Breeding, Training, and Riding: the Serious Side of Horsing Around

Debra L. Scammon, University of Utah
ABSTRACT - Through introspection and recollection of a lifetime of involvement with horses the author describes the evolutionary process through which she became committed to the serious side of equestrian competition. Although her interest meets all of the classic criteria of deeply committed behavior, a closer examination suggests that the notions of leisure specialization, utilization and continued investment, and differential motivation may offer additional means for refining the definition of commitment. Another dimension that may distinguish commitment to a sport from commitment to other behaviors is the opportunity for competition. Despite the necessary elements of skill and training in successful performance during competition, reflection reveals some other influences on competitive success that have not been adequately addressed in the literature on leisure or play - mood and situation as they affect mental state.
[ to cite ]:
Debra L. Scammon (1987) ,"Breeding, Training, and Riding: the Serious Side of Horsing Around", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 125-128.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 125-128


Debra L. Scammon, University of Utah


Through introspection and recollection of a lifetime of involvement with horses the author describes the evolutionary process through which she became committed to the serious side of equestrian competition. Although her interest meets all of the classic criteria of deeply committed behavior, a closer examination suggests that the notions of leisure specialization, utilization and continued investment, and differential motivation may offer additional means for refining the definition of commitment. Another dimension that may distinguish commitment to a sport from commitment to other behaviors is the opportunity for competition. Despite the necessary elements of skill and training in successful performance during competition, reflection reveals some other influences on competitive success that have not been adequately addressed in the literature on leisure or play - mood and situation as they affect mental state.

Where Did It All Begin?

I learned to ride before I could walk. I had my first horse before I entered kindergarten. I was a horse show regular by age six. There has never been a time since then that my best friend has not been a four-legged "fur person". First there was one who patiently helped me learn to ride. Then one who played games with me carting my camping equipment from the front yard to the back yard and carrying my saddlebags full of library books to the bookmobile. There were a couple who gave me a shot at winning in 4-H and Pony Club horse shows. Those "friends" were responsible for getting me into the situation I am in today - partners in a horse training, breeding, and showing business with ranches in Salt Lake City and Scottsdale on which 24 purebred Arabian horses reside in far more luxury than my partner or myself!

My early exposure to horses, though not intentional on my part, has had a profound impact on my life. My interest has survived many changes in my life circumstances graduate school, geographic mobility, interpersonal relationships. My involvement with horses has shaped both day-to-day and major life decisions requiring adjustments in other aspects of my life. A recounting of my involvement with horses certainly would not be complete without acknowledgment of those very special "friends" who have influenced my commitment and the activities I find myself engaged in today.

The Transformation of an Avocation: Commitment

Commitment has been a popular explanation for a variety of behaviors (Becker, 1960; Dubin, 1979; Lee and Zeiss, 1978; Buchanan, 1985) and as a result has accumulated a rather amorphous set of meanings. The term is used synonymously with dedication, loyalty, devotion, and attachment. In a recent review article in Leisure Sciences, Buchanan (1985) defined commitment to a leisure activity as:

"the pledging or binding of an individual to behavioral acts which result in some degree of affective attachment to the behavior or to the role associated with the behavior and which produce side bets as a result of that behavior."

According to that definition there are three major components necessary for the existence of committed behavior:

1. commitment requires consistent or focused behavior and implies a rejection of alternative behaviors.

Commitment exists when participation in an activity irrevocably conditions other important aspects of life and thereby produces behavioral consistency. This consistency is observable in patterns of habitual behavior (e.g., upon rising in the morning I start a pot of coffee, dress, go to the barn and feed the horses; by the time I finish, the coffee is brewed) and in rearrangements of other activities (e.g., dinner time changes with sunset since I work with the horses until dark; workday and evening activities are always separated by a trip home to feed the horses). Disturbing this consistency by not riding daily, may cause feelings of incompleteness or guilt if I do not spend time with each horse. Some analysts have gone so far as to label this sort of commitment an addiction" (Glasser, 1976).

Though the direction of influence is not certain, researchers have observed that these habits and feelings are associated with an individual becoming locked into a position and feeling he/she must live up to the promises and sacrifices built into that position. As commitment increases, susceptibility to other influences (e.g., participation in a new activity) is thought to decrease. Thus, commitment may lead to rejection of alternative activities.

Leisure research has given some attention to this narrowing of activity choices calling it recreation specialization (Bryan, 1977). The notion is that participants in a recreation activity undergo a developmental process as the result of their involvement with that recreational activity. This "career" is reflected in changing patterns of skills, attitudes, and desired experiences. Bryan positions occasional participants (who exhibit limited participation) at one end of the commitment continuum suggesting that they have not established the activity as a regular part of their leisure. At the other end of the continuum are those highly committed participants specializing in method (e.g., cross-country vs. downhill skiing) and exhibiting distinct setting preferences (Snowbird vs. Sun Valley).

