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  • Writer's pictureKatrin Silva

Forest Fires and Beauty Standards

Forest fires are burning all around New Mexico right now. My horses and I are not in danger, at least not yet, but I know many people who had to evacuate with all their animals. School gyms and county fairgrounds have become emergency shelters. The flames have consumed more than 200 000 acres, with no end in sight. Homes and ranches, even entire villages, have burned to the ground, leaving families with nothing but the clothes on their backs, their existence and way of life destroyed by the flames. From my barn, I can see and smell the smoke. Our blue sky has become hazy, coloring the world in muted hues. Tonight, the sun sets as a fuzzy pink ball over the mountains, like a maraschino cherry past its sell-by date floating in a cocktail made from dubious ingredients.

If I didn’t know what caused these changes in our evening sky, I would find them beautiful. I would marvel at the unusual shades of red and orange, the eerie light, the absence of sharp edges. But I do know why we’re seeing these things. I can’t un-know what I know about all the destruction and suffering the fire is causing to communities in Northern New Mexico. I can’t separate the people who have lost everything from the pretty pastel sunset, which means: I can’t find it pretty anymore.

I think there’s an interesting parallel to horse shows in these pictures. Someone who knows what a happy, balanced horse looks like can’t find an unhappy or tense horse beautiful, no matter how spectacular his movements are or how many blue ribbons he wins. Someone who knows natural, correct biomechanics will not admire gaits that have lost their rhythm or cadence, no matter how flashy they are.

A relaxed western jog is something a horse could do all day - comfortable to sit and a true pleasure to ride. This is not what we see in competitive Western Pleasure.

In many competitive disciplines, a horse’s natural, functional way of going is taken to questionable extremes. Trainers present more and more exaggerated versions of gaits or movements, in the mistaken belief that, if a little bit of something like is good, more must always be better. Western pleasure is a good example: what once was a way to showcase a relaxed horse that’s a joy to ride has become a parody of its original purpose: a contest of how slow a horse can go with as low a headset as possible. The walk is a crawl, the jog a toe-dragging shuffle, the lope a crab-like parade down the rail, with the horses’ haunches stuck way over to the inside of the arena. None of this looks enjoyable for anyone involved, horses or riders. It’s painful to watch. Finding it beautiful takes cultural, habitual conditioning. If we see horses go like this all the time, we get used to it. If we're around horses being admired for going like this, and trainers winning on horses they've trained to do this, we think it's worth imitating. A horse's way of going becomes fashionable, like fishbone corsets, hoop skirts, or four-inch stiletto heels used to be fashionable. Thankfully, fashions change. Most of us today find such restrictive clothing abhorrent instead of attractive.

Extreme, exaggerated movement is not limited to rail classes. It happens wherever competitive goals become more important than a horse's long-term welfare. Modern dressage may be heading in a similar direction. At its core, dressage develops a horse’s - any horse’s - natural way of moving through a progression of gymnastic exercises designed to help him carry a rider more comfortably. In the competition arena, we often see something different: a contest of how much crossover the horse’s legs can show in lateral movements, and how much overstep is possible in the extended trot. Similarly, reining competitions have become a quest for longer sliding stops and faster spins. The list goes on.

Elena in all her natural, un-shaved beauty. She is gorgeous just the way she is.

The (thankfully fading) tradition of clipping a horse’s facial hair is another example of misguided beauty standards. Many years ago, I used to clip all horses in my barn because the trainers I had apprenticed with did it that way. In the world of horse shows, a well-groomed horse is a smooth-faced horse. I was used to looking at clipped horses, like the Victorians were used to looking at women wearing fishbone corsets, so I believed it for a while. But a horse’s whiskers have a real purpose in sensory perception. Shaving them deprives a horse of feeling and awareness. Once I learned this, I stopped because I could not find a clipped horse beautiful anymore.

I still believe it is possible to compete a horse responsibly in almost any discipline, but we have to have larger goals than winning a class. We have to draw and respect the lines we will not cross - in training, grooming, and during competition. If what we do does not promote a horse’s long-term athleticism, soundness, and mental health, the beauty we want to create becomes an exaggerated, unhealthy version of the ideal we are trying to achieve.

Western Dressage, a competitive discipline that promotes good, responsible horsemanship, not exaggerated contortions.

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