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Around in Circles vs. Over Fences

There’s an equestrian sport for everyone, and each one has its pros and cons.

By Leslie Potter | April 20, 2017

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Like a lot of riders, I’m not committed to a specific discipline. I rode saddle seat for a long time and competed in breed-specific classes with my Morgan, Snoopy, until I retired him. For the past couple of years, I’ve been riding at an eventing barn, and while I’m not sure I’ll ever be brave enough to be a real eventer, I like learning both dressage and jumping.

I’ve had the chance to compete in a few combined tests (that’s dressage and stadium jumping—like eventing without the cross-country) since joining this barn, and while there are a lot of similarities with my previous show experience, there are also a lot of differences. But one isn’t inherently better than the other. Here are a few of the differences I’ve noticed.

Saddle Seat Horse

1. Objective vs. Subjective Judging.

The great thing about the stadium jumping part of a combined test (and the cross-country phase of eventing, and the standalone sport of show jumping, along with barrel racing and other speed events) is that there’s almost no room for a judge’s bias to affect the outcome. You either get over all the jumps without refusals and do it within the time (when applicable) or you don’t.

Meanwhile, in a Morgan Hunter Pleasure class, the judge might like a horse with a bit more up-and-down motion as it’s a breed trait, or they might prefer a longer, lower, traditional hunter way of going. They might be willing to let a minor mistake go if your horse is otherwise the best quality in the class or they might look for technical perfection first. You just don’t know, and sometimes you leave the class with a placing that baffles you and you’ll never know why it turned out that way.

In a lot of ways, I think the objectively judged sports have an advantage over their subjectively judged counterparts. No one can blame their loss on "politics” or bad judging when the ultimate judge is the clock. But if you’re not a total speed demon, most of those disciplines won’t appeal to you.

Stadium Jumping

2. One Show, Many Classes. Or not.

In eventing and related sports, you compete in multiple disciplines for a single placing. This is a tough pill to swallow when you come from the rail-class world. If you botch your dressage test, that’s it. No matter how perfect you are in the jumping, that bad dressage score is coming along with you. Your only hope for a decent placing at that point is if your competitors rack up a bunch of penalties in their jumping phases, and who wants to be the jerk hoping for the failure of others?

In pretty much any other type of horse show you can leave your mistakes behind. If you have a lousy class at a pleasure horse show, that poor showing is over once you saunter through the outgate. You can move on and do better and take a blue in your next class, and you don’t have to secretly hope that your competitors mess up.

And look, I know we don’t do it for the ribbons, but there is something fun about having a stack of ribbons from one good weekend at a horse show to hang on your horse’s stall. In eventing, you ride all weekend, and might even have three great rides, but if your division is pretty large you'll still leave empty handed. Best case, you get one single rosette. Again, it's not all about the ribbons but if I just want the satisfaction of a job well done, I'll save my money and have a good ride at home, y'know?

3. What Was the Judge Thinking?

One thing I love about dressage is that you get the judge’s comments after you’re done. You can find out what they saw that you did well and where you need to improve. Dressage wins this category since it’s the only discipline, to my knowledge, in which riders always get feedback from the judges. Of course it would be impractical for judges in the middle of a class of 30 western pleasure Quarter Horses to provide individual written feedback for each entry, but it seems like other individual judged disciplines (reiners, hunters) could follow the dressage lead, couldn’t they?

Dressage

4. Solo Performance vs. Hidden in the Crowd.

In solo sports like dressage and jumping, all eyes are on you, which adds another reason to be nervous if you’re at all prone to stage fright. In rail classes, you’re one in the crowd, which takes the pressure off a little and means that the judge might not see a mistake that happens behind her back. However, it also means that you have to find a way to stand out in a good way while navigating traffic on the rail, avoiding the greenie having a meltdown in the corner, etc.

In the end, none of these differences in competition are going to have more of an impact on your choice of discipline than the more practical concerns (what are you and your horse suited for; what type of shows and trainers are available in your area) or the primary factor, which is going with the sport you find the most fun to do. If you’ve experienced different types of shows, tell us in the comments what you like about your chosen discipline or some of the things that other sports do that you wish applied to yours.

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Leslie Potter is a writer and photographer based in Lexington, Kentucky. www.lesliepotterphoto.com

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