Karlan Downing is a long-time horse lover and competitor. From creating her first horse show when she was eleven years old to her current success in competing and winning championships, Downing went on a wild ride to get to where she is today.
“When I was, I guess, four or five years old, my grandmother in Lubbock said, ‘Oh, Karlan, come look, come look,’” Downing recalled. “Ran over to the window and there was a man riding a horse down the street, and she said, ‘Oh, look at the man on the horse and the little pony.’ And she swears I drew up to my full height at that age and said, ‘Mama, they call it a colt.’ How I knew that, I have no earthly idea.”
After first asking for a horse around three or four years old and continuing to ask for a horse every year for Christmas, her parents agreed if she could make enough money to save up for one, she could buy one. With unwavering perseverance, Downing eventually saved up enough money from babysitting to rent a horse and ride it for an hour.
Downing has an extensive history of training and showing Arabian horses, both for herself and for other people. After graduating college, she bought a horse as a graduation present - a mahogany bay Arabian stallion. Through intensive training by her and a woman who helped train him, within six months, they were winning championships in big classes. He became the foundation stallion for Downing’s breeding program.
Lately, the program has been adding Spanish horses as well. KMA Angelo, the horse Downing showed, is ⅞ Spanish. He also earned the title USCF Arabian Horse of the Year in Working Western in 2017 and 2018. This year, he earned the same title for both Working Western and Specialty.
When it comes to showing events, Downing has done “almost anything you can do on a horse,” including Driving, Carriage Driving, Jumpers, Hunters, Reiners, Trail, Western Pleasure, Hunter Pleasure, Costume, and English. Now, she mostly competes in the Working Western divisions. KMA Angelo has received numerous awards including National Champion for the English Trail class twice.
Both rider and horse are well-versed in how the competition works, so when it came to advice on preparing for competition - including, oftentimes, inevitable loss when one believes he or she should have won - Downing had plenty of wise words to offer.
“What I tell kids is...well, and not just kids, anyone that’s showing,” Downing said. “When you’re showing the horse, you have control, relatively, over how well you do, how well you ride, how well your horse works with you. The thing you don’t have control over is what other people do with their horses, how their horses work. And you don’t have any control at all over what the judge likes, what the judge doesn’t like, what the judge sees, what the judge doesn’t see. And so, you learn to value things that are important, not just the ribbons.”
Downing often loans out show horses to kids to help them practice and teach them to ride, so she emphasized how important horse showing is for kids because of the many lessons the sport teaches them.
“Number one, success should be really considered based on whether you did what you started out to do, whether you achieved your own goals, not on what someone else thinks,” Downing said.
Compared to other horse-related events, Downing explained horse showing is unique because of the effort competitors put into making the horse look pretty - and especially the excitement young girls have around costumes and dressing up.
“It’s kind of like playing Disney princess,” Downing said with a smile.
She added that some of the most important things to know to succeed in competition are hard work, honesty, complete knowledge of the rules, and ethics.
“I’m a judge,” Downing said. “I’m a big R judge both in the Arabian and the Western Dressage division, and we like to see people that go in, do a good job and show their horse, but don’t purposely get in someone else’s way, don’t purposely cause problems for other exhibitors. And that is so important, to be a good sport.”
However, just like any other sport, sometimes you can do everything
right and still not win.
“There are gonna be times when you win that you should’ve won,” Downing said. “There are gonna be times that you don’t win when you should’ve won. But those are life lessons that are important for kids and young people to know. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, things don’t go the way you want ‘em to go. And so you just go ahead and try again.”
As a child, Downing was not merely drawn to horses, but specifically to the Arabian breed. Her first experience with a mare that belonged to a childhood friend of hers was the first to kindle her love for Arabian horses.
“The thing that I love the most about the Arabians is that they just want a little more personal relationship with their person than most breeds do,” Downing said. “I think that may be because they were raised in the desert. And at night, when it was cold, the mares would actually come up to the tent and sleep in the edges of the tent, and the kids would go curl up and sleep next to the mares to stay warm. But they depended on people in the desert, you know, for food and water and everything else. For thousands of years, it was a close relationship between the Arabian horse and humans. And I think that’s one of the reasons that they are such personable and empathetic horses.”
One significant reason many people enjoy horse showing is not just for the competition, but for the tightly-knit community and the opportunity for parents to help their kids learn and grow through training and disciplining their horses and themselves. It is a sport that takes endless hard work, determination and spirit. It is a relationship between horse and rider that must be cultivated through patience, communication and mutual understanding.
“It’s a chance to promote your horses to the general public and to spread the love of the horse to the people that are there watching,” Downing said.
Horse showing not only brings people together, but fosters lasting friendships and enables people to improve themselves and learn there is more to life than winning. It should not be about the destination; it should be about the critical lessons, knowledge and experience gathered on the way.