Are The Kids All Right’ Guest blog by Heather Bailey John and I spend a fair amount of time in the competitive world of equines, from the top levels to the grass roots. We realize that many people, and probably even most people, who have horses in this country don’t have competitive goals or plans, that they have horses for the sheer enjoyment of them. While I certainly enjoy competing, and the competitive environment, I’ve been feeling lately like that sense of just enjoying your horse for the horse’s sake may be getting lost, especially for the kids. Our sport of eventing, and in many of the equine sports, have gone through a transformation over the years, from something in which many adults and kids could participate somewhat casually, to a more professional atmosphere. If you’re old enough, no matter what your sport, you remember a time when you, or someone you knew, was competitive on an equine of uncertain parentage, purchased for a modest price, often including tack. In addition to their showing career, these equines also swam rivers, participated in costume parties, and served as friends and confidants. In recent years I’ve noticed the trend for ?better,? by which I mean fancier and more athletic, horses for junior riders. These horses are undoubtedly lovely?big, huge movers, with lots of chrome, lots of jump, and lots of attitude. they’re purchased in the name of being ?competitive,? and I’m certain they’re usually purchased with the best of intentions. But as I stand in the warm-up ring and watch kids having to school these horses for an hour and half to be able to manage a beginner novice dressage test, or watch them get jumped out of the tack and thrown around like a piece of popcorn in a popper, I start to wonder. These same horses go in more and more hardware to provide control to their riders, and later on in the barns, I see these kids trying to walk their mounts, with stud chains over their noses and still getting dragged around. And I know in some sports, the kids wouldn?t even be allowed to touch their horses, other than to ride them. Undoubtedly, true top-class horses are often quirky and difficult, and someone who wants to ride at the FEI levels will at some point need to deal with a horse like this. But I’m curious why anyone thinks that kids just starting out need to deal with a creature like that. And I wonder if the kids get to do anything fun with them at home’ it’s hard to imagine the fire-breathing fancy pants going for a bareback ride in a halter and lead rope, or tolerating a costume. And I’m certain such a valuable animal wouldn?t be risked swimming a creek. A fancy horse with a backyard temperament is, fairly so, expensive. So in the name of budgeting, you usually get one or the other (unless you’re willing to play with the two other cost factors?age and soundness). But I guess the fuddy duddy in me is constantly amazed how many parents and trainers appear to be choosing fancy over fun. As a trainer, I believe my No. 1 responsibility is to keep my students safe, then to educate them, then to make them competitive?in that order. When I look at horses for my junior students, I first insist on them being safe, smart jumpers. Then I look at how difficult they are to deal with, and then, and only then, do I worry about how they’re going to score in the dressage ring. If the parents have a large budget, then we find a horse that can do it all, but precious few people are on a giant-sized budget these days. I’m sure these kids love their horses. But, let’s be honest, horsie kids will love anything that has four legs and a tail and belongs to them. It doesn’t have to move a 10 or jump over the standards, it just has to be theirs. I’m sure it’s fun for these kids to win, when they do. But, when I see a 13-year-old mounted on something that’s literally leaping up an down and rearing and kicking out because his buddy has left to go do his round, and the kid is clinging on for dear life, I wonder, is the ribbon worth it’ To the kid’ To the parents’ And, while I’ve been focusing on our junior riders in this blog, the same theory applies to working amateurs. To my mind what makes an ?amateur horse? is one that can calmly deal with the uncertain schedule and signals? of? riders who may have work or family that can create crises at the drop of a hat. The horse has to be safely rideable after unplanned time off, at the crack of dawn, or in the dark of night. He should be the same horse today he was yesterday or two weeks ago. Of the total time you ride a horse, what you spend in the competitive arena is infinitesimal. So you?d better be getting enjoyment of the majority of your time with your horse, because the blue-ribbon moment is fleeting. And as professionals, we have a duty to look at the whole experience of our students, not just the competitive one. In nearly every aspect of life today, it seems like being a kid is becoming less and less fun, often with less free time. I hope we can stop this issue?s spread in to our little corner of the world.