The USEF has discussed their potential guidelines for reopening shows in the summer, and it has me asking myself as a competitor “why even bother”. Short of the horses, expensive bills, and the judge, the guidelines take out almost everything that makes horse shows, well, horse shows.
Social distancing and safety protocols must continue to happen. Horse show staff, grooms, judges, and competitors need to be safe, nobody is disputing that. But what happens when you take out all the personal interaction from a horse show? As a competitor, you meet your horse at a mounting block, warm up in a ring with nearly nobody around, and then go into a ring to compete by yourself with nobody around. Sure, your trainer, groom, and one family member get to watch your round (along with the jump crew and judge), but that’s it. Your barn mates and friends can’t watch you, you can’t watch them, and you can’t watch anyone else in your division or any other division because there is no spectating allowed.
“If you take almost the complete social experience out of the equation and arguably some of the sport, why would I spend money doing it?”
You finish your round, give your horse a treat, and hand your horse to your groom. Maybe you get to talk to your trainer for a minute, maybe they’ll call you later because it’s safer to talk on the phone than talk face-to-face. There is no going back to the barn – with so many touch points, even with excessive cleaning there’s some big safety question marks there. You don’t get to care for your horse (unless you are the groom) or rehash your ride (good or bad) with your friends. Your entry will have been done online so there’s no checking in or out at the office.
Guess your friendly chats with the secretary who has known you since you were in garters aren’t going to be happening for a while. So you leave. The entire horse show experience sure was efficient due to the assigned ride times, but boy do you feel nostalgia for those long horse show days start to creep up.
Horse shows have always been a 50/50 for me – 50% about sport, 50% social experience. If you take almost the complete social experience out of the equation and arguably some of the sport, why would I spend money doing it? For many folks, winning a ribbon is just a fraction of the show experience. The camaraderie is a part of what makes this sport and horse showing specifically so awesome. We pick each other up after bad rounds and celebrate the good rounds as a tribe. Having a bunch of barn mates walk up to the ring to cheer you on and doing the same in return for them is just as much a part of showing for me as bathing the horse or putting on my show coat. But it’s also about the people we don’t know. I can’t even tell you how many times someone I didn’t know has said “congratulations” to me as I was walking back to the barn with a ribbon in my hand. I’ve clapped and whooped for people who have had their “trip of a lifetime”, even though I didn’t know them. I’ve also helped catch a loose horse after someone has taken a tumble. Horse shows are about making friends, too.
The industry is desperate for things to get back to “normal”, but if it means sacrificing a huge part of what makes it fun for the amateur competitor, maybe it’s too soon. After all, aren’t most of us doing this for fun? We may never see true “normal” again, but I think it’s certainly too soon to say for sure how close we will or won’t get. And most importantly, we can’t forget that people and human interaction are also a special part of the horse show equation that should not be undervalued.