Reader Julie Weisz reflects on a recent encounter that reminded her of her own early days as a privileged but ignorant “show kid,” and the journey that brought her to a greater understanding of horsemanship.
“Excuse me, do you think I could sneak by you?” I waited patiently in the barn aisle with the horse I had just finished schooling at the show. A young girl, probably around twelve years old, was standing with her large warmblood and blocking anyone from passing on either side.
She looked back at me and said, “Sure, no problem.” She then proceeded to stand there without moving herself or her horse for approximately another 30 seconds, still taking up the entire aisle that four horses could easily have fit through. She waited, immobile, until one of the very busy show grooms was finally free and able to take her horse. She dropped the reins as the groom took them, and after passing along some information from the trainer, she turned away without a second look at either horse or groom. The groom quickly moved the horse out of my way, and I thanked him.
I could not control the incense I felt toward the girl. Hadn’t anyone taught her better manners? How could she walk away from her horse without even a pat to tell him he was a good boy? I began ranting silently in my mind about “kids these days” and how horsemanship is dying by the minute at shows such as these.
It was then that my brain paused. I began flashing back to my own showing days as a child and teenager. With horror, it dawned on me that I had been that girl. I might have at least given my horse a pat and the groom a heartfelt thanks for taking care of the horse that had just taken care of me for the duration of my ride, but I knew that at the heart of it, I had been just like the girl. Privileged. Spoiled. Without any understanding of what went into the care and maintenance of my equine partners. No knowledge of the funding that was behind me to allow me to do what I was doing.
I felt some inner remorse, along with embarrassment, as I remembered my days of competing nearly every weekend and handing horses off to grooms. I would like to think that I did at least treat the grooms with the respect they deserved. In my show barn, the grooms were treated almost like family, as they should have been. They were an integral part of the team that kept everything running smoothly and the horses looking impeccable.
It was also of no fault of my trainers that I was handing the horses off to the grooms without any real horsemanship knowledge or skill. That was simply their business model, and an extremely successful and positive one. This model worked well for horses and humans who wanted to be in such a program. Everything ran like a well-oiled machine, with pristine organization and horses that were immaculately cared for to the minutest detail. Attention to detail that owners would not have the time, knowledge, or in some cases interest in doing properly themselves. The horses were happy and so were the winning riders.
I was happy, for a while. As an ever competitive person, I loved competing and winning. But something was missing. When I first started riding, I was much more “hands on” with the horses. At ten years old, I knew how to groom a horse and muck a stall. I knew more about all the details on the ground. When I was competing in the show barn, that knowledge on the ground was not the focus.
When I finally got to the point where I was struggling in my riding and the passion — the drive behind my devotion to the horses and why I was riding to begin with — was askew, I took a step back. When I was considering walking away from the sport entirely at age seventeen, I luckily found my mentor, Arlyn DeCicco. I took a break from showing and engrossed myself with her program. I started with grooming.
I will never forget my mortification as Arlyn waited an unseemly amount of time while I picked hooves for the first time in I couldn’t tell you how long. Each hoof seemed to take half an hour, and I was exhausted by the end of it, not to mention daunted by the prospect of proceeding with the rest of the grooming and riding process. And don’t forget the tack cleaning!
But I learned. I was committed. And I loved it. Slowly, I became a horsewoman. As I slipped from the radar of competitive ranks, I amassed my knowledge. I learned how to wrap legs. I learned about conditions like Polysaccharide Storage Myopathy and laminitis. I learned about bodywork, acupuncture, and balanced shoeing. I learned about deworming and developing nutrition programs. I learned to do my research on the NSC content of various feeds and hay, and if grass was present, how to monitor spring and fall grazing.
I learned about how to maintain an athlete. I learned about ethics of injections and neurectomies, and had to make difficult decisions on behalf of what I felt were my horses’ best interests. I learned about true partnership. Not the kind that you get just in the show ring, but the kind you get from learning about horses’ muscles, deciphering and monitoring each little bump on their legs on a daily basis, turning them out, watching each of their distinct rolls. I learned how to become a partner with the 1,200 lb prey animals I worked with. And I grew up beyond the spoiled brat who handed my expensive horses off to the incredible grooms who were like the set designers behind every major play.
These days, as I now am a trainer with around twenty horses either directly or indirectly under my care, I am always hesitant to share my show history with others. I know that some may be impressed by my accolades, but many others will only see the money that was behind me to allow me to do things as a child that most people will never do in their lifetimes. I am not ashamed of the money that was behind me, and I do believe I still worked hard for my wins, but there will always be a part of me that will be a little embarrassed that I didn’t learn how to wrap a horse’s legs until I was a late teenager. There will always be a part of me that hears about clinics or medal tests taking place where basic horsemanship knowledge is put to the test and the riders fail, that will remind me with some shame that I, too, would have failed.
There will also always be a part of me that never stops striving to be a better horsewoman. There will now always be a part of me that pushes my students to do the same. My newfound focus and passion is in instilling this horsemanship in anyone willing to embrace knowledge that goes beyond just winning a ribbon. Ribbons and trophies are nice, but at the end of the day, clean hooves are more important.
Author Julie Weisz utilizes the Balanced Equine Training program which, similar to physical therapy, focuses on the anatomy of horse and rider to develop more sound and balanced athletes. Julie’s training business, Elpis Enterprises, is located in Fallbrook, CA, where she uses her anatomical understanding and dressage fundamentals to help horses and riders in a variety of disciplines.