The short video below is the inspiration for this article.

There are so many great aspects about working with horses. The sport teaches compassion, hard work, dealing with success and failure, and many other character building steps.

Perhaps the most important aspect is the connection between horse and rider, an element that is unique to equestrian sports. Riders of all ages learn to deal with adversity and develop invaluable life experience through this relationship with their partner. I would like to see riders, owners, and trainers rewarded for their efforts. In the current system, those accomplishments are diminished and trivialized.

The USHJA has announced changes for next year in the hunter divisions. You can attempt to decipher the changes if you like. I will summarize; there are now green horse divisions AND young horse divisions along with the multiple junior and amateur sections. The 3’6 height now has 11 divisions: green horse, green horse conformation, young horse, performance, four junior sections and three amateur sections!

Umm What? We need 11 different divisions for one height?

This does not include the Low Hunter classes and the Equitation classes set at 3’6″. In a social media time of fairness to animals and sensitivity to abuse, horses can (and will) show in more divisions.

Currently, the FEI is eliminating the Final Four at the World Equestrian Games (another poor decision by a governing body of the sport; 2016 was not a good year for show jumping) to prevent horses from being jumped excessively. Meanwhile the USHJA is creating and allowing horses to compete in even more classes.

As a side note, for those of you that are thinking that hunters jump much smaller jumps so it’s ok that they show in more classes, consider this: hunters work many more hours and jump up to 20x the number of fences than jumpers at the FEI level, not factoring in the many hours a day they are lunged and ridden.

The result of this practice is rewarding mediocrity, praising rides and training that are at best average, diminishing the level of professionalism, and bringing down the sport to lower levels every year.

Parents know the insane number of ribbons their child comes home with every week from the horse show. Every one who has ever been to a horse show can observe the multitude of ribbons on the show curtains—many barns have over 50 per week. Almost every one of those ribbons ends up in the trash bin. For most people in most classes (there are exceptions of course), a sixth place ribbon is meaningless, and yet horse shows continue to hand them out.

The result of this practice is rewarding mediocrity, praising rides and training that are at best average, diminishing the level of professionalism, and bringing down the sport to lower levels every year.

If you feel the above statement is too harsh, consider this: why are the heights of fences at national horse shows increasingly smaller? The lowest hunter divisions used to be 3’6″. Today, there are large barns in the United States that compete on both coasts that have riders that never reach that height in their career. By lowering the standards of competition, horse shows have lowered the level of coaching.

In 2017, it’s going to be even easier to walk home with dozens of ribbons, most of which you or your child will not remember or care about. The only benefit with these changes is to the pockets of the horse show managers as people can now enter even more classes.

So who loses? How will this affect the industry?

The trainers: The horse show day, your work day, which was already too long, becomes even longer. Also, with even more ribbons to go around, now even more unqualified trainers can start a business and be successful. If you are a trainer, in a business that is already highly diluted and hard to make ends meet, prepare to have even less clients.

Officials, gate crew, jump crew etc.: Your day also got longer. I know you start before sunrise and finish well after dark already. For those that do not know, horse shows pay their employees by the day, not the hour. The show manager has a longer day, but at least he or she is getting paid more for that time.

The grooms: You already work ridiculous hours, so what difference does a little more time make?

Riders and owners complain about the poor quality of prizes and the lack of purse money that are given out at the horse shows. With so many divisions it is understandable that the prizes are cheap and forgettable, that for 99% of the owners there is no way to win back your show fees even if your horse wins every class it is entered in.

I have a policy with my writing that if I am critical of something in the equestrian world, I will also provide a reasonable solution. With my previous suggestions in prior articles, I am optimistic that they may become reality in the future. I do not feel that way about this topic, in this case change is unlikely, but I can dream, so here goes.

Winning a ribbon should mean something to the riders, owners, and trainers.

My proposal is that all classes are placed to first, second, and third. Being in the top three, on the podium per se, is an achievement of which to be proud. Prize money is divided: 1st – 50%, 2nd – 30%, 3rd – 20%. This gives considerably more to the top three finishers.

The point system for championships will be as follows: 1st – 7, 2nd – 4, 3rd – 2. I have gone through the different scenarios and this is the most fair in balancing wins versus consistent performance.

Simplifying the 3’6″ divisions: one open, one young horse, one junior, one amateur, rather than 11 divisions that the USHJA currently has on the roster. The junior/amateur divisions could be combined, with the exception of the largest shows. Being a champion in any of these divisions is now meaningful and a great accomplishment.

I would like to see this in all the heights at the tournaments. Running horse shows is a business, so to compensate for fewer classes the show managers can charge higher entry fees. Many classes at the shows do not fill in order to count for year end points in the current system, with the changes I proposed, it will eliminate this problem.

Winning a ribbon should mean something to the riders, owners, and trainers. Few people at North American shows even bother to show up for the ribbon presentation. Oh wait, few shows actually even do a ribbon presentation! So riders work all year long, spend tens of thousands of dollars in preparation, and winning is not even recognized?

Something seems very wrong with all of this, just like the coach said.

About the Author

Canadian Equestrian Team member Jay Duke is a clinician, judge, trainer, and coach. He trained famed Regular Hunter, Mindful, as well as USEF Horse of the Year award winners King Davide and Caymus. Duke has coached two riders to medal-winning performances at the North American Young Riders Championships. Check out his blog!