I caught an interview the other morning with Carli Lloyd that followed up on the success of the U.S. women’s soccer team at the World Cup and her own individual success with her scoring hattrick and receipt of the Golden Ball Trophy. She said something that struck me as particularly poignant when she explained that she needs to put everything into soccer right now because she has a limited time in which to pursue her playing career; “I’m not exactly going to be playing when I’m 50,” she said.
Lloyd is 32 and has played soccer for 27 years. She may continue through the Rio Olympics but hasn’t officially made the decision. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that running up and down the soccer pitch, taking tackles, falls, and headers takes its toll on the body. The sport of soccer indeed favors the young.
In near total contrast, the equestrian disciplines usually lean towards older riders when it comes time to assemble our international teams (with Reed Kessler, of course, proving a notable exception). And to be honest, that’s one of the really great things about riding – just as men and women compete on equal footing across all disciplines, there isn’t much age bias either; the horse is the great equalizer on all fronts. In fact, if you look at the order of go for an international Grand Prix jumping class, the rider ages might range from Ireland’s new phenom Bertram Allen (aged 19) to 68 year old “Captain Canada,” Ian Millar and everything in between.
Yet every now and then, I receive calls from parents or fellow educational consultants who want my input on high school riders who are “Olympic-track” right this minute and I typically have to pause the conversation to inquire about that particular person’s definition of the term. After all, the equestrian disciplines don’t have the same sort of linear Olympic feeder programs that can be found in other sports; sure, we have events like the NAJYRC and ASPCA Maclay that are designed to produce some of our future USET members and a host of other youth-focused competitions are available through breed organizations, the Pony Club, and even 4-H. But unlike an Olympic-track archer I once worked with who had to attend mandatory evaluation camps in order to see coaches and maintain her status during her college years, riders can follow a nonlinear path and still make it to the medal podium. (Be honest – had you ever heard of Laura Graves before she made the WEG team for dressage last year?)
In the end, I generally find that the parent or counselor uses the term “Olympic-track” to define a young equestrian who aspires to ride on the Olympic team one day. That makes sense and I know many young riders share this dream – a good thing, because we need a strong pipeline of talented equestrians to help build our future U.S. Equestrian Team roster – but I confess to slight concern over the intensity of focus for riders so young. In particular after the enlightening articles in the recent youth-focused issue of The Chronicle of the Horse that examined the pressures already facing junior riders before they age out and the number of students I’ve seen burn out of the sport as their college years approach, I wonder if perhaps it isn’t healthier to focus on the big picture rather than quick success. I don’t know about you, readers, but I can’t think of a single equestrian whose career dried up because they missed the cut for a team at the age of 18 or 25 or even 30 (the peak Olympic years for athletes in some other sports). In contrast, I can list riders who came into their first major successes in what could best be described as “middle age.” And unlike the challenges faced by former Olympic athletes like skier Hannah Kearney who spent so much time focused on her sport that she had a giant gap in her resume (and her life!) when she retired at 28, equestrians often have plentiful opportunities as coaches, clinicians, and administrators in the equine industry after they hang up their spurs. (Look at David O’Conner or even the (in)famous George Morris – they might not actively compete anymore, but you can’t say they don’t still influence the industry in a big way.)
As you can imagine, often a young equestrian’s goals in the saddle also strongly influence the type of conversation I have with them regarding how much (or little) of a role riding will play during their college years. Some will spend freshman year following the indoor horse show circuit to milk their junior status to its last drop while others aim for the NAJYRC and will still require the ability to train at a high level because they’ll be Young Riders almost until graduation. And still others will have dreams that are less immediate – perhaps they have a young horse who requires time and patience to bring along to a top level (Laura Graves purchased Verdades as a weanling and worked as a cosmetologist before they were ready to take the world stage) or they don’t have the financial means to pursue top competition or even own a horse and need to catch ride where they can.
Regardless of your situation, however, the fact that the horse is the great equalizer in equestrian sport means that you won’t miss your chance at Olympic glory because you choose to go to college but nor will your college equestrian career necessarily serve as a logical stepping stone to the U.S. team (though it did work for Olympian Beezie Madden…) In the end, you need to make the right decision for your riding career and for your life and choose the path that makes the most sense for you both in the present and for the future you see for yourself. Once you’ve made that decision, your own determination, the horse, and a little bit of good old-fashioned luck will take care of the rest.