Friday, November 10, 2017

what is "fancy" + why does everybody care so much?

True Story: Whenever I describe competitive riding and horse showing to a non-horsey person -- esp if they're genuinely curious or interested -- I always mention the horse world's unique system of measurement. 

Telling them, in a conspiratorial or playful whisper, that, honest to god, "Fancy" is a real unit of measure. That when describing a set of horses, we will in all seriousness judge: "This one is the fanciest. That one is less fancy." Likely with crossed arms and a stern, deliberate voice.

Have you likewise told the uninitiated about this .... seemingly esoteric metric?

If not, you definitely should. It always garners at least a few incredulous giggles, and replies of, "Really? What the hell does 'fancy' even mean tho??"

Also a true story: I, personally as an equestrian, had never really heard (or, more likely, noticed) that turn of phrase until discovering this blogging community and beginning to read along. 

At first I thought it was just an interesting choice of adjectives -- but then I realized that actually the term was generally accepted to be endowed with its own well-defined meaning. That there was somehow this objective spectrum from "Not Fancy" to "Very Fancy" that was easily discernible to anybody who cared to notice.

Even during my college years at the h/j barn, amid what were certainly some very nice horses. I was just kinda blissfully unaware of what it meant to be "fancy." Had no concept. Never really paid attention enough to even realize that I could be developing my eye. I was just kinda riding whatever was available for me to ride (usually horses that needed miles before they could integrate into the lesson program) without thinking any more deeply about it.

I've only recently understood the opportunity in educating myself more on what it means to be a "nice moving" horse. What it means to be "fancy." Generally speaking, I'd like to recognize quality, talent, ability, style and technique in how a horse goes. Still got a ways to there tho haha

Honestly, tho? For my purposes as a low level eventer, I'm pretty sure that's a-ok.

I honestly believe amateurs often place too much emphasis on "fancy." Taking it a step further: I believe amateurs might value the quality of movement above other qualities at their own peril.

There seems to be this extreme preoccupation with fancy moving horses, coupled with what I see as a demonstrably false idea that fanciness alone can win horse shows or make progress somehow easier or faster.

Granted, I identify as an eventer who dabbles in dressage. The judging metrics for these disciplines are entirely different from, say, hunters -- where style matters in a somewhat different sense. So. Ya know. I'm only speaking from my own observations and experiences here. Tho I'm very curious about how you think and feel on the subject.

Basically tho, when I say it's demonstrably false to claim "fanciness" is what wins horse shows, what I mean is that it's not enough in and of itself.

Rather, in the world of adult amateurs (read: limited time and resources) riding at the lower levels, I'd argue that the #1 most important factor in likelihood for success with a horse is: Rideability.

Meaning? As an adult amateur rider, can I fully ride the horse? Is it a horse I can work with, train, learn and make mistakes? A horse I get along with? That, in riding this horse, can we achieve a reasonable degree of correctness and consistency in our work together?

I'll use Charlie as an example here. I specifically sought out a mind and personality in the horse that felt like a type I could work with, that I understood. Charlie is not a fancy horse. I jokingly refer to him as my Future Elegant Horse -- and I do believe that -- but he's basically very plain. There are tons out there exactly like him in style and way of going. He is average.

Yet I'm 100% convinced he can win in the dressage, "nice" or not. Why? Because he's rideable. He's got all these qualities like kindness, patience, sensibility. He's more or less game. He's forgiving. Call it anthropomorphization if you like, but you know what I mean.

Charlie lets me ride him fully, and as such he is steadily developing into a what I hope will be a very correct horse. He's not fancy. He might never be what anybody calls 'nice.' But he can enter at A in a show environment and consistently lay down a test that fully demonstrates his current level of training. Likewise with the jumping phases too. (tho he likes that part better so often performs beyond his training just by nature of enjoying the game haha).

Since I can rely on him to be so consistent, really the ball is in my court to train and practice and be as disciplined as possible. Because the horse will absolutely reflect those efforts for better or worse. And in my experience, at the lower levels the judges will and do reward steadiness and consistency and correctness.

Flashy will always help, obviously (hai, Isabel!), but it is not enough in and of itself. And "upper level potential" means nothing if the horse can't get through a lower level test without a meltdown.

Another example: Isabel is an objectively fancy mare. She could and did win in the dressage. But she could also lose, often from one week to the next. It depended entirely on how rideable she was on that particular day.

