Grassroots is the basic, most elementary part of what we do. Think about your lawn for a minute.  If grubs eat the roots of your grass your lawn dies.  Roots feed the plant and make growth possible. If the roots of the grass are healthy you lawn will be rich and luxuriant.

Changes in 2020

No doubt 2020 cancellations and changes in society have been a hardship on everyone. People are examining goals and methods, changing course, looking for new ways to get things done. Parts of the horse world have taken a huge hit. The continuity of horse shows, racing, and other competitions has been disrupted, same for barn routine and lesson programs. Social distancing varies from one state to the next, even from county to county within certain states. As a result, horsemen and riders deal with a lot more uncertainty which causes stress.

Industry Complaints

Our industry has certainly blossomed over past several decades and with it have come common complaints. Competitors at horses shows complain about the costs of entering a division. Organizers complain about the fees involved in putting together a sanctioned competition. Owners complain about horse care, and horseman complain because at certain levels, owners can’t ready their own horse. Breeders complain because trainers go to Europe to buy horses instead of buying American bred horses.

Add to those, the current issues of social privilege and the horse industry lacking diversity, and consequently we have more well-founded complaints. 

Equestrian History

Women finally won the right to vote in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified. With the right to vote came the hard fought battle of the right to ride astride instead of sidesaddle. When the U.S. Cavalry was dismounted in the forties,  private instruction with Cavalry masters became the “in” goal for privileged civilians.  By 1951, Carol Durand was the first woman to ride with the US Equestrian team.

In the sixties, a palomino horse could make the Olympic team alongside the Thoroughbreds, a nondescript horse destined for slaughter could become the US show jumping champion, and a kid could pass their US Pony Clubs’ A rating on a pony. 

The seventies and eighties brought big changes. The best horses were Thoroughbreds who’d been trained by George Morris. Conformity set in as the crest release became the only way to jump. Equitation ring turnout became a navy coat, tan breeches, and white saddle pad. Outdoor courses with varied terrain were replaced by hunter courses over smooth surfaces in arenas. By the nineties, most outside courses were gone. Thoroughbreds were replaced by warmbloods, and trainer status gained a boost if he or she made horse buying trips to Europe, further distancing the ordinary horseman.


Fast forward to our current time where warmbloods are the standard, and it costs thousands of dollars each week to compete one horse. Gone is the room for the Thoroughbred, much less the Palomino ranch horse, or the saved from slaughter star, or the kid excelling with her pony.  Sadly, we read confessions of depressed elite riders, or riders and trainers with addictions, and those who have  fortunately recovered. We hear about electric spurs, nerving horses for competition, and people who want to level the playing field with drugs. We hear about abuse. Juniors with eating disorders. And charges against shameful sexual predators.

100 years after women got the vote and broke the ban against riding astride, and nearly 70 years after the first woman rode with the USET, our industry is a mess.  It’s not just at the FEI or A level. We are in a time that being isolated through social distancing and living with the fear of pandemic could make the mess worse. In short, for some it seems as though progress has reversed itself.

Back to Grassroots

What if this is our opportunity to reset? Maybe change can result from breaking the norm. Rather than be victims of pandemic and change,  it’s possible we’ve been given a chance to return to our grassroots, our foundation, and make a few improvements. 

What if, instead of thousand dollar divisions we went back to the fun schooling shows with their laid back atmosphere and creative classes. What if the old ranch horse had a chance to perform? What if the incapable rider became a horseman and learned to tack up and braid? How about setting up a cross-country course with a few hills and dips and holding a schooling session?  Do this within your group or invite another barn (if you’re local government allows).  

Schooling shows get people in the saddle for less money. They can go a long way toward relieving stress and gaining mileage for both horse and rider. Schooling shows and fun days at the barn are the grass roots for loftier competition. Grooming and caring for your own horse is grassroots for relationships. I especially favor competitions that include horse management as well as performance to test the total package.

I love the new virtual horse shows because I admire innovation.  How about taking it one step farther and holding a competition for a video lesson. Pick a topic and let entrants record and enter a video teaching/demonstrating the topic. Pick placings.

Anything we can do to get our students and horsemen down to the grass roots level puts a little more sand in the foundation. If we can create activities that are laid back and simple, requiring time with the horse, we can help students and owners lower their stress levels.

Your Best Idea

So here’s my question.  If you could contribute one idea or suggestion to improve the horse industry as it is today, to change our course, what would it be? 

Enjoy the historical video below from Bernie Traurig and Equestrian Coach. And if you’d like to know more about what I do with my time, check out my author web site at Barbara Ellin Fox.

Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor today!

Barbara Ellin Fox

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