I had the opportunity to work at USPC Championships competitions for two weeks this summer — which kept me out of the garden, but exposed me to some wonderful kids, horses, families and volunteers. Children and their horses gathered the last week in July in Lexington, Virginia for USPC Champs – East, and the first week in August in Kansas City, Missouri for USPC Champs – MidWest. The second week of August was USPC Champs – West, but I sat that one out. (Two weeks is about two days over my past due notice for 14 hour days.) I enjoyed working with several very fine Chief Horse Management Judges, all of whom had unique and wonderful management styles. Watching these professionals at work, I gained some very valuable insights into how to manage herds of intelligent, active, competitive children and their parents.
A little background for those who haven’t a clue about what Pony Club/USPC is: We offer our membership the opportunity to learn and demonstrate both riding and care of the horse, both through the rating proficiency tests (similar to the rank program in Scouting) and through the Rally (Pony Club Horse Show) experience, when parents are asked to work away from their children and the children are asked to take full responsibility for the care of their horse. During Rally, Horse Management judges assess how well — or how poorly — each competitor does their barn work, and how the team of competitors works together to accomplish their work. Horse Management points are deducted for work done on a sliding scale of expectations based on the Standards of Proficiency. (Someone at a lower Rating level is judged more leniently than those who have passed the higher Ratings.)
The majority of Horse Management Judges are fair, firm, smiling faces. Every now and again you run into a judge lacking a ready smile. This can send some of the competitors into a tailspin as they made assumptions about how they would be treated because he did not begin and end each sentence with a smile.
There was one such judge in one phase of the Championships. During the first day or so of the Rally, I was impatient with this judge, silently wanting him to lighten up. After all, these were kids. However, as I worked with this judge, I saw something that I never expected to see. One young competitor, frustrated by what she saw as unwarranted deduction of points, asked him flat out if she could lodge a protest — and not expect him to retaliate. His response was, “You’re here to learn how to stand up for yourself, not for us to hand you what you think you’re entitled to.”
I thought quite a bit about that statement. Do we do children a disservice by always providing “happy” interactions? My personal filter was set at “no” for that question. Surely having a smile on one’s face helps kids learn more easily? But the more I thought about it, the happier I was that this man was the way he was. Kids don’t need to be exposed to one kind of interaction and one kind only. They need experience both in a variety of situations and with a variety of personalities. Those competitors who stood up for themselves found it an empowering experience. Perhaps our children need more opportunities to face someone who isn’t outlining how to get around a penalty, someone who makes them do the work. When that happens, then the triumph of winning back those precious points becomes a much more powerful lesson about what it means to know the rules, know where their actions stand with respect to the rules, and what it takes to stand up for themselves. I found myself very happy that those children had the opportunity to fail or succeed under their own initiative — to know that the world doesn’t stop spinning if they lose a point over a dirty bit or hooves that haven’t seen the farrier in a month of Sundays — and to know that even stern folk respond well to arguments presented calmly, respectfully and factually.
What did I learn from these two weeks working with these three excellent judges? Know the rules. Don’t hesitate to look them up to double check your memory. Be fair when handing out penalties. Listen closely to what the person disagreeing with you says and the logic behind their argument. Discuss the issue dispassionately. Smiling has its place in the grand scheme of things, but it is no substitute for all the above. Perhaps most importantly, it proved to me that we are never too old to learn. Smiling folks and Oscar the Grouch both have something to teach us. Each of us has the right and the responsibility to look at the situation from all sides and decide whether we want to carry forward a positive lesson — or not.