Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Horse Show Numbers are (gasp!) Declining

There are a couple articles swirling around "the socials" right now about the decline in participation at USEF horse shows.

The mind, she is boggled!

Or like.

Not.
#baller
One of the posts I saw was written by a thoughtful local pro who I have a lot of respect for, so I wrote the following:

"It’s been years since I’ve taken a horse in the show ring and if I get back to it, I don’t see myself joining organizations and showing rated. The cost is so high and the competitor experience is not great. Why would I spend hundreds of dollars to wear white spandex for a couple minutes and sweat my ass off only to be told that my safe, appropriate horse isn’t as fancy as a much fancier horse?

I find my competitive outlets other places and while I enjoy my horse, I have no interest in getting back to showing."

There was a lot of discussion, but another person came back with two things:

  1. Amateurs are too fixated on winning
  2. Amateurs who aren't winning blame their non-fancy horse instead of their own poor riding
I'd like to discuss these responses just a little. 



1. Winning fixation-as the other poster illustrated, people run 5ks with no expectation of ever winning. Why should they expect to win at dressage? 

Let's talk about this a little. 

Running is a sport with a very low barrier of entry financially. You can do it with things you already have around the house. You can spend a lot or you can spend a little. For the sake of discussion, let's focus on the full-time worker who runs nights and weekends for fun and does 5-10 5ks a year. 

They pay $30-100 to run a race. At that race, they can wear anything they feel like running in (barefoot in shorts and a sports bra? fine. designer shoes, olympic branded gear, heart rate monitor? equally fine.) They get a tech fabric shirt, a finisher medal, post-race snacks, and frequently a meal or beverage. There's a start time and every participant can set objective time goals and work towards them. 

If their friends or family want to come watch, there is a start time and a published route. Cheering and participation is encouraged. If they have plans after, the whole day is typically ahead of them. If the family wants to participate, hey, they can.
  • This person will literally never win a 5k unless they are over 70 years old. 
  • This person will never appear on the "national running scene".
  • This person will have the full running experience, probably including a couple of irritating injuries that will result in a few days away from work over their career
they may get a wild hair and run a half marathon too
And how does horse showing stack up? 

Riding is a sport with a very high barrier of entry. Whether you own or lease, you need a horse. The horse needs to live somewhere. You need appropriate tack and gear for the horse, a way to get the horse to and from competitions, and a bevy of memberships to be allowed at the competitions.

And this is for the nights and weekends rider who wants to do 5-10 shows a year. 

We're going to talk about recognized/rated horse shows since these are the ones squealing about diminished participation. Participants pay $150-500/day in show fees just to the show (not including coaching/stabling/hauling/grooming/schooling/etc). The participant (and the horse) have to wear approved outfits and the person in charge can literally wave around a color wheel and kick a rider out out for being a shade off. If the person wins the horse show, they get a $2-$5 ribbon with no cash value. Maybe a wine glass. If they don't win, hopefully there was a peppermint in the competitor pack that they can suck on. They can try to set individual score goals, but since judging is ultimately subjective and influenced by trends and the class around them, they may or may not meet the goals. (You ride Backyard Betty after Hopfenschnerflgard the Import? -5 for looking worse in comparison. Whoops. Too bad your ride had to be scheduled around multiple trips in the ring for the ammy with 3 imports who's competing in multiple divisions and worth way more money to the show organization than you ever will be!)  

If your friends or family want to come watch, they will have to show up to a multi-hour event that is nearly always behind schedule. They will be subjected to a complicated set of expectations for the horse show spectator and ignored at best, or (likely) mocked, hushed, and glared at for not following the intricate social mores of a rarefied upper class club. If they have plans after, too bad. The event will go all day. If they still want to participate after all that, the barrier of entry is just as high as it was for the first person.
  • This person might win a class here and there because hey, participation is declining and sometimes your competition gets the flu!
  • This person will never appear on the "national riding scene".
  • This person will always know that they aren't a "true equestrian" because their middle class life requires they have a real job and health insurance, which precludes long hours at the barn. 
  • This person runs the chance of a catastrophic injury from being around horses which could result in weeks or months away from that all-important job. 
oh hai decently fancy ribbon
TL:DR USEF shows come with very high costs and little to no reward. Running 5ks is much more competitor and spectator friendly. 