The concept of specialization is intuitively appealing. In equestrian activities, one may participate in riding, competitive riding, or even more specifically, stock horse competition. Each successive level implies a narrowing of focus and an exclusion of many other related activities. For example, as I began to specialize in Stock Horse competition I had less and less time for jumping and trail riding. The "seat" required for western performance is quite different than that required for jumping. I could not perfect both simultaneously.

An interesting question raised by Wellman, (1982) is whether commitment is a component of specialization, whether specialization is a manifestation of commitment, or whether the two are mutually reinforcing. The answer to this question awaits an acceptable operationalization of both constructs. Though some researchers contends that objective measures, such as equipment owned (Bryan, 1977) and prior activity participation (Wellman,, 1982) are adequate to assess commitment and specialization respectively, these measures neglect affective attachment, a criterion for commitment discussed further below. There is a movement in leisure research to include introspective research techniques such as phenomenological observation in order to tap into this more personal realm of the leisure experience (Mannel, 1980). It seems very likely that the affective dimension of commitment may actually strengthen and focus chosen behaviors.

2. Commitment is a function of side bets.

Another aspect of commitment that researchers have shown directs the continuation, and even the intensification, of a behavior is the investment in "side bets". Becker (1960) suggests that side bets occur when something of value (originally unrelated to the present behavior) is staked on maintaining behavioral consistency. Although not precisely defined in the literature, side bets represent the investments (financial or otherwise) which have resulted from participation but which are not necessarily related to the actual act of participation.

In the equestrian field a sort of side bet can be made by paying a futurity nomination fee for a foal before it is born or trained entitling it to compete for prize money usually at age three or four. A breeder purchasing a stud fee to a well-known stallion may ensure other behavior consistent with that breeding decision (e.g., joining a promotional campaign conducted by the stallion owner, paying training fees for the foal when born) after placing aside bet in the form of a futurity nomination. This ensures a continuation of, and commitment to, the behavior

Side bets can also be observed with respect to career choices, job location decisions, even relationships. For example, my decision to pursue my Ph.D. at UCLA was made partially because that enabled me to afford to keep a horse at my parent's house. Having made that side bet, I could not justify ending my involvement with horses while I completed my graduate work.

Researchers have found the concept of side bets to be useful in explaining otherwise unrelated behaviors. But another interesting relationship that has gotten little attention in the literature is that between past expenditures/investments and future behavior. As mentioned above, ownership of equipment has sometimes been used as an observable operationalization of commitment. However, utilization, rather than ownership, may be a more Accurate indicator of commitment. For example, a low commitment equestrian may purchase a horse and after a few months lose interest and stop riding. The past sizeable investment in the horse does not condition the current behavior of this person. That is, the equestrian considers the purchase price as "sunk" and hence irrelevant to present behavior. This owner may even fall behind on paying the board bill on the forgotten horse since additional investments in the abandoned activity seem senseless. The fact that the potential service flow from past investments is not consumed may be an indication of low commitment. On the other hand, the deeply committed equestrian adamantly pursues riding that horse. Not only does the deeply committed equestrian consume the service flow from the previous investment but she may undertake additional investments to increase the quantity of the service flow from that horse. Thus, although some researchers conclude that investment indicates commitment, consumption, as well as on-going investment appear to be more indicative of deep commitment.

A personal example illustrates this proposition. My involvement with horses began simply with owning a horse. That led to acquisition of the appropriate clothing, the necessary tack, a truck and trailer to haul the horse around, acreage and a barn to house the horse, both an outdoor and indoor arena to exercise the horse, not to mention the expenses to maintain the horse - feed, farrier and veterinary services, etc. The horse "has to have" a winter blanket, both a work and a show bridle, several bits for various phases of training, and saddle blankets color coordinated with my outfits. And, of course, as the horse becomes competitive, it "must" not only go to the local horse shows that are within a day's drive, but it "must" also travel to the Regional and National competitions that are several hundred or thousand miles away necessitating my staying in hotels and eating in a variety of restaurants.

3. Commitment involves some degree of affective attachment to the goals and values of a role an activity or an organization.

This third aspect of commitment relates to what one gets out of being committed to an activity. Researchers have divided the affective component into three general continual continuance, cohesion and control. These dimensions relate to the inertia of continuing with a known activity rather than taking up a new unknown one, the social interactions available from and the feelings of belonging to an identifiable group, and the self-identity that go along with participation in a particular activity. Motives for participation in various recreation activities have been a focus of much recent research in the recreation area (e.g., Mills, 1985).

