If you know me, you know that my position tends to be pretty moderate. I'm not so "animal activist" that I waste my energy on ultimately pointless nonsense, or on things the animals themselves could care less about. I'm not so over-the-top "squishy" that it's harmful (like farm-haters, Peta, and the idiots who want to ban the carriage industry in NYC, for example), that I have no actual knowledge and no concept of the consequences of my actions. What I have is experience and empathy. What I have is the basic belief that if you are causing an animal pain, emotional distress and physical dysfunction, something is intrinsically wrong with what you are doing. It's common friggin' sense.
I used to ride saddleseat. You probably knew that, but what you may not have known was that I LOVED it! It used to be kind of THE way to ride, especially if you had a Morgan, and I did. It was pure joy, both for me AND my horse. Full disclosure here: I didn't do a ton of showing and I certainly wasn't anything special on any show circuit (my family wasn't 'horsey' so the opportunities were few) but I jumped on every opportunity I had. Back then, only the park-type Morgans had special shoes, and the height and weight were very limited. Most of us stuck to the pleasure division, and it was a perfect fit. We learned how to ride in the best way to help our horse, and we were taught to have very, very light hands. I always remember Morgans being super versatile, and having just enough spring in their step to be kind of cool. I loved the naturally high head carriage too (it made it feel weird to ride the long, thoroughbred-y types later!). And that was kind of the thing~the natural awesomeness of the horse. And that was the emphasis; Morgans were a 'natural' horse, and (with the exception of park horses) it was almost a sacrilege to interfere with that. They were rugged, cheerful and spirited little horses that lived primarily outdoors, well-suited to the harsh Vermont climate, and they worked hard and carried their people all over the place. I used to trail ride like it was my job, and there was no place my Morgan wouldn't take me.
Fast forward to today. I like to poke around on the internet (read:procrastinate) and think about what my next incarnation as "horse owner" would look like. I looked into Morgans, showing and saddleseat. Holy. Crap. The entire scene is unrecognizable, and it's only been about 30 years. All the show horses are being trained with their heads tied back to their saddles (WTF is THAT?!). I'm no stranger to judiciously-applied side-reins and such, but GEEZ. I even saw a photo of a Morgan out on a dirt road "trail riding" (sorry, no) with it's head tied back to the saddle. The pleasure horses don't look much different to me than the park horses, and both are sporting outrageously long hooves. The hunters look like saddleseat horses (long hooves and all) in hunter tack. If you or anybody you know rides actual hunters, it creates a kind of cognitive dissonance that is hard to describe. And the riders are riding (really bad chair-seat) saddleseat in hunter tack, but with really flat hands. I watched a couple of videos of in-hand classes too, to see what they were looking like these days, and it was more of the same; horses with outrageously-high, fixed head carriage, huge muscle development on the underside of their necks (used to be a big no-no) and hollow backs; anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of equine physiology knows that the only way a horse can sustain an unnaturally high head carriage is to drop and hollow their back. It makes the back weak and sore, and it's especially shameful when it's caused by something people are doing. Maybe for the folks who are in it or raised in it it's no biggie. It's something they are used to seeing and I'm sure there are reasons for...all that...that I just don't understand (or want to, really). from the perspective of someone who was away for awhile, it certainly showcases the way things can evolve to an unhealthy extreme.
If you know horses, then you know that one of the most basic necessities of being a horse is mobility. It is what they are physically and psychologically made for. If you take that away by constant stabling and extreme shoeing you are taking away the thing that is of the utmost importance to your horse. To take that away causes an extreme amount of stress (and often ulcers). To a horse, mobility is survival; it's who they are. I don't care how pampered they are in their jail cells, it's still jail. Movement and social contact is what horses want. Being fussed over in a stall where you spend 23 hours of your day doesn't mean sh**. Most people these days are pretty aware of this.
I SO loved the Morgan breed (still do) and after the initial shock wore off, what I felt was crazy-sadness. I wrote to the AMHA and asked if there was a place for folks who used to ride like I did. The (quick and helpful) response assured me that I would fit nicely in the Classic English Pleasure division; that horses in this division were flat-shod, had turn out and went trail riding. I got a little excited, until further exploration turned up videos of Classic English Pleasure horses in training...with their heads tied back to their saddles. No. Just..no. A WORLD of f***ing NO. The registration numbers are down as are the show numbers, and yet this is the direction that today's stewards of this amazing breed want to go for show horses. To be fair, for folks who aren't interested in the breed shows, the AMHA has a lot to offer, including a program for folks who are entirely non-competitive. They are also really terrific at answering questions, and do so very quickly. That's working. Morgan horses still rock at just about everything, and that's sill working too. But how much better it would be if we were still focusing on what is so great about our horses, instead of trying to shape them into some some sub-par extreme.
Like I said, I loved riding saddleseat. These days, the clothing is SO much more fun and the saddles are SO much better! They are actually grippy and you can move the stirrup bars where you need them! Me and my short legs would have really appreciated that 'back in the day'. It was such a fun and joyful discipline, and I so loved the opportunity to show off my wonderful horse. I bet a lot of folks would enjoy it that way too. Having said that, the number of folks willing to do what they need to do to be successful in the showring in it's current incarnation is (thankfully) dwindling as we learn more about what horses need to be healthy and happy. I would love it if the show horse world would evolve in that direction, and I bet it would draw a whole new crop of enthusiastic showers (and a few of us old ones as well). In my perfect world, horse shows would showcase the wonderful, natural attributes that captured our attention and led us to love our breeds in the first place. Riders would be taught to ride in balance. Shoeing would be something we do to protect the hoof and have nothing whatsoever to do with changing movement (other than corrective). Hoof-length would be determined by natural need and health of the animal. Naturally high head carriage and knee action would be just that, and only ever enhanced by the natural joy and exuberance of the horse itself. Training would build the strength and endurance of the horse, not break it down by forcing it into a specific shape. Standing wraps would no longer be necessary because horses would be allowed to move. No more hollow backs and upside down necks, just well-developed, healthy happy animals moving cheerfully around the ring, representing the REAL best of their breeds, instead of an artificially-enhanced caricature. I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty great to me!