Emily Thomas Luciano is an accomplished rider as well as our talented marketing director. Read more. In this guest column, she discusses her observations at a host of showing events around the southeastern U.S. Thanks, Emily!
Over the past year, I’ve traveled to horse shows and equine trade shows across the country. I’ve seen how equestrians from all different disciplines show, groom, ride, and care for their horses. Though I’ve been impressed with some of what I’ve seen, one major question plagues me— who is the real winner in our industry? Is it us? Or is it the horse?
I’ve seen horses started at 18 months so that they’re ready for races and futurities. I’ve seen horses shown until they are so swayed-back that I’d be embarrassed to have them in my front pasture.
Why does this happen? In my opinion, show world greed is the catalyst. Horse owners are on a quest for shiny buckles, blue ribbons, and the winner’s circle.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-showing. In fact, I love to show! I’ve competed in four different Extreme Mustang Makeovers, have competed in obstacle and trail challenges, and even have done a handful of western pleasure classes. I love to work toward a goal with my horse. Showing is fantastic as long as the welfare of the horse comes first.
But some things irk me:
I didn’t see one fuzzy muzzle at any of the equine events I attended this year. A horse needs vibrissae (whiskers) intact so he can feel where he cannot see and not injure his nose or mouth. I prefer fuzzy ears and unclipped fetlocks for the same reason. Read more here.
Sometimes I want to troll up and down the barn aisles with a megaphone saying, “Those horses need those whiskers! And hairy ears keep the bugs out and keep them warm! And feathery fetlocks will properly shed rain!”
Trimming and clipping soon became least of my concerns. What horrified me most was the Saddlebred scene:
At one particular event – a huge, championship show drawing scores from around the Southeast – we brought a few of our mustangs for a separate event. The mustangs were furry and winter-coated. Their condition contrasted starkly with these clipped, statuesque equines being led around with chains across their noses (sometimes with two handlers)
The first horse to shock me was in a driving class. (I say that because there is no way he could have been saddled to ride.) His back looked like a canyon. I’m no biomechanics expert, but I suspect this is the result of his handlers cranking his head, neck, and poll at unnatural angles. For years.
As I strolled the show grounds over the next several days with my mustangs, I caught myself with my mouth open more than once. First, the stall decorations: I’ve never seen so much
effort thrown toward something so superficial.
- One farm brought in hedges to encase their row of stalls.
- Another brought in gas lamps…GAS LAMPS! and a trophy room, complete with haute couture, life-sized images of the owner in a gown of feathers, posed with their horses.
On the next to last day of the show, I had evening duty with our mustangs and needed to walk through several other barns to reach our truck. En route, I saw horses stalled for the night with blankets, full harnesses, cribbing collars, and what I perceived as buckets on their tails.
After some research, I learned these tail buckets were called “bustles.” If you’ve never seen a plastic tail bustle, imagine a two-gallon bucket fixed to the tail head and strapped to a full harness. These horses were stalled overnight in this contraption. I was horrified.
I asked one groom why on earth the poor horse was put up like that. His response? So he didn’t rub his tail.
Why would he feel the need to rub his tail?
Well, it’s a poorly kept secret in the Saddlebred industry that handlers will put ginger paste or some other kind of burning substance under the tail so the horse keeps his tail away from his body. This isn’t practiced by everyone, but it’s more common than we might think.
I wasn’t blind to the looks I got with my rangy-looking horses. These show elites looked down their noses as my mustangs plodded behind me in their rope halters on a loose lead, unclipped, and head low. They’d be shocked to learn that it was me who was the critical one.
I’m not painting everyone who shows with the same brush. But, I do think it’s high-time that we, as a horse community, evaluate our priorities, especially in the show arena. Whether you show Quarter horses, Saddlebreds, Tennessee Walkers or race horses, let’s put the horse first.