Early Days

From Saddleseat to Eventing – Part 2

For a brief history and description of saddleseat riding and training, including controversial practices, click here for Part 1.

So, how did I go from saddleseat into eventing, you ask?  Well, I grew up doing saddleseat rather by chance. I wanted lessons as a kid, and the closest barn happened to teach saddleseat. After several years my parents finally and graciously bought me a horse, Welcome Challenge, barn name Bo. We were both about 12 years old at the time. He was the love of my life until his passing about 10 years later.

Around late 2008, I was ready to start getting back into saddleseat competition. Unfortunately, there were two problems. 1) There are not very many saddleseat trainers/barns around in Southern California.  2) They are all prohibitively expensive.

As my friend and I contemplated the dwindling west coast saddleseat industry (in my opinion, caused by the 2 aforementioned problems) over lunch one day, she mentioned that she’d like to try a new discipline: eventing. We tried it out for a bit, and I came to the realization that eventing was much more affordable and accessible than saddleseat. At that point in my life, I needed those two qualities above all others, so the switch was made to eventing. 

Now, besides the obvious differences of riding style and the horse’s desired movements, what differentiates eventing from saddleseat? Quite a few things, actually.

Boarding Options
In eventing, I’ve found that there is a much wider array of boarding options than one finds at saddleseat barns. You’ll find eventing horses in stalls of all sizes, pipe corrals, paddocks, and even pastures, whereas at most saddleseat barns the competition horses are found in box stalls.  Also, in saddleseat barns there is normally at least one full-time groom who readies the horses for rides and keeps them clean. Certainly some eventing barns have this as well, but lots of eventing barns embrace a do-it-yourself approach for the rider to ready their own horses.

Lesson & Training Ride Length
Lessons in saddleseat are 30 minutes. Including warm up.
Lessons in eventing are 45 minutes to 1 hour. Not including warm up.
Of course, these are generalized, for private lessons. Training rides in each discipline tend to be shorter.

Eventing clearly focuses on horses and riders who can perform in 3 recognized disciplines – they need to be able to perform in all parts of the event, and the score is based on all 3 performances. This allows eventers to go to hunter/jumper and dressage competitions and do well.  However, at saddleseat competitions, each class stands alone (with the half-exception of qualifying for championship classes at a given show).  You can enter one class, your horse has a melt down and you’re eliminated, and you can go back in the ring in the next class and get first place. In saddleseat, most clients are taught to ride and drive horses, so that can be considered well-roundedness for the rider. Once upon a time, there used to be a horse of the year competition where saddlebreds would have to not only do saddleseat but perform in other disciplines as well, including dressage and jumping. Alas, that is no longer so.

Trailer rates to competitions are presumably the same for the two disciplines, but I have found that saddleseat  competitions generally cost much more than eventing. The lump sum price of an event entry is typically less than the sum of the class fees, drug fees, and other incidentals and fees added up at saddleseat shows. Plus, in eventing you’re riding your horse considerably longer (as in, literally more minutes in the saddle, all told). Stabling at horse trials seems to have better rates than at saddleseat shows, though not by a huge degree. Trainers charge day fees in both disciplines, but in saddleseat you can guarantee grooming fees, expected gratuities for trainers and grooms, and other miscellaneous charges that add up. Again, there certainly is no do-it-yourself attitude in saddleseat competitions in terms of horse care the way that there is in eventing. And everything you the rider don’t do, you’ll be paying someone else nicely to do it.

Qualitative vs Quantitative Judging
In eventing, there are very clear rules that even children can understand. Eventing trainers have their clients read the rules (some suggest doing so before every event!) – they are universal for the entire country and they are pretty crystal clear. And, when you explain the rules to a spectator, they can quickly grasp the competition and understand when a rider is doing well or poorly. Poles are knocked down or left standing, the bell rings if you go off course in dressage. The competition is easy to follow.
For saddleseat, while there is a rulebook, the competition is judged by one judge (sometimes 2 or 3 for big shows). Even though they have to get certified, it is widely recognized that judges have personal preferences and can even be biased. In fact, this fact is used to console clients who don’t place as high as they’d like. Some judges don’t like colored horses, or prioritize high action over evenness of pace. This is why at big shows there is more than one judge – to eliminate the inherent discrepancies due to personal preferences and interpretation of criteria. Furthermore, while some saddleseat classes specify that scores are based on certain qualities (conformation, quality, presence, etc), it can be difficult to articulate these to newcomers. It is hard to quantify how high knees are lifted, how well the headset is carried – to lay people, lots of the horses look very similar to each other and they can’t figure out why one did better than another.

Now, with all this being said, I want to say that I have a special place in my heart for the saddleseat discipline and the American Saddlebred breed. It truly saddens me that the show circuit is getting fewer and fewer participants each year. I wish there were more saddleseat barns around, that more people knew what it even is, and that it was simply more affordable and accessible than it presently is. There’s nothing quite like the energy of spectators watching a 5-gaited stake class, shouting “yeah, boy!” and whistling. The rack and slow gait are fun to ride. And saddlebreds are very underutilized for their many qualities – intelligence, presence, beauty, stamina, and willingness. 

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