Judging opened his eyes to something he hadn't really noticed before. "I found that each year when I went back somewhere to judge many of the beginners from the years before were not there. I started to think about why and didn't like the answers I was getting, for example: 'It was to expensive,' 'I can't compete against people who can pay the best trainers, and buy the best horses,' and 'my horse isn't good enough for the new level I have to show at and I can't afford a new horse.'" When he talked to people who were successful in the sport about the problem, they shrugged. "It's an expensive game," they said. "Not everyone can afford it."
Rod started thinking about a way to solve that problem, and came up with the idea of a Performance Horse Development program. The program would focus on the process of training that leads to a competitive Reining horse, but would award the process along the way. As a standard, he defined what it means for a horse to be really "broke." A "broke" horse, by PHD definition, will "wait for its rider's cue, then willingly accept and follow that cue." Simple, no?
To focus on the training that builds a horse, Rod came up with a series of patterns for competitors to ride. These combine parts of the movements of Reining tests, but broken down into stages that parallel the training of a Reiner. Tests may include trot circles, lope circles, rollbacks, sidepasses, halts, walks and lead changes, but they are introduced gradually, level by level.
Having invented a new event, he then decided it needed a standard for judging, with an emphasis on feedback from the judge, much like is provided at a Dressage schooling show. The movements would be scored based on "needs improvement" or "satisfactory." Each level increases in difficulty, and the judging takes into account whether the horse and rider are ready to progress to the next level or not.
Finally, he decided to set up a system that would let the shows be accessible to everyone. The V Shows (Virtual Shows) became part of a new organization, the International Performance Horse Development Association, and are hosted online. Competitors join the organization, videotape their test patterns, and send in their patterns by the deadline, with a small entry fee. Each horse and rider is judged by a qualified (and often well-known) judge, and ranked against the other competitors at that level. There are rounds of competition with finals, and in the Western tradition real prizes (cash, as well as tack, DVDs, iPods and other goods) and points earned are offered to high scorers during the competition. The scoring and points give participating horses a show record to refer to, also, which can be useful if they are offered for sale.
Moreover, Rod says, "the biggest benefit to our members is the ability to learn as they compete. The PHD competitions are actually a training program set up as a competition. We have some really good people involved and the event and association will grow as the word spreads." He says once people try it "most keep showing because the improvement they realize is amazing." Video stills (left) of competitors testify to their improvement.
Julia Slater (whom I've interviewed in the past, here) is one participant who is really enjoying the format. Julia points out that with her long work hours and rural location it can be hard to get to shows. She says, "Seeing as my pocket book is always kinda flat, I love the fact that I don't have to take a day, trailer to the show, stay the night, feed myself, the kids, the horses.... And the entry fees are bearable: between $18 and $35, depending on what you think you want to win."
Moreover, she says "All I can tell ya is that I finally have a spot to show my colts. Most everything I ride is young. If they get old enough to handle someone else, they usually get sold. I don't even enjoy riding an old broke horse. That effectively leaves me out of Western competition. In the Western world, you either have a horse or you don't. But the IPHDA recognized that and wanted to give folks milestones to hit as they develop their own horses."
And, she adds, "The greatest part about the whole thing are the judges: Tim McCutcheon, Clint Haverty, Tim McQuay, just to name a few. I gotta tell ya, I got a 76 from Clint Haverty and I'm telling everybody!!! Not one bit shy about it either!!"
Time will tell if the Virtual Show format will catch on. It offers a lot of benefits to a wide audience. You can see some recent show videos and judging here.
I'll follow up with Julia and Rod next year, to see how the organization is changing and growing.
Meanwhile I might just go try some of those patterns!