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Striving for Real Sportsmanship in a Reality Show World

Young equestrian competitors

Today's world seems obsessed with "reality" shows. From Jersey Shore to the Kardashians, or reality contests like Survivor or the Amazing Race, people tune in by the millions each week to see what happens next in a (supposedly) unscripted environment. A research based article on reports that these shows are very popular with those in the 18-34 age range, which is also a relatively large segment of the horse show world. Further, we know that fans of reality TV tend to be attention-seekers, and that the "more reality shows a person likes, the more concerned he or she is with their social status." For some, both attention seeking and social status can be motivating factors in any competitive environment, including the horse show world. Finally, research suggests that "...too much reality TV may lead viewers to idealize real world situations...” which may be either a help or a hindrance in the competitive arena. We know that there are positive outcomes from showing horses, but the potential for negative behaviors is also present. This article will share strategies for enhancing positive behaviors, to create "Real Sportsmanship in a Reality Show World."

Being Intentional Is character taught or caught? This question is often asked by those involved in sports and other character education activities, and like most complicated processes, it is likely some of both. According to Matt Davidson of the Institute for Excellence & Ethics, character actually develops best when it is both “explicitly taught” and lived, meaning the skills must be part of every day behavior. This suggests that showing good character is not just the responsibility of the exhibitor, or the parent, but of everyone present at the horse show. Typically in this discussion, the next statement made is that “everyone has different values,” however, I propose that there really is only one set of values that matters when it comes to showing horses, and in large part these are based on those detailed in the book Coaching for Character: Reclaiming the Principles of Sportsmanship, by Craig Clifford and Randolph Feezel. Given that this book is based on traditional sports such as football, however, it is necessary to add horses to the values proposed by Clifford and Feezel, which we will detail next.

Respect for Horses Respect for one’s equine partner, and for the horses of one’s opponent, is the cornerstone of real sportsmanship. Frankly, without clearly demonstrating good animal management including healthcare, nutrition, and fair training practices, showing horses may become obsolete either as a result of protests and regulations promoted by animal advocacy groups, or by potential participants simply deciding they don’t wish to engage in the activity. More importantly, however, horses deserve humane treatment in exchange for all that are willing to do for humans.

Arabian horse and rider posing for a winning shot

Respect for Opponents In their book True Competition, David Light Shields and Brenda Light Bredemeier suggest that the word competition comes from the Latin -petere meaning “to strive or seek,” and the prefix com- or “with.” Together, this suggests that competition is truly about striving or seeking excellence together with one’s opponent, as opposed to the reality show (and traditional sport) model of competing against one another, with a war-like mindset. Sportsmanlike competitors recognize and appreciate a well prepared, challenging opponent who can bring out the best in them, and share that appreciation with their opponents. Showing horses provides the opportunity for all involved to practice recognition and acknowledgement of excellent horse and rider teams.

Respect for the “Game” Having respect for the “game,” or in this case respect for the activity of showing horses, means to show respect for (and following) the rules under which you are participating. In addition appreciation for the basic spirit of competition (always trying one’s best, recognizing that as one’s skills progress not everyone will place first, acknowledgement of and striving toward training progression etc.) also demonstrates respect for the game of showing horses. Rather than focusing only on winning a trophy or blue ribbon, which is a product, demonstrating appreciation for the process of competing will demonstrate respect both for the game, and for one’s self.

Respect for Others (Judges, Show Management, Parents, Trainers and Coaches) Some of the most positive behaviors I have witnessed at horse shows often involve interactions between judges and young or new exhibitors. At the same time, one of the most common forms of disrespect I have seen at horse shows comes in the form of disrespect for those judging or running the show, or in the way that exhibitors and their families treat coaches, leaders, trainers or one another. This kind of behavior actually runs rampant on reality shows, (after all, a fight between housewives boosts ratings) but it truly has no place at a horse show where good sportsmanship is desired. Judges often go through very rigorous training programs, and know the rulebook like the back of their hand, yet somehow, every (non-winner) on the grounds may be very vocal about the judges lack of ability. Similarly, many show managers are running shows as volunteers with no pay at all. Finally, despite the stress that may come with competition, exhibitors or their families may lose their tempers with coaches, trainers or even one another. This sort of behavior should not be tolerated when real sportsmanship is a desired outcome, and ultimately the activity should be kept in perspective by all involved. The experience provides the opportunity to develop emotional control, and "venting" at more appropriate times and locations than the side of the arena.

Handler and horse participating in a showmanship class

Action Steps and Conclusions

Not every reality show focuses on the downside of human behavior. In fact, some researchers suggest that shows such as the Biggest Loser or Extreme Home Makeover may actually inspire people to help others or lead a healthier lifestyle. According to Clifford and Feezell just a few of the potential action steps toward developing real sportsmanship include:

  • Be a good role model.

  • Emphasize sportsmanship from the beginning.

  • Talk about combining the fact that competitive activity is “serious fun,” and that bad sportsmanship is typically a matter of being “too serious” or not serious enough.

  • Discuss the relationship between good sportsmanship and success - a victory without respect, dignity and honor doesn’t mean much.

  • Regularly use words like respect and sportsmanship when talking with exhibitors.

  • Expect sportsmanship in practice and competition.

  • Establish customs or traditions that emphasize sportsmanship, and be specific about how you expect exhibitors to relate to one another, opponents, officials, their horses etc.

  • Develop clear guidelines for handling unsportsmanlike behavior, and share them with competitors and their families.

  • Talk about specific incidents of sportsmanship, and promote reflectiveness by asking questions.

  • Emphasize fun!

By keeping the values described in this article in mind, modeling, teaching, and expecting others to practice them, we can highlight the fact that under the right conditions, horse shows actually are a place to practice “real sportsmanship in a reality show world.”

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