Showing has witnessed many trends, but which have had the most impact? Tricia Johnson reports
SHOWING – like so many aspects of equestrianism – is firmly rooted in tradition, but over the years, some trends have emerged while others have disappeared. Have these shifts all been for the good, though?
Jamie Mead (née Jago) has seen showing from all angles. Her family showed for more than 70 years, home-producing and competing their ponies under the tutelage of Jamie’s mother, the late Ghita Jago. Jamie has ridden – and won – at the highest level, later turning to judging where she is much in demand.
“One of my pet hates today is seeing lead-rein and first ridden ponies overbent with their heads fixed,” says Jamie. “Back in the day, they were very different; they were genuinely good-looking ponies suitable for children and not the finely tuned animals of today.
“When this refinement started creeping in, we lost the ponies with the ‘nanny’ temperament. They began to perform more like 138cm show ponies, with leaders glued to their head in case they boiled over. They became so forward-going they needed to be held in a fixed outline – hence the handles on saddles, which effectively act as side-reins.
“Before that, the leaders were a length of rein away and the riders actually rode the ponies. Today, some examples certainly are the most exquisite show ponies imaginable – but at the expense of a relaxed, flowing outline and a jockey actually doing a job.”
PRODUCER Edward Young, another with a lifetime’s involvement in showing, is concerned about the trend for increasingly severe bits.
“Shanks on curb bits are getting longer and curb chains tighter,” he maintains. “Plus some snaffles are just gags used as snaffles – surely if a pony is wearing a bridle that would stop a rampaging elephant, this should be taken into account during the judging process? I worry that these bits are being used as a quick fix.”
Robert Parker-Jones, well known for disliking severe bits and the restricted paces that result, feels that the tide is beginning to change in mini ranks, though.
“Fortunately, the trend for Wilkie bits on lead-rein ponies seems to have calmed down and many sport more traditional snaffles now,” he says. “And hopefully, the use of the Wilkie in a double bridle is a trend that isn’t encouraged by anyone.”
Other aspects of the way of going have also seen some unwelcome changes.
“Fast trotting seems to be the norm now – especially in show pony classes,” insists Robert. “In show hunter pony [SHP] classes, too many go round like hacks nowadays – a SHP should have ground-covering paces and look as if it’s going somewhere.”
Playing ever more safe is another trend.
“Show ponies used really to gallop but even an extension is rare now,” laments Jamie. “Done properly, it’s very impressive and used to be how every championship was decided. Now, even the SHPs don’t gallop as they should; the jockeys should watch the hunter classes and learn how to ease the animal into a gallop from the previous corner.”
Edward agrees this is becoming a lost art: “Competitors either gently extend or scramble along going hell for leather, but not lengthening.”
Set shows are also unpopular.
“In the 1960s and ’70s, jockeys were good at ringcraft and were really competitive when it came to their shows,” says Jamie. “The set show killed that flair, but I get the feeling that the ‘freestyle’ show is returning at major shows and no one is a greater fan of this than I am.”
Native classes have increased in popularity in the last 15 years or so, and the set show has become more common in order to save time.
“The downside is that this loses the art of showing – the ability to take risks and show your pony’s strengths,” says producer Katy Marriott-Payne. “Short set shows often apply pressure to ‘not do it wrong’ so marks aren’t lost, rather than riding to impress enough to win – something a freestyle show can provide.
“The initial pull-in is also less common, particularly when there are two judges. This can devalue the go-round and does not teach jockeys to use the ring or present their pony to stand out. It also means that a pony that has not gone well, or has misbehaved on the go-round, can still win the class if it performs a good show and looks better with its saddle off for the conformation judge.”
HOWEVER, all is not in decline: “A worrying trend emerged some years ago for showing horses and ponies way too fat, but thankfully, this seems to be on the wane now,” says Edward. “There’s also more thought going into turnout – presentation has improved and jockeys tend to look smarter than I’ve seen in photos from the ’60s.
“In some cases, though, it’s gone too far – I’m not a fan of ‘bum-freezer’ jackets or browbands that are so big that they need planning permission. The animals are probably smarter now, too, but sometimes there’s so much oil smeared on them that they look ready for the oven, not the show ring. Plus, it can be a welfare issue on hot days.”
Many judges and producers bemoan a perceived fall in the general standard of riding.
“There are still some excellent riders out there, but so many children now only ride in manèges – they don’t hunt or go to Pony Club camps and rallies as in the past,” Edward reflects. “Variety helps to make a rider more rounded and arguably more proficient.”
Gayle Holder, who produces alongside her daughter Emma, agrees.
“We see more and more jockeys not going to certain shows because the ring may not be perfect, flat or the right shape – but the art is in learning to ride all sorts of rings and not just a surface,” she says. “This applies to ponies and horses too – so many can’t perform on good old-fashioned grass rings any more.”
“With marks, most people play safe”
ONE of the most seismic changes this season is the decision to abandon the marking system for non-Horse of the Year Show pony classes – could this trend catch on?
“I’ve never liked marks, and will be interested to see how things go without them,” says Edward. “In the past, classes were huge and animals had to be on the edge to stand out; judges were more forgiving of a blip. Back then, ponies that were ‘flat’ through overwork wouldn’t stand out and wouldn’t win. With marks, most people play safe.”
Emma sees another positive side: “I think final walk-rounds will be back in our new era and will be a very positive way to make the competitors fight until the end of the class,” she says.
Many judges welcome the move too: “Showing is all about the overall picture,” Robert maintains. “Without marks, it’s much easier to demote a combination that isn’t pleasing to the eye. Perhaps this could mean that judges will have greater control over trends that are not aesthetically pleasing.”
This feature is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (8 April, 2021)
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