A Sport Without Underdogs

Growing up, I loved to watch Olympic coverage on T.V., especially the track and field events where sometimes a ‘nobody’ from a little known country might sprint out of obscurity on her own two feet and topple a field of preferred athletes. I savored these come-from-behind scenarios, and cherished them more if the runner had overcome major life challenges to get there. You know, like poverty or broken limbs or genocide, that sort of stuff.

So much thrill and excitement followed these races. Sports announcers went wild into their microphones, newspapers clamored for the story, television news would broadcast the footage over and over in slow motion. And in mere seconds, a single moment in sports was carved in history. A previously unknown athlete with no Nike sponsorships or other endorsements had written her ticket to the top of her sport. I remember walking away from the television with a warm glow of inspiration inside my chest as if I, too, could someday blast out of a rural town in Vermont into the history books.

It’s curious now to find myself in the world of dressage– a sport with no underdogs. During primetime coverage of this past month’s dressage World Cup in Las Vegas, I reflected on how anti-climactic these big events can be when there are positively no come-from-behind moments in the sport, or unlikely candidates competing alongside the ‘big names’. I mean, who has ever seen a Welsh Cob at the Olympics? Or a rider from Belarus on the medal podium? When has a Bashkir Curly horse ever shown up in a Grand Prix test? Now, that would be cool.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not denouncing modern Grand Prix dressage competitors who have worked long and hard to claim their accomplishments. I’m just saying that if every now and then a Shetland pony actually ended up on the winner’s podium, dressage competitions would be a lot more… well, exciting. We’d get announcers yelping into their microphones rather than droning in hushed librarian-like tones. We’d have spectators showing up in dozens, wondering which underdog might make a run on the first place ribbon– the Appaloosa, the Arabian cross, or the Fjord pony. We’d finally get some news coverage and little boys and girls saying they wanted to grow up to be dressage riders. Wouldn’t this be different? If nothing else, it would definitely change the landscape of modern competitions.

As is, the only time I find myself saying “Holy cow! How about that?” is while watching an upper level stallion blow up in the warm-up arena, clearing out other horses and riders like bowling pins, rather than when an unlikely candidate turns in an impressive performance and WINS. The only ‘excitement’ or unpredictability comes when high winds pick up and horses start losing their marbles. The only spectators that come to endure the hermetic silence at dressage venues are family members who have been threatened/cajoled/arm-twisted to be there. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have them come willingly because there were some storylines to follow (like the Chincoteague pony that used to live in the wild and is now going head to head with the top-ranked dressage horse/rider in this country?)

By its nature, dressage is a sport for all. It was developed to improve the training and performance of any horse, regardless of breed, talent, or Olympic potential. And for that reason, riders of all abilities and financial means undertake it as a hobby in this country, many of them with lofty competitive aims. The caveat, though, is that in theory a horse need not have Olympic potential to participate in dressage. When it actually comes to the Olympics or World Cup, though, you darn better get the right horse. I might be unpopular for saying it, but in dressage, someone who rides a $10,000 Welsh-Arab cross is very simply never going to pull off a feat like the relatively unknown runner Wilma Rudolph in the 1960 Rome Olympics, sprinting on a sprained ankle to become the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in a single Olympics. Rudolph had overcome a premature birth, polio, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and measles.

During last summer’s Olympics, I watched with glee as a 16-year old member of the Brazilian dressage team competed aboard her plump Lusitano stallion– a total oddball for such levels of this sport. Maybe I hoped for the equestrian version of Rudolph. Luiza Tavares de Almeida performed nearly flawlessly. I held my breath, sort of like you would for a girl of modest means from one of those Balkan countries doing her floor routine in gymnastics. The Brazilian gal turned in an incredible ride, her perfectly obedient steed huffing and puffing his way through the test. I couldn’t wait to see her score, hoping she’d make the cut for final rounds.