Studies have found that the motivations for engaging in a particular recreation activity are likely to vary according to level of participant commitment. Schreyer, Lime, and Williams (1984), for example, report that novice river runners choose that activity "to experience new and different things" and "to show others I can to it" while the motives of veterans relate to achievement, self-worth, and personal meaning.

The ebb and flow of the motivations during my career with horses suggest to me that there are both immediate (e.g., riding is fun) and long-term (e.g., by training hard I can be considered by others as a significant competitor) satisfactions attained through my commitment to horses. Whatever these satisfactions are however, they are transitory. To realize them, the behavior must be enacted over and over and over again. This repetition is observed in behavioral consistency and can be interpreted as commitment (or by some, addiction). When self-concept and participation intertwine, commitment deepens. Consistency of behavior increases as commitment increases since individuals are more likely to reallocate resources than they are to change activities. Thus, commitment tends to make the participant resistant to change (I won't switch expenditures to camping equipment away from riding equipment) or to pursue additional activities complimentary to the primary commitment (e.g., I enjoy country western dancing more than disco dancing).

As witnessed by my allusion earlier to fur people," another very significant affective attachment in equestrian activities is the horse. As one spends more and more time with an individual horse and gets to know it well, that horse becomes a real friend (as in "man's best friend"). Anthropomorphism is not just a temptation; it is a reality! In addition to one's own self-actualization, there is the horse to consider. What are her needs and wants? Her capabilities and potentials? Does she deserve to compete at the National Championships even if you don't aspire to that goal? Additionally self-identity now encompasses the horse. A compliment on how beautiful the horse is enhances your ego. A slur on her performance is a personal insult. Continued behavior is even more likely since there are now stakes involved for someone else.

Competition's Role in Commitment or "I Like to Win"

As described in the literature on recreation, that illusive "affective attachment" from committed behavior includes those feelings and emotions experienced during the "leisure state" (Tinsley and Tinsley, 1986). Akin in its psychological properties to mystic experiences, peak experiences, flow experiences, and sports experiences, attainment of this most potent and engrossing leisure experience is characterized by a centering of attention, richer perceptions, a forgetting of oneself and becoming totally involved in the activity at hand, a disorientation in time and space, and a momentary loss of anxiety and constraints. Competition, because of its immediacy of feedback and its necessary focusing of competitors' attention, provides a setting in which this much sought state may be more readily achieved.

Extrinsic feedback available from competition appears to be related to the continuation of that behavior. Most of us prefer to do what we are good at and avoid doing those things that we are not good at. Deci and Ryan (1980) report that positive feedback concerning success (i.e., extrinsic evidence that one has performed well) tends to increase self-reported enjoyment, intrinsic motivation, and commitment. When I take a new horse into competition I usually have little expectation of placing. When I finally do earn a ribbon, that extrinsic feedback spurs me on to train even harder. The feedback provides the hook. That first blue ribbon intensifies my perception of accomplishment and thus my satisfaction and demands even more effort to succeed.

It is important to realize that "winning" will be defined differently at various points in this process. At first the goal may be one's personal best. Extrinsic feedback is not as critical as the opportunity to test oneself and evaluate the performance against one's own past performances. However, a taste of positive extrinsic feedback in the form of a ribbon may shift the goal from a better performance to "winning". But ultimately, the desire may be for both a top performance and one recognized as such by others. One must "win" to retain the respect and support of observers (judge, spectators, other competitors) but one must do it in style to retain self-respect. It may be this latter state in which truly committed competitors find themselves.

A Scenario of Competitive Success

The factors influencing success in competition are not well understood. Holbrook, (1984) report that apparently, because of its anchoring in ability and learning, game-playing performance remains insensitive to the effects of short-run emotional fluctuations (p. 737). They conclude that, success depends primarily upon preparation for the game. Other researchers, however, have suggested that personal and situational factors may affect subjective perception and performance (Unger and Kernan, 1983). The competitive engagement itself may thus impact performance success. A description of equestrian competition emphasizes the role of preparation, mood and situation in success.

Unlike the situation in many individual sports, the equestrian is not really alone. The horse, its suitability, ability, and attitude are at least as important to success as is the talent of the rider. Thus, preparation for competition involves conditioning, training, and practice for both the horse and rider. It is the !team that is important. Communication and trust between horse and rider are crucial.

Though this training of horse and rider takes an enormous amount of time and effort (a stock horse is not ready for heavy competition until age six or seven and training under saddle usually begins at age three), the mental state, or mood, of the competitor at the moment of competitive engagement may determine the outcome. The mental aspects of competition encompass such things as the strategy or game plan--, pre performance psych games, and feedback.

The Game Plan. Anticipation of what will occur during the competition, or imaging, is a skill many athletes work to acquire. Imaging allows the competitor to mentally go over the actions of a competitive engagement and to rehearse reactions to various situations that may develop. Having practiced in this less stressful pre-competition setting, one is more likely to react automatically without having to think about what to do before doing it.

