Chemistry Lessons

I’ve long straddled the dividing line between the horse world and the higher educational world and, as such, have frequently had to devise analogies and metaphors in order to “translate” equestrian sport into decidedly “non-horsey” terms for outsiders.  (Remind me one of these days to blog about a particularly ingenious analogy I came up with to put intercollegiate equestrian language into football terms for two assistant coaches – who later became rabid equestrian fans.)

Recently, I’m having more and more conversations with parents and students about what (exactly) the meaning of school “fit” is – how is it defined, how one recognizes when it’s right, etc. – and it wasn’t until I took my gelding out for a snowy hack that the appropriate “horse-to-higher-ed” analogy for college fit sprang to mind:

It’s all chemistry.

No, I’m not talking about chemistry that’s taught in labs or the organic version of the subject that pre-med and pre-vet students are required to survive as undergraduates.  Instead, I’m talking about that intangible, seemingly magical chemistry that occurs when something is just right.  For horse people, it’s that odd, unexplainable moment when  you just know that the horse you’re sitting on is “The One.”  Trainers may tell you that you were crazy for purchasing him or her (I have more than one friend who bought a horse that actually dumped them during their trial ride!) and family members question your sanity at various points during your journey (“You bought a horse from California/Texas/Massachusetts/Germany/England/Etc?!  The local riding stable sells horses all the time – why couldn’t you just buy one there?”) but something tells you to buy that particular horse and afterward you can’t even remember what riding was like before.

Searching for a college is like that:  Eventually, you just know that you’ve found the right school.

Ricochet is the horse I knew was "The One."
Ricochet is the horse I knew was “The One.”

Of course research is involved; just like evaluating a sales prospect as a potential riding partner, you have to visit schools and talk with their faculty, staff and students and invest in getting to know them inside and out.  But there comes a point after all of the research (or all of the trial rides) when you either know that it’s going to work or that it won’t.  When I went to purchase Ricochet, my current competition mount, I knew before I ever sat on him that he would be coming home with me; the moment his snip-nosed face appeared over the top of his open half-door and our eyes locked, I just knew he was my horse.  The same thing happened when I chose my college; after several visits to multiple campuses, I left the school that would become my alma mater and told my parents, “That’s where I want to go in the fall.”

In both cases, the chemistry that I felt was right on target; Rico has been my most successful horse to date (maybe the best horse of my riding career!) and I still treasure the four years that I spent at my alma mater.  Never once did I think of transferring.

But just because the chemistry works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for someone else.

My best friend and I ended up attending two small, liberal arts colleges in Michigan – which wasn’t a surprise to those who knew us because we were both cut out for that type of education.  But the reason that we didn’t attend the same small, liberal arts college came down to – you guessed it! – chemistry.  The on-campus personality at my school suited me perfectly and she had the same experience at her school; had we elected to attend college together, one of us would have been instantly miserable.

Horses are the same way.  Those in the dressage world are particularly aware of the notion of chemistry, thanks to the whirlwind of discussion that began the moment that the famed Totilas was sold to Germany after setting the world freestyle record at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in 2010.  The horse hasn’t realized the same type of competition results since – partly due to injuries, which can happen to any horse – but also because something just hasn’t clicked for him with his new rider.  Lately, more and more of the discussion surrounding this turn of events has centered on the idea of chemistry between horse and rider.  Totilas and Dutch rider Edward Gal were perfectly matched, it seems, whereas the horse does not seem work as well with German rider Matthias Rath.

Totilas and Edward Gal were an unbeatable combination.  (Here they are at the World Equestrian Games, 2010.)
Totilas and Edward Gal were an unbeatable combination. (Here they are at the World Equestrian Games, 2010.)

So seriously are professional horsemen and women taking these discussions of chemistry that recent double Olympic gold medalist Valegro, whom it was widely rumored would be sold very quickly following the Games, has seen limited interest from new buyers.  (An argument can certainly also be made that this is due to (A) his high price tag and (B) the fact that 2013 is not a World Equestrian Games or Olympic year, so riders have a bit of time to research and try new mounts – much like high school sophomores who have only begun to investigate colleges.)  But most discussions surrounding Valegro and other top international horses on the market come back to the idea of a special chemistry that exist between a particular horse and a particular rider and that lead them to great success.

Ravel was a second string horse in Edward Gal's barn - but he took American rider Steffen Peters to an individual medal at the 2010 WEG.
Ravel was a second string horse in Edward Gal’s barn – but he took American rider Steffen Peters to an individual medal at the 2010 WEG.

Totilas and Valegro aren’t the only examples either.  It’s less widely known that, when Edward Gal was first beginning to compete Totilas, he had a second Grand Prix horse in his stable that he had found moderate success with but that wasn’t a superstar for him like Totilas proved to be.  That horse was a bay Dutch Warmblood named Ravel, who later sold to Akiko Yamazaki for Steffen Peters to ride on the United States Equestrian Team – and dressage fans worldwide know of the success that pair found, both at Aachen in Germany and at the 2010 World Equestrian Games.  Want a few others?  Olympic bronze medalist Laura Bechtolsheimer ended up with her Olympic partner Mistral Hojris only after he’d run away with many other potential riders during their tryout; Ian Millar of Canada purchased the legendary Big Ben after just 20 minutes, even though other trainers had passed him up; Catherine Haddad-Staller had to work through all of her now-deceased Cadillac’s dangerous spooking to turn him into an international competitor; and, perhaps most famously of all, Harry de Leyer ended up keeping the famous jumper Snowman after the horse repeatedly returned to de Leyer’s farm after being sold, jumping fences and crossing fields to get back to the place he had declared to be his home.

Edward Gal on his #1 horse Totilas at the 2010 World Equestrian Games while Steffen Peters rides Gal's former mount Ravel to the bronze medal for the United States.
Edward Gal on his #1 horse Totilas at the 2010 World Equestrian Games while Steffen Peters rode Gal’s former mount Ravel to the bronze medal for the United States.

So how should chemistry play a role in your college search?

Just like purchasing a horse, your college education is an investment.  In fact, it’s a far more substantial investment – and therefore requires even more thorough research than pedigrees and performance records.  As such, chemistry should only come into play after you’ve evaluated the academic offerings at the school, applied and been admitted, and made sure that the school’s price tag will be financially feasible for your family.  (After all, you can’t buy a horse from someone if you don’t have the funds – no matter how well you and that horse hit it off.)  In other words, chemistry should influence your final decision, not your initial one.  So be sure to begin your search with a larger list of schools and do thorough research as you add and subtract schools based on their merits and other (logic-based) important factors (programs available, distance from home, cost, etc.) and when you’re down to the final two or three schools, then let your heart decide.

Most of all, enjoy the search itself!  (It may not be as fun at the outset as horse shopping, but both endeavors put you in the driver’s seat because it’s a buyer’s market these days.)  And if you need help to get started, contact me!

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