It was one of the lowest scores I’ve ever seen in an Olympics. And, see, that’s my point. How exciting would it have been if this gal stood a real chance of scoring well and getting into the top ranks. How many dressage announcers would have jumped out of their chairs? Darn it, dressage might have even made it into mainstream news for a moment or two. Other riders with plump unfavored breeds of horses might show up at competitions and that would be… well, fun.

Ever since my 8th grade English report on Wilma Rudolph, I’ve always had a picture of her with me, either taped to a wall or close at hand someplace. Strategically squinting my eyes regarding reality, I just can’t let go of this notion that sports should be a place for everyone. Dressage included. Maybe one day in my lifetime, things will change drastically and our sport, too, will suddenly have underdogs! And story lines! And hype from sports announcers! Just to be prepared, I’m in the market for an Olympic caliber Chincoteague-Bashkir Curly cross. One with really bizarre markings would be preferred. And one that can do an excellent victory lap

Voluntarily Homeless

It’s officially Spring, which for many of us signals the start of good riding weather and competition season. For others, though, it marks an annual period of voluntary homelessness, punctuated by events like sleeping in one’s automobile, skipping showers, and eating whatever can be scavenged in a barn. I’m of course referring to the most selfless group in the horse industry: breeders.

During two months every spring, this segment of the population quite simply stops leading normal lives. Every moment– literally every one– is spent waiting for a new baby horse– slimy, delicate, and hopefully healthy. Any number of misfortunes can strike in those first few hours of life, a fact about which breeders hold their breath starting in February every year. Sleeping in their cars or the barn aisle begins soon afterwards. Skipping meals and all social interaction with fellow humans follows. Friendships are put on hold, household obligations suspended, national news ignored.

Last week, I noted that an ordinarily reliable client of mine had failed to pay her bill for three weeks. Since this was unusual behavior for her, I called to see if maybe she’d fallen ill or had a family emergency. She answered the phone gravelly voiced and sounding confused, as if her ringing telephone perplexed her. After gaining some bearings, she cleared her throat several times (most likely from hay chaff and sawdust) and apologized profusely. What day was it, anyway, she asked? Had the first of this month already passed?

Yes, about 20 days ago, I pointed out.

Oh. Well, then was it still the month of April? Or did we somehow skip right over into May?

No, still April, I said. But well past time for a paycheck not only to me but probably other folks, too, like landlord, tax guy, etc.

Oh. Oh dear, she replied. She must have lost track of time, she explained, sounding slightly less confused now. Without hesitation, she told me she’d been sleeping on a hay bale outside her pregnant mare’s stall, wearing more or less the same pair of clothes for weeks now. In fact, she couldn’t remember her last meal or the last time she’d spoken with a real human being besides her veterinarian.

The good news, though? Her mare gave birth to an adorable brown filly yesterday morning. And the little girl looked healthy so far. This meant that in another 24 hours, my client could probably comfortably move back into her house, start picking hay from her hair, and maybe eat something other than carrot chunks and oat cookies. Normal life could start back up and my check would be in the mail pronto.

I chuckled to myself, knowing what “life as normal” consists of for horse breeders immediately following a new baby. It usually starts with the proud breeder referencing herself in the company of friends as a “grandma” and asking every one’s opinion about potential names. I could picture my client at the supermarket querying the checkout clerk “What do you think of the name Maestoso? Or should I save that one until I get a boy next year?”

The clerk, oblivious to what on earth she’s talking about will stare back at her blankly, waiting for an explanation beyond the bits of hay stuck in her hair. Taking this as an opportunity to show off baby pictures, my client will quick-draw her digital camera from her hip and show the clerk a slideshow of a knobbly kneed creature teetering next to its four-legged mother. She will follow the picture show with descriptions of umbilical, colostrum, and nursing. Other patrons at the supermarket who assumed this beaming woman was talking about her own newborn will suddenly wonder how come she has a camera with her but no baby? Where’s the baby? Now uncomfortable, they will start to shift away from her or sprint out to her car to see where she’s left the newborn.

