I recently dug out the old box-o-home movies. When I was showing horses as a teenager we didn’t have Youtube. We didn’t even own a video camera. When I would get lucky enough to borrow one and beg my mom to tag along to a lesson or to a horse show, I would get a tape. An actual TAPE. If I wanted to show the video to anyone, I’d have to take it to someone’s house, or if it was one of those “convenient” mini-tapes, I’d have to take the whole video camera and a bag of obnoxious cables.
Of the eight or nine shows I did as a teenager I have only a few bits and pieces of footage. Don’t get me started about the one that was accidentally recorded over with hours of CNN and how I sat fast forwarding through the news, tears streaming down my face hoping in vain there was at least some of it left… Those recordings were precious, and they still are. But nearly 20 years later, watching those videos, I now understand why we didn’t win every class, but I sure didn’t at the time. I have the gift of perspective.
I lived in a small town and only did one or two shows a year; a small, saddle club open-show and the County Fair 4-H show. Most of the 4-H kids just learned from their parents or at the three or four open arena nights that the volunteers would host, having to explain that a curb bit needed a curb STRAP in order to actually work. There were a few of the better riders who would trailer their horses an hour or so away for a lesson or two. So the fact that I could get up to two lessons a day in the summers (in exchange for stall cleaning, lamb feeding, and whatever else I was told to do) made me feel like I knew a LOT about riding. I also read a lot of books since my interest/obsession in horses preceded my actual start of riding, by oh, say 13 years, give or take.
My first riding instructor was classically trained. She was sophisticated, elegant, and one of the kindest women I have ever met in my life. I will remember and cherish ALL of the lessons she gave me. She taught me well, but she was much more interested in making sure I was having a good time than anything. She was not at the forefront of the ins-and-outs of trends in horse shows, nor did she much care for them. She’d had her heyday 10-20 years earlier, and a successful heyday it was. We were relentless at begging her to ride in the “Over-the-Hill” class at the show. I still wish she had obliged.
“I only knew what you told me!” was my mother’s response when I joked with her about how the videos contained (in addition to my sub-standard riding) her whispered voice saying how I’d been “robbed” in certain classes, or quietly criticizing the other rider’s performances, even making comments that the Judge must be blind or “related” to the winning riders since the class was being judged so unfairly. We weren’t truly poor sports, mind you, just disappointed in the outcome because we didn’t really know what the judges were looking for. Yes, we, all of us, only know what we’ve been taught. I thought I was riding well, so Mom thought I was riding well. We didn’t understand that the judge was looking for something different. We thought the judge was wrong. And we might have been a little bit biased… I’m sure you never felt the same, right?
It was the mid-nineties in a small farm town. There was no Internet. Today if I want to know what’s winning at the big shows I go to Youtube and I watch the winning runs from Scottsdale, Congress or the WEG. The information is right there. Back then we only had books, the small shows we could get to, and whatever instruction we could find. BOOKS! I’m currently re-reading what my first instructor referred to as her bible: “Horsemastership” by Margaret Cabell Self. Though there is a terrifying suggestion of spreading used motor oil on the arenas to keep the dust down, there are no animations, no color photos, just detailed explanatory text, line drawings, and grainy black & white photos in the middle of the book with references to the pages of text on which they are discussed. Mrs. Self’s words give me sensory flashbacks to my lessons, which is somewhat delightful. It also brings into perspective how difficult it was once for people to get information. You had to GO to a trainer to get information, now you can buy their DVD’s. Books are made with huge colorful photos on every page. You don’t have to flip to the photo section and remember what plate was referenced. Text is shortened. The Internet is lightening fast. I own a late 80’s copy of “Show Grooming: The Look of a Winner” which mentions the difference between the West Coast style of western riding and the East Coast style. Now we see videos of people riding western pleasure Quarter Horses in Germany, and aside from the arena banners I can’t read, it could be any big breed show in the US. Our global perspective has created a narrowing of our knowledge as well as a broadening. Mrs. Self goes into great detail in her sections on training about the different methods used by the different Olympic competing nations. I wonder if they’re all as different now? And what I wouldn’t give to have video of the first years of QH Congress.
But, back to my home movies. I watched with some embarrassment how far forward I was leaning at the trot, practically resting my hands on the horse’s neck. My feet were stuck out in front of me at the walk. My free hand in Western classes was stuck out to the side of me at a 30 degree angle. Then there was “Nikki.” We never understood why she won all the classes on that slow and boring QH gelding she had. He had no animation. Did I mention I was showing Arabians in a ring full of pasture pets, Paints, and QHs? He was so slow and he never extended a trot when asked. How on earth was she winning!?! Now that I’ve moved into that world of AQHA an APHA I see what was happening. I know that flat topline the judge was looking for. I also see, when I really look, how our performance was far from perfect. Not only was my posture crap, my horse was a bit of a nutter. I thought they were prejudiced against Arabs. Now I realize they were prejudiced against inconsistent horses who break gait and weren’t as mannerly as those dumpy quarter horses. It seems I have a selective memory of those rides. I still don’t go in for the crippled-crab-stepping-four-beat-brain-dead-frightened-dog-tailed daisy pickers, but I now recognize that if I am going to these open shows, I need to understand what is expected. If you’re going to bother playing the game, learn the rules.
These days I have the convenience of a pocket-sized HD video camera and a tripod. I can record myself ride any time, plus usually a barn friend to hold it for me at shows. I can edit those videos down and upload them to my blog and to Youtube to share with anyone who wishes to watch. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have this ability when I was 16 as the Internet would be full of my uninformed riding and videos of my show chickens, but that’s fodder for another blog. It’s scary sharing that much information with the world. Someone is certain to look at my recent videos and think exactly what I think when watching those old VHS tapes. I only hope they are either kind, or silent. I can watch the winning Amateur runs at Congress, do the pattern myself and compare the two clips. It can be an excellent training tool. It can also be depressing, knowing just how good we’re NOT. But I can watch my own progress and that is encouraging.
Back in high school I thought I knew what I was doing. Now, with a few years of perspective I realize how little I knew, but I also realize that an additional 15+ years of equine learning hasn’t made me nearly as knowledgeable as I thought I was when I was 16. I am aware that I will never know enough, but I keep trying. I take as many lessons and clinics as I can afford. I keep reading, both the new shiny books AND the old ones without pictures.
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