Editor’s Note: Best Horse Practices Summit presenter Katrin Silva grew up riding dressage in Germany before moving to the United States at age 19 to learn to ride Western. She’s been riding both disciplines for the last 20 years and is a regular guest columnist for Cayuse Communications. The author of Dressage for All of Us: How to Help Any Horse Become a Happier, More Responsive Riding Partner lives in New Mexico where she works with dressage and Western clients.
Katrin’s upcoming book is Riding with Feel: A Guide for the Rest of Us, due in Summer 2022. Read more about that here.
Forest fires are burning all around New Mexico right now. My horses and I are not in danger, at least not yet, but I know many people who have had to evacuate with all their animals. School gyms and county fairgrounds have become emergency shelters. The flames have consumed more than 200,000 acres, with no end in sight. Some say it will be July before the fires are contained. Homes and ranches and entire villages, have burned to the ground, leaving families with nothing but what they could grab, their way of life destroyed by the flames.
From where I work and ride, I can see and smell the smoke. Our blue sky has become hazy, coloring the world in muted hues. Tonight, the sun sets as a fuzzy pink ball over the mountains, like a maraschino cherry past its sell-by date, floating in a cocktail made from dubious ingredients.
If I didn’t know what caused these changes in our evening sky, I’d find them beautiful. I would marvel at the unusual shades of red and orange, the eerie light, the absence of sharp edges. But I can’t un-know what I know about all the destruction and suffering the fires are causing to communities in Northern New Mexico. I can’t separate the people who have lost everything from the pastel sunset. I can’t find pretty anymore.
There’s an interesting parallel to horse shows in these images. Someone who knows what a happy, balanced horse looks like cannot find beauty in an unhappy or tense horse. It matters not how spectacular his movements are or how many blue ribbons he’s won. Someone who knows natural, correct biomechanics cannot admire gaits that have lost their rhythm or cadence, no matter how flashy they are.
In many competitive disciplines, a horse’s natural, functional way of going is taken to questionable extremes. Trainers present more and more exaggerated versions of gaits or movements, in the mistaken belief that, if a little bit of something like is good, more must always be better.
Western pleasure is a good example. What once was a way to showcase a relaxed horse that’s a joy to ride has become a parody of its original purpose: a contest of how slow a horse can go with as low a headset as possible. The walk is a crawl, the jog a toe-dragging shuffle, the lope a crab-like parade down the rail, with the horses’ haunches stuck way over to the inside of the arena. None of this looks enjoyable for anyone involved, horses or riders. It’s painful to watch. Finding it beautiful takes cultural, habitual conditioning or a huge dose of . Women used to wear restrictive clothing, like fishbone corsets, hoop skirts, or stiletto heels. Attractive? Most of us find these fashions abhorrent today.
Competitive dressage may be heading in a similar direction. At its core, dressage develops any horse’s – natural way of moving through a progression of gymnastic exercises designed to help him carry a rider more comfortably. In the competition arena, we see something different: it’s a contest of how much crossover the horse’s legs can show in lateral movements, or how much overstep is possible in the extended trot.
Reining competitions have become a quest for longer sliding stops and faster spins.
Gaited horse shows seem to measure how high a horse can throw his knees, etc.
The tradition of clipping a horse’s facial hair – a practice that is thankfully fading – is another example of misguided beauty standards. Many years ago, I used to clip all horses in my barn because the trainers I apprenticed with did it that way. In the world of horse shows, a well-groomed horse was a smooth-faced horse. I was used to looking at clipped horses, like the Victorians were used to looking at women in fishbone corsets. I believed it was somehow acceptable. But a horse’s whiskers have real purpose in sensory perception. They are called vibrissae and each one has an important sensory nerve. Clipping horses deprives them of essential feeling and awareness. Once I learned this, I stopped. I could not find a clipped horse beautiful anymore.
I still believe it is possible to compete a horse responsibly in almost any discipline. But we have to be aware of the temptation to sacrifice our horse’s welfare and happiness for a blue ribbon. We must draw lines we don’t want to cross. If the purpose of any competition does not promote a horse’s long-term athleticism, soundness, and mental health, the beauty we want to create becomes an exaggerated, unhealthy version of the ideal we are trying to achieve.