Or, HILL-RIDIN’ YOKEL MEETS THE BLUE BLOODS.
Or, AN ENDURANCE HILLBILLY’S INTERPRETATION OF A CLASSY HORSE SHOW.
I’ve seen a few jumping and dressage shows and 3-day eventing shows on TV, but I’ve never been to a big horse show like the Scottsdale Arabian Show, first held in 1955, and now one of the largest Arabian shows in the country. I know I’m going to catch flak from show people, but here’s my astute analysis of the show world based on my observations.
Now, seeing that I ride Arabian endurance horses, I know a little bit about Arabians. In fact, I’ve ridden a lot of Arabian endurance horses, many many thousands of miles, in many stages of their training, over varied terrain and in all kinds of weather, Arabians that can go 50 or 100 miles in one day, or 50 miles several days in a row, and I’ve ridden one or two pretty good ones. Admittedly, I have terrible form, riding with my feet way out in front of me, probably leaning too far forward and hunching over my hands, (dressage teachers cringe when they see me coming anywhere near their arena), but this keeps me in the saddle with green spooky horses, which I’ve ridden a lot of. So, I know a little about Arabians. Or, I thought I did.
The first event (event?) we watched at this Scottsdale show was a Halter Class, which I guess was called that because the horses wore halters. I’d rename it the Show-Off-And-Look-Your-Prettiest class. These were 1 and 2-year-olds, and boy, did they know how to show off and look pretty. Or to not behave, I wasn’t sure which. I think they were supposed to walk around for the judges, but most were prancing, dancing with their heads high in the air, and one gorgeous paint filly was having a grand ol’ time, lunging at a two-minute lick around her handler. Zoom! Zoom! Tail in the air! Rearing! Leaping! Capriole! Whheeeeeee!
Maybe part of the reason for this behavior was that before the horses went into the ring, they were all gathered in the waiting arena, and one guy was chasing his groom’s horse around with a plastic bag to scare her into wearing a Frantic Look. (I heard that whips used to take the place of plastic bags for achieving this look, but that’s now frowned upon.)
Like at a dog show, some of the horses had great cheering sections, clapping and whooping and hollering that sounded like fire engine sirens going off. The wilder the horse acted, the louder and more the sirens went off.
At some point after this ‘walking’ around the arena, the handlers were supposed to make their horse stand a certain way. Front feet planted together, one back foot parked out a bit, skinny neck stretched far out, head lifted, higher, higher, higher to gaze at the stars… and I think the horse was supposed to lean forward, and not resist and lean backwards, like they tended to do. When the handlers finally got the horses stargazing and leaning forward, then they’d jerk on the halter, and the horse would throw her head up, either lean back or completely lose the stance, then the whole process would start again. Maybe the horses heard plastic bags in the audience and remembered they were supposed to try to stand and look pretty but frantic at the same time.
I studied and studied a few handlers, but I just couldn’t interpret the mystery dance they were doing with their horses. Leaning into them, leaning back, raising the whip then jerking on the horse’s head when the horse appeared to be standing right. Nor did I have any idea what the judges were looking for in these horses – Conformation? Shiniest coat? Prettiest color? Best pose? The most Vaseline smeared on their faces? The most frenetic eyes? The skinniest legs? The longest back and flattest croup? Just one handler who looked like he or she was enjoying themselves out there? Since I hadn’t a clue, I picked the paint filly because she was having such a good time, but the judges didn’t seem to like her at all or value that quality.
The next class was older mares, and I picked the black mare because I love black horses, which are rather rare, and I picked a liver-colored chestnut who was a very unusual and lovely color. That’s pretty much how I used to pick horses on the racetrack, the prettiest ones. And here the black and the liver chestnut came in first and second! Hey, I was kind of getting the hang of this thing! Better quit while I was ahead.
We moved on to watch the warm-up arena for the dressage riders. Horses being warmed up with their noses tucked so tightly to their chest they could almost stick their noses between their legs. Wow, that didn’t look comfortable at all. The horses could have run straight into a wall without seeing it till they hit it because they must only see 3 inches in front of them. What trust they must have in their riders! I remember the time when I was little that my niece was leading me around blindfolded and she led me right into a tree. I’m still not sure if that was on purpose or not. She won’t fess up.
There were the park or English pleasure horses that snapped their legs up in the air, the forelegs so high they almost touched their chins. That must be very strenuous for them. Bob Battaglia was riding one of these high steppers – even I know who trainer Bob Battaglia is. In fact, the great endurance horse Zayante who I rode many hundreds of miles came from a back field of one of Bob’s old places when Zay’s owner hadn’t paid his board bill for 2 years.
