The Political Structure of Saddlebred Horse Showing

When it came time to choose an undergraduate major, I ultimately picked anthropology because it allowed me to explore any subject and study it in a new and innovative way. At the Central States Anthropological Society’s Spring 2017 conference, I presented my senior research findings on the American Saddlebred horse showing community, of which I have been a member for the majority of my life. This project used interviews, archival research, and personal knowledge to construct a history of women’s involvement in the Saddlebred industry as amateurs, professionals, and a category I call “professional amateurs.” This was the first project I had ever presented, and people surprisingly seemed very interested in what I had to say about this community. I was a bit shocked that something so normal to me could be so intriguing to others. I could not wait to share my experience with my friends and family in this community, and to ask them if they would also be interested in hearing my work. No analysis of this kind had been done in the Saddlebred world before, so many people on the Saddlebred side were also interested in working with me. It has been a very rewarding project, but it was not something I thought would last much longer.

I felt (and honestly, still feel) the pressure to come up with something cutting-edge and original. Different ideas flew through my head every day, but nothing really caught.

However, when I started graduate school at University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall, my professors encouraged me to continue thinking about how I can update my work on Saddlebreds and make it into something new, unique, and exciting—the simple feminist framework I had used previously was interesting for my participants, but not necessarily complex enough for a dissertation. My advisor encouraged me to keep exploring the community in any way I could. This got me thinking about ontological issues, multi-species ethnography, and kinship analysis. I felt (and, honestly, still feel) the pressure to come up with something cutting-edge and original. Different ideas flew through my head every day, but nothing really stuck.

Then, a real spark happened when I read E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s “The Nuer of the Southern Sudan” (1940). As he described the political structure of the Nuer, I could not help but place the Saddlebred community into the same structure. What Evans-Pritchard defines as “the Nuer” in this case would be analogous with the entire equestrian showing community, regardless of breed. A Nuer “tribe” would then be the American Saddlebred community within the larger group of horse exhibitors. The Saddlebred community has its own governing bodies, as well as a rulebook and judging system specifically designed for Saddlebred showing practices. “Tribal sections” would be the different barns within the Saddlebred community. Just as the whole Saddlebred community has a sense of pride for Saddlebreds over all other breeds, each barn has a sense of pride for its trainer and members. There are probably hundreds of Saddlebred barns throughout the country, owned by independent trainers who are in competition with other trainers/barns all the time because of economic and social capital. The basic structure of the Saddlebred community is quite similar to what Evans-Pritchard describes.

The author riding Faithfull One. Doug Shlifet.

Even Evans-Pritchard’s definition of a tribe—the largest group that will combine and go to war against others—has a connection to the Saddlebred community. In 2016 and early 2017, the large conglomerate USEF (United State Equestrian Federation) attempted to limit shoeing/soring practices on all racking breeds. This includes not only American Saddlebreds, but also Tennessee Walking horses. Soring does not and cannot occur in Saddlebred horses because they are also a trotting breed—soring practices eliminate a horse’s ability to trot, which is why Saddlebred trainers cannot sore. However, the proposed legislation would eliminate not just chemical soring practices, but anything that mechanically altered a horse’s natural gait. This very general statement does apply to the Saddlebred community’s wide use of training tools like stretchers, which are akin to resistance strength training. Thus, the Saddlebred community was caught in the crossfire of a national bureaucratic debacle. Just like Evans-Pritchard’s descriptions of Nuer tribes fighting for land rights, the Saddlebred community put aside intra-group conflicts and “tribal section” divisions to fight against poorly designed legislation. After many months of lobbying USEF, Saddlebreds were taken off the list and the law was changed.

Sometimes, translating something old to something new can be more inspiring than anything completely unprecedented.

This is a new and exciting way of thinking about the Saddlebred community for me. It was also a real epiphany about how to modify past theory to fit contemporary issues. After many discussions about how old theory is just plain wrong, it was refreshing to use old theory in an innovative way—much like one of my favorite ethnographies, Empire of Dirt by Wendy Fonarow. I always struggle to explain to others just how Saddlebred showing works, and Evans-Pritchard’s framework actually helped me organize my own thoughts on how the Saddlebred community is structured in the basic sense. It helped to clear away the details I had been inundated with my whole life and just focus on one of the simplest aspects of the community. The process of redefining the lens of my project almost daily has been an interesting experience. But after weeks of enduring conversations about how old theories are racist, sexist, or inadequate for a modern setting (all usually true), I was pleased to finally see something from anthropology’s past as helpful rather than something to be ashamed of. Sometimes, translating something old to something new can be more inspiring than anything completely unprecedented.

Brianna Meyer is a PhD student of cultural anthropology and a University Fellow at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Please send your comments, contributions, and news to CSAS contributing editor Carrie Hough ([email protected]).

Cite as: Meyer, Brianna. 2018. “The Political Structure of Saddlebred Horse Showing.” Anthropology News website, March 14, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.799

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