Tuesday, March 24, 2009

horse show season and reconciliation

It's the time of year when my email in-box is filling with announcements of horse shows, Pony Club rallies, and various horse activities that require hauling, and in some cases overnight stays.

I woke up this morning feeling bombarded with my own mixed feelings about all this. My daughter is in Pony Club, and greatly enjoys the activities they offer, and she also enjoys the Combined Training shows and cross country schooling opportunities that seem to be everywhere this time of year. Her trainers are active and frequently available for coaching at these events, and it's been fun to get a taste of the various horse sports over the past few years.

We are not a dedicated horse show family, however, and I find the logistics of these travels incredibly stressful. Plans have to be made for horse care for the herd members who stay home. With a few exceptions, hauling to these events requires completely altering the regular routines of the horses going. I fret about ulcers and colic and accidents and break-downs on the side of the road. Even more, I worry about what the horses are thinking and feeling as they drive off down our driveway and head off to a strange setting without the comfort and security of their herd.

Every month that passes I seem to be increasingly dedicated to a way of horse-keeping that makes traveling with horses a more difficult decision, and I find myself trying to reconcile my beliefs about what is good for horses with the enjoyment of horses in sport and competition.

It's even more difficult right now because I'm not reconciling on my own behalf, but on that of my daughter. It's become pretty clear to me that I will probably never choose to get up at the crack of dawn, load the Big Bay into a trailer, and haul him off to a show so that we can compete together. The idea that I would put him up for overnight stays in a setting where he couldn't go out to graze and roll and move freely is unthinkable for me personally.

I'd be just as happy to pay a judge to come watch us do a dressage test or two here, and give me feedback. I'd probably enjoy dressing up in all the right clothing to make the ride special. But otherwise, I don't have the desire to prepare, go through the process of getting to a show, and insert myself into a schedule that, imo, has nothing to do with what's best for horses.

But it's so clear to me that my daughter, who also loves our horses and obviously cares about their welfare, really does enjoy the excitement of a show setting. It's also clear that many people I like and respect enjoy the show atmosphere as well.

And I enjoy seeing horses and riders performing together at these events. It's impressive, and fun, and inspiring. But along with the successes, I have to witness some of the truly upsetting scenarios that invariably occur. Frightened horses. Riders who mistreat their horses. Accidents that the human has chosen to risk, but the horse hasn't been given that choice.

I'd love to know how any of you reconcile these things in your own lives, with your own horses. Or for that matter, dogs, or cats, and shows, and things like agility trials.

How do you balance all the factors? How much weight do you give your own pleasure and satisfaction versus that of the animal? How do you know when the animal actually gets something out of the experience so the risks and the stress of travel are outweighed?

For me, when we haul the pony or Cody, the best part is when they return home and step off the trailer, and I see the relief on their faces as they walk through the barn and through the gate to rejoin their herd. I'm not sure if that's an argument for going or not going, but it at least ends the travel on that particular day on a good note.


Dougie Donk said...

Ooh, difficult question! I reconcile my conflicting thoughts by looking at how my boys behave in the preparation phase & at the event itself.

Flynn is always quite interested - watches the stuff getting loaded into the trailer, stands still to get his boots on, ambles into the trailer & is perfectly content to stand & watch the goings-on when we get there. He really comes into his own when he gets the chance to perform & I think he enjoys a change to his routine.

Dennis still associates leaving home with going racing & gets so excited that he stops listening. Don't think he's frightened, but hate the thought that he might be. To try & work out whether he hates leaving home, or just needs some more things in his toolkit; we are going to spend the next few months GOING to shows, but just walking about in hand & taking in the sights. If he settles after a while, then I'll just take it slowly. If not, we'll just play about at home.

Horses for courses, I think!

billie said...

Thanks for the great comment!

As best I can tell, it comes out about even for Cody and the pony. Cody seems fairly nonchalant about traveling but I wouldn't say he gets enthused about actually being there/performing.

The pony gets so much attention when we take him anywhere I think he does enjoy that piece of it. Not so much the performance part though!

I love your plan to go to shows just to watch and visit and observe the goings on. What a great way to assess how Dennis feels about the trips!

Good stuff to think about and try - thank you!!

Grey Horse Matters said...

You've posed a good question that requires a lot of thinking.

On one hand if you don't agree with showing because of the way horses are treated at shows you really have to make your own decision on whether it's worth it to you and your daughter and the horses to compete. If you don't feel right going you'll probably not enjoy yourselves. There is a lot wrong with shows and all that they promote.

