Early Days

Saddleseat World’s Championship Horse Show

This week is the World’s Championship Horse Show held in Louisville, KY – the top show for American Saddlebreds. I attended years ago as a spectator and dreamed of showing there as a kid. It’s got a wonderful energetic atmosphere – unlike any other show I’ve been to. Check out Karen of Contact’s post about it for some great photos!!

I grew up doing saddleseat and after college I tried getting back into the saddleseat show world briefly, but due to various factors I ended up getting into eventing instead. My views on saddleseat as a discipline have evolved a lot since then.

Freedom Hall and the hallmark green shavings.
Image and more info from the ASHA Facebook Page

Here on the west coast especially, saddleseat is not a very popular riding discipline. I’ve had to explain the sport to other horse people just as often as I do to non horse people.

Because I grew up doing saddleseat and because I have a great love of Saddlebreds, there are times that I feel defensive about saddleseat. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and I feel the horses get a bad rap unfairly.

Myself riding Dancing in the Dark in 2009

But concurrently, some aspects of saddleseat really bother me, especially at the top levels of the sport. The prime one is hooves/shoeing.  Saddleseat horses have longer hooves (as compared to sport-horses) to help achieve high knee action.

It seems to me that hooves have gotten longer and longer in saddleseat over the last decade or so, which is a shame. It can’t be comfortable or healthy for the horse’s longevity. More remarkably, there is no maximum hoof length for in the Saddlebred Division of the USEF rulebook. Other breed divisions, including Morgans for example, have length maximums and you can get disqualified for showing with overgrown hooves.

Myself riding Ladybug, Ladybug in 2009

In this photo of me on Ladybug, I can guarantee you that we had the shortest hooves in the class, yet she still has high knee action. It’s primarily a result of breeding and training, assisted by shoeing. My personal comfort level of hoof length has gotten shorter and shorter over time, the more I’ve learned about equine anatomy. Now, I certainly wouldn’t let Hemie’s hooves get to be that long (let alone add such a thick shoe or any leather pads), yet at this moment in time I’m not horribly offended by Ladybug’s hoof length in this photo.

But let’s take this blue ribbon winner from the current World’s Championship Horse Show. The photo has lots of positives – the wind blowing through the two blue ribbons and long tail, the horse’s expression and shiny coat, the rider’s poise and smile.

From the ASHA Facebook Page
Posted 8/18/14

But to see those things I had to peel my eye away from that front left hoof! In my opinion, the hooves are way too long with an unhealthy and incorrect angle. It frustrates me that the industry is rewarding a practice that is not healthy for the horse, and change needs to happen starting at the highest levels of the sport. There should be hoof length (and possibly weight?) maximums in the rules, with ring stewards measuring and enforcing.

That all said, I do think that saddleseat has lots of positives that I am sure all those participating in and spectating at the WCHS are experiencing this week:

  • A loud crowd cheering on the riders, with whistles and shouts of “yeah boy!” to encourage the horses and riders. Most ASB show horses THRIVE on the attention and perform their best when cheered by the crowd.
  • Beautiful horses – truly I think that saddlebreds have amazing expressions, soft and intelligent eyes, and a je ne sais quoi sparkle and pizzazz about them. 
  • Racking!!  5-gaited horses are a blast to ride!
  • Fun atmosphere – saddleseat shows are usually filled with barn parties, retirement ceremonies, champagne receptions, etc. People are there to hang out and watch, just as much as to compete. People generally stay for the whole show (rather than leaving when they’re done with their ride) because spectating is really fun!

Having once loved the sport so much, it is interesting to come to terms with my changing perspective as I have grown as a horsewoman. Please feel free to share your comments and questions about saddleseat!

28 comments on “Saddleseat World’s Championship Horse Show

  1. I know a couple of people who show morgans in saddle seat. They keep their hooves at the maximum length, the horses never get to go outside, and when they ride, they ride them always forward. No walking – ever. Always incredibly fast trot/canter, etc, until the horses are soaked in sweat and breathing so hard. The explanation is 'they will forget how to go forward if I don't do this'. Plus chains, elastics, etc. I'm not against saddleseat at all – it is very pretty and I love the horses, but I find the entire thing unnatural and therefor will never partake in it. Love your pictures though!

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  2. That sounds sad and unusual as saddleseat classes do require the walk (a 4-beat walk – no jigging!).

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  3. I do have one question maybe you can answer – why the red plasticy browbands? Do they mean something?

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  4. Haha, they are patent leather. Colors do not mean anything – they are just common stylistically. Red is popular, as is maroon. Lots of trainers have all their horses wear matching bridles, sometimes with a logo in the middle of the browband.

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  5. I couldn't agree with you more. I love the atmosphere at ASB shows, and how much fun the people have. But my perspective has changed over the years. I don't like how the horses are treated – with the big shoes, no turn out, living in a bussle, having tails cut, and some unethical practices of certain trainers.

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  6. I've been here every night this week (I work for somebody who is VERY ingrained in the Saddlebred society) and I've seen some great things.. Hello CH Bravo Blue! And some not so great things that I don't want to get into.

    All and all it's been a great experience and I can't wait to play with Saddle Seat a little bit this winter. :-)

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  7. Yes, its tough to come to terms with changing perspective about a sport I once loved, but its part of growing as a horseperson and I hope changes can be made for the betterment of saddleseat ASBs.

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  8. Enjoy! Beautiful horses, lots of great vendors, parties, and the fair itself make that show really incredible!
    And Bravo Blue is very cool – I even featured him on a previous post!:
    http://eventingincolor.blogspot.com/2012/09/ottb-stigmas.html

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  9. nice post – saddleseat is awesome (the crowd is WILD!), and i love ASBs, but the downsides you mention are pretty bad. sometimes i think it gets a worse rap than other horse sports, tho… awful things happen to horses at the highest (and lowest) levels of all sports. but in any case, a standard hoof length could go a long (no pun intended!) way towards improving things

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  10. Thank you! And I agree, saddleseat does get a worse rap when there are things in other sports that need improvement as well. And I think ASBs are punished for the bad rap of saddleseat.

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  11. Nice post, I am enjoying all your and Karen's pictures and insights. I love the fun pictures that come from these shows. The horses do look happy mostly and I LOVE the fun riders have with their attire!

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  12. For more photos, check out that FB link to ASHA (American Saddlebred Horse Assn) – they have some incredible photos!

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  13. I am intrigued by saddleseat stuff. It is really pretty and unique, but a shame that the practices aren't standardized as much as they could be.

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  14. Nice to read a post about this sport from someone who loves it AND has an understanding that the hooves just aren't ok!

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  15. There's a lot of fun energy about saddleseat. But it would be better with healthier hooves of course!

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  16. Thanks! Yes, its easy to fall prey to a love-it-or-hate-it attitude, when really you can love something and hate elements about it, and that's ok.

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  17. Living right around the corner this is all the buzz right now. I have not ventured to watch… One of my moms close friends is huge into Saddlebreds and has some lovely horses. It has just never been my cup of tea.

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  18. Yes, it's certainly a different style than many are used to!

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  19. It has been my experience that many people even inside the industry KNOW in their hearts that many practices, not just the hooves, are not OK or for the horse's best interest. But they all just choose to ignore it. For the sake of winning. And in order for their clients to win. $$$$

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  20. I think lots of people are in denial about those practices, but I agree that some people look the other way rather than listen to their inner selves and do what is best for the horses. But overall I'd say most people think they do right by their horses.

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  21. Saddlebreds are nice looking horses and saddleseat is an interesting discipline. It may have some of the bad parts that many people hear about, though I feel that every discipline has both good and bad parts, you just don't always hear about it

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  22. I just have to know, do they seriously dye the arena dirt green?

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  23. Yep, its good to learn about all sorts of disciplines, including the controversies =)

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  24. Yes – they dye wood shavings green. 200 cubic yards are used during the course of the week-long show. More info about it is at the facebook link under the 1st photo.

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  25. My best friend grew up riding saddlebreds, like world class saddlebreds. While I knew she loved her horses, I couldn't help but feel really uncomfortable with the sport. At least at her barn, the horses never went out, they cut the nerves in their tails to make them flip up and then live in a 'tail set' while it heals, they started to be bred to have (hideously ugly) sway backs (luckily this is being docked in classes now and they make people take saddles off to check), the bits were huge, the training gadgets endless, etc. I just felt like the horses were sweet and intelligent, but the whole way they are trained just makes them crazy. And the feet… I agree with that.

    I know a lot of people who do own saddlebreds who really train them a lot more naturally and showcase their natural ability (a lot like your pictures!). To me, that is way more appealing. The pics of you are way more attractive, to me, than the mechanical look of the horse in the last picture.

    (But I will say… RACKING IS FUN!!! I got to ride her 5 gaited horse, and I felt terrible for how much I loved it…. haha)

    But, it's not just saddlebreds- the same thing has happened with walking horses and now even in dressage… (and in the opposite way, sort of to hunters and western pleasure). So, I guess in every discipline we really have to be careful to guard that the end result is not a manufactured, uncomfortable gait for the horses, but really just training, strengthening and show casing their natural ability!

    Saddlebreds are just so pretty naturally, I don't get why they have to change that :(

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  26. I know my best friend was in denial… (see comment below). she legit thought these horses were happy and healthy and all of the long hooves/chains/chasing them around the arena was OK. She legitimately LOVED her horse. I never said anything to her but I always felt really uncomfortable when I came to lessons. I know as far as medical care and feed they were all well taken care of, but I couldn't wrap my head around the training practices!

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  27. And sorry for the long comment… my way of working through the dilemma! And pointing out some of the same things are encroaching into dressage and even into the eventing world of dressage :\ But I also want to say again how lovely you look in your pictures! If the majority of saddlebreds looked that lovely and natural and happy, I'd be totally gung ho about the sport :)

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  28. Thank you for your comments – you are right about lots of elements in saddleseat that are controversial (tails, bits, gadgets, swaybacks/breeding, etc). Glad you had a chance to ride some ASBs including racking!

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