As a full-time professional hunter/jumper instructor and trainer for over fifteen years, I think I've proved my devotion to our sport. And for the sake of our sport's development in the US, I have to write this letter.
Something is wrong, very wrong. Too many things, in fact, to cover them all in this letter. But let me talk about a few that I find the most disturbing.
It seems that the attitude any more is all about the "business" - and by that I mean making money. Now, don't get me wrong, we all have to deal with the financial end of the business. But the industry is focusing entirely too much on competition any more. It seems that professionals are in a big hurry to move their kids up to the higher divisions as quickly as possible, that they measure success solely by the number of ribbons on the wall, and that more and more people do nothing but hop from competition to competition.
As a junior I was taught-and as a professional I continue to teach my students-that showing should be treated as a test of the mastery of the art of riding, not as an end unto itself. I love to see my kids do well, just as you like to see yours do well. But I have to say that nothing makes me prouder than when one of my students comes out of the ring after a stellar trip that doesn't pin but is still satisfied to know she rode well, or when one of them is unsatisfied with a blue-ribbon trip because she knows she could have done better. To me, that's what it's all about.
Another point: So many big-name trainers dismissively say that they don't teach beginners. Where in the name of all that's holy do these people think intermediate and advanced riders come from? Are there "rider trees" growing in their yards that I'm just not aware of?
Personally, I like working with beginners. Nothing is more satisfying to me than bringing along a rider "from the ground up" and having him or her turn into a class horseman. But what disturbs me most about the "no beginners" attitude is this: All too often, beginning riders are relegated to the least experienced instructor available: something that I find often does them almost irreparable harm. Any competent trainer knows that the most critical time in making a young rider is the beginning: those who start properly under an experienced, educated eye can move up much more smoothly and quickly later. New instructors do best teaching advanced-beginner and low-intermediate classes: students whose basic foundation is established.
I am also very disturbed by the trend toward lowering of standards-from fence heights to course difficulty-in all divisions. The reason usually given for these changes is "We want to make the division more inviting."
Lowering standards and simplifying courses until they match the level of the riders who want to compete is like lowering school literacy standards until sub-par students get a passing grade not through their achievements but because the standards have been altered to accommodate them. All too often I see riders moved up into "Very Low Jumper" and "Special Jumper" classes well before they should be riding under those rules, which are designed for a much more experienced competitor. We end up with wild children on scrappy ponies in ridiculously low classes run under jumper rules, racing madly around the ring and trying to "beat the clock." In my opinion, a time component should NEVER be introduced any earlier than the Ammy-Owner/Junior phase.
Kids need to spend time in the hunters and equitation to develop form, style, and smoothness. Kids-and adults-today just don't ride like they used to. Watch some videos and look at some pictures from the late '60s through the late '70s (in my opinion, our strongest decade as riders). There is a clear, unmistakable difference in effectiveness and form from our current crop. I don't say this to disparage those of our juniors and amateurs who work hard to become excellent riders. I say it because these few are becoming more and more the exception rather than the rule. "Just get it done" has become the mantra of the day. What happened to style, grace, fluidity? They seem to have fallen prey to the almighty dollar.
I can hear the answers now: "But our customers want it this way, and we have to give them what they want!"
We professionals have an obligation to give them what they need, which is definitely not always synonymous with what they want. It's our obligation to educate and inform our students and their parents so that they have a deeper understanding of the sport, not to cater blindly to their wishes.
Instead of educating, though, more and more trainers seem to have allowed themselves to be turned into babysitters and their facilities into dressed up day-care centers with horses. I find this deeply saddening.
OK, so here's my challenge to you: Prove me wrong. Write me and tell me how I'm wrong. I promise to read and reply to all politely worded letters and e-mails. I'd also like to hear from you if you think I'm right, or any mixture of the two. It seems to me that the more professionals who at least talk about these issues, the closer we'll all be to actually doing something constructive.
... and here are some of the reader responses
As a riding instructor for more than twenty-five years, I sadly agree that good horsemanship is not the top item on most instructors' lists. Many merely teach students to show, not to ride well: two things that are not synonymous because judging is so often shallow and superficial. For example, in equitation on the flat classes, judges do not pay attention to transitions. They ask for walk-say, from canter--but then do not even look to see how that walk happens. Another example: In short-stirrup equitation over fences, why is a simple change of lead not valued equally with or even more than an automatic flying change produced by the horse alone. A rider using a simple change of lead demonstrates a number of skills: knowing her leads, having enough control over her pony to come back to trot in the middle of the course, and asking for the correct lead, then resuming pace and rhythm by the time she approaches the next fence. Yet she pins lower. (Moral: Buy an expensive horse and you needn't put in the effort to learn to ride.)
I cringe to hear the comment "It doesn't matter how you look; it's jumpers." The jumpers should be the division that proves that a rider knows how to ride, not an excuse to be sloppy. I often put my students into smaller jumper classes, trying to bring home the point that what they're facing is simply a challenging equitation course that needs to be executed, not run through. I also worry about the emphasis on speed; I try to establish that a good turn well ridden will get you there faster and cleaner than a racing stride. So many times I've sat ringside with my students, watching one of those sloppy speeding competitors and saying, "See how that was ridden? DON'T do that."
Maybe competitive barns have always done this and I'm just now close enough to see it--I've been working and riding for a few hunter barns as a stay-at-home exercise rider and instructor--but I am appalled at the drug usage in top hunter operations. I know of one up-and-coming professional who "aces" horses at home if they are having a hot day; he even aces schooling horses before children get on them. Teaching young riders just to sit and look pretty, we can mislead them into thinking they know how to ride when they don't. This becomes dangerous as they up their level of challenges. I also know of some trainers who inject calcium at shows to calm their horses--and calcium is deadly in large amounts. If somebody took away their drugged robots, could these professionals really ride? I am saddened because I'd always looked up to these people, but now I have no respect for most of them.
Jason Laumbach's letter originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. More readers' responses appear in the "Your Turn" letters column of the May 2003 issue.