This is the sixth installment of our series titled, “State of the Industry.” Each month, we will be examining some facet of the horse industry. We will ask tough questions, invite your participation and input, and seek to discover what is working and what is not. The entire horse industry is going through painful changes as we compete with a changing and increasingly urban culture. Our hope is to establish a dialogue and look for innovative programs that are working.
by Cindy Reich
Mary Jane Brown, born Mary Jane Schroeder, grew up on her family’s working ranch, the Cross U Bar near Sheridan, Wyoming. Her grandparents started breeding Arabian horses there in the 1940s, and Mary Jane’s parents took over after that. They bred working Arabians that could work at the ranch one day and go to a show and win the following day.
The ranch was sold in the early 1980s, and Mary Jane and her mother continued to breed horses under the Cross U Bar name. Even today, at Diamond B training stable that Mary Jane and husband Russ Brown operate in Newberg, Oregon, there are descendants of that program used to breed several foals each year. Mary Jane and Russ specialize in all working western events and work with many amateur as well as professional riders and exhibitors.
In addition to her training business, Mary Jane and trainer Johnny Ryan have been acting as liaisons between the Arabian Professional Horseman’s Association (APHA) and the U.S. National Show Commission. They have been working for a number of years since the show moved to Tulsa to provide a working relationship between the Commission and the owners, breeders, trainers and amateurs.
One of the recurring themes in this series is that while entries in some events in Arabian shows are decreasing (English pleasure, saddleseat, park, driving, etc.), other events, especially those that result in individual workouts and scoring (working western, dressage, etc.), are increasing. We spoke with Mary Jane Brown to see what her thoughts are on the State of the Industry.
“Until fairly recently, we have had very specialized horses doing just one event really well,” says Mary Jane. “Owners now want to do more with their horses and have more of a partnership doing it. They don’t just want to sit on the horse for one class, go out, and not have any feedback on how they did. Now, with classes like ranch riding, they can take their reining horse, or their trail horse, and go into that class as well. Riders now are gravitating to doing more with their horses and having more enjoyment in what they do. They want to be more involved in the whole process.
“In reining, for example, a horse would be shown in junior classes, then in open and then eventually cycle into amateur classes. However, now you have current National Champion horses being shared with amateurs. A horse may only show in junior for a short time. Until recently, because of the market, there weren’t a lot of people breeding. They might breed one or two every few years. Now, however, there is a need for good horses, and it’s getting hard to find a horse in the ‘already broke, four-year-old’ category. Therefore, breeding has picked up a bit, and I feel it will continue to improve.”
When asked to comment on things that need to change, Mary Jane brought up another recurring theme. “Oddly, for where we are, we don’t have too many shows. We have one in March, April, May, then Regionals, and one show in the autumn. That is about right. However, in most of the rest of the country, we have too many shows and definitely too many Regional shows. There should be a way to combine some of the smaller regions without completely re-drawing the Regional map. For example, Regions 4 and 5 are basically the same show. Same staff, same horses, same exhibitors. We also need to address the east coast/west coast issues. I really want to keep one National show, and most of the people we deal with feel the same way.
“Youth National and Canadian National scheduling are pushing our show season into a very small space. There should be some way to rearrange those shows so that families and children can spend the summer showing, and then do their National show at the end of the summer before school starts. That’s the way it was before we had a Youth Nationals. We showed all summer and then went to Nationals. However, now, Youth is in the middle of summer. There isn’t enough lead-in time to get a good show stretch before the National show. Same as Canada. We need to find a way to make it easier for youth and families to show. When we were kids, show season ended when the school season started.”
When asked what three things she would change if she could wave a magic wand, Mary Jane replied:
“1. I know it’s hard, but we need to find a way to reduce costs to show at local, Regional, and National shows. The cost is getting to be a big factor in discouraging people from doing more with their horses in the show arena.
“2. Expand the show season to fill the entire summer. Put national shows at the end of the summer into autumn.
“3. Be more user-friendly to attract the general public. We do lesson programs — very basic programs at a really low cost. We just about break even. We do it as an investment in the future. We hope it will result in kids that go on with horses — buy one, show one. Or that the parents also become involved. Help the parents appreciate the accomplishments of their children and the child/horse partnership. Often the parents decide to try riding as well, and they then become involved. Treat people right.
“We have very little turnover in our clientele. We communicate well with them. We listen to them. We listen to what they want to do with their horse. I hear trainers say, ‘They want to do XYZ with their horse — I’ll never let them do thatwith their horse!’ It is not what you want to do with the horse (within reason, of course). It’s what they want to do with the horse, because at the end of the day, it is their horse!
“I’m also proud of the work that Johnny Ryan and I have done with the U.S. National Show Commission. For example, at Tulsa, we needed to make sure there was proper footing — not just in the arenas, but in the warm-up arenas, working arenas and exercise areas,” said Mary Jane. “We were instrumental in bringing in Kaiser to work on the arenas and footing. Another area was scheduling. Rather than just try to dictate to the Show Commission about class scheduling, we wanted to offer our help. So for many years now, we have done the majority of the class scheduling for the show every year. When changes have to be made, we have an open dialog back and forth between the Show Commission and ourselves. This has made things much better for all involved.”