|We live in a small village of approximately 800 people that is regarded as one of the prettiest in England. It has been in existence for many hundreds of years and boasts many original buildings dating from the 1500s with foundations going back to the 12th century. Its reputation for antiquity, beauty and cozy cafes serving Sussex cream teas, makes it a very popular tourist destination,
particularly as it is only one hour on the train from central London and five minutes from the exquisite south coast shoreline with its amazing cliffs.
Consequently, I tend to meet a lot of American visitors whilst just going about my routine life - mailing letters at the post office, walking to and from work at the ancient Manor House, etc. Often these Americans will notice the American Saddlebred signs on my vehicle or bag, and seem unable to resist the temptation to ask, "What is that?"
"Your national breed of horse," I tell them. But of course they are surprised as they have never heard the name before. "But I thought that would be the Quarter Horse," is the usual refute, "is that what it is - a Quarter Horse?" No, I patiently explain, after all if it was a Quarter Horse that's what it would be called. It is an American Saddlebred! They listen bemused as I tell them about the skills and history of the breed; they ogle the photograph - yes I always have them on hand - they draw in a gasp at the amazing beauty.
"What did you say this was? An American Saddleback?"
"No, a Saddlebred."
"No, a Saddlebred," I answer thinking I would like to meet the thoroughbred that looks like that!!! And also wondering how many more ways there are to get something wrong. Shocked that they could have missed something so amazing in their own homeland, they shake their head in wonderment and walk off muttering to themselves, clutching the American Saddlebred of Great Britain display team leaflet in their hands.
The ASAoGB displays bring forth similar responses - amazement, awe, instant attraction. Even experienced horsemen express total disbelief; and people who have no direct contact with horses often remark, "We only see horses that are plodding around the streets, or jumping huge show jumps - neither appeals. But this ... now that's a different matter." We perform to large and small audiences at the UK's version of State Fairs, agricultural shows, horse shows, even gardening shows! The crowds are a mix of rural and urban people, families and foreign visitors, of all ages. In the 14 years I have been displaying the five-gaited horse myself and commentating for the team, we have rarely had a bad comment. One or two rather silly questions on occasion, but minimal
criticism. And of course, being England, a prime question is, "Yes, lovely, but can they jump?"
Then the tricky issue of 'gaits' raises some puzzled expressions and odd remarks. "I don't see the connection...what gates, do they only jump gates?" "They have extra gates...why do they need paddocks with extra gates?" "Well what use is that to them in a dressage test?" A sense of humor is a vital tool...though sometimes, I have to say, after answering the same questions for the
hundredth time, it is possible to feel like a stuck gramophone record! (Remember those?)
Naturally, the shoeing (though relatively minimal) and saddle seat position raise eyebrows initially, but are soon explained to the satisfaction of even animal rights activists, who regularly pop up in the audience. One fervent lady challenged me about a small plate across a sand crack on one of the horses - "that's what forces them to gait" she asserted triumphantly to the curious
gathering of onlookers. But she was easily decanted from her 'high horse' by calm logic and the explanation that it was a standard English treatment for an unwanted crack, at which point some of the audience murmured their agreement. She skulked away.
Meanwhile, our horses stand like angels, impressing everyone because just a few moments ago they had been racking around, looking bright and keen, going faster than most people have ever seen a horse move, and then just standquietly letting children pat their noses, while riders chat with crowding parents.
It was asserted at one ASHA Convention that 'mall promotions' and such events never sold a horse to anyone. But I would like to question that. Promotions might not sell a horse that day, or even that week or year, but they sow the seed from which the sustaining crop grows. You never know who is watching, you never know what they have in their pockets or in their hearts. We have
touched many and inspired some to buy. But I only wish I had a dollar for every person who has remarked how much they would like one, and if they could have a horse the Saddlebred would be their choice - then I could import some more and put a huge display team together and do more promotional work!
What an amazing breed we have. But I am sure for American owners too, it is easy to get so embroiled in competition and politics, mucking out and budgeting, that the real reason we are involved with Saddlebreds slips to the sidelines. Maybe it is necessary to take time to think again. Our breed is unique, its skills are ancient and rare, its beauty superlative. There is never a better moment than now to take action, instigate opportunities and proclaim the word 'Saddlebred' from the barn tops!!!
The writing is on the wall. We must all campaign loudly and continuously for our breed's rights and dues, before the remarkable Saddlebred is lost - absorbed in a cosmopolitan melting pot of Warmbloods, Sport Horses, National Show Horses, pintos and palominos.