Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Extending a Warm Welcome

How diversified is your barn?  Do you own horses from several breeds, or are they all of the same breed?  I am wondering this because I myself love all breeds of horses, but have seen that not everyone is as accepting of breeds outside of their chosen one.  And I often wonder why there aren't more horses from 'other' breeds competing within associations that aren't breed specific, like in the NRHA.

I believe part of being open and accepting, not to mention knowledgeable, of other breeds is about where a person is raised.  I was raised in Southwestern Michigan, and when I was growing up, there were many breed associations that thrived there, and a person might see literally any breed being shown at the local fairs and horse shows.  Through 4-H and showing at open shows, I had friends who showed Morgans, Saddlebreds, Quarter Horses, Hackneys, Drafts, warmbloods, and everything in between, and because sportsmanship was something we were raised on in 4-H, we didn't treat someone differently because they rode a different breed or style. We were all horse lovers, and held a common thread.  And if there was a reining class offered, people would give it a shot, whether they rode a Quarter Horse or a mule.

Another truth is that I was raised on the conviction that a good Arabian could do anything - I believe that it was even the Registry's slogan in the 80's...."The Versatile Breed."  My horses all rode English, western, sidesaddle, did halter, trail, jumping, and the list went on.  At around the age of 12, I fell in love with riding western, and set out to make my purebred gelding into a western pleasure horse, which he happened to love.  From there, I met a trainer who introduced me to reining, and I was blown away.  It became my obsession, but it was obvious that my hard-working little gelding was not cut out for it.  It was difficult for me to take, and stands out now as the moment when the budding trainer inside me realized that in order to do really well at any given equine sport, you have to specialize, in both your breeding intentions and in your training regime.  You can do a lot of different things decently, even well, but if you really want excellence, you have to focus your energy.

It was around this time, in my early teenage years, that I rode my first QH reiner, and it was apparent to me right away that the horse fit his job perfectly.  For me, it was akin to the feeling that a race car driver might feel when they first experience a superior vehicle on the track; I instantly knew that I had to have one to continue to experience that rush.  Even though I showed my Arab for several more years, and loved him very much, I couldn't shake the feeling that I wanted more.  Eventually, I sold my Arab reiner (to a great home) and bought my first Quarter Horse.  I learned quickly, though, that I shouldn't tell people that I came from Arabs, because a lot of the QH people I met looked down on them.  And they treated "Arab people" differently.  I knew the bloodlines, the maneuvers, the trainers and the training techniques so I was able to "pass" as a Quarter Horse person, and eventually, it became that I was a Quarter Horse person.

That was 20 years ago. I have never regretted going in that direction; I love and admire Quarter Horses, especially reiners, and my life has been an interesting journey because of them.  I have met wonderful people, made great friends, and enjoyed watching reining become a world phenomenon. I am proud of every reiner that I have bred, and hope that the NRHA, and the horse industry as a whole, remains viable and relevant.  But I have kept up with other breeds too, and I have to speak up and say, why aren't we seeing more participation in reining events by breeds other than Quarter Horses?  Arabians and Morgans have come a really long way in breeding for better reiners.  They have learned, as I did, that in order to obtain excellence, you must focus your energy, and they have been breeding horses with bigger, rounder rear ends, more angulation in the hind legs and thicker stifles/gaskins, all of which enhance the horse's stop.  It is in the stop where you see the most discrepancy between a lighter breed and a Quarter Horse - they simply are heavier behind and can plant their butts easier.  A light breed can spin, circle and change leads as well as a Quarter Horse can, given their natural agility, so it is the stopping power that breeders have focused on.  And trainers can now access and share training methods so easily, so the playing field is getting more and more even.

Yet, rarely do you see other breeds show at NRHA events.  The NRHA is, after all, a performance association, and should want to attract anyone into their competitions.  To me, attracting people from other breeds is an easier endeavor than attracting people who have never owned a horse before, which is what many activities seemed aimed toward, like the WRL.  And by "attracting," I don't mean trying to get them to abandon their previous breed and just buy Quarter Horses; if they choose to buy a QH, great, but that doesn't need to be the goal.

What I mean is, finding a way to celebrate and reward participation in NRHA events by other breeds.  I am not a show manager, nor have I sat on any show committees, so I am not going to try to lay out exactly how that would be accomplished.  Counting points earned in NRHA events toward a year end participation award might give people from other breeds an incentive.   NRHA should understand, they now cut a pretty big, important profile in the global horse industry.  It is one of the biggest, most powerful horse associations in the world; the sport of reining has taken the world by storm, and is one of the only associations that hasn't lost money and numbers in recent years.  There is a lot of prestige associated with earning money with the NRHA association, and other breeds see that and want a piece of it.  Surely we can find ways of embracing what they can do and how far they have come. The first step, I think, is just being nice, and making people want to be there.  Then, give them a way to participate.

I mentioned all this in a chat room not too long ago, and while a couple people said that they knew a person that showed an "other" breed at NRHA events, not all the feedback was positive.  One person said, "The Arab people have their own shows, why would they want to come to ours?" and another said, "Oh, those poor little Arabs aren't even allowed to show against the Quarabs!'  Wait a minute....Isn't the goal to show reining as something that is fun to do?  An event that emphasizes control of the horse through maneuvers?  Something that has been described as Western dressage?  In dressage, huge-strided Warmbloods dominate the Olympics, but do you think that a local dressage trainer turns away a new customer because they don't ride one, or worse, tells them that their horse isn't good enough, and that they need to buy a Warmblood?  No, or at least, I hope not.

And think about it...the dressage people are doing it pretty well.  There are far more dressage instructors in this world, far more people who ride dressage than reining - even though there is less money in showing it!  The reason is that dressage is seen as something any horse can do - maybe not all are able to do it equally well, but they are rewarded for what they CAN do.  Progressing and besting your own score is valued.  This is absolutely the driving force in my participation in the Western Rider Development Programme - an organization that celebrates and rewards individuals as they progress in training their horses to do western/reining maneuvers.  I think this is part of a grassroots movement to make reining more accessible. Check it out!

Do you have any ideas on how to open up reining to other breeds and associations?  I'd love to hear them.