Thursday, November 29, 2012

Talking About Horses

I recently read an article in the Chronicle of the Horse that gave me pause. The article, No Boundaries Has Helped Put Eventer Erin Sylvester On the Map, contained several examples of a trend that really frustrates me when writing about horses.

Simply put: I wish there were a better way to describe the shades of training a horse is getting, and to do so in an honest, straightforward way that doesn't make me think you're kind of an idiot. I don't mean to single out Erin Sylvester in this, who I'm sure is a lovely and accomplished person, but several of her statements in the article really annoyed me. I've seen dozens of similar ones. I wish I could say I've seen it everywhere, but I haven't: it seems to be particular to eventers.

Here's an example:

“[Phillip Dutton] sees talent and potential in them to be really great riders, and I was, for lack of a better word, a bit of a hooligan. I didn’t have any concept of counting strides in between fences or seeing a distance. I knew how to sit up and kick and hold on and get stuff done. I was lucky to be on catty horses until I got there. It was definitely a work in progress for him when he first started working with me, just having the patience to [teach me] some really basic things that I should have known before I got there and that I’d kind of gotten away with not understanding.”
The previous paragraph describes how she took a schoolmaster through Intermediate. Intermediate. In one breath, she's going Intermediate - admittedly on a well-trained and forgiving horse - and in the next, she's a "hooligan" who "didn't have any concept of counting strides...or seeing a distance."

Here's another example:
Around the same time, Sylvester was bringing along another project horse, No Boundaries. Originally bought by Christine Price as a dressage prospect but bred to be an eventer, “Bucky” decided that life inside a white rectangle was not for him, so Sylvester took the Thoroughbred on as a resale project. “He seemed to move well enough and jump well enough a fair amount of the time. Honestly, I really didn’t believe in him that much until he went to a two-star,” Sylvester admitted.
There are two stories at play here: the first, that she wasn't really a very good rider (even though she'd gone Intermediate); the second, that her horse was wild and uncontrollable and she wasn't sure he would "make it" until he completed a two-star. I've seen this narrative elsewhere. So-and-so didn't know anything, even though she'd managed to kick on through a few Advanced runs, until she finally "made it"; such-and-such a horse couldn't even go on the bit until he was running regularly at the three-star level.

It's similar to a very pervasive narrative that runs particularly through the COTH forums, and is two sides of a coin: any horse/rider can make it to Training, and you're not a proper eventer (you haven't really "done it") unless you've gone Training. There is the tendency to discount anything before that as not quite polished enough, and even then there are people who talk about runs at Training on green horses as a "test."

Let's be clear. If you are riding at Intermediate; if your horse is starting a two-star; if you have brought a horse along to Training; if you are seriously contemplating a regular show schedule of any recognized events: you are a skilled rider, and you have a competent horse. Period. You can walk, trot, and canter with an independent seat, you can jump and gallop in the open, you can read related distances in the showjumping ring.

Are you a really good rider? Maybe not. Maybe it's not polished, maybe you are not clicking along like a metronome on that cross country course, maybe your dressage test could use more submission, but you are there and you are doing it.

So people who say that they didn't know anything, or their horse was wild, or any variation on that, and yet are running at high levels - they need a better precision of language. There needs to be a better way to talk about the grades of finesse in between the levels. You are not "wild" if you're running around Intermediate. You may need some polish, you may still have a lot to learn, and you may still feel inexperienced at the level, but you know what you're doing.

I get that it's difficult sometimes to really thoughtfully describe all those shades. I can ride a Training level dressage test, my trainer can ride a Training level dressage test, and Lauren Sprieser can ride a Training level dressage test, but there are worlds of difference in the nature and quality of the tests we ride, and it takes careful language and thoughtful self-assessment to really describe those differences. I just wish more people would take the time to work at that language.

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