2. Non-winning amateurs on affordable horses who ride on nights and weekends and take a weekly lesson should blame their own riding instead of the fact that they got beat by a purpose-bred sport horse that cost more than their house ridden by an-equally motivated amateur who trains 5-7 days a week with the best trainer money can pay for in a sport that literally takes a lifetime to understand.

If you say there isn't a divide here, I don't know what to tell you. It's a money sport. The people who can afford top of the line horses, get more show ring experience, and ride with better pros are not less motivated than you are and yup, they're going to beat you every out. 

And they should. They literally paid for the privilege.

They're better than you (at this sport). A lot of them are great humans and they work hard at it and that's nothing to be ashamed of. 
i'm being a dik dik again
There's not a whoooooole lot of point in paying money to go get your subjectively-judged ass handed to you to the tune of your mortgage payment per weekend when you literally don't have a chance. (Unless you're short on wine glasses? Even then I feel like amazon prime might be a better shot if you want a matched set.) 

So yeah. If you want to be blamed for not having enough money to compete in a moneysport that's literally populated by the Eve Jobs, Jennifer Gates, and Georgina Bloombergs of the world, I mean, there's always USEF shows! 
Sound off, internet. Why am I wrong?

37 comments:

  1. you are not wrong and it's why I've only done schooling shows since 2012, and have little/no motivation to compete 'rated' anymore.

    I'm about to pay $10 to do an 'unrecognized' lifting competition and there's going to be food (for competitors and spectators) and prizes for the best outfit and I'm pretty sure everyone gets a participation medal so like I guess I'll just do that.

    there's always going to be someone out there better than me, and I'm fine with that. i also don't need to pay $1k for the pleasure.

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    1. Anymore, something has to be actively fun or I'm just not going to do it. I have real life to be stressed out about. Hard pass on stressful hobbies.

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  2. Bravo. Encore. Encore!

    ---> "their middle class life requires they have a real job and health insurance, which precludes long hours at the barn." <--- DING DING DING.

    I really appreciate the point about friends family, too, because all of us have friends and family who want to do active things with us but don't wanna "do the horse thing". So therefore one must have a multi-faceted life of hobbies and passions to help foster and nurture relationships with humans. Bully for you if you were born into a family or community that eats/sleeps/breathes horses. Most of us aren't that person tho.

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    1. Yup, exactly. I value activities that allow active, outdoors people to be involved.

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  3. That's pretty much exactly it.

    At 50 I show dressage 4-6 times a year on a local show circuit with year end awards. It's enough of a challenge to keep us improving, my not fancy dressage pony is competitive at the lower levels, and we've taken the(substantial) money saved to go on several family trips abroad. It's not what I would have dreamed of at 20, but I have the greatest little horse that I enjoy on many levels, a more balanced life, and no need to justify to myself huge expenditures that will still be dwarfed by the truly wealthy.

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    1. Right? I definitely have my dream horse but living the dream doesn't look like what I expected at 20.

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  4. You hit the nail on the head. Unfortunately both of my free (to me) horses just will not stack up to someone's 100k horse. I'd still like to get some rated scores someday and pursue some dreams in rated events and rated dressage, but the reason I've held back from doing it all these years? Money. I can show 10 local shows for the price of one rated. It's hard to justify. Especially when you know that your horse just doesn't compare to half the horses that will be there (in fanciness factor), and your riding will be subpar compared to most because you just can't do 7 days a week and be in professional training for half of them.

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    1. I hear you. In the west, just the time/cost of getting to the rated shows can actually take up the PTO and money that's supposed to go towards doing things with my SO. That's not a trade I'm willing to make.

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  5. Well said! And I'm glad you are blogging again. :)

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  6. I feel this so deeply. Add in children where you also feel guilt if you do too many horse things that pull you away from family and it really limits the preparation time. I have a wild hare of a dream, but the odds are stacked against me, especially since I'm eyeing the rated circuit in 2021/2022.

