The competition season will soon be in full swing. Eventers will be tweaking their horses’ fitness programmes so they peak at the optimum times, show jumpers and dressage riders will be thanking their lucky stars that they inevitably end up with good surfaces to ride on and showing people will be dodging the flak.
As sure as eggs are eggs, the complaints about fat show horses will come round again. They are out there: I saw a handful at a prestigious winter championships recently who were on the porky side. But these animals are in the minority and the message is definitely getting across that fit is better than fat.
Whilst all generalisations can be proved false, including this one, it’s the amateur exhibitors who are falling into the fat trap. Professionals are producing horses in much better shape than was the case even five years ago; for example, there are show hunters who actually look as if they could stand a day’s hunting and keep up with the best of them.
Cobs are often held up as the worst offenders, but again, the message is getting through that piling on the pounds is counterproductive, as well as putting a horse’s health at risk. A fat horse doesn’t move freely, so won’t catch a judge’s eye for the right reason – and as a female friend who judges at top level remarked, ‘The last think I want is to get on a cob and have my legs stretched so far apart I feel as if I’m giving birth.’
Critics of the showing world often blame the judges, but that’s not really fair. A judge can only judge what’s in the ring and sometimes, the standard may be lower than desirable. A judge can’t turn round and say, ‘Sorry, I don’t like any of these, so I’m not going to give any placings’. On the other hand, good judges may well tell a competitor that his or her horse would probably do better if it lost weight and became more athletic.
Judges must be encouraging. Criticising a competitor, especially an amateur rider, is hurtful and achieves nothing. Telling a rider that he or she has a lovely horse that would be even lovelier and more successful if it shed some weight is an incentive.
One of the biggest myths in showing is that piling on the pounds covers up conformation defects. It doesn’t: any decent judge will see through it. At the same time, let’s ban euphemisms such as ‘show condition,’ which so often means that a horse is overweight.
Even worse, don’t fall for the idea that you can turn muscle into fat. You can’t: it’s a physical impossibility!
A horse with fat deposits on his neck does not have a topline. Building a topline comes from a combination of correct work and correct feeding. I was gobsmacked to hear a speaker from the equine feed sector announce at a question and answer evening that showing people wanted their horses to have fatty crests – and delighted when the professional showing people on the same panel made it clear that they certainly didn’t.
A fit show horse will never look like a fit event horse ready to run at Badminton. But a show horse can still be fit for his job and the welcome bonuses are that he’ll move to the best of his ability and stand a better chance of staying sound.
So go on, be a show-off – for all the right reasons.