A rider tacks up their mount in preparation for a class. PC: S. Carter/flickr/cc
As I search for worthwhile horses and riders to profile, to feature, and to celebrate in our wonderful online community, I’ve noticed an almost unfathomable trend. While I love seeing barn and show life through the eyes of all sorts of equestrians, this one thing stops me dead in my tracks every time I see it: Snapchats and Instagram posts of someone tacking up a horse for a young rider at home or at shows.
There are a few circumstances – particularly at an event – where I can see the need for some extra hands. If you’re riding five horses in three different divisions in two rings across the property from each other, I totally get it. You’ve got under saddle classes back to back and the ring steward waits for no one? You definitely need some help there. You’re riding through the pain with a dislocated elbow because this is your last chance to qualify for zone finals? I suppose.
(Also, in case this isn’t abundantly clear, I’m not talking about adult professional riders who are running a business and have a goal of efficiency; Any successful professional in the business has obviously paid their dues and has the knowledge base in place.)
But guuuuurrrl, if you’ve got time to update your Instagram story? If you’ve got the free hand to hold your phone and you’re literally sitting down watching a groom swing a saddle onto your horse’s back? That’s not only an embarrassment to the sport, it’s poor horsemanship.
We’ve all got things that keep us from being the best horsemen we can be all the time, but if you’re not there to learn every step, what are you doing there? What is your end game with this thing? If you have even an iota of interest in someday being a professional but don’t know how to tack up your own horse at 15? SPOILER ALERT: You’re not going to make it.
If you’ve got all the money in the world for horses and custom saddles and spare grooms and the world’s best trainer, I can guarantee that no matter how much you’re willing to spend, someday you’re going to get passed up for the opportunity of a lifetime by some absolutely die-hard, scrappy young rider who rinsed her own buckets, bathed her own horse (and five more horses before it was dark out) and knew how to braid with her eyes closed.
I also can’t quite shake that this particular trend feels like a tone-deaf flaunting by the upper crust that exists in the hunter jumper world, and it feels so embarrassing to me on behalf of the vast majority of participants who scrimp and save and work so hard to get their piece of the pie. For that matter, it’s probably embarrassing to the other wealthy participants who would never let a thing like money get in the way of their horsemanship or learning experience.
Should these words actually reach any of the offending parties, I know most of them will dismiss this as the whiny, out-of-touch musings of the lazy middle class; maybe some will read this and feel picked on, perhaps embarrassed enough to stop actually posting it to social media, but are going to silently go on living in a detached world where you only know your way around a saddle and not a barn. That’s fine. The sport needs your dollars.
But I pity you. I pity that someday you will look back on your adolescence and think fond, fuzzy memories of that horse that packed you around the juniors for a handful of years. When I look back at the horse I showed for most of my youth, I can still tell you the exact spot her fall coat first started to come in around September. I can tell you about her tiny hernia, the little scar below her elbow she got as a filly, and the exact length and shade of her eyelashes. I can tell you the size of her chestnuts, the feet she picked up generously for cleaning the one she didn’t. And someday when your horse is long gone, every single vivid memory is a priceless treasure.
I can tell you with almost perfect clarity about the night at a slow-moving horse show that my mare stepped over my chair where I was holding her lead rope and placed her head in my arms and fell asleep. That kind of trust was built on years of interaction at every minuscule level. If you’re just the girl who gets on and off at lessons and horse shows, everything I’ve ever experienced with horses tells me that your horse is never going to love you back.
But it’s not too late. Riders, if you’re afraid to ask – don’t be. Your groom would be happy to show you how to get going, and one day it will be a peaceful, familiar ritual. Trainers, stick to your guns. Demand more of your students. Don’t give in to fearful or inexperienced parents. And for Heaven’s sake, give that poor, overworked groom a paid weekend off. While a certain part of our sport will always be an outlet of the elite, the heart of it should remain those who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and be proud of it, regardless of wealth.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of the article identified the barn in the featured image. While we intended for this photo to illustrate positive behavior, we apologize to readers and the barn if this was misconstrued. The identifying names have since been removed with permission from the photographer.