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THOMPSON: Going to the dogs... and horses

March 13, 2017 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


I never went to a horse show or dog show the first 60+ years of my life, but I kind of married into these shows. My wife Bonnie had a dozen horses when we first met nearly six years ago, which is about the same number grazing around our pastures today. We seem in a constant state of equilibrium between selling and foaling them. 

Anyway, our horses are big, solid black animals called Friesians, a breed originally from The Netherlands. They are beautiful horses with a long and glorious history, including being the transportation of choice for knights for 200 years of Crusades during the Middle Ages.

There are all kinds of horses and an equally wide variety of competitive equestrian events for them, everything from polo and fox hunting to jumping and barrel racing.

Our horses and riders compete in one of these equestrian events - dressage - which is an athletic horse ballet of sorts. It is perhaps the highest expression of horse training you'll ever see, with horse and rider expected to perform from memory and cues a series of predetermined, often intricate movements. 

Dressage has almost as many national championships as there are nations, a world championship and every four years it's a staple of the Summer Olympic Games. Relatively speaking, few horses and riders get to these levels. 

However, that does not discourage dressage enthusiasts from competing. So, like tens of thousands of people around the world, we load horses on a trailer and haul them - often for hours - to dressage shows. 

It is a decision that makes less sense financially than picking investments by consulting your horoscope or throwing darts. You buy a $50,000 truck to pull a $75,000 trailer filled with horses more costly than raising a child to adulthood. We do all this for a blue ribbon. And that's if we win.

My wife does dressage and she and her horse - Binke - have been together for more than a decade. We also have a wonderful professional rider - Corrine Smith - who does dressage on Orion, a Friesian stallion that looks like the horse in the movie Zorro. She also coaches Bonnie. They both really know dressage and horses.

I, on the other hand, have learned most of what I know about horses from growing up in the 1950s and 1960s when westerns were the most popular movies and television shows. If watching “Bonanza”, “Gunsmoke”, “Rawhide”, “High Noon and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” taught you anything about horses and riding, then I have a Ph. D. (Piled Higher and Deeper) in horses.

Horse shows are lots of work - no ifs, ands or buts. You're hooking up a trailer, loading horses, tack, special clothing, hay, shavings and then driving to the event. Once there, you're unloading horses, grooming horses, walking horses, feeding and watering, tacking them up and untacking them a couple times each day. Also, you're mucking - a really perfect word - for cleaning poop out of stalls. I remind Bonnie from time to time that golfing is much easier.

I've been to enough dressage events to pick up the lingo. Some of this you gain from simply being around and listening to real horse people talk about the sport. Most horse folks are nice but some you sense are horse people because they aren't so good with people.

Even so, there is something inherently appealing about a rider atop a 1,200 lbs. animal doing intricate patterns and movements cued by the rider. While some might think it only slightly better than watching paint dry, I must admit, I actually enjoy it.

I go to dog shows for a slightly different reason; my wife is a judge. This might sound like it's not a problem, but it can be. Think about it. You'd never go to a hockey game and proclaim to the crowd, "The ref is my spouse!"  So it is with being at a dog show where your spouse is officiating.

You get - at best - a polite if somewhat weak smile, the kind of smile an ex-husband or ex-wife gets from an ex-wife or ex-husband. You're more likely to get a glare, especially if that someone's dog didn't win at an earlier show.

It seems people who take their dogs to shows don't just love their dogs. That's not a big enough word. Adore my dog, adore me. Judge my dog any less than the perfect dog he or she is, well, let's just say I'm glad Canada has better gun control laws than America.

I've learned to keep most of my opinions to myself at dog shows. I used to make seemingly innocuous comments to my wife, like "Nice looking dog." She would raise an eyebrow and tell me that the dog had no chance of being Best of Breed, much less Best of Show. Now, even I know how to flash that polite if somewhat weak smile I mentioned earlier.

I spend a lot of time looking not just at the dogs, but also at the owners and handlers. I often find these folks do - as many have noted - look quite a bit like their dogs. Do poodle owners and their dogs go to the same hair salon? Did you notice that guy has the same jowls as his Bulldog?

Funny, you don't see people looking like their horses so much. Though I once knew a girl who seemed to whinny a bit. But, I must say there are just as many, maybe more, owners and handlers who look nothing like their dogs. For example, we have two Borzoi - Russian Wolf Hounds. Both are sleek, skinny animals that can run like stink. No one has called me sleek, skinny or fast in decades.

Bonnie and I watch one of the dog world's most prestigious events, New York's Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, every winter on television. There are about 3,000 dogs from nearly 200 breeds judged in a couple days. Every one of these dogs is a multiple champion from other shows throughout the year. There are no mutts, as lovable as mutts might be.

I once thought it would be hilarious for someone to lead some bad-ass-looking junkyard dog of undetermined breed through the show circle. I said this once in front of dog people - big mistake - lots of glares. 

Bonnie usually picks the right dogs during Westminster, noting conformation standards, movement and a dozen other technical points that I don't come close to understanding.

Occasionally, I'll pick a winner, but mostly I say things like "That dog is cute," or "That dog is big," or "That dog has lots of hair," assessments you can't easily fault. Still, Bonnie will glance at me with an eyebrow raised. I always smile.

Bonnie is judging dogs in Montreal on the May long weekend. I'm sure she'll do her usual good job of precisely assessing the various breeds and awarding the proper ribbons. That said, once again, no one will know the judge is my wife. I've found I get more smiles and fewer glares that way.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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