by Mitzi Summers
Horse shows may be one of the top activities where we find a difference of opinion between horses and their owners. People participate in horse shows for various reasons.
They are fun. You get a chance to dress up in show duds — always an excuse to go shopping. Whether it is an English “habit” that you choose, or Western or Saddle-Seat, the duds are definitely different than what you wear to a barbecue or, unless you are a professional, that you wear to work. You are part of the “show group”, instantly recognizable in your plummage to other show people, and how much fun to go to a restaurant afterward in your clothes and get stared at by non-horsey patrons!
Horses, however, definitely do not get the “fancy duds” part of horse shows. At least if they are in regular performance classes their self-esteem is not compromised. But humans had to invent the Costume Class, where horses can be further mortified by being dressed up as a cartoon character or worse. As a judge who has seen numerous horse shows, I have observed horses dressed up as a sofa, complete with three children sitting on the sofa, an oversized tractor trailer, and the groom at a wedding. Of course for safety, I had the three children removed and the sofa placed at the far side of the ring. All of these horses have a resigned countenence on their faces. Their main concern was that the humiliation they were suffering would end at the show. Unfortunately, if the other horses at home hear about how they were forced to wear Mickey Mouse ears and a mouse tail, they be will shunned and horse-laughed-at for several weeks.
For the horse, showing usually also includes getting up really early and traveling in that square box from Hell, and being scrubbed and cleaned so thoroughly that it is sometimes difficult to get dirty again before the show. Horses are always attentive to any lapses in the awareness of their people. Many horses have developed the skill to “drop and roll” instantly if the opportunity arises. When I showed as a teenager, my horses were quite adept in demonstrating to me how they felt about the whole idea of horse shows. In Montana I left my horse loose in her box stall with my western saddle on the edge of the stall door. I was gone about 15 minutes to enter for classes. Snip successfully used her teeth to pull the saddle down on the floor and then proceeded to defecate on it. (She had recently been put out on a nice green pasture, need I say more?).
One reason we like horses shows is that we get a chance to visit with other people. It can become a real social gathering, especially at A rated shows. Hence the Complimentary Tent, where riders can ingest champagne, grapes, and crackers and cheese. Not so for the horse. He is in a stall which is usually smaller than his stall at home; there is no field grazing for the duration of the show, and his social opportunities are limited. Merlin may want to get to know that cute paint mare that crossed his vision, but he will probably be stalled between the cretinous Welsh pony who just brags about his ribbons and how many times a week he manages to dump his owner, and the stuck-up Grand Prix gelding who always speaks with a German accent.
Horse shows can be educational
People think that they can learn new ideas and concepts when they show. Of course if they are in a dressage test, they will be able to take their scored test home. This test will explain all of their horse’s inadequacies, and all the things they need to improve in him before the next show. The judge will have neglected to write on the front of the test in bold red letters that everything was the rider’s fault, so the horse at home will be asked to change while the rider will stay the same.
All of the talents that a horse needs to have at a show are fun for the rider, but rarely make sense to the horse:
Hunter classes: This is supposed to imitate the talents a horse/rider combination needs if they were actually riding to hounds. In an actual hunt your horse gets into the spirit of the thing and usually does not mind galloping along with his friends, often pausing while his rider imbibes from something called a stirrup cup. But he quite quickly realizes that humans never can be trusted. At a show, he will be asked to go round a ring jumping almost as much as he is running. No self-respecting fox would go near the ring….too many people around and he would promptly get dizzy going around in those silly circles. The horse’s owner will be totally consumed worrying about “distances” and “flying changes“, things that are never worried about when he is on a hunt.

Western Pleasure classes: People like this class. It is fairly straightforward, and they get to dress up a bit like Roy and Dale. They only have to worry about walk, jog, and lope, not like those dressage people, who have to perform silly things like shoulders-ins and pirouettes.
Horses at first like the name…western “pleasure”. Why, this must be a fun, pleasant class . They will not have to expend too much energy, and just travel naturally, As long as he is allowed to travel naturally, and not have his head and neck forced in a painful position, horses do not mind it. If he is yanked in his mouth and forced into crippling, slow gaits, then the pleasure part of this name is a misnomer .
Trail classes: These can be really fun for people. All sorts of obstacles are included, many which supposedly are found if one is actually on a trail. They get to practice many of these obstacles at home, and their horses need to be able to develop certain skills such as turning on their forehand and haunches and side-stepping.
This is one class that horses do not “get”. They do not mind successfully following their rider’s orders as long as everything makes a bit of sense, but often they don’t. I once judged a trail class that had a lovely and safe bridge with rails. It was very solid and sturdy so the trail class was set up around it in a field. ESP communication quickly spread through the horses waiting to compete. It was comical. You could read the expression on the face of the horses asked to go over this bridge. They could easily see to the right and left and over the bridge. It was obviously not “bridging” anything. What in the world was wrong with their human to ask them to go over it? Their estimation of human intelligence fell right before my eyes. I could imagine what they would say to their horse buddies when they got home.
It is always necessary for us to look at things from the horse’s point of view. I believe that horses do have reasoning skills, and they can definitely form an opinion. It is probably just as well that we are not privy to some of the conclusions they have reached about us and the things we sometimes ask them to do.