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Class Overdose - An Editorial

Class Overdose

By Bob Funkhouser

It’s been a while since I’ve sat in front of my computer for a “From The In Gate” editorial, but this one has been brewing for some time now. While there are a number of areas within our sport that need attention, discussion and action, this problem is something that keeps inching out of control, yet would be the easiest fix of any obstacles preventing the good health and hopeful expansion of the American Saddlebred, Hackney and Morgan breeds.

Simply put, more and more horse shows are guilty of “Class Overdose.” Class schedules continue to grow and grow, therefore, the length of sessions get longer and longer. With my travels to shows both large and small across the country I am getting consistent feedback from trainers and exhibitors alike that feel we are going down the wrong path.

The easiest part of the equation to discuss and for everyone to agree on is the length of sessions. Look at any major sporting event, theater production, or motion picture and the time for those entertainment events are three hours and under. The NFL, NBA and MLB all spend lots of money and pay extremely close attention to ways to keep their games moving along and keep the times to the three-hour mark. The National Football League considered it a major success that they shaved 40 seconds off the average time of their games over a recent five-year period.

Going the opposite direction, our horse show sessions have gotten longer and longer with nothing but negative results. I’ve seen it at my own home show, the UPHA 14 Spring Premiere, where sessions have gotten longer and longer. The recent Asheville Lions Club Show’s championship night was a 29-class, five-hour session. And while there were a number of world-class horses giving world-class performances, at the end of the night all anyone was talking about was, “thank goodness it’s over.” I’m not trying to single out Asheville, it’s one of many shows that have turned into four and five-hour marathon sessions, boring even the most avid horse show enthusiast to death in the process. When the exhibitors and trainers are beating down the doors to leave, how do we expect prospective new owners to be excited and want to be a part of this or for there to ever be general public spectators in the stands?

It’s becoming common place for the Saturday night session, which should be the best and most exciting of any show, to be ho-hum because many trainers and/or exhibitors have packed up and gone home if they don’t have something that absolutely has to show as they feel like they’ve been there forever.

Other issues surrounding the marathon schedules include taking all the fun out of horse shows. One of the selling points to our sport besides the love of the horse is the opportunity to travel and experience new places, different activities, restaurants and shopping. Sure, we’re there for the competition of showing our horses, but for the majority this is also time to get away from the pressures of real life and business. Choking down drive through McDonalds or a horse show concession stand hot dog is not anyone’s idea of a good time.

Additionally, the long schedules wear on the officials, trainers and caretakers. We should want the best conditions for our horses and ponies to make the best performances yet these schedules do nothing but take away from the optimum conditions. Ask any trainer or exhibitor if they think the Louisville schedule provides the best opportunity for their stock, the judges and the trainers/caretakers, and you’ll get a resounding NO. That show has grown from 176 classes in 1993 to a scheduled 245 classes in 2013. In 1993 we still had the NHS, UPHA and AHSA (as it was known then) equitation qualifiers that we no longer have and of course the 245 scheduled classes this year is before any classes are split. So, we’re looking at roughly 60 additional classes in the same time frame. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t have more classes than we had 20 years ago, but the number of additional classes for the comparable number of horses at the show is not in sync. Age groups and other dividing factors have been diced and diced and diced to the point where more than a handful of world’s champion blue ribbons can be won and the class will not be close to filling out the ribbons.

The second part to the problem of Class Overdose is a little more sensitive to approach and involves a couple of elements, but namely it has watered down our horse shows to the point of ridiculousness. At many shows there now seem to be classes for left handed, blue-eyed, blondes. Again, I’m going to pick on Asheville (sorry Ray!) but you could replace Asheville with several other high level show names just as easily. On Saturday night there was an Amateur Five-Gaited Championship, an Amateur Ladies Five-Gaited Championship and a Ladies Five-Gaited Championship with a total of nine entries. Oh yes, don’t forget about the Amateur Gentlemen’s Five-Gaited Championship the night before with two and Saturday’s finale, the three-horse Five-Gaited Championship. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have all those qualifiers and then an Amateur Five-Gaited Championship and Five-Gaited Grand Championship that could have had seven to nine big-time entries each? People would have been excited, maybe enough so to go out and buy a gaited horse. Hall of Fame trainer Nelson Green said, “let’s just go to the horse show office, see how many horses are here, hand out blue ribbons to everyone and go home.”

Another sample I recently witnessed was a UPHA 12-13 Challenge Cup and a few classes later a UPHA 11 & Under Challenge Cup with two entries each. Really? Where could there ever be a need for those two classes at the same show? Safety should always be the utmost factor, but it would be a rare occasion in these days when there would be high double-digit entries in a younger age group UPHA Challenge Cup.

So how did shows in general get to this point? I’m going to be blunt again – it’s the professionals. They are the ones who have gone to show committees and show managers wanting to add this and split that and those requests have been made for a number of reasons.

Again, I’ll be blunt: the more classes, the more opportunities to try and win blue ribbons. With the price of today’s horses and all the expense of maintaining and showing them, who can blame trainers? We do live in a society that has become all about instant gratification so it’s more natural for exhibitors to “expect” to win now and trainers have the pressure to fulfill that expectation. What we have to remember and TEACH is “winning” comes in many forms and not of all them are blue or tricolor. Earning ones stripes has become a lost culture.

Others use the adding and splitting of classes to keep customers within their barns separated. While that may make their jobs easier, it doesn’t do the horse show any favors. And speaking of not doing any favors, watering down these classes is doing an injustice to the junior exhibitors and beginning amateurs. They ride in two and four-horse classes most of the year and then when they get to the larger shows with larger classes they have no idea how to negotiate traffic. In short, they don’t learn ringmanship. The only way to learn it is to do it and if that opportunity only comes once or twice a year, the learning scale is going to be mighty slow.

The same professionals that have asked show management to bloat their schedules can also ask them to tighten up divisions that need it. It’s not always going to be beneficial individually but for the good of the big picture it’s time to pull in the reins on Class Overdose.

Heck, I’m going to get a tongue lashing from my publisher for suggesting this because the more classes the more opportunities to sell ads. I’ll be happy to take that tongue lashing though if this will be the conversation that gets show committees and managers to take a good, hard look at their schedules and trainers to urge them in that direction.

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