People holding up the NCHA futurity cup an award that comes with great prestige
While dollars and cents are quantitative, prestige is qualitative, which means it is subjective. Credit: Megan Parks

What’s Prestige Worth?

Fame. Honor. Esteem. Influence. Authority. No matter how you describe it, prestige is all about being in a position of prominence.

Prestige is defined as “a widespread respect and admiration felt for someone or something on the basis of a perception of their achievements or quality.” In the Western performance horse industry, that used to translate into championships. A horse and/or rider gained prestige for making sharp runs, marking high scores and winning significant titles. It’s not that money was an afterthought, but the payout still seemed secondary to the glory.

Today, it often feels like the almighty dollar has replaced those benchmarks for prestige as the only indicator of stature. I’ve heard many veteran breeders talk about the number of quality horses whose bloodlines have disappeared because their records weren’t impressive enough in a sale catalog. That black-and-white page didn’t show the temperament, conformation and athleticism that made those individuals unique. Buyers never got to photos or videos because the page didn’t have a “wow factor.” And so, they say, we’ve continued to breed ourselves into a box for fear of taking a chance.

To me, this situation is an example of the cliché “chicken and egg” scenario. Shows like the main futurity in each discipline deserved the utmost respect; therefore, those events were rewarded with larger payouts when the added money became available. It was a logical progression, but it is also understandable how, over time, the money has, in many ways, replaced the sheer honor of the title.

I recently attended a meeting about the Fédération Equestre Internationale’s (FEI) decision to terminate its cooperation agreement with the National Reining Horse Association (NRHA). During talk about the FEI’s rating system for added-money events, the general topic of prestige came up. Major industry players — from trainers to owners and breeders — chimed in to admit there was a disconnect between money and prestige, especially with World titles.

Even though this specific example refers to reining, I have seen similar developments across the Western performance horse industry in various ways. The more I thought about it after the FEI meeting, the more I pondered this complicated question — What is prestige worth?

While dollars and cents are quantitative, prestige is qualitative, which means it is subjective. How much weight we place on winning a certain title, regardless of how much money it pays, is likely varied from person to person. My dad would probably say you can’t pay training bills with prestige, but at the same time, an event without prestige tends to lose popularity. As the entries go down, so too does the purse. Ipso facto, prestige and payout go hand-in-hand.

The National Reined Cow Horse Association determines its year-end champions by points. Conversely, the NRHA and the National Cutting Horse Association rank their World champions by money won. In cutting, the 2018 Open and Non-Pro year-end winners cleared six figures, but an average of the lower levels’ World title holders stands at around $35,000. A cursory glance at the NRHA’s 2018 year-end standings is even more profound. The Open World Champion banked $20,952. The Non-Pro World Champion earned $14,443. Both reached their winning total in Europe, where more money is often added to ancillary classes than in the United States.

If there are two trains of thought — one that equates money earned to prestige and the other that believes money follows prestige — how can either conclude that these organizations’ own World titles are prestigious? And, what does a lack of stature for these older horses that achieve such greatness mean for the value of our equine partners when they leave the limited-age arena?

Personally, I believe year-end titles are hard-earned and deserve to be celebrated. I also think major futurity and derby winners deserve to be celebrated. Some would say there just isn’t enough money to go around so the prestige of a World or National title is reward enough. This begs the question again … What is prestige worth?

This article was originally published in the March 15, 2019, issue of QHN