Which.... ya know. She's a very very good girl, a very special kind of horse with a seemingly limitless capacity for pressure. It was never her talent that dictated our success (she's always lovely to watch and is a natural performer), it was her mood. Some days she was just. not. rideable.

So while I learned so much from her and appreciated what it felt like to ride that fancy, eye catching horse... I also learned that the kernel of our success was not just her fanciness, but rather that special ability of hers to take pressure. To be game. The qualities that I had recognized in her before I even knew what "fancy" was. And so I set out on my search for a new eventing partner with those qualities chief in my mind.

I'm curious tho, because I know this is a much bigger topic than what my own limited experience encompasses.

There are a few questions here: What, really, does it mean to be "fancy"? And why does it matter? Or, Does it matter?

Do you agree with me that 'fanciness' is overrated for the purposes of most adult amateurs at the lower levels? That folks would be better served by focusing on mind over matter in their equestrian partners? Or maybe you think I'm missing some critical piece of the puzzle, overlooking something obvious? Perhaps the horse's talent and capability is more important to you and your goals than I've given credit to above?


  1. Ride ability is SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THAN FANCY. Yes I have 2 horses and clearly one is more fancy than the other, but the other has physical limitations which means he do elementary work and no more, whilst the other one can do Inter II easily. I wanted to learn to ride a more fancy horse/schoolmaster to develop myself as a rider and trainer, but for sure the next horse I buy I will look for a 'nice' but more importantly a very rideable horse!

  2. That is so true. There was a very fancy horse at the clinic who’s rider was terrified to canter him. He really was lovely and far too much horse for her. I had to wonder where the fun was. Carmen is ‘fancy’ but not to everyone (I know that boggles the mind doesn’t it! 🦄). There was a 19 year old appendix QH who was trained to Grand Prix and was gorgeous. But in his early years he was not fancy.

  3. Great topic! I too never heard the term fancy before reading blogs and then all of a sudden it was everywhere. Trainer has mentioned, when Gem is moving out relaxed, that she is a “really cute mover” said in a tone of appreciation. Yeah well good luck getting that 75% of the time. One thing I have learned from your and other blogs is to look first for the brain (and quality of the canter). The rest can be taught.

  4. I agree 100%!. At least in my area I think way too many adult amateurs get talked into buying fancy horses by their instructor or the internet or maybe friends. Then, too often that horse is too much for them (us) and they end up scared and over faced. There were at least 5+ people at my previous barn who lunged and paid their trainer to ride. Some of those people admired me and my fairly rideable, nonintimidating pony openly and some of them scoffed at us. I can't help but believe that more of us would make more progress if we had horses that we felt really comfortable riding despite those horses likely being very un-fancy haha

  5. Ha! Just a few weeks back I was sitting with a friend (who is not into horses) watching a particular horse warm up and recall gasping at this horse's gaits. She asked what made that horse better than the last and I simply replied it had all sorts of 'fancy'. But yes, ridability trumps fancy any day, as Savvy has so much fancy in there but I have scored horribly many times because she often doesn't show up to play. :/

  6. First - totally agree that many times the horse that the amateur rider wants is not the horse that said amateur can or should actually be riding. That said a horse does not have to be one or the other. A horse can be both fancy and rideable. Those horses just cost more money usually.

    I have what I would consider a very fancy TB. She jumps like a freak and moves well. But only when she wants to. It doesn't matter how nice she is when she won't cooperate. Over fences it is less of an issue but it may ultimately mean that she lands in the jumper ring permanently as she really objects to a bit in her mouth and dressage as a whole. Lots of potential - not so much rideable in that area.

    Very interesting post. "Fancy" varies widely between disciplines thats for sure!

  7. Fancy is more a filler word to me. Vague and useless. Like nice, normal, etc. It is one of those people can subjectively add or subtract from. I've seen 'fancy' horses do nothing, and 'shit' horses be mind blowing.

    So ... Yeah. Fancy means absolutely nothing to me.

  8. The importance of "Fancy" varies so much between disciplines, too! I think especially of the hunter ring, where a horse MUST be an exceptional mover and jumper to do well, especially at the rated shows. You are right, though, in that all the fancy in the world doesn't mean a thing if the horse isn't also rideable!