    I'm just hoping to try. And if the odds seem not in my favor, I'm not going to be hard on myself for releasing the dream. I just really want to say that I tried to make it work.

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    1. Oh yeah, kids are a whole 'nother layer of complication.

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  7. Between the increase in rules and the cost it is no wonder that people are choosing to spend money elsewhere. Especially in dressage. All that said, I do about 3 shows a year but our costs are not ridiculous (yet) and I like seeing my horse friends there.

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  8. Very good! I too left the rated shows. The cost was too great and they really weren't fun.

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    1. I know if I'm paying that much for an experience, it has to be like. The thrill of a lifetime. Or why bother. I could be a disneyland.

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  9. I certainly agree that USDF rated are expensive - I usually budget $1000-1200 for a weekend two-day show. I also agree that it's an expensive sport overall - I personally make the best progress when I take weekly lessons with a good coach, which is not cheap. However, I have a slightly different take on the 'fancy horse' perspective.

    I showed my BFF's 15.1 hh backyard-bred pony cross through 3rd, with scores in the high 60s at all levels. I took him to USDF Nationals and came home with a ribbon. Along the road, there were some blue ribbons and wine glasses in there (I like to joke that those are our most expensive wine glasses so DON'T BREAK THEM), which meant we beat at least a few fancy warmbloods, despite being a 6 mover. So yes, you CAN be successful on something that's not super fancy. Sure, a better mover may be able to get better scores, but you have to be able to RIDE it to those scores. And the number of AAs that are poorly matched or terrified of their fancy big-moving horses is kinda ridiculous.

    So, do what you want to do and can afford, to the best of you and your horse's ability. That said, most of us live in a whoooole 'nother tax bracket than the Jennifer Gates of the world, and some of the governing organizations would do well to recognize that.

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    1. I'm sure that most of us agree that it isn't just about the price of the horse. However the high ticket horse is a sign that the rider can probably also afford the lessons, the maintenance, and most of all the luxury of time that it takes to do well - really well - at an equestrian sport. There's a reason why a successful competitor on an 'off brand' horse is the exception rather than the rule.

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  10. I definitely see both sides to this.

    I do compete at rated shows, but only a couple each year. I only do maybe one or two schooling shows in addition to that. I can't afford more financially, but I also can't afford more weekends away from the husband and pups and farm chores.

    I do think that the rated shows are worth it for now. But my goal is to earn my bronze on a self-made horse. (And unless your horse has some serious flaws, even a very plain horse can get to third.)

    I will say that after I achieve that goal I see me going to clinics or even experimenting in different disciplines rather than spending a bunch on the rated shows with my horse who will most likely top out at third.

    So idk. It's personal preference. It's definitely expensive, but the cost of horse ownership rises at a higher rate than wages...And therein really lies the issue in my opinion. If we all had a little more disposable income we'd be happy to chip away at our goals on our non-fancy horse. We'd take it less seriously and probably have more fun.

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    1. Oh totally. To me, dropping $500-1000 on a weekend is a big damn deal. If that's more pocket change to you, then I see why you'd be more inclined to participate.

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  11. I do take some offense at the idea that I need to evaluate my riding. Mostly because I DO evaluate my riding, and work very hard to continue to improve it. However, the fact that the horses I can afford are solid "6" movers cannot be discounted. The best I could ever expect to achieve at 2nd, 3rd, 4th, was a 60. I did better than that often, because I rode the shit out of the test where I knew we could get extra scores regardless of gait quality (ex: walk pirouettes and halts). We still weren't in the same category of the other horses competing at the level, but we were "successful" for how I defined "success" with MY horse and MY riding and MY budget limitations.
    All that said. The USEF (and USDF for that matter) would do well to remember that a large number of their show competitors are WORKING adult amateurs, who are WOEFULLY underrepresented in the organizations structure. The org values people who have the time and substantial money to invest, with very little consideration for those who have tighter schedules, tighter budgets, but still the drive to get out and ride and train and lesson. I want to see more representation in the committees and panels and member highlights from those adult amateurs struggling, both with time and budgets. We are just as important to this sport, if not more important. We're the ambassadors beyond the "rarified circle". We bring in those who aren't born into that world. We make it seem accessible, even though it's a hell of a lot of work and an incredible drain on willpower and resources. Yet, the organization does not seem to value our contributions.

