In the Lens of the Beholder

Sarah Elder Chabot responds to a viral video of western pleasure horses that’s dividing the horse world.



Whether you stash yours in your jacket, purse, backpack, or the back pocket of your Wranglers, you have a fully operational video editing-publishing-distribution center at the touch of your fingers. In today’s world of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the countless number of other social media platforms, anyone can publish and share their thoughts and experiences. For the equine industry, this poses all sorts of opportunities and challenges which will and does contribute to tidal wave of change. We want to celebrate our horses, but at the same time various styles, risks, and even horse welfare can be exposed.

I believe that at the heart of all horsemen there is a deep love for the horse, but in our aim to find success, make a living, or simply enjoy a thrill sometimes we lose sight of what our horses really need and deserve. The internet cries out about the way western pleasure horses move, how Standardbreds are tacked or groomed, the training techniques for walking horses, the intensity of young reining horses, the risks we ask of eventers, the drive to perfection for hunters and the use of drugs. Each segment of the horse industry has its dirty secrets, risks and rewards. Now that consumers can document so easily with their phones, change is inevitable in horse care and ownership, whether it be self-imposed, public perception-driven or eventually managed by the government.

A western pleasure video is circulating around from the All-American Quarter Horse Congress and dividing horse enthusiasts, owners, trainers, and really anyone. Some claim “you don’t understand our world” while others are screaming “it’s unnatural.” But here is some truth we can all get behind: it’s out there.

Everyone in the world has access to videos and content online, so now equestrians don’t have to just worry about what we post, but also if we are captured in someone else’s video or picture without context or reference.

The hard part about trying to either take down or defend an entire group of people is that not everyone is going play nice, not everyone is truly defendable and not everyone is abusive, yet the commentary still exists. We live in a world where public perception wears the crown.

So we’ve come to a crossroads as horse people: do we shun the naysayers and live in our own world, do we educate and defend our actions or do we adjust and progress ourselves? I would say there isn’t a clear direction for any group at this point — letting go of your identity and tradition is hard, but not willing to listen or share isn’t going to help gain more fans, educate others or eliminate the problem. There will be just another post and more viral commentary on how we do things. Eventually classes become smaller, competitions become smaller, and the entire business becomes smaller, and the folks protecting a way of life or a way of training suddenly don’t have as many old customers and less interest from the new ones.

In a world where we need to be fighting for green space, facilities and the right to own horses (just imagine in 50 years what we will be dealing with), we fight amongst ourselves. 

So what do we do?

Listen and make progress: musical artists, presidents, businesses, people, all make changes every day to be better and adjust to public opinion. Why can’t we? I am not saying change everything about the sport, but everyone — including judges, the governing bodies, trainers, owners, and competitors — have to gather together and be progressive. Continue with an effort of being better for the horses. If you’ve got an opinion, become an active voice in your organization, attend conventions, submit rule changes (backed up with valid research), be a voice for your people and your style of horses. If your way of showing and training is so right, it will shine through. But don’t squabble on the Internet without an effort to make real change.

Be realistic: the most popular show in the country will draw onlookers, outsiders, and even loyalists with agenda, but so will the competition in your backyard. So know that you are on camera somewhere. I’ve always said that if I couldn’t explain my behavior to my grandmother, I shouldn’t do it. Consider that the next time you throw a leg over your horse: could you explain what you are doing with a good reason to anyone that walks up? Is your horse prepared to ride? Is he too fresh? Has all the preparation been completed to have the happiest and most comfortable horse possible?

Don’t force it: Full disclosure: I am one of those “hippies.” If I could just gallop around without ever pulling on my horse’s face, I would be the happiest girl, but I know that in order to compete, I have to communicate with my horse and that means, in its most basic sense, pulling on the reins and using my legs. But I don’t ask my horse to do things he can’t … for example, the western classes. It is simply not worth the pulling and pushing it would take to get him there (as a 16.3-hand big stepper that will never happen). So I completely agree that there are horses bred to be great western pleasure horses that lope across the pasture happily at a leisurely pace and don’t require the training methods being called in to question. There are incredible warmbloods that jump around quietly without a swish of the tail. There are thoroughbreds that gallop around the course without hesitation.

However, unless your horse is grazing in the pasture, there really isn’t anything natural that we do with our beloved friends. While the above examples are exceptions, there are trainers and riders trying to make a horse work in a way that he is simply not made to do. That force can quickly become abusive when mixed with a competitive drive and a will to maintain a livelihood.

The world is not just changing. It has changed. We either can pout in the corner or work towards real progress in both our organizations and personal actions for the sake of our beloved horses. I urge all horse lovers to look at what we ask of our horses and ourselves to see where we can make change for the better and celebrate what works.

Is it “your turn”? We love sharing reader essays — send yours to [email protected].

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