    I also think there is absolutely an allure to having a fancy horse. People want to be able to have the best, to have that boost in status, and a jaw-droppingly gorgeous horse that moves like a freak certainly scratches that itch. But when it comes to the average one-horse amateur, fancy ain't gonna do a whole lot for you if you can't ride the thing. Most riders would do well to choose sane over fancy, but there will always be people who want 'the best' even if they can't ride it.

  9. I definitely agree with Hillary that there can be fancy and rideable, but that those horses very likely cost a LOT of money.

    As someone who has seen a lot of riders, both in and out of my barn, climb the levels of dressage, having a horse you personally can RIDE is the most important thing. It really depends on the rider though- some horses will feel rideable to some people and unrideable to others.

    I've seen too many riders get horses who may be really trained and really fancy, but that are simply too scopey of a mover for that particular rider. I see it the most in the jump from First to Second- Second requires you to both sit the trot and be able to ride the horse in positive tension (and often times when the rider tries out the horse, they ride the horse without positive tension so the horse doesn't feel that intimidating- TC can feel like a plug and also scare the hell out of me just by adding oopmf into his gaits).

    So many horses max out at First that people gravitate toward the fancier horses that can clearly do the work and have a good enough gaits score to make up for any rider errors.

    But if a rider gets something super fancy, the trot may take the rider years to learn to sit and the level of collection/extension may be easy for the horse, but may be intimidating to the rider. I find it both sad and very slightly amusing to see First level riders buy fancy horses and then... stay at First for another four years. When they could have invested those four years into their previous horse and probably made it to Second faster.

    I think people get hung up on fancy = high scores, but a less fancy horse ridden well can beat a fancy horse ridden by a rider who is over-horsed, but a fancy horse ridden well will mostly beat any less fancy horse. That's why it's important, IMO, to buy as fancy as you can RIDE (and afford, lol). And that differs for everyone.

  10. The problem with the word fancy also is that everyone throws it around willy nilly and incorrectly - like the word Literally, or Nonplussed or Ironic. When I was looking for a horse to buy I saw a lot of buyers describing their horse as being fancy when they weren't objectively so. And maybe that's a regional difference. I horse that is Fancy is Alabama or North Dakota might not be Florida or Virginia fancy. I watched so many trot videos trying to compare the movement of horses that my eye almost started bleeding.

  11. I am 100% with you. I measure a horse by it's heart, which is similar to rideability. Georgie was far from "fancy" but she was the safest, lovliest horse I could ever ask to ride, which meant to me she was priceless. And while my current baby has some Warmblood in her, which makes her gaits a bit more "fancy" I'll be honest. I bought her for her brain and her bone. I wanted a sensible horse with good bone. Didn't care how she moved. Don't care if we get amazing dressage scores. I will say I am excited that she is built uphill, just because it will make things so much easier. But, I'd take another appendix QH anyday. I was sad I couldn't find one in my price range.

  12. As an adult who doesn't ride as much as I used to, SAFE is so much more important than fancy, especially with my migraine and concussion history. Since I ride hunters, fancy is word that comes up a lot. BUT, when I show, I show locally and fancy is less important than when your are showing rated shows. So, is fancy important to me? Not really.

    But, in terms of fancy, I'm talking more about a good mover and a good jumper (ie: jumps a 10). Subi was actually pretty fancy for a thoroughbred when he was in shape and would go around his courses quietly (hack classes were another story... he WAS a good mover, just didn't want to be in hack classes because of OMG I'm going to DIE). So yeah. Good movers/fancy is important, but to me, safe and a good brain is way more important. I don't care how fancy something is if I can't safely and comfortably ride it. Now, you can have both, but with my funds and budget, it's way harder! Especially to find something competitive in the hunters.

  13. I agree that rideability is much more important than fanciness for low level success. However, the question is, do you want to progress beyond low levels?

    A fancy horse is often needed for the upper levels of horse sport (not every horse can hit the FEI levels no matter how rideable they are), and if you only ever ride the chill, easy to sit, less sensitive, ammy-friendly horses, how on Earth are you going to learn how to ride fancy?
    (I know some fantastic horse are fancy+rideable but also $$$$, so I am speaking here about the more normal scenario of a $$ horse that sits somewhere on a scale where the more fancy they are the less rideable)

    Kachina is somewhere in the middle of that scale, half fancy, half rideable. We absolutely do poorly at some shows because of tension but I am also glad I didn't choose a less fancy horse. Kachina is rideable enough that I am not scared or overhorsed, but fancy enough that I am getting valuable practice at sitting large gaits, channeling energy instead of suppressing it, figuring how to embrace the forward on a hot horse, fine-tuning my position and aids on a horse that responds to the smallest of changes, etc. All of that is making me a better rider. It means that it is a slower path to successfully executing low-level dressage tests right now, but I am gradually learning skills that will be needed if I ever want to progress beyond the low levels. These skills take a lot of time to develop so my take is "why not start now?"