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    1. Also, just for flame fodder. An "adult amateur" is NOT a wealthy heir/ess who "runs their own company" and "still makes time to ride." An Adult Amateur is a person who works a 9-5 job, has a boss, doesn't set their hours, and depends on that paycheck to eat and pay bills. End of story. Highlighting the first type is a complete affront to the second. The quality of the riding aside.

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    2. Haha that "ammys like us" article series on COTH makes me die inside. Ah yes. All I need is 3 horses in full pro training at WEF so I can fly in on the weekends and they cart me around the 2'6". HADNT THOUGHT OF THAT, THANKS.

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  12. I've been climbing into the saddle since I was five years old, did horse shows the whole time I was a kid and off and on as an adult, and in all that time I have showed in exactly one (1) rated CLASS, let alone show. I think I was around nine years old and my barn hosted an A show. I didn't pin but was pretty excited to just be in the ring on a school pony. And you know what? That is FINE. Sure, I've always been jealous of those who have fistfuls of $$ and the time to do this sport. I greatly admire most of them because when it comes down it they still have to RIDE the horse. Mainly, I remain extremely grateful to have had a riding career at all (still) and am extremely excited to, for the first time EVER, experience a fraction of owning my own horse by half-leasing this year. We will be showing on a popular, ammy-friendly local circuit for $7.00/class (with minimal stall and show fees) and that is A-okay with me. I love to go watch rated shows, but my nervous system alone couldn't handle them, let alone my wallet! Thank God for non-rated shows and their increasing popularity. It's a shame there is such a divide in horse sports and that USEF/other rated shows are getting more expensive all the time. I don't know why anyone would be surprised attendance is down. Duhhhh.. But thankfully, at least where I live, there are still opportunities for everyone!

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    1. There are lots of less expensive opportunities if you look, for sure. Just depends on what you're trying to get out of it.

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  13. A.M.E.N! The driving club in AZ had a whopping total of 1 ADS sanctioned show/CDE per year. I could pay the ADS membership of $75 or skip it and still show as a non-member for like $30. If I had managed to make Two shows, I would still save $15 showing as a non-member. Still have the same experience, same amount of Fun, same ribbons, see the same people- just less cost.

    Since showing the filly in dressage and hitting up a couple schooling shows, same thing- all the same fun, people, tests, etc. without the sky high prices. With the club membership comes the GMO with USDF. I can transition over and do A Rated shows when we're ready for it and the budget allows.

    I see things a little differently though. I don't think purchase price or breed papers makes a lick of difference in the driving or dressage ring. My low cost (under $600) grade pony turns a lot of heads at the show's and holds her own alongside the others that came from breeders and have had pro training. I have also done all the things on my own with no 'team' to back me up or help me out. Again- we have held our own against those who have trainers, lessons, breed papers and people helping to back and support their efforts. I am proof that it really can be done! And when the Have Not's ribbon well against the Have's- it makes those scores all the sweeter.

    As it was said upwards in the comments- the horses may cost more, they may have more free time and money for lessons, but they still have to ride the test and get the scores. Doesn't mean they will do it well or better than the rest of us, they just paid more in the process to get there.

    USEF,USDF and other organizations may see the decline in membership and entries as they continue to price themselves out of existence and necessity. The true Adult Ammy's will still show when, where and as our budgets allow. We will speak with our $$$ and support those who listen.

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    1. I'd like to get my bronze medal, but until I'm reliably riding at 3rd at home and at schooling shows, I don't see the point in paying $$$ to put miles on my horse at rated shows. YMMV.

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  14. You're not wrong.

    I just had to accept that I am not going to be beat the 6 figure warmbloods with 8 or 9 gaits. That's ok with me really. I mean, that would be like trying to make me a WNBA player. I could get technically good at basketball, but would I EVER beat the top WNBA players? Hell no. So I don't expect that of Hampton.

