By Lisa Marie Beckwith

Time for an “Opinionated Opinion” This one comes directly from my years of riding, showing and now judging; and also from my background as an educator in the non horse world. It’s a small rant but I hope it gets show managers thinking and trainers thinking.

What has confused and frustrated me is that over the last I’d say 10 years a trend began to evolve in riding. While I”m assuming it’s to open up riding to everyone and I am very supportive of that – though I think we’ve opened up a little to much. As a child riding student we were not allowed to go to shows until we could walk and trot and post correctly and independently in large group settings, simply because the pre-short stirrup divisions were W/T. If you weren’t at that level then you weren’t ready to show. Today we have a slew of classes that accommodate riders who are not really ready to show, and not really safe to ride at a show. Yes, we need to encourage them but if their instructors are making it fun as kids then are they missing out on showing? Below are some of the mind boggling classes I have seen and or judged:

Blue Ribbon Leadline – a HOT issue with moms but I love that the rated shows like Warrenton and Upperville in Virginia actually place their leadliners! It’s not “Everyone gets a magical blue ribbon and everyone can be a winner” like t-ball and soccer, but you get placed! Please for everyone’s safety, stop bringing your 8-month baby and setting him on a 16h horse while you walk it around… no part of that is safe when you need side walkers! The kids that show in blue ribbon leadline class are often family members who never ride and want to go in a class. They don’t ride and have no interest in riding but mom wants them tossed up there. I cannot explain the number of kids I’ve seen dumped because they have never ridden except this one leadline class. And the kids who are 6 years old who have been riding for a while but aren’t old enough to move up a division stop caring because they are bored knowing they’re getting a blue ribbon (so why even try and why even care). What kind of lesson are we conveying to our kids about the dedication and work ethic of horse care and riding?

Me trot lead lining over ground poles and trying to to run out of steam!Me trot lead lining over ground poles and trying to to run out of steam!

PeeWee Assisted Division – This one I did take a kid into for a friend (used my pony) and as the adult “Assistant” it was ridiculous. It was essentially Leadline, for kids 5-8 years-old where we had a walk leadline class followed by a walk/trot leadline class, and a walk/trot/ground poles leadline class. It pretty much became which lady lugging a kid around fell out last! These kids also only got participation ribbons not even blues! (I think the adults should have gotten a blue ribbon!)

PeeWee Coached Division – This little gem is a Walk and division including a pattern, half arena rail work and pleasure and eq classes. Again all at the walk but this time we don’t lead them around, no, we have mommies and coaches stand in the middle of the half arena and can coach their kids without penalty and grab the pony if the kid can’t steer and stay in the half arena.

Walk Only Division – Yeah you heard it here… Walk only, and I mean 4 classes of walk pleasure, walk equitation on the rail, walk pattern and walk trail. I cannot explain how hard it is to judge a walk pleasure class of 20 people when it’s an open show of half trainers, half kiddos… there’s not much to judge on! Some shows even have things to judge on in walk… like “extended walk, collected walk” in hunters? One time to prove how ridiculous this division is I took a young mare I had maybe 15 days on her (she’d been started previously) and made the walk only divison her first show… Please feel free to admire our Champion of the walk division ribbon. I never took her to win a single class, I really don’t think she was that good for winning in fields of 15+ horses at the walk.

If you MUST have classes where everyone gets a ribbon I do have an excellent suggestion I recently had presented to me at a show. Group Pinning is what I called it. Simply take your class and break them up based on merit, so you can have a first place and two second places and one third place and three fourth places, two fifths and one sixth place in a class and it is different in every class. Then everyone gets a ribbon, we don’t have a ten way “tie for 6th” and we can reward riders for their efforts by grouping them at what kind of performance they gave you that day.

As a professional show manager I shake my head at this because these classes are a phenomenal scheme by shows, it’s an amazingly easy way to get more money out of exhibitors if you’re willing to hold the classes. At anywhere from $8-10 a class you’re now reaching a new market of riders fresh off the farm who are able to walk and steer (sometimes) and their competition-driven parents who want to see their little flopsy bowed child bring home the ribbons for a Facebook photo. It’s a resourceful way to make it through the rough economic times right now but to me it’s such a safety risk I can’t compel myself to put it in my shows. If you can’t steer, you aren’t ready. If you can’t control your horse at the show while in the ring because you physically lack the motor skills because you’re 4 or 5 then you aren’t ready. If I come into your leadline class or your walk-only class and you can’t tell me any part of tack or the correct color of your horse, you need to keep learning. (Realize I ask what Reins are called or what a stirrup is).

As a judge, coach, educator or just a person I want to say that we should encourage our kids to have fun and enjoy their sport. Make it fun, make it challenging and make it rewarding, but most of all make that show class worth their effort. We show to put our best against others and see where we stand, to learn from a judge and to draw a critical appreciation for proper instruction. Let us keep shows as an honor and privilege not a right or normalcy until we have kids ready to take on the responsibility and the knowledge.

-Lisa Marie