On the other hand shows even though they are not perfect can be a good learning ground for horses and riders and give both a spectrum on which to draw from that will further their education and then you can make the decision whether it's worth it or not.

We've had some horses who absolutely loved to show and others who stressed out terribly. Some of our horses were simply taken along for a ride and walked and ridden around the grounds to get them used to the goings on. A huge part of showing depends on how the horse feels about the shows. If you go with the idea of letting the horse decide then you can go by their decisions and feelings.

I read your comments on Kim's blog (enlightened horsemanship) and thought you had a great idea about an alternative way of showing. To this I can say that the only way to change things is to go to the shows and do things the way you would like to see them done. This is what my daughter did when she showed. Many trainers would coach her in what a particular judge would like and pin. Being the student of the horse that she is she did what she thought was right for the horse and hoped that some changes would occur because she rode correctly and compassionately. I recall one judge told her she would have gotten a better ribbon if she would have gone faster, to which her reply was, something on the order of, "It's wet out here and I won't take a chance on injuring my horse, and I'm not interested in a better ribbon if it means not taking full responsibility for the well being of my horse".

Sorry this was so long, I have so many stories I can't even think of where to begin, but I would like to see showing change too, for the better and think it can only happen if more people did the right thing by their horses and taught by example more people would speak up and follow what they know in their hearts is the right way to do things.

I hope some of this makes sense as I know I was just rambling on with whatever popped into my head.

billie said...

Arlene, as always you are thoughtful and concise in your response, and I appreciate it.

I am in an odd place where I know I personally don't want to show - but at the same time I don't feel "anti-show" so much as I feel stressed by some of the things I see. And I want my daughter to have the chance to do something she enjoys and does in a way that takes into account the horse's reactions and needs.

As you note, there can be a positive side to it, and we have been the recipient of many kind words because of the way we conduct ourselves, care for our horses, and take a relaxed approach to the whole thing. So... I really identify with your daughter's approach and agree that simply demonstrating that level of responsibility is a huge way of inserting change into the picture.

I'm much better able to deal with the day trips than I am these multiple day events where horses have to be stabled. I guess if a horse is stabled at home and gets very small amounts of turn-out, the show environment isn't all that different. For our horses, it's vastly unlike the way they live here at home.

And yet at the same time, I've seen how much fun some of the girls have when they're all there and they can run back and forth visiting their ponies in the barns and hanging out and getting ready for their rides.

There's no right or wrong answer. Our horses don't get frenzied, but at the same time I don't think I could say they "love" it.

I guess we will take it one week at a time! Right now we're signed up for a lesson and a polocrosse practice, and a schooling show in April. Maybe if we haul Cody AND the pony together I'll feel better about it.

The three-day thing will have to wait, as I can't quite wrap my mind around Cody's feed routine and how that would translate to a Pony Club rally where no parents are allowed in the barn area.

Nachodonkey said...

Life is full of stresses. Too much can break you down and too little makes life so boring you have no interest in anything. You know your horses and as long as they are prepared mentally, emotionally and physically for the event I think they benefit greatly. As owners it is our job to make sure that each of these preparations are made and to use your judgement that at anytime during an event you feel the animal is upset you can withdraw.

I have been following the Parelli Natural Horsemanship Program for about two years now and have really had my eyes opened as to reading my animal's emotions and well being. The Parellis travel hundreds of miles every year and on their Trailer Loading DVD you see their horses almost running to get into the trailer first.

You appear to be very well grounded and would do nothing to harm them in any way. However, I believe it is something like over protecting a child. They need some risk in order to discover their true potential. Boy, am I deep today!!!

jme said...

i've been having a similar debate with myself about showing. i enjoy showing, but i can no longer do it in good conscience unless i know my horses are not damaged by it.

having said that, i think there are ways of showing that are not overly stressful for horses, depending on the individual. i know they like the safety of their herd and their home, but i also know horses to be enormously curious and even adventurous, so the opportunity to travel and explore new places is appealing to many of them.

my horse lifeguard loved to show. he was one of those horses who came alive at a show - a new ring, a new course of jumps, new horses, sighs and sounds... it got to the point where he was so bored by schooling at home that we just hacked out at home to keep him fit and then took him to shows, where he seemed to have the most fun.

but he hated the stabling situation, so we tried to do local shows where he could go back home after his classes.

