met, and today I consider it more of a strength than a weakness to prioritize training for the reward it gives in itself and not (nearly) solely for the possibilities of having the winning ride on the next show day. Less devotion to showing has balanced my idea of training requirements and my agenda, though I guess that could also leave one trying less hard. As always, finding balance is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.
Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy competing. It’s just that now I have many different reasons for getting up every morning and working my horses, and the prospect of taking them to a show is only one of them.
I have no problem with people who train to show, I can still relate to them also, to needing that goal, to needing that edge, to satisfying that competitive spirit. It’s what drives anyone to excellence, and for some it is the backbone of self discipline, just knowing that date with a few gallons of Quickbraid and a judge is looming up ahead.
As always, my problem with riders that train primarily to show is what it drives them to do, what compromises in training and their horses' well-being become as natural as breathing to them. I touched on that state of mind once upon a time, and it very nearly did not have a happy ending for my horse, Tempo, and thus, for me. Along the way, he was always on my conscience like a little gentle burr, just scratchy enough to cause me second thoughts, not scratchy enough to make me change course before it was nearly too late.
After a successful season of training and campaigning on less than ideal surfaces, Tempo seemed slightly off in one front leg. A thorough examination showed he was in fact sore on all four legs, and the fact that he had shown as well as he did, with barely a lessening of his gaits until after the show season, was all thanks to his stoic personality, his inherently large heart and the kindness within both. The fact that my vet was also my archenemy in the show ring did not help lessen my chagrin. She left no stone unturned in spreading the word that I had beat her in our championship rides on a horse that was basically unsound, but too kind to show it. Or maybe the judges were biased? My victory seemed much tarnished, and I lost a perfectly good vet to a sore loser.
Despite her efforts to embarrass me, what I remember best was my shame at what I had done to a horse I claimed to love and adore, and what I had not seen happen to him. Photos show that he carried signs of stress around the time of our last competition – he had lost weight and muscle tone, his face looks oddly tired, his eyes have a far away look. Had I just ignored the signs in my determination to be the best, or really not seen the change that came over him? I’m still not sure. But clearly, being the best came at a price, paid in full by my sweet horse.
In retrospect, pretty much all I had done was train hard without the benefit of good arenas. I trained mostly in a grass field that could be rock hard, but since he never braced or tensed up, I thought nothing of it. I lost my temper at times and was too hard on him, and would go home cringing at myself, berating myself for hours, swearing I would never pull on my horse's mouth again. That is, until the next time my teenage temper took a spill…
The mistakes I made with Tempo haunt me still, and his memory has helped keep me honest over the years, even though my treatment of him left him with no scars, physical or otherwise. My temper tantrums were blessedly few and far between, though they probably escalated in direct proportion to the approaching show date. Tempo was a forgiving fellow and easily recovered from his soreness with a few months off and was back to showing impeccably that fall with his new owner, his sale necessitated by my move to another country.
But can I really blame competition for my mistakes and lack of judgement?
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• VOLUME 46 • © HORSES For LIFE™ Magazine