This is from a presentation given by Bob Ruxer at the February 2008 ASHA Convention. Some of you may have seen it before, but I thought it was worth revisiting as we begin the new year.
Before we conclude today let’s give Barbara Molland a big round of applause for this wonderful panel she’s put together. Three weeks ago she called and asked me to participate and give my thoughts on where we’ve been and where we’re going as a breed – hence the title, ‘Far-sighted Thoughts from a Near-sighted Horseman.’ I told her I had no idea where we’re going. She said, “That’s perfect; they need to know that… and you have 15 minutes to tell them.”
After reviewing my original draft, she wisely suggested changing my topic to ‘Short-sighted Thoughts from a Far-sighted Horseman.’ And I after I left everything on a plane two days in Dallas, she added ‘From a Forgetful Horseman.’ Then I put together what I could remember, and Jimmy Robertson reviewed it. He suggested changing the topic to ‘Alzheimer’s – The Early Stages.’ But this morning, after a good night’s sleep, I settled on an appropriate title… it’s now called, ‘I Can See Clearly.’
Please keep in mind what I have to say is just my opinion. I’m certain some of you will disagree with me, but I have tried my best to disguise these opinions as the pure and simple truth. So here we go…
Look around here. Isn’t it strange? The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same. Once again we’re talking about how to train, how to condition, become lighter, select the prospect, develop markets, increase breedings and registrations, change the rules we’re just going to change again in two years, and raise hell with Alan and the board for not promoting our breed enough. I’ve attended this convention for 40 years. We kick this around every year, but the bottom line is that we really haven’t seen any appreciable growth. In fact, some think we’re going the other way.
I’m here to say we have a very pro-active board, and beginning with Jim Aikman all the way to Fred Sarver, we’ve had strong leadership… much of it through some very trying times.
In our efforts to expand, we added transported semen years ago, and we just knew our numbers had to grow [as a result]. Tom Moore founded the UPHA so professionals could share ideas and raise the standards and talents of our trainers. Let me add that I believe we have a world of talent in our trainers today – just look at Anne [Judd], Joan [Lurie], Smith [Lilly], and Eitan [Beth Halachmy] here. Look how professional they look on a horse – smooth, polished, sitting right there in the middle of the saddle, quiet hands, none of this jerking and snatching. Why, if you didn’t know any better, you’d swear they were amateurs. That’s a compliment to you. And we continue our hope to grow and promote our breed.
Here came the riding programs, the sweepstakes, the Classics, the Grand National, the big money classes for weanlings. We’ve sold horses for more bucks today than we could imagine years ago. And now we have western and hunter horses out there showing the public the great versatility of our breed.
But the question remains… where’s that growth? We continue to come back here to Alan and the board and say, “We need more promotion.”
Here’s what I believe:
• Trainers today are better than ever.
• There are more knowledgeable breeders and owners than in the past.
• Stallions and mares are better today than years ago.
• The vets, farriers, nutrition, training conditions, headsets, and quality are all better.
• And the judging is [better]
That’s what I believe. Now, let’s imagine… Alan here finally got fed up with all this clamoring for more promotion and quit. But wanting to give back to the Association, he reaches into his personal retirement fund and gives us – let’s say – two million bucks for promotion of our breed. Now we have the funds. Do you think we can significantly grow our numbers? I say no. Let me tell you why. And this [relates to] the changes I’ve seen over the years.
Let’s first look at our product – our horse. No wait, let’s say it’s an automobile. We must manufacture it, advertise and promote to the public, and only abut 10-20% of them actually work. How long would we be in business?
How many times have we attempted to train a Saddlebred and somewhere along the way we, or our trainer, utter those famous words, ‘It just doesn’t think right.’ I remember years ago wrestling with a two-year-old with Marty Mueller watching. He finally stopped me and asked me what I thought, knowing I was in big communication trouble with my colt. I volunteered that it just happened to be a dumb, bad-thinking horse. Then he asked me what I planned on doing about it, since I was supposedly the teacher. My solution of a much larger bit made his eyes turn red, so I suggested draw reins would no doubt be in order. That just made the rest of him turn red, and he suggested I try a different answer if I wanted a paycheck. I told him probably the best thing to do was put the horse back in his stall and try another one. Wait, I’ll be right back. Man oh man, that guy could cuss!
He pounded into my head that the horse was just fine; it thought like a horse. I was the problem. I didn’t think like a horse. I was close though… jackass. And to me – just an opinion – our horse is trying to tell us something… and here’s what I’m hearing…
We have horses in the public eye today that move like never before. Each year we see some incredible individuals, and we continue to raise the bar. And each year this wonderful breed meets that challenge. How tight can we turn the screws?
