When I was a small child, I earned the name of Ramrod.

My beloved Uncle Bob would giggle as he watched my evil pony attempt to unmount me time and time again, and holler out from the side of the arena “Ride ’em Ramrod!”  He told me that by the age of 6, my back would stick up ramrod straight, and I would get this look of absolute determination on my face.

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Evil Pony

A little blonde cowgirl on a heathenous 11 hand pony – it was quite the spectacle.

That pony eventually took me through the lower levels of the United States Pony Club, but where we truly excelled was in 4-H. Chocolate was multi-disciplinary.  We racked up the ribbons in western pleasure, driving, hunter hack, and yes….we even won Showmanship.

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Conquering Showmanship

I hated Showmanship.  The perfectionism.  The attention to detail.  The cleanliness.  The hours of standing still only to step one way or the next.  And I made this readily apparent with my faces at the judges and my ridiculous dances when I thought they weren’t looking. And yet because I was in 4-H, we were forced to do it.

A few days ago, I read a Facebook status about a young girl who seemed to share this mentality.  She had qualified for the State 4-H Horse Show, and was wondering if it was even worth it to go for a non-riding class.  The comments ranged from support to utter ignorance, and I couldn’t help but want to chime in.

Because, I am here to say, that 4-H Showmanship was quite possibly the most influential class of my life.

And this status, and the comments underneath it, were written at the most opportune time. Because in two days, I will begin working yet another Keeneland September Yearling Sale.  18 draining days of 14 hour long work periods.  4,000 yearlings paraded around almost 50 barns.  And over $250,000,000 dollars worth of horseflesh accounted for.

Wild One

Those select few people who are considered capable enough to work with these 1,000+ pound uncastrated yearling colts and spirited fillies will rise before the sun, and prepare the horses for the day.  They are bathed and rubbed to a gleam.  Their hooves are polished, and their manes are gelled flat.  Stalls are mucked, clothes are changed, and then the real work begins…it is Showmanship on crack.

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Rubbing to a gleam. Photo by Susan Black.

We begin parading the yearlings at 8am.  One after another, they are walked up a laneway and back.  Their movement and straightness is evaluated, their demeanor and brain assessed.  Only this time, it is not for a rosette or a trophy – it is for hundreds of thousands, of not millions of dollars.

Just like I was taught by a 4-H leader many moons ago, we stop and stand the horses to exaggerate their strengths and hide their weaknesses.  We move from one side to the other with a swift subtleness.  The judges are no longer cowboys clad in suede, and instead are replaced by executives, professional athletes, and Sheikhs alongside their Hall of Fame trainers.

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Highlighting the good.  Masking the bad.

And as we shift from one side to the next, it becomes apparent that it is not just to flaunt our assets, but to also ensure the safety of the onlookers. Horses around us spontaneously combust in acts of athleticism and anxiety, and it is our job to maintain them.  To be their leader, their trainer, their reassurance, and their friend.  To demand that they behave when needed and acknowledge their infancy when required. And to add to that, most of us have only met these horses a few hours beforehand.

It is the yearling sales. And I love it.

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My happy place

I am asked all of the time by students, young adults, and fellow graduate students how I got my start in this crazy world known as the thoroughbred industry, and I never have a one word answer.

I learned so much about veterinary medicine from a vet that I worked with during high school.  I learned how to handle difficult and unbroken horses during my stint as a cowgirl in Wyoming.  I learned how to properly bandage a leg and give an IV injection as I prepared for my ratings in USPC.  I learned how to drive a truck and trailer and a tractor from a mother and father who refused to allow their daughter how to go through life without driving a stick.  And, at the end of the day, I learned how to show a yearling on the dusty fairgrounds of Crawford County.

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Showmanship rockstar

Surrounded by rhinestones and quarter horses, I was taught how to stand a horse still.  How to move them forward from a safe location along their shoulder. How to ask for an impulsive walk, and how to move them away from you through a turn.

I learned a skill that was paramount to so many aspects of my life – and not just the commercial auctions.  From conformation shots of sales horses, to flexion tests for a vet, and hopefully even an FEI jog – this ability to show a horse on the ground is paramount.

So I hope that the youth of our country read this and take a step back.  Is showmanship and halter boring?  Heck yes.  But should you listen to your trainers and leaders, learn how to do it to perfection, and then log those skills into the back of your brain for the future?  Please do.

Because we are badly in need for skilled horsemen and horsewomen in this up-and-coming generation, and those horribly boring Showmanship skills might just be exactly what you need to get one foot into the door of a future job.  A future career.  And if you’re anything like me, a future life.

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