There’s a lot of controversies and talk in the horse business these days about the high cost of competing. A pretty consistent comment I see on social media forums and groups is that the middle class is being priced out of the competitive horse business.
There’s also a lot of talk about attracting newcomers to horse sports, and keeping them involved. Sound, reliable, entry level horses in sports like cutting, reining, and cow horse aren’t cheap, and the competition is fierce.
Recently, iconic thoroughbred trainer D. Wayne Lukas addressed the American Quarter Horse Association Convention, and he talked about what it takes to win, what he looks for in horses, and his philosophy on life.
“…Most people know where they want to go in life but they get up every day and don’t know how to close the gap. They know where they’re at today but they don’t know where they’re going to end up or how to get where they’d like to be…
…Really most people are dreamers. They dream about winning the big one, having the great cutting horse or whatever your discipline is, they dream about it and aren’t ready to make the sacrifice to make that happen or that you have to make in order to get where you want to go.
Bob Knight, the great Indiana coach, told me, 'Everybody wants to win. Not everybody has the will to prepare to win. Most people can’t sustain that day-in-day-out will to win.'”
What Lukas is talking about here is the Struggle Bus. He could have shortened his entire address to the AQHA Convention by just stepping to the podium and saying, “If you want success, you’ll have to ride the Struggle Bus every day.”
I was thinking about all this as I drove to the vet this morning to drop off my mare and foal for rebreeding. When I drive to my vet, I pass some multi-million dollar ranches, pastures dotted with the best prospects in the business, all sporting iconic brands on their hips. Heck, when I drive anywhere around here, I pass places like that.
Five years ago, I moved to the Mecca of the western performance horse world—North Texas. It was a milestone for me in my horse career. I left a place where I was at the top of my game as a non-pro with the full knowledge that I would be starting over at less than square one when I got here.
My horses wouldn’t be competitive here, and I would need to increase my own skillset just to break into the lower ranks.
I’m here, albeit on the fringes, and I’m grateful. There’s been a sort of confluence of thoughts and opinions being voiced lately that have got me to thinking. Part of my reflecting has to do with another milestone: getting a well-bred foal on the ground.
There’s no doubt that owning horses, let alone competing with them, is expensive. I remember being 12 years old and going to open shows with my home-bred, self-trained horse. I was in awe of the “Registered Show” kids who were there with their trainers. They used those small shows as schooling runs for the breed shows, of course.
They were the ones going to the Congress and World Show every year, and I wondered what it must be like. I wished for the clothes and saddles and the lessons after school. They traveled out of state to shows. What was it like to get to do that? What was it like to win? I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just boarded the Struggle Bus.
My family had very little. The only reason I had horses was that my parents were farmers and had always had some horses around. Had I been a horseless child, I likely would have stayed that way. There would have been no money to buy one.
Looking back, I am truly grateful for what I had. At the time, I felt disadvantaged, but I had so much more than other kids who could only dream and wish for a horse. I remind myself of this often today, in my forties, when it seems like I’m never going to crack the ranks to the next level.
The path to success is winding. The Struggle Bus sometimes takes some detours that seem circuitous, but as long you know your final destination, you are still on track. In my thirties, I went back to school and got a graduate degree, so that I could better afford to pay for my horses.
I knew that I could refine my competitive abilities and work on show-ring nervousness in a lot of different events. So I showed open shows, and ranch horse shows. I was able to show at a few B-rated reinings while I was in grad school, but not many. I was at the top of my game in those reinings and in the ranch horse shows. I was winning a lot, but I knew if I wanted to get better, I would need to detour the Bus again.
So after school came the move and paying down student loans. I mercilessly cut costs so that I could afford to have one horse in training. I sold an unused saddle and bought a $500 project horse to practice on while my horse was at the trainer’s. Ten years old with 30 days of riding.
I sold that horse later and bought a well-bred, unshown reiner with a career-ending injury. I saved my money and bred her to a top stallion. And this year, I have my first foal on the ground.
I’m still riding the Bus. I’ve spent the past five years in my current seat, which involves hours of saddle time spent not just running, stopping, and spinning, but also endless time spent working on walk and canter departures, advanced lateral movements, and dissecting lead changes at a whole new level.
Along the way, I’ve detoured with torn suspensories, popped splints, and my own illness.
When you keep the destination in mind, you can see the purpose in the mundane things. A $500 barely broke mare is not going to take me to the top of the reining ranks. But I learned some things, developed a bit more feel, and made her a better horse for someone else.
Legendary eventer Denny Emerson often talks about honing your skills by riding everything you can get your hands on so that when “the right one” comes along, you are ready.
It’s definitely expensive to play this game at any level. For me, sacrifice is worth it, win or lose. It’s in my blood to play this game. I prefer this game to going on cruises or to Disneyland. I prefer it to tennis or golf, or home remodeling.
Should we take a look at ways to keep it affordable and welcoming for people at all levels? Yes! But we also need to understand that not everyone is willing to "sustain the day-to-day will to win."
Your Bus ticket does not come with a guarantee of success. So you need to remind yourself to enjoy the scenery along the way and to make the most of the ride.
I am so incredibly fortunate. To have a little land and any horse at all, let alone a couple of nice ones. There's always room on the Bus for one more, so if you are inclined, there's an open seat next to me.
You can read Lukas’ address in its entirety here. And you should. It’s worth your time.
Photo credit: author