mellon was one of those horses who stressed about the travel part, so he never did well where he shipped and competed on the same day. he preferred away shows where he could relax, hack around the show grounds for a day or two before his classes, and then have another day or two to relax before shipping again.

we always tried to keep it comfortable for the horses showing by bringing a herd companion for them, and giving them plenty of time hacking, hand walking and hand grazing at the shows to minimize stress and get them out of their stalls as much as possible.

my mother's horse erik, however, always fretted over shows and, though he performed well, was just never relaxed about it. he especially hated the schooling ring - he took better to dressage shows where things were more relaxed and on a predictable time schedule...

so it definitely depends on the individual horse and how you introduce showing. when i was starting nate, we never competed; we'd just trailer to shows and let him hang out, graze, go for a hack, etc., so he's always been very casual and interested about traveling (which is probably why i was able to fly to germany with him and ride in a trailer with him across all of europe, staying at different farms in between - he never got stressed, but took it all in stride with his characteristic curiosity.

so, i guess these days i'm not anti-show either, but it does depend on the horse and how you do it. i think i am long past my days of traveling the circuit and spending week after week away from home at shows. not only was that tough on the horses, but it was tough on me! with our current management, it just wouldn't be fair to them. and, like you, i have my entire herd at home now, and i need to be there to look after them as well. but i do think we could manage the odd weekend or overnight local show without any undue stress should the opportunity arise...

billie said...

Nacho, it never gets boring around here, but I know what you mean! :)

We do keep an eye on things and have never stayed overnight, so for the most part the trips we have made have been successful, with the one exception of the trailer loading fiasco at a Pony Club activity. That one thing did a lot to sour all of us, including the pony, on travel, but we got past it.

billie said...

jme, thanks for weighing in.

I have seen horses like Mellon, who seemed to settle in and then do really well with the overall atmosphere. For all I know, any of ours could be that same way!

I have to remember that being careful and thoughtful, and trying something to see how it goes, would not be the end of the world. :)

The lucky thing for us is that we are pretty much at the equi-center of 10 or so farms/facilities that offer combined training shows, dressage shows, events, cross-country schooling days, etc., and all under an hour's drive. So the day trips are infinitely do-able from the hauling perspective.

The national Pony Club rally is every summer alternating between Lexington, KY and Lexington, VA, and while VA is not *that* far a drive, the fact that it's in the middle of the hottest month for us makes it unlikely I'd ever want to take horses. That's the kind of thing where the schedule is completely geared to the convenience of the riders and families, and not at all to the comfort of the horses.

I am dying to hear more about you flying with Nate to Germany! Maybe you could blog about that, or comment here, but either way I'd love to hear more!

jme said...

i hear ya - i'm not doing any more shows in the most scorching heat of summer any more either! it's not fun for anyone :-\

and maybe i will blog a bit about our trip. it was probably a once in a lifetime experience and lots of fun - i got to work as a groom on the flight, so i was able to fly in a big cargo plane full of horses and other odd stuff. it's the only way to fly ;-)

billie said...

Oh, do blog about that - now I'm even MORE interested!

The horses get groomed on the flight? Wow!

jme said...

no, that's just what they call people in charge of checking on the horses, giving them water, etc... those pallets are small inside, just like a 2-horse trailer!

billie said...

Oh - my misunderstanding! But a really good thing having people to keep a check on things.

Will they allow the owners (as a matter of course, not a special situation) ride on flights as their own horses' grooms?

jme said...

there was only room for 2 grooms on the flight, though i understand some cargo planes have more seats. the company i flew with did allow it, as i guess it was one less person they had to pay. i also insisted on traveling with my horse, though i imagine big 'show' people would prefer to have their horse just arrive for them without the hassle. i'm a little more 'hands on' with my horses, as you may have gathered ;-) i brought nate's feed, tubes of electrolytes and probiotics, emergency tranq, banamine and an emergency medical kit. i remember the guy at the airport asking me if nate had any loading issues he should know about, and then he laughed and said 'but i guess any horse with halter fuzzies and bell boots is probably going to be fine!' i thought that was kinda funny - i looked around and most of the other horses shipped without bandages and in nylon halters! i guess he spotted me as an overprotective mom ;-)

billie said...

I once asked an airline if I could fly in the cargo with my cats but they said no! So I drove them instead.

I love that you went with Nate and were right there the entire flight - what a good way to travel.