    IMO, look at how much "fancy" you need to hit your eventual goal of level and competitiveness in your given sport, and then choose horses that will successfully teach you the tools to ride that kind of horse. Be honest about your goals though, because you're right, fancy isn't necessary for all.

    (BTW, I think fancy can be defined by a complex combination of other "dressagy" elements like energy, engagement, suspension, reach, positive tension, collection, push, expression, etc., "fancy" is just a shorter and more convenient term to use)

    1. i actually disagree very strongly with the assertion that a fancy horse is needed for the upper levels of horse sport.

      a correct moving horse who accepts the pressure of training can do grand prix. in fact, there are plenty of them out there right at this moment doing exactly that.

    2. Maybe that is a difference in how we define fancy? I don't believe fancy is a standalone property. I think it is connected to important dressage fundamentals like engagement, suspension, reach etc. In that way I think that a successfully ridden grand prix test ALWAYS looks "fancy", it is just a matter of whether your horse had the right minimum potential for fancy and you developed their fanciness because of their rideability, or whether they expressed that fanciness to begin with and you just needed to get them to channel it appropriately.

    3. I disagree with this as well. I know of many QH or Appaloosa or not fancy horses doing Grand Prix dressage. And they're good at it and correct. And also ammy-friendly lesson horses to teach those up and coming. When you do it right, so does the horse. They're helping and teaching that person to be a Grand Prix rider. As for other upper level sports, after watching 2 seasons of ERM competitions, it's nice to have a "fancy" dressage horse, but unless that 3* dressage horse is a hardcore jumper and xc machine, they're not going to place well at all. There are riders who got in the high 40s or low 50s on dressage because their horse wasn't really fancy but moved up 10+ places because their horse was a jumping machine.

    4. I believe just about any horse can do at least 2nd level dressage. But I believe that a certain threshold of both "fancy" and "rideability" is needed for a horse to get to grand prix. A super fancy horse who is a nut and can't take the pressure won't get there, but neither will a horse with a ton of try but who conformationally just doesn't have the physical ability to move the right way. JMO

    5. very true - conformation matters. and a horse who does not move correctly is not likely to be sound enough for grand prix. so yes, it's all semantics and about the definition of "fancy" -- which other commenters have also noted can be a changeable word that gets used in many different ways with many different meanings.

      i would say conformation and correctness of movement are not the same as "fancy" tho. one example on just confo (bc i will not assess the relative fanciness of a fellow blogger's horse): blogger celebrity and silver-medal-winning dressage horse Hampton is legit downhill. hasn't stopped him yet!

    6. There's a difference between capable and competitive. You won't be competitive at GP without an element of fancy but you can certainly earn your medals on a rideable, competent horse.

  14. I 100% agree with you. As an example, so many people in the reining world wanted either a horse by Gunner, or one that was "flashy". Flashy had the same elusiveness as fancy. And I was always sad because there were some wonderful bay, sorrel and plain unfancy horses that were rideable and had talent but were overlooked for "flashy" (i.e. eye-catching/lots of white). And I agree. I think Charlie could win at dressage. Even the ERM competitions some horses aren't "fancy" but they have extremely correct tests, and the judges reward that.
    Plus, I know I can't ride what people would call fancy. Amber is a super flat mover compared to those, but on the bouncy side for a QH. But her big trot throws me out of the saddle. I can barely ride it unless I have ultra sticky pants and my saddle is a little tacky lol. I have to admit I throw around the word fancy, but it's usually more in regards to a particular horse's fancy, not a unit of measure. Like I think Whisper is a cute, fancy mover. Do most judges? Probably not. They'd think her too fast for WP at those shows. So mine is more subjective.
    And I agree also that amateurs put too much stock in looking for a "fancy" horse. And usually, I don't think they can even ride that fancy. It's a lose-lose for both rider and horse. I think those rideable ones can actually go farther at times than the "fancy" ones. As you said for Isabel, she could go huge or lose it (of course, not knocking Isabel!). With a more rideable horse you can get more consistency out of them and slowly bring up scores. They may never score in the 20s (for low levels), but consistent low 30s are better than 20s one day and a 40 the next. Just my thoughts :).
    GREAT topic though! Thanks for posting!