Poor souls, they’ve just never met a horse breeder. They’ve probably also never met anyone who would willingly exchange a warm bed for a scratchy hay bale.

For Sale: Overpriced, High-Strung, and Mostly Lame

I’m writing this during the worst economic downturn most Americans have ever witnessed, which I decided to face head-on by sprawling on the couch and flipping through horse magazines while ignoring radio, news, and gloomy neighborly forecasts about the crisis.

I knew equine media would provide me the obscurity I sought, because the horse world excels at distancing itself from fiscal norms and realities. So, yes, while unemployment rates in the U.S. surge higher day to day, banks collapse, and businesses capsize, the prices for horses are… going up. In a market where–logically– sale prices should be shockingly low, there is not a deal to be had. If I relied on the equine industry for my bearings, I would be led to believe we’re actually in financially lush times where money is spilling in abundance from Americans’ pockets.

This is nothing new, though. The horse sales market is one that makes zero sense. It follows no such thing as trends, measurable gains or losses, logic, or financial cycles. Above all, it does not make sense and likely never will. In fact, I’m recounting the number of my mid-30 year old students that have decided at some point to buy a horse. Each one has set out on his or her shopping spree with specific requirements such as wanting only a male horse, 10 years old, extensive training, black in color, priced around $5,500. A week later, every one of them has returned with a three-year old female possessing no training (unless you count the four times it bucked off its current trainer) with a $12,000 price tag. When I point out that the new acquisition is neither rideable nor sane and then query about the logic behind its purchase, my client can only stammer: ” I can’t explain, except as soon as I looked in her face, I knew she was my horse. She chose me.”

Um, Okay.

This horse, which will turn out untrainable, will cost the proud owner roughly $50,000 in board fees over the next ten years. And here’s the thing: unlike real estate and vintage cars, horse’s don’t gain value. The new– and, now, poor– owner will eventually sell this horse for $1,200. Anyone with an ounce of financial savvy will be shaking her head by now. But the horse world does what it does, which means it keeps stumbling along in its illogical and nonsensical ways, daring somebody, anybody, to figure it out.

For sellers, this is good news because it allows them during times like this to charge staggering sums for four-legged steeds without talent, brains, or beauty. Last week, I was contemplating a photo of a horse for sale that, all kidding aside, had such a dysfunctional body that I couldn’t tell for a moment which was the front end and which was the back. Yikes. The cost for this gem? $9,500. The seller had indicated the price was “a steal” in this bad economy. I held off calling her to suggest she donate the horse to the petting zoo because it would never be capable of a riding career.

At the end of the day, though, it will be her and not me laughing to the bank. This seller has obviously operated for a while in this bizarre horse economy. She knows how it works. One day, her phone will ring and the caller will say he’s looking for a bay colored, 16-hand Anglo-Arabian with competition experience, but within a week that same caller will be loading her midget 14-hand unregistered and untrained brown horse into his trailer with a money order payable for the full amount.

A year later, the fellow will probably return the horse to her, explaining that it just didn’t work out for him. He will swallow the $9,500 price he paid for the horse, an additional $4,000 in board fees, and $1,300 in vet and farrier costs. Then, odds favor him repeating the whole scenario within six months– purchasing an unsuitable horse for $9,000 or more, dumping time and money into him, and then either giving him away for free or re-selling him for $1,500. How’s that for a return on investment?

Meanwhile, the seller of the original untrained unattractive brown horse I saw last week will gladly accept the cost-free return of her horse, because soon her phone will ring again and she will sell the horse for $10,500 this time around (because he now has a year of training, compliments of the fellow who returned him). It ends up being a sweet deal. She gets to profit twice on the unattractive horse with no talent and escapes paying a whole year of his feed and upkeep expenses. It’s ingenious in an unexplainable way. Really, automobile dealers could learn a thing or two from the horse world. If it were measurable or made any sense, that is.