The individual events I compete in have a prescribed pattern. In Stock Horse, the pattern, although each one contains the same basic maneuvers, differs from show to show and is not revealed to the contestants until approximately one hour before the event is held. Many of the patterns are deliberately quite complex requiring tremendous concentration for proper execution. The pattern must be memorized so that the "next move becomes automatic. A slight lapse in concentration may lead to the ultimate disaster of going off pattern" which is an automatic disqualification. Imaging is of tremendous help in preparing to run a pattern. Mental rehearsal of exactly what one will do in the arena - imagining each movement of the horse, feeling the acceleration of the run downs, the power of the sliding stops and the speed of the spins, all prepare one for the upcoming performance.

Another event I ride in is Working Cow Horse. This class has a standard pattern required every time. The variables in this class are the consistency of the ground in the arena and the cow (who rarely knows the pattern). Though all the mental preparation required for Stock Horse also helps in this event, probably the most important attribute to success is the rider's ability to modify the game plan on the spot. Things never go according to plan and the rider must think on her horse. Even the most thorough preparation can't overcome a fatal mistake in judgment.

The need to concentrate on the moment is critical to success in both events. The competitor who looks over her shoulder or ponders a mistake may give up, reducing her competitive determination through the rest of the ride. Such lapses in concentration, or interruptions in the flow, are disastrous. In these situations the competitor beats herself.

Pre-Performance Psych Games. Pre-performance psych games are designed to decrease the ability of one's competitors to concentrate and image effectively. The psych game begins in the warm-up arena. Intimidation by showing off one's best moves in front of a prime competitor is a favorite ploy. For example, spinning time and time and time again, each time faster than the last until you and your horse stagger to a dizzying stop. Unfortunately, this strategy often backfires as the best performances are left behind in the warmup arena where the judge will never see them.

The position a contestant draws for order of performance may affect his/her ability to psych out the other competitors. If one has a particularly "hot" horse and goes first with an impressive showing, the rest of the competitors may forget about showing their horses and instead focus on "beating" you. They will lose their concentration and likely the competition. Alternatively, if one goes last, all the other exhibitors may have held back some reserve not realizing the competition they were up against. When you pull out all the stops your performance tops them all.

An "innocent" plea for help or idle conversation are other approaches. As your competitor is trying to memorize the pattern you casually ride up asking -Now, was that three spins to the left then take off on the right lead?" Though your question was just "friendly" conversation, your competitor makes a bee line to the show office to check the pattern since he thought it was two turns to the right!

Intracompetition Feedback. The degree to which a competitor has attained that flow state (leisure state, sports experience) described earlier may affect the impact immediate extrinsic feedback has on performance. If flow-- has been achieved, the competitor is likely to be impervious to crowd reaction. But if only approaching that state, the heightened arousal and hyper-sensitivity associated with competition may cause the contestant to be affected by such extrinsic feedback. Consider two extremes. Having studied one's local competitors one goes into a home-town show with an accurate assessment of relative competitive position. The competitor is relaxed and confident. She enters the arena and is oblivious to her surroundings until well after she clears the exit gate following her run. She is totally absorbed in the experience and the surroundings and situation have no impact on her performance.

Now having won at the local level she is qualified for the National Championship show. She knows every other contestant has also passed the test for qualification. She has not personally seen all of the competitors, though she may have seen promotional material on some of them. She is unsure of how she will stand up to the competition. This insecurity hinders her ability to concentrate and increases her sensitivity to extrinsic feedback regarding her performance. She is tuned in to the audience reaction; she has not achieved flow.

These examples are meant to question the relationship between preparation, performance success, intrinsic and extrinsic feedback, and the attainment to that optimal flow state. Mood and situation may be equally as important as ability to the performance. They may be intervening variables that mediate the relevance and impact of intrinsic and extrinsic feedback. And, thus, they may play a critical role in the attainment of flow, which is one of the affective attachments related to commitment.


Introspection reveals some promising issues for investigation to further understand commitment. Activity specialization, utilization of owned "toys" and continued investments to enhance and use them, and affective attachments generated from different sources may help refine the notion of commitment. In the context of competition, the relationships of mood and situation to performance success, and thus to affect, intrinsic motivation, and commitment to an activity are certainly deserving of research attention.

One fact remains unequivocal, the satisfaction from engaging in an activity is transitory. The activity must be repeated. Over and over and over. Though it is true that most activities are preceded by a period of anticipation and followed by a period of recollection, and it is recognized that the anticipation and the remembering may in fact be more enjoyable than the activity, it is the activity that must be experienced over and over again to attain that peak experience. Is that what makes us addicts to our avocations?


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