The Right Speed

I think most trainers, riding instructors, and even boarding stable owners will tell you that one of their worst nightmares (aside from barn fires and other tragedies) is the moment they get a call from the client who went horse shopping for one type of horse…

…and purchased something completely different.

Granted, sometimes it’s a good thing – for example, in the case of a client who has a lot of experience finds a younger prospect than he or she originally sought that ticks off every box on the shopping checklist except for “7-9 years old.”  That the client comes home with a 4 year old and puts it into training with a professional or has the knowledge to bring the horse along slowly under careful supervision is different than the original plan but will probably turn out fine in the end.

Or perhaps a less experienced client thought that a good schoolmaster was out of his or her budget and yet somehow stumbles across a great deal on something farther along in its training and has been marked down to accommodate a young rider going off to college, a sudden job change, or divorce.  Suddenly, that rider is able to make a great purchase on exactly the type of horse he or she needs.

But then there’s the other type of unsupervised, not-trainer-approved purchase.  Horse people of all stripes know to what I refer – the moment that the rider who can’t sit the trot on a calm Quarter Horse with no suspension purchases an exuberant warmblood whose trot makes Valegro’s look earthbound.  Or the young rider who has only taken lessons for a few years and jumps crossrails whose parents splurge on a fancy horse who competed in last year’s Maclay finals and has so many buttons to push that it’s a wonder he doesn’t make cappuccino.

Are these horse purchases inherently bad?  Of course not.  Typically, such purchases are made in the most well meaning of ways – that is, people buy the very best horse they can afford.  After all, trainers encourage students to do that when they commit themselves to the sport, right?

But just because you can buy the horse doesn’t mean that you should buy the horse.

I’m driving to a specific point here, readers, so bear with me.  I think we can agree that having the financial means and connections to buy the winner of last weekend’s big hunter derby is a wonderful, intoxicating feeling.  Who wouldn’t want to own such a gorgeous and talented animal?  In his handy round, he never put a foot wrong and his rider seemed only to have to think about what came next before the horse executed it perfectly – why wouldn’t you want to put yourself in that rider’s place?

But trainers as a group would sleep better at night if their clients would think very specifically about themselves as riders before they do so.

Think about yourself:  What is your history in the saddle?  How would you describe your lifestyle in relation to your horses (e.g. how many times per week do you get to the barn to ride?  How many lessons do you take?)  What fence heights do you school and what heights do you show over?  Are you competing in horse shows at present or is showing a goal that’s still in your future?

Moreover, what type of horse are you riding right now?  What type of horse suits you in terms of size and temperament?  If the horse you ride now is the equine equivalent of a 1998 Honda Civic (serviceable but still handles well), then maybe the hunter derby horse (a brand new Audi TT sports car) would be a big step, but a logical one.  If you’re currently riding what equates to a 1990 Chevy Silverado (a draft cross with the slowest acceleration on the planet), then switching to the TT makes no sense until you upgrade to something a little closer to that Honda Civic (perhaps a 2005 Civic – or, you know, a warmblood with a Thoroughbred influence to give it some go).  And since riding is more of a progression than driving a car, it’s largely a question of safety.

I said earlier that I was driving to a point and here it is:

Searching for appropriate colleges is a lot like shopping for an appropriate horse.  There are a lot of great schools out there for you to apply to.  I would even argue that some of them are the equivalent of that Audi TT while others are closer to the reliable Honda Civic.  You can apply to all of them if you really want to – the fancy ones that everyone has heard of, the “good state schools” that your parents favor because of their reasonable in-state tuition, and even the “boring” 1990 Chevy Silverado equivalent of college:  the trusty neighborhood community college around the corner from your house.

In short, you can apply to any school that you want to.  You might even get admitted to all of the schools you apply to – but just like buying that fancy horse, you need to remember that, just because a college accepts you doesn’t mean you have to enroll.

Now, unlike a horse that could be too spirited, too young, or too sensitive for your abilities or temperament, the college won’t throw you into the jump wing or take off for the hills at the first sight of a plastic bag.  But highly ranked colleges – the Audi TT/hunter derby champions of higher education, if you will – don’t obtain those rankings solely through their competitive admission standards and nationally-recognized academic programs.  They obtain – and keep! – their rankings by admitting students who first compete to get in and then continue to compete to achieve their goals once they’re enrolled.

That’s right, the competition doesn’t end the day you get that letter of acceptance.  It’s just getting started.

At many colleges, students exist in a four-year pressure cooker of academic achievement – the pressure to maintain a certain GPA, the stress of conducting new and innovative research at the undergraduate level, and the social challenges of making it look like you’re doing everything in and out of the classroom with the greatest of (stress-free) ease.  Summers aren’t for relaxing, either – they’re for getting ahead of your classmates by landing the best internship you can or changing the world through a volunteer effort or research project.

For a student with lofty career ambitions and an aggressive temperament, a competitive environment like the one I’ve just described might be just the ticket to learning to thrive at a fast, pressurized pace.  (This is also the type of rider who usually pairs with the equine version of the Audi TT I described earlier.)

But what if you don’t know what you want to do after college and you’d like a slower-paced environment in which to figure it out?

If that’s the case, you’ll need to put some other schools on your list – more Honda Civics, less Audis, if you will.  Find a great liberal arts college that will encourage you to take a variety of classes before you settle on a major and where you can ride on the equestrian team, participate in intramural sports on campus, and join a fraternity or sorority to fill your out of class hours.  Or go to a large public university with a vibrant campus where you can go to classes in an area of interest, meet new people every day, and cheer for the nationally-ranked football team on the weekends.

In short, just as when you go horse shopping, you need to find the school that’s the right speed for you.

As you visit campuses and meet faculty and students and staff members, ask questions that will help you to gauge the personality of a campus – ask students how much homework they do on an average night, ask what happens on weekends and during the summers, and see if you can see yourself in that particular environment.  Are you ready to be a competitor in every aspect of your academic life or do you want more time to build your skills and knowledge?

Ultimately, you’re the only one who can answer that question for yourself – so even when the admission office sends you that formal acceptance letter and invites you to join them, the choice is still yours as to whether or not you will attend.  If they’re your right speed, then you’re well on your way.

(Need help discerning the Honda Civics from the Audi TTs?  Contact me or pick up a copy of my book to help guide your search.)

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