  15. I actually love this post so much. I always believed that the "fancy" horses were the ones who won in dressage. And by fancy, I mean those with natural suspension in their gaits and ability to cover ground - suspension, ability to collect, etc. A friend of mine has taken a "plain" gelding and turned him into a 2nd level super star. He is a Appendix just like Annie and while not completely the "norm" for Dressage, he ROCKS it. His last 2nd level freestyle he kicked out a 72%. They are currently schooling 3rd level movements and will be debuting it next show season!

    The fancy toe-flicking is nice, but you are so right about the rideability portion of it. I've seen Warmbloods with killer movement and natural balance, but when it comes down to it, any breed can be competitive in any ring. They may not be the "norm", but they can still be fierce competitors.

    I follow a girl on Instagram who does grand prix dressage with her POA and he ROCKS it. It's super cool to see how talented these horses are - with our without the "fancy" connotation attached to them.

    1. Umm...what's her name on instagram? I want to follow and FEI POA! :)

  16. I have a lot of feelings about this post. So many feelings that this is my third attempt at responding. I've rewritten because I don't want my agreement with the post to come across as fancy-hatin'.
    I agree that what most ammys need is a rideable, trainable, athletic-enough mount. I also agree that being rideable and being *fancy* aren't mutually exclusive.
    I guess - what I wish I could tell ammy riders preoccupied with fancy (and what I also wish I could tell my younger self), is that being comfortable with the horse your riding is MOST important. If you're comfortable riding a fancy horse then okay - more power (and ribbons) to you.
    It took me a long time to learn not to value height and exaggerated floaty movement above all else. First off, I'm short and have very short legs, so why I ever wound up with a 16.3 hand horse is beyond me and secondly, I have a hell of a time actually riding giant, floaty, athletic beasties. I find it significantly easier and more enjoyable to ride smaller horses, who aren't super hot (I'm already on the high-strung side of the spectrum, I don't need my horse to be). So yeh... I've gone off on a tangent.

  17. I've been thinking about this a lot over the last week in the wake of my very first show with Scout. I'm in a similar boat as you (at least from what I can tell). I do think that dressage judges do award "fanciness" more points, which may seem like a blanket statement, but ultimately I think that being accurate and being able to ride your horse is more important to me. My goals are truly lower level and I'm just psyched to have a horse that I LOVE riding, that I feel safe on, that shows up to work and presents a nice picture. I sold Nolan because he was that fancy, energetic, show stopper -- and despite being only 15.2 I barely had to advertise him to move him on. I knew right away that despite how fancy he was, he wasn't what I wanted in my personal horse. At the end of the day though, I try to think about the fact that I am competing against myself, and whatever plays out in the scoring is purely subjective in the end. I can control how my horse performs on a given day, but I cannot control what a judge may like:)

  18. Yaaaassss! Rideability over fancy any day!

  19. Zipping up my flame suit 😂

    Yes I absolutely agree rideability is more important then fancy (which is totally a unit of measurement 😂). But, as long as the fancy horse is rideable... All I mean to say is that board, shoes, vet, lessons- it costs just as much to take care of a nice looking horse that's a nice mover (my loose definition of fancy) as an unfortunate looking horse that's a below average mover.

    I don't think there is anything wrong with wanting the fanciest horse you can get that suits you. On the other hand, I certainly wouldn't waste my money on fancier then I could handle, at which point I wouldn't be enjoying it anymore, which is dumb because horses are so expensive lol!

    It soothes my adult ammy soul when paying my many horse related bills to get to own my version of fancy. One of my vets (because Rio needs many) was once at the barn for another horse and saw me changing his bandages in the crossties. He came over, laughed a little, and said ,"At least he's really good looking!" I couldn't agree more 😄.

    <3 Kelly @ HunkyHanoverian

  20. I hear and use the term fancy a lot... maybe it's because I show in hunters which is essentially a beauty pageant? Regardless though, I don't think for many DIY or semi-DIY adult amateurs, having a really fancy horse makes that much sense. Sure, I might be able to ride said fancy horse on the flat (if it's not too quirky... which... it very well might be) but could I jump it? Uhm... probably not. Which then, for me, totally negates the point of having a fancy horse at all.


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