“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss
There’s been a lot of talk in hunter/jumper land about the change in the competition landscape. For a while it seemed like just talk – supposedly USEF membership was on the decline, but there were more and more rated shows being added to the calendar, and the WEF and Ocala winter circuits seemed to be drawing a crowd. To someone who was not particularly paying attention (I’ll admit that I wasn’t either… I was much more focused on my riding and horse to be analyzing show numbers), all these little red flags we all kept hearing about seemed like a far away problem. Like a plague on another continent, the repercussions of the decline in rated show attendance were so minor and so intangible to me that they didn’t seem like a big deal. I cared, but not enough to do anything.
This year, the movement away from rated shows became very obvious to me. I live in southeastern Massachusetts, an area with a dense equestrian population and plenty of shows to choose from every weekend (even in the winter). I show at rated shows mainly because they offer the classes I like to compete in. Due to the number of rated shows being held in such close proximity to each other on any given weekend, if was hard to get enough people together to fill a class or division without a fair amount of planning ahead of time.
Aside from getting classes to fill, for me the biggest indicator of the shift in the horse show landscape came when I started bringing a green horse to unrated shows. There are plenty of unrated shows local to my area as well, and, in contrast to the dwindling rated show attendance, unrated show attendance is booming. One unrated show held in the early summer had nearly 25 short stirrupers – more than at any rated show I’ve been to so far this year! I’ve asked a few trainers and riders about why they picked an unrated horse show series over a rated one, and the answers were pretty much all the same: for a horse or rider just starting out, unrated shows are much more affordable while still providing adequate (sometimes steep!) competition. They also added that most unrated shows series have year end awards, so there’s incentive to come back to that particular show.
There’s been a ton of great articles written on how to get more people to become USEF members, and I have read as many of them as I can get my hands on. Each one brings up great points about lowering fees and maybe increasing the mileage rule to concentrate the number of competitors at individual shows thus boosting class sizes. I’ve also read a few articles that suggest that the very atmosphere of rated shows are lacking – the same shows cycle through the same judges and staff and the end results are so predictable that newcomers feel like they can’t compete due to the politics. While I think these are problems and solutions, I think the only real solution is to invite people to become involved.
Go to your USEF Zone Meetings. Join the board of a local rated/unrated show series (I did and I’m learning so much about how horse shows actually work!). Volunteer at a show. Talk to the show manager, let them know what you like and what you don’t like. If as competitors all we ever do is show up, ride, and go home, things won’t change. And while sometimes the governing horse show bodies seem political, tight-knit, and intimidating, my experience has been that they usually enjoy politely delivered feedback from a fresh set of eyes. After all, the only way things can change for the better is if ideas are brought forward, solutions hashed out, and the equestrian community comes together to make all shows accessible to all those brave enough to put on a show coat. Our sport isn’t just for the super wealthy – horses and equestrian sport can and should be accessible to those who seek it.
So I come to you as a Lorax. Though less orange, less furry, and mustache-less, I ask you to speak up and get involved in the horse show dialogue. After all “it’s not about what it is, it’s about what it can become” (The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss).