by Ray LaCroix
Arabian horse registrations and breedings are at historic lows, and much has been said about how to correct the situation. Ask someone who shows Arabian horses how they would fix the industry, and they’ll tell you! Everyone has an opinion … and a different agenda making it impossible to reach a consensus on what needs fixing.
“There are too many classes.” “I think the breed needs a class for my grandmother. She can’t see.” “We need to change the Sweepstakes classes again.” “There are too many regions.” “I don’t want my region combined with California.” “We need more local shows.”
I have been asked many times how I would “fix” the industry. My answer invariably contains the phrase, “the industry is fractured,” because of the variety of agendas. Nothing in life is ever perfect, but the fact that you may not get exactly what you want shouldn’t preclude your participation. What needs to be created for the fan base of Arabian horses is a destination point B that can evolve into something closer to perfection and satisfaction.
Point B can be termed an option. So let’s create options!
On this new trek to create options, one needs to know who the industry players are. What type of people are they, really? What do they think?
There are about three types of people who own Arabian show horses. Those who compete and are satisfied with the show experience; those who compete but are dissatisfied; and those who are dissatisfied and have subsequently quit competing and/or changed breeds or discipline.
Values are an important factor in sales, and the Arabian breed and show horse is selling an experience – an experience that had better be compelling. In the famous words of Maximus, played by Russell Crowe in the movie Gladiator, “Are you not entertained?” This defines the success or failure of an entertainment endeavor in the 21st century.
Are you satisfied or dissatisfied? Was there value for your dollar? I wanted to hear, in a positive way, what was lacking in the experience of those participants who were dissatisfied.
Just being curious, I thought, “What if you invite people to dream?”
So I asked my Arabian equestrian friends, via Facebook, “What if you could start life over again, BUT, you come back knowing all you have learned about horses? What is the most important thing in the Arabian horse show scene that you would change, if you could wave your magic wand?” Or, said another way, “What one change would have the greatest impact on the Arabian show horse world?”
As of this writing there are 630 responses that provide insight into how to fix Arabian horse shows from the perspective of participants, both past and presently showing. They can be grouped into about seven themes, which are as follows:
- Separation of types (Halter horses used to be performance horses and vice versa)
- Unnatural halter horses
- Shoeing rules (too much weight, too many pads)
- Loss of the versatile Arabian horse
- Judging and class specifications
- Returning to fun times
Since this was a social media experiment, it was only fair to highlight the comments with the most likes. They are as follows:
- The most-liked post was (fairly or unfairly) my own, with 120 likes:
“I would have loved to rewrite the performance class specs, knowing what has happened to many [of the classes]. I would have put more emphasis on transitions; written them (the specs) in a clearer language that paints the exact picture of the expectations; and, in the saddleseat performance classes, put in one generative element to cause the evolution of the class to be more about classic function of all gaits as opposed to sheer motion. Gaits would be individually weighted so that the quality of the walk and canter could not be ignored. Tied into this would be a judge’s oversight system and the requirement that judges adhere to the standards or face suspension and/or dismissal.”
- Trevor Gerardi Miller with 86 likes:
“I would return the versatility of the breed. We have out-smarted ourselves … anything less than a top 1% talent is not competitive, which makes breeding, sales, and showing so much more difficult and unreasonable.”
- Steve Heathcott with 85 likes:
“I wish our halter horses were our performance horses. I wish our performance horses were our halter horses.”
- Georgine Ryter with 71 likes:
“I wish that horse shows did not become all about qualifying, that we never got into endless one- and two-horse classes and lost the fun at shows. The people who showed for fun left because there was nothing fun about showing.”
- Paul Kostial with 68 likes:
“Country horses need to be true country horses, not what used to be our English horses. Judges must adhere to the class specs and not pin those horses that are over-animated for country. This isn’t the only thing; I’m just adding to the list above. Our judges could fix this in a nanosecond if we’d all step up and just do it.”
- Russ Taylor with 49 likes:
“I would find a way to reward relaxation and moderation in training instead of brilliance achieved through extremes. I’d emphasize bone and substance instead of refinement.”
- Ellen Ketchum with 47 likes:
“Return to a natural-shod hoof and ban the raccoon clip. Tough feet and sturdy legs used to be a hallmark of the breed. The rules against long feet and special shoes were because the horse should be sound and was beautiful without artificial enhancements. When I returned to Arabians after a 20-year hiatus, while we were doing other breeds, I was shocked at the direction the breed had taken in regards the abandonment of the natural Arabian.”
- Jason Hanson with 44 likes:
“I would take the emphasis away from showing younger horses while developing a strong yet rewarding academy program. But that’s just the beginning …”
- Paul Husband with 43 likes:
“Eliminate any qualification value from Regional shows. If someone wants to qualify for Nationals, they need to show at local Class A shows. This move would have kept the local clubs financially viable since they could make money from their shows. Having regionals also made it easier to “politic” judges. We should have supported local Arabian Horse Clubs better. The Regionals, if they were held at all, would be like the minor league world series. Second change, if I can have another swing of the wand, do not allow shipped semen. Biodiversity.”
- Edward Azuar with 37 likes:
“The cult of the halter horse is something we never needed. Those ugly shaved eyes, whip abuse, breeding for heads, people getting excited because an average animal transforms into a standup beauty for a second in time – all things we don’t need.”
Reinforcing Mr. Azuar’s post was a post from the esteemed Cindy Reich, who wrote:
“Halter was changed forever when it ceased being an evaluation of breeding stock and became ‘entertainment.’ That generated the performance component, as you correctly stated. Now it is about who can create the more ‘magical horse’ and is therefore now a performance class.”
The final post is from Ted Gibson, whom many readers will remember as a successful trainer from back in the day. Ted writes:
“I left the horse business when it became too expensive, not enough focus on youth, sticker shock for new people and first-timers, and the list goes on. Got into building hauling companies; bought and sold; retired, beach house, boat and golf clubs. Met my partner; she loved horses: now we have reining Quarter Horses. If you make a mistake the base resale price is $2,000-$7,000 at auction. Have to say though, the Arabian trainers such as Bob Hart have proven, as always, that they are the best when I need help fixing my mistakes. The knowledge they have accumulated since I changed careers is astounding. But for me the thrill of learning with each horse is still there.”
As you look at the themes of the 10 most-liked posts, you see all of the original group of themes represented. There were many posts with great messages that also had many likes, but not enough for top 11. I have highlighted several below for their content as well as for their roles within the industry.
Jessica Cole expands on a familiar theme in the thread, which was liked 31 times. “Hang on to the value that used to be attached to the versatile horse that wasn’t extreme anywhere but could perform pretty well in several divisions. When we lost “the versatile athlete” and became a breed of specialists, extremes in individuals started being highly sought after, but often at the expense of good, solid structure. Also, it became a total trainer’s game, with very few amateurs able to compete on their own. We are seeing a resurgence in appreciation for an ‘all-around’ horse with the popularity of the new ranch riding classes … you don’t need extreme to win in that class. In fact, you need a horse that can do a piece of everything willingly and with accuracy. The scorecard provides instant feedback and the class happens so fast that the judge has no time to do anything but evaluate maneuvers … I know because I’ve judged it a few times, and I couldn’t tell you ‘who wins a lot in it’ because I have to be so focused on evaluation. Any competent amateur can do a decent job training for it and can beat the pros with a quality run. Maybe the horses aren’t always ‘fancy,’ but they are athletic, good-minded, and pretty handy at a lot of different skills that are useful and important.”
Lara Ames brings up a great point which garnered 28 likes. “I think the length and number of classes at a show. We are in the entertainment industry and 8am to 11pm does not seem to fit.”
And for the last comment, the iconic Mary Trowbridge summarizes some of the current frustrations that every participant faces. Her comment garnered 34 likes. “Caralyn, Trevor, Brad and Ray all got to it first, but as soon as I saw the question my answer would be to put the Transported Semen genie back into the bottle and throw that sucker in the ocean where it belonged. Every breed that has gone there is regretting the decision. My second wish would be to still be able to strip ALL performance classes when desired – I agree with Brad that we’ve bred halter horses to sell, not to own and use in the last thirty years. DEFINITELY back to weight limits for shoes – even if we raised it to accommodate the larger horses, it would be so much better than what we have let happen today. The change in the shoeing rule has made the mechanics of farrier work and hanging iron on horses way, way more important, and expensive, than horsemanship and training. Today there are fewer than ten blacksmiths in the country that can shoe an English horse so that it is competitive. Especially given the horrific upswing in producing bad-footed horses. And lastly, and I think this is a pretty interesting one given my background of pushing for the ability to use therapeutic medication throughout the years, the advancements in veterinary medicine have made this sport impossible to compete in without utilizing the very best vets and newest protocols, especially at the Nationals. Many of our owners spend more on vet bill than they do for trainers to keep and train their horses … what could be wrong with that?”
I would urge all readers to look this thread up and read it through. What was refreshing was, for Facebook, the lack of “attitudes” and “snarkyness,” as people were genuinely interested in having a dialog. The question was compelling enough for people to invest their time, which tells me that, for this segment of the industry, those who are dissatisfied, there is a sincere interest in trying to change and keep participating.
See if what you read causes you to agree with my conclusion here – the future lies in the past …
Clearly, the values of the past that created the initial excitement in the late sixties, seventies, and middle eighties (the boom years that created 30,000 registrations at the end) were instrumental to selling the concept that Arabian horse shows were fun. If we can say that these values represent a destination, a point B, then to arrive at point B, would we have to take a step back in time? For an organization that has been on a journey of 10,000 miles, is it possible to do a U-turn and go back 5,000 miles?