For anyone who’s genuinely downtrodden about this economic downturn, I’d like to offer up my couch and this pile of horse magazines as therapy. A few minutes immersed in horse economics will leave you feeling more upbeat or at least so perplexed that you’ll forget your woes. By the way, I know of a horse with relatively no talent for sale. Any takers?

The Unscheduled Dismount

Interestingly, the average riding lesson never delves into the skills necessary for a maneuver that faces nearly every equestrian at some point: the emergency dismount. Sometimes also called the unscheduled dismount, this rapid exit from a horse’s back includes a moment of urgency, a little terror, and a brief heroic belief in one’s superhuman capabilities. In a nutshell, it involves voluntarily flinging yourself off the back of your horse– most often at high speeds– onto the hard ground.

Personal preferences determine whether the rider in question opts to tuck and roll, lands on her feet, or keeps hold of the reins. After her first emergency dismount, a rider tends to bring her own individual style to the maneuver. A trademark, if you will. And from then on, this tumultuous parting of company from one’s mount becomes a bragging right. It’s a way of holding onto our human integrity, maintaining a sense of control. It’s our mortal way of believing that, in the face of no possible good outcome, we made an optimal choice to rectify a bad scene. Yes, instead of going down with the ship, we bailed out early. And therefore that proves our intelligence.

Style aside, though, the emergency dismount is never a good thing. It’s generally accompanied by life-ending reflections or other “this is how I’m going to die?” sorts of thoughts. And, let’s face it: most riders really intend to stay mounted once they get on board every day. Who, after all, wouldn’t prefer to be jogging around rhythmically on her horse rather than tucked into a tight ball flying through the air ready for impact with the ground?

For obvious reasons, the emergency dismount is a major bummer. Not only does it bang you up but it bruises your ego, too. When your barn mates ask how your ride went, you hate to answer “Well, things didn’t go quite as planned…” In my lifetime around horse people, though, I’ve observed that after an initial few hours of feeling embarrassed and battered, riders use the mishap to explore the reaches of metaphor. Put simply, they start bragging. In fact, they end up bragging about the unscheduled dismount more than they would about a perfectly flawless ride.

It starts innocently enough with the rider admitting to his or her coach that, after an unexplained something or other spooked her horse, she decided to bail off. Then later she tells the same story to her friend, except embellishes it with a colorful detail like this: “At first, I hit the ground running, but then I figured I’d tuck and roll, because why not? Well, after the roll, I was right back up on my feet.”

Later that afternoon, she retells the story to a group of fellow riders, adding a little more flare: “After somersaulting through the air, I ended up on the other side of the arena fence, but I broad-jumped back into the arena, ran alongside my horse, grabbed his reins…”

By the time, the story reaches its final version, the rider performed a stunt that involved hitting the ground and then somersaulting under the horse’s galloping hooves, then she sprung back up on her feet and swung her leg up (while sprinting at Olympic speeds, mind you) and did a flying re-mount onto her horse. So, basically, she never dismounted in the first place. Not only was there less shame in this version of the day’s happenings because it maintains the guise of control but it was so grossly exaggerated that her friends thought Hollywood would be calling any second for stunt training. In sum, it was far more exciting– and in some ways, fruitful– than just another day in the arena.

Admittedly, I’ve spun my own fanciful tales about emergency dismounts. I’ve added a fictional somersault here and there, exaggerated the speeds of the occurrence, etc. I mean, it’s just a lot better than saying Things got bad and I jumped off. So, now as a trainer, I know to believe only a fraction of what follows when a student starts out “Well, things didn’t go quite as planned…” And for this reason, I think I’ll petition the American Riding Instructors’ Association to develop standard operating procedures for these emergency dismount maneuvers. I’m envisioning something like this: Step 1.) Admit things are getting bad quickly, Step 2.) Recognize that you are neither John Wayne, a circus trainer, nor a rodeo rider, Step 3.) Say a Hail Mary and jump! Forget about gymnastic routines, cartwheels, or other heroics.