Okay, enough of that; on to the reining arena. Where the Peanut-rollers were warming up. I’d heard of Peanut-rollers, but never seen any in person before. Wow! Horses walking along with their head so low to the ground they look like bloodhounds sniffing a trail. Stormy does that when he’s walking along, only he’s sniffing for horse poop. That didn’t look comfortable either. The horses all looked like they were continually going downhill in the flat arena.
We watched a Western side-saddle class, where the horses’ changed gaits – walk, trot, canter - all looked the same to me, like a shuffling walk. And only one of the gals was smiling and looked like she was enjoying herself. I picked her to win based on that, since I couldn’t tell any difference among all the horses and riders, but she got 7th. I think she should have won because she was smiling the whole time.
We watched the Western pleasure class, where nobody appeared to be having any pleasure, especially one girl whose horse was lapping everybody at the trot. (And watch out for the canter – wheeeee!) What I could deduce of the techniques and goals of Western pleasure was that the object is to not touch your horse’s mouth – just hold the reins up in the air with one hand and not move your hands, as if you were carrying a full champagne glass, and your horse’s gaits should be slow and smooth enough that nothing would spill, and your horse should change gaits without any visible cueing. What I could see of the Western pleasure “trot” meant the same as a walk, only a two-beat. What I could see of the Western pleasure “canter” meant about the same as a trot, only a 4-beat. All slow and very controlled. Pretty impressive for an Arabian – at least the Arabians I ride. Well, Raffiq can walk pretty slow. He can trot pretty slow, too, when you are pointing him away from home.
Those were the gaits of all the horses in the ring, except for the runaway horse who didn’t want to be a Western pleasure horse, the one who was having a great time lapping everybody, whose rider’s face was turning red as she wrestled her horse with both hands on the reins and yanking on his mouth. I would have picked that horse to win because he was having so much fun, but even I figured out he was being pretty naughty. The girl rode out of the arena before all the ribbons were handed out.
I could see me doing this class one day, although I’d surely be the girl on the out of control horse. On second thought, I wouldn’t be allowed in the arena for such a class anyway, because I’d be leaning over introducing myself to the other riders, asking them where they’re from, commenting on their horses, enjoying myself, even while wrestling with my horse, which apparently is not the goal of Western pleasure.
We also cruised through the vendor area. Some shops had some mighty fancy sparkly spangly blouses to wear in competition. Hmm, if I can occasionally get away with wearing my leopard or zebra-striped tights in an endurance ride, why couldn’t I wear one of these tops with them? And I lusted after some great red leather gloves, mid-forearm length with red leather fringe on them – boy, they would have looked awesome with my red and black leather chaps with the red fringe! I might even get away with them (and my chaps) at the Oscars as a new fashion trend. But alas, I could not afford these gloves.
In conclusion, I obviously need quite a bit more education on what different show disciplines are about and what the goals are. And I apparently know little about what good conformation is in a good Arabian show horse. I do know they are glammed up to look pretty, but I like a horse you can have fun with (like say for 8 hours, going 50 miles). I like a horse whose head I can grab and plant a kiss on the side of his nose and give him a big hug. I get the feeling you don’t do that with these Arabian horse china dolls on display. Stormy still looks good when he’s filthy dirty.
So now after experiencing my first first-class Arabian horse show, I tried to think how we endurance riders might be able to learn and incorporate anything from these classes into our discipline. I came up with this.
Maybe at the start of an endurance ride, all our horses could be warmed up by someone chasing them around with plastic bags. Some of the riders could try riding side-saddle (some of us may unwittingly end up riding side-saddle anyway, with our horses spooking from the plastic bag warm-ups). Some of us could attempt the Western Pleasure form of riding, where we hold the reins loosely with one hand as our horses change from gait to gait at the same speed (runaway, after the plastic bag warmup). Still others of us could attempt to get our horses to bow their necks till their heads are between their knees, which we will be doing anyway, sawing on the reins trying to stop our runaways because of the plastic bag warm-ups.
I think we could learn to dress up a little better, taking a little incentive from our show sisters-in-the-saddle. On my best days I can manage to wear mostly red and black, coordinated with my horse’s red cinch, red breast collar and crupper and saddle bags, and his red and black halter, and black sidepull. Most days, though, I just throw on whatever the weather dictates and only a color-blind person could appreciate it. I’ll make an effort to wear my wild animal tights a little more often, and I think I could really spruce things up with a sequined show blouse. I don’t think the colors need match. The red leather fringed gloves are a must. I will start saving up for those, because now I’m going to be thinking about them forever!
And best of all what we can learn from the shows is, to have fun like the one gal I saw riding side-saddle. She looked good, her horse looked good (to me, who obviously didn’t know anything, since the horse got 7th), and she was having fun and smiling before, during, and after her ride.
To finish is to win!