Heck, the pleasure and park horses of today would be horses of history from the past. If CH Blackberry Delight had shown in the walk-trot stake of 1956, we’d have never heard of CH Valley View Supreme. That’s how far we’ve come.
But in the process of raising the bar, I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re losing our horse… the horse we all want to promote.
Horses today are entering training earlier than ever. By the spring of their two-year-old year – barely 24 months old – they’re doing incredible things… racking and trotting like aged horses, would up and carrying the mail. But what about their minds?
I remember years ago, we’d send our CH Wing Commander horses to Frank Bradshaw, and we’d visit every four months or so to check on their progress. You didn’t see much of what you’d hope to see, just a horse pulling a big-wheel training cart. I asked one day when he was going to start gaiting them, and he said he already was. They weren’t even broke to ride, and I said, ‘How so?’ The lesson was he wanted them mannered, settled, and strong enough in the hindquarters to take the rigors of future training before he ever asked for that first racking or show step. I know what you’re thinking – CH Yorktown, CH Dow Jones, CH Sky Watch, Pluto – they racked their way into history as two-year-olds. They were also exceptions… and exceptional.
Look at our horses today, trotting higher than ever. In fact so high, they have to pull themselves forward, rather than pushing from behind. We’re losing the engine, the backend we used to be famous for. But that’s okay. The public we want to promote to doesn’t see this, and it still looks pretty impressive.
Let’s move on… whatever happened to that “Rock ’em back and slow gait?” – CH Denmark’s Daydream, CH Summer Melody, CH Belle Elegant, and CH Imperator. Once again, more often than not, they’re pulling themselves along, rather than shifting their weight back to the hindquarters, because the strength just isn’t there. Don Harris still makes his living on this gait and brings the house down. But you won’t see it on a horse that isn’t strong behind. What we do see today, too often in my eyes, is a slightly slower version of the rack. (Alan, don’t we have a poster that refers to the Saddlebred as the only 5-speed horse?) That’s okay, the public doesn’t really see this either.
Let’s try the canter. Our equitation horses canter great. What can’t the others? Anyone here remember how CH My-My or CH Sky Watch – two superstars – cantered? My western and Thoroughbred friends like to quiz me why we canter our horses the way we do. I don’t have an answer, except maybe tradition. And I was as guilty as anyone.
We’re getting these horses wound up, folks. Look at our pleasure horses. If a judge calls for a flat walk for more than 20 seconds, he’s criticized, because even the best ones have trouble coming back down to a true relaxed walk. That’s okay, the public really see this either.
These are just some of the changes I’ve seen over the years. You hardly notice them over the past ten years, but over time, I can see them clearly. You know what? I still believe, and you believe, we have an exciting breed.
That’s not the point. What we see is not what the public sees. Until we see what the public sees, all the promotion in the world won’t advance our cause.
We’re now through performing our gaits to a standing-room-only audience and heading into the line-up with our wound-up horses… that is, if they’ll come into the line-up to be judged. How must that look to the public? Now we get off and pull the saddles and then try to get back on. That’s when the fun starts. Hey, I’ve been there, done that. A few years ago it was wisely suggested that we leave the saddles on, not so much to hide the Lordosis issue, but because some of our horses are so wound up – and you guessed it – it looks bad to the public as we try to step back aboard.
Well, we’re almost through. We’re back aboard trying to find our stirrups and gather our reins as our horses smartly retire to the end of the ring. Whoops! There goes our eventual winner vaulting through the air and unseating its rider. Such excitement you sometimes don’t even see at NASCAR races. Now we proceed to give the viewing public our version of bumper cars at the carnival because our wound-up horses are fed up with all this and looking for the out-gate. When it opens, some, in fact, leave automatically and can’t even return for their ribbon.
That’s what the public sees.
Accidents are on the rise, to the point we devoted a session at the last UPHA convention on what to do when one occurs; not a word on what to do to keep them from happening.
We have the product, friends; but all the promotion in the world won’t override what the public sees. What I’ve just described actually happened [last] year… on our three largest stages – Lexington, Louisville, and Kansas City. Our horses are talking to us. Are we listening?
How much easier would their lives be if we taught them manners, if we taught them how to wait on us, how to relax between gaits, how to stand and be mounted with no one holding them? Hey, they’re already stopped. Why hold them? I wonder how that would look to a prospective buyer, our viewing public.
I’m for stepping back and building a more complete, more dependable, safer, longer lasting, and even more exciting horse. It’s there if we want and are willing to make some adjustments.
Let’s get together and polish our product, and when we finally have the horse as it needs to be – as it wants to be – let’s go out and give ‘em a show, the show the public needs to see. Then, and only then, will we have something to promote. I believe in our horse. I believe in our breed. And most of all, I believe in you. Food for thought…