“Saddlebreds,” the bumper sticker in the parking lot informs me, are “the horse America made.”
I’m in Madison, Wisconsin, city of ample cheese, lazy susans filled with meat, fantastic feminist science fiction conferences, bratfests, and, this weekend, the Madison Classic, a Saddlebred horse show that attracts entrants from various stables in the Midwest. A friend was showing, and I thought it might be nice to see her compete before going out to dinner with her, so there I was, awkwardly traipsing through the parking lot, about to enter an alternate world.
I’ve always loved horses, but as any horse person can tell you, horses are expensive. They make pretty much a professional habit, actually, of being expensive. They eat a lot, they rack up absurd veterinary bills, and if you want a horse of any kind of quality -- even if you’re not competing in equestrian sports -- you need to be prepared to pay through the nose for it.
Several million dollars worth of equines were stabled around the arena, patiently waiting to show, and this was a small horse show, with most classes having fewer than six competitors. Individual Saddlebreds used in competition can have price tags running into the six figures, especially when they come from well-established lines or have showed well at Louisville, where the big fucking deal of Saddlebred horse shows happens every year.
So, as you might imagine, horse shows tend to be filled with rather wealthy people. If you have the kind of money needed to drop hundreds of thousands of dollars on one or more horses, training, lessons as a rider, food, vet bills, transportation, show fees, barn fees, and other sundries, you take horses pretty darn seriously. Horse shows are a fascinating subculture, and it is a very rich, very strange one.
I walked past rows and rows of temporary stalls in the large sheds used to house the horses, each one holding a single bored-looking equine wrapped snugly in a blanket to maintain a flawless coat, tail wrapped and tucked up; Saddlebreds are famous for their long, flowing, elegant tails, and they actually wear extensions in the ring.
Saddlebreds, for those not familiar, are a fascinating breed of horse, a kind of brilliant and amazing illustration of the bizarre things human beings do to animals out of a perverse sense of boredom, a pursuit of living art, or other obscure reasons. They’re beautiful horses, with tall, muscular bodies, fiery personalities, elegantly arched necks, and glorious tails, and they’re also bred and trained to be basically as useless as possible for real world applications.
They’re what are known as gaited horses. In addition to your basic walk, trot, and center, Saddlebreds also exhibit the rack, an unusual (and beautiful) flowing gait, and a fifth gait, the slow gait. Only a few other horse breeds have additional gaits; Icelandics, for example, have the tolt and pace, and Tennessee Walking Horses have a fascinating running walk, a flowing four-beat gait.
Not all members of gaited breeds have these additional gates; they need to be trained and worked with to develop them, and they require tight control in the ring to look good while doing them.
In the case of Saddlebreds, the desired action while moving involves huge, showy, dramatic strides, which are utterly gorgeous, but totally not relevant to doing anything a horse might do in real life. In fact, the dramatic movements required are hugely energy intensive, which is why Saddlebreds come out of the ring dripping with sweat. Saddlebred shows are about showcasing not just the conformation and training of your horses, but their gaits. They’re showy horses, and they love showing off.
Riders scurry around getting dressed in the appropriate clothes for their class, applying makeup, fixing their hair. Meanwhile, a fleet of Latino men moves silently through the barn, and they’re doing the bulk of the work. They wipe down the horses, saddle them up, move them from place to place. They wordlessly position the mounting block, boost the riders into their seats, wipe the horse down with a towel to remove every speck of sweat and foam right up to the moment the horse enters the ring.
You'll see a white trainer helping with some of the prep sometimes, but the dirty jobs go mostly to the Latino stable crews.
It’s an army of predominantly white people and their absurdly expensive animals surrounded by the primarily Latino people who do all the work, and it’s a horrifying, yet fascinating, cultural experience for me. This is a world so far beyond my ken that I periodically need to pinch myself to determine if I’m still in reality.
Horse people may maintain certain pretensions of being working class; many of them are dressed in grubby stable clothes before they show, dogs trail throughout the barns, many of the cars in the lot are beat up. But their insular club is highly elite, and the more important the competition, the more true that is; because showing is not for the lower and working classes, and it’s realistically not for the middle class either.
My friend is only able to show because her parents pay to lease her horse, covering the barn fees, training, show costs, and other expenses associated with competition. As it is, she only gets to show about once a year. She occupies a strange position in the hierarchy of showing as a very talented competitor who doesn’t have a lot of money, but does have just enough access to funds to be able to compete on some level.
I’m going to be honest with you: horse shows fascinate me, because I love horses, and I love watching beautiful, well-trained horses exhibiting themselves at their best, and that includes Saddlebreds. But I also find them totally and deeply creepy, and so representative of the society we live in, too.
A handful of mostly white elite hoisted into the saddle by the brown people who scurry around to make everything perfect for them. Men with towels there to painstakingly bathe and wipe down the horses in their care. The same men also make sure riders are perfectly turned out, wiping dust and horse sweat off pants, coats, saddles. Everything is shining and must be flawless in the ring, and there’s this great glittering and exciting world, but when I turn around, all I can see is the people who make it all happen.
There’s not a lot of self-examination among many of the people who compete at and attend horse shows, because to do so would be to question their own culture. My friend feels conflicted about the strange class ramifications of showing even as she loves doing it: she’s been competing since she was very young, and her family’s horses have gone as far as Louisville, racking (pun intended) up wins, too.
For me, I found myself strangely sickened by attending. Watching the horses move around the ring, I wanted to concentrate on their gaits and talk with my friend, and I cheered her on when it was time for her class to show, but at the back of my mind, thoughts about the dramatic class stratification illustrated in the horse community kept looming high.
It seems unlikely I’ll ever own a horse, even though I absolutely love them and adore riding; I just can’t afford the expense of maintaining a healthy, happy, and safe horse. I certainly wouldn’t ever be in the show community both because my riding skills aren’t sufficient, and because it would cause such class discomfort, I’m afraid my coat and tails might explode right there in the saddle.