Beyond a Knowledge Test: Addressing Poor Horsemanship in IEA
Updated: Feb 21, 2019
I've spent the last two seasons as a coach of an IEA team, and as we come up on our Region Finals this weekend, I can't help but be reflective about the experience thus far.
I do really appreciate IEA for what it is. It teaches kids to be more adaptable riders. It allows a more accessible avenue for middle and high school students to horse show. It's less expensive, closer to home, doesn't require ownership of a horse, and is overall less involved. But that last trait is what I actually have quite an issue with.
I'm big on horsemanship. The horses come first, always. No excuses, no whining, no ifs, ands, or buts. The horses have got to be the priority. My issue with IEA is that the horses are a means to an end, and the entire structure of the horse shows lends to riders being incredibly self-absorbed. The horses fall by the wayside. The kids arrive at the shows and worry only about themselves, since they don't have a horse there for whom to care and look after. They spend all day sitting in chairs until it's time to go hop on a horse they don't know, ride it for five minutes, then hand it back off to someone else. More often than not, I see riders go in and come out without ever patting the animal or appreciating its effort.
I hear rider after rider blame the horses for poor rides, which defeats the entire purpose of the random draws "evening the playing field". As a coach, I'm required to provide horses to these shows to cover my kids' rides. The number of times I've heard riders and coaches trash talk my animals makes me sick. I've gotten so upset by rude comments that I've wanted to just load up my ponies and take them home. I bring saintly, kind, honest and forgiving lesson ponies to these horse shows, and my ponies are always well-behaved and give their all. I always place them in classes where they're more than appropriate and capable for the job being asked of them. Just because they're quarter horses and not warmbloods, or just because they have simple changes instead of the auto changes kids are used to these days, does not give you the right to manhandle or demean someone else's horse.
I struggle, also, with the lack of appreciation and involvement of riders whose teams bring horses to the IEA shows. The kids often arrive just in time for the course walk, sometimes late for that too, and have no part in caring for the team's horses in the morning. The stalls have to be cleaned, horses fed, waters done, and the ponies taken for a walk. So often it's the coach doing this by themselves.
I see so many kids sitting in chairs while there are adults holding horses, or sitting down on mounting blocks while holding ponies. To me, that's completely unacceptable. These horses are here to do this job for the kids. The riders should be responsible for ensuring the horses are properly tacked up, offered water, held in shade when it's hot or under cover when it's raining, that their legs are wrapped or booted safely and correctly, and that they are cared for and put away properly at the end of the day. I refuse to believe that any of these riders don't know these things and I know they do them for their own horses at regular shows. Why should IEA be an excuse to throw horsemanship out the window? Just because it's not your horse? Unacceptable.
But wait! There's a horsemanship test! Don't get me wrong, I think the horsemanship test is a great idea. Topics of the horsemanship tests include blanketing, clipping, anatomy, farriery, shipping, and more. I think it's wonderful. However, I think the horsemanship test misses the mark in fulfilling a need for better horsemanship within IEA. As far as a lot of people are concerned, it's just another opportunity to get a ribbon or to qualify for regionals. Many of them know how to regurgitate information on anatomy for the test, but don't know why you apply the pressure across the cannon bone and not the back of the leg when applying a polo wrap. Some of them miss basic knowledge questions like the average body temperature of a horse or symptoms of colic, because they're only learning it for a test and not because it's important information any horseman should know. This program could be so greatly improved by doing the test in a practicum scenario instead of a written multiple choice test. Have the kids put a bridle back together. Have them identify different types of bits. Have them apply a standing wrap. Have them take a horse's pulse. This is horsemanship, not asking them to regurgitate word-for-word a passage from the book they read for the first time last night.
So how can you ensure you're not allowing horsemanship to fall by the wayside while participating in IEA?
Always pat the horses and handle them gently and with kindness.
Thank the people who bring their horses for you to ride.
Hold your team's horses.
Ensure your team's horses have shelter in the sun or rain, are offered water, and are well groomed and cared for.
Ask if your coaches need help caring for the horses, cleaning their stalls, cleaning their tack after the show, etc.
Don't be rude or derogatory about other people's horses and appreciate their contribution.
Truly learn the information for the horsemanship tests and work on being the best horseman you can be!
For Coaches & Parents:
Require team members to care for the team's horses. The parents should not be the ones holding horses!
Set a good example for horse care.
Make sure your horses have their legs protected and are well taken care of after the shows.
Encourage team members to participate in the horsemanship test not because it's an extra ribbon, but because it's important information horsemen should know.
I like IEA for what it is. I love that my students have become more adaptable riders. I love that they have met new people and ridden new horses. I love that it's possible for the kids to gain recognition for great riding. I love that clients who aren't ready to purchase a horse still have the ability to get a taste of showing. IEA has been a huge confidence booster for my more cautious riders, and for that I'm incredibly thankful. However, I really implore IEA riders and coaches to look at how they treat the horses in this association. They didn't ask to be here. They didn't wake up this morning and say, "I want to go get jumped around 5 courses by random kids I don't know". The horses have got to come first. The horses are the #1 reason why we do this sport. If that's not true for you, perhaps you should look into something else. Something that doesn't involve a living, breathing, feeling creature whose health, happiness, and well-being depend entirely on the humans with whom it comes in contact.
I'm looking forward to IEA Regionals this weekend, and I hope to see better horsemanship than ever before.