    He HAS however scored better than MANY fancier horses because I have had to work harder at test riding. He also has a good brain and works his ass off for me. So we have seen much success in dressage, in spite of his average gaits and conformation. BUT I'm also not a weekend warrior. I ride daily and take weekly lessons, and sometimes clinics. This I do by working at the farm and working 2 other jobs. I think every AA has a different situation. And its up to you to define what success is for you. If I defined success by how many blue ribbons or top horses and riders I beat, I would have quit showing rated a long time ago.

    sorry for the ramble. You're not wrong for sure. It IS a money sport, I'm guessing Hunters is worse than dressage though.

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    1. You are definitely an equestrian role model to me and I'm Hampy's biggest fan. <3

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  15. As I did a lot of rated showing this summer, yeah, money counts. I got a lot of yellow ribbons this year. Why? Because my horse is a very good boy and marches about and looks very pleasant to ride. He's also a heavy, earth bound horse that averages a 6.5 in gaits. That will beat horses having melt downs, tests with errors, and plain old bad tests. We are always beat by the import WBs with amazing movement. In my region at Second Level, being consistent and correct but not flashy lands you mid-pack. Low to mid 60's and a lot of yellow ribbons.

    I have my own goals and really don't ride for the ribbons. I'm riding for my Bronze. The subjective judges kill me and paying that much money to have someone declare that your horse is completely inappropriate (and then have a more senior judge give you a 62% on the same day) is crushing. This year I will be doing a lot of schooling shows because I need miles and don't want to pay hundreds of dollars to have someone tell me I suck.

    I will still show rated because I want those senior judges. As I move up and show with more senior judges, I find myself wanting my score sheets more. The comments are more useful, the scoring more consistent, and the whole experience more gratifying. But I can see why a lot of riders don't want to fight through Training/First/Second to get to the senior judges. And some of the senior judges will skewer you just as hard. Multi-day shows are not for us. Smaller, local rated shows are where we've found our sweet spot. The higher end schooling shows will be getting the bulk of our show budget this year.

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    1. I definitely keep an eye on your progress, since you basically have zb's big brother. Keep at it!

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  16. I actually disagree with this entire blog post. I don’t think any of my family members have EVER been looked down upon or spoken to rudely just for attending a horse show?? In fact, they’ve been asked to help out, or other riders have asked “Hey can you hand me that whip there”.

    The no cash value and $2 ribbon thing I don’t really get. The medals you receive for completing a 5K run or whatever are very similar in value, so it’s kind of funny you strike that comparison when the two are quite literally the same.

    “If you say there isn't a divide here, I don't know what to tell you. It's a money sport. The people who can afford top of the line horses, get more show ring experience, and ride with better pros are not less motivated than you are and yup, they're going to beat you every out. »

    Well, yeah… I mean, thats kind of the way life goes?? Some people are able to travel all over the country and attend runs and even compete in an Olympic capacity (500m dash, sprints, etc). The elite amongst the running circles are those who are training with the best trainers, going all over the world competing, and winning at the Olympics. And some people, Heaven Forbid, are just naturally gifted in marathons/ running in general?


    And yeah, there is a "type" of horse that is preferred for Dressage. Bouncy, athletic movers are preferred over shuffling and ambling Quarter Horses or Drafts. It's kinda like... you wouldn't wear hiking boots to run a marathon now would you?? It can be done, but it is often more difficult and may be harder for the boots to do their job.


    I also know of someone personally who has a very average horse that absolutely dominates in Dressage, including over the “fancy” horses. She works hard with him and it shows.

    If competing isn’t your thing and you want to be bitter about it, I mean, go ahead? But I know of several people who have done WELL at these rated shows with “average” horses against professionals and other “elite” members of society.

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    1. I'm glad your experience has been very different from mine!

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  17. And THIS is wjy I ride endurance. No uniform (all we care about is that your horse is sound, you have control, and you're wearing a helmet). And it doesn't matter HOW MUCH you paid for your horse, if he's not correclty trained and managed he isn't going to beat my $500 unregistered pony.

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    1. You make me wish I had the drive for endurance.

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