Y’all know I love me a good discussion post, and a podcast I listened to earlier this week definitely provided plenty of fodder… I’ve been thinking about it all week. Most of you probably know that I grew up in the h/j world, splitting about half and half between the hunters and the jumpers. I was always a fan of a good hunter, and indeed Sadie was bred to be a hunter. I give this background mostly to say that I’ve been in that world, I think I have a decent understanding of it, and I’m not here to just criticize it and be a dick. I genuinely want the sport to improve, because I do think it has a lot of value and good things going for it, even if I’m no longer a participant.
Anyway, on to the podcast in question. It was an episode of Heels Down Happy Hour, and they had Hope Glynn on to talk about things that could be improved when it comes to h/j. She had several points I agree with completely – especially the idea of making all jumper classes under 1m into Optimum Time (yes, omg yes, I’ve been saying this for years) and changing the judging/licensing structure for hunter judges.
The part I really want to talk about though, starts at around 44 minutes and you only need to listen for a few minutes to get the gist of it.
Basically the points she makes are that the demand for quiet, safe, low level amateur horses is so high that it drives up the prices beyond what a lot of people can afford – totally agree with this part. Hunters are SO expensive, at every level. She also says that horses end up lunged too much and medicated too much in order to make a borderline unsuitable horse into a quieter and safer and sounder one – agree with this part as well (I have never in my life seen anything in a sharps container at an event, which was kind of shocking coming from h/j where those things were full a couple days into a show). She also makes the observation that the majority of people at horse shows, the ones that really pay the bills, are the low level childrens and amateur riders, and their horses are being so used up so quickly from all the lunging and meds that they’re having to buy new ones every few years, which becomes even more exorbitant. Yep, I’ve seen that a lot too. Totally with her on her thoughts of some of the biggest issues.
Where she loses me, 100% and unequivocally, is in the proposed solution. Particularly “find a safe tranquilizer” that can be legalized to give to these horses so that they don’t have to get lunged as much or given as many other medications. I admire the fact that she’s ballsy enough to say this out loud – she’s certainly not the first that’s said it, but still it’s a controversial opinion. I just couldn’t help but massively massively massively cringe at it though. Especially because one of the big reasons I left that world is because I was so disheartened at what went on behind the scenes with regards to medication and the constant attempt to make horses into robots. If you’ve ever seen one dropped by a bad mag shot, it’s not something you easily forget. Not everyone is doing it, for sure, but most of them are very quick to reach for a liquid solution (there’s literally the term “liquid lunge”, y’all).
My real issue with this proposed solution is that it doesn’t actually fix anything. It slaps a band-aid over top of some much deeper issues. Not to mention that IMO it’s not safe AT ALL. Please do not jump tranquilized horses. Good god. And I say that as someone who grew up riding with a very Ace-happy trainer and I FOR SURE have done it many times in the days before I really understood what it meant or what it was. These days you could not pay me to jump a tranquilized horse, I’m sorry. I like my neck in one piece thanks, not to mention that it seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen. Anyway, rant over… back to the deeper issues.
As Hope mentions, part of the problem here is that many of these young fancy warmbloods are just plain unsuitable for the job of low level amateur/kids horse. They’re big and athletic and fancy. If the judging rewards big and fancy robots, then big and fancy robots are what people will bring to the ring. So, if we’re willing to say that all jumper classes under a meter should be Optimum Time, what are we likewise willing to change about the structure or standards of low level hunter classes? Would these people not be safer on less athletic, less fancy, perhaps smaller horses?
Here’s where we get to my probably very unpopular opinion. How about, let’s say, in the 2’9″ and under amateur and children’s classes, we have different standards of judging? Much like dressage tests start easier and get progressively harder, with different frames and carriage at the lower levels vs upper levels, why should a 2’6″ amateur hunter class have the same standards as a 3’6″ open class?
For example – for under 3′, why count strides? Allow people to add strides with zero impact on their score. Let the shorter strided horses safely and comfortably do the add, if that’s what makes a more appropriate picture. Gunning it for the 5 makes no sense if the horse could safely and easily do 6, and they shouldn’t score any lower because of it. This would also make it a lot easier for smaller horses or “honies” – many of which are much more size appropriate for kids and small adults.
Allow simple changes without massively impacting the score. I’m sorry but a well-executed simple change is MUCH better and safer and more correct than the floppy, crooked, front-to-back change (aka what every other discipline calls a “hunter change”, hate to break it to you) that you see so often as the kid or amateur tries desperately not to miss a lead change because they know it’ll most likely mean they’re out of the ribbons. If your priority is safe and proper riding and a well-schooled horse, then a good, quick, nicely executed simple change is perfectly fine. Take a couple points off if you want to, but certainly don’t drop the score to an automatic 55. Plus this would open up the market a lot (horses without a 100% perfect flying change could actually have a place in their world) and likely make some more affordable low level ones.
Also, at this level and for the children/adult crowd, should we really be expecting horses to jump out of their skin? Should we reward the horse that the rider can barely cling to? Is that an appropriate mount? Why not the horse that jumps consistently tidy with its knees and has a bascule congruent to fence size instead – isn’t that one actually the better horse in this particular scenario? I think in these classes that’s the that type should be rewarded more, because it’s more suitable, and leave the more extravagant knees-to-chin ones for the pros and the higher divisions.
And last but not least, please for the love of god can we stop expecting horses to plod around like a robots? A few tail swishes here, some ear flicks there… if the horse isn’t actually being naughty or rude, let it be. They’re living creatures with thoughts and emotions and reactions, trying to strive for an automaton is just unrealistic and leads down some seriously dark paths in the quest to achieve it. Aside from the obviously much worse issues of LTD (lunge to death) and drugging, have we stopped to consider how ridiculous it is that most people add weight via fake tails to make the horse’s tail be more still? It’s… an absolutely absurd concept that hints at the much deeper issue. They’re HORSES, for god’s sake, we shouldn’t punish them for acting like it.
Basically my thoughts are: instead of trying to find a “safe” tranquilizer to drug unsuitable horses to meet an incredibly difficult standard, maybe instead we should change the standard to actually suit the horses and the riders.
Hope talks about how there has been almost no growth in the hunter world over the years, and I think there are a lot of reasons why. For myself I know it was a combination of cost and all the crap going on behind the scenes that I just couldn’t stomach. Imagine if someone like me, with a cheap but extremely safe and suitable horse, could actually come in and stand a chance at doing well at the national level. That’s what eventing offered me, and that’s why it ultimately lured me away. A “quick fix” thing like making tranquilizers legal isn’t going to fix that kind of issue. It might keep some people around longer with their unsuitable horses, but I don’t think it’s going to bring people in and grow the sport. Making it more accessible and easier for the average, middle class person to actually be able to compete and do well… that’s what’s going to make the difference, and in order to get to that point, there are some big overhauls that need to be made from the ground up. In my opinion, anyway, of course.
It seems like these types of conversations are going on in a lot of equestrian sports right now, with many of us having to step back and start to reconsider how we do things. What are your thoughts? What changes do you think would help make all equestrian sports more accessible? And for the hunters in particular – what changes would you like to see? How would you feel about changing the drug rules to allow tranquilizers? What would help make horses more affordable again for the lower ch/ad divisions? What would help keep the horses from having to be so heavily medicated or lunged? If you’re someone that’s been lured away from that world like I have, tell us why you left. Or if you’re someone in that world now, tell us what your biggest struggles are and what would help keep you actively participating in the sport long-term.