Trying Times

I have no idea how it got to be August already, but the other day I glanced at my calendar and realized that very soon, thousands of college freshman will pack their belongings into the family minivan and make the trek to their chosen campus for the start of their new educational journey.

Yep.  It’s that time of year, people.  The new semester beckons!

…which means it’s also nearing the time when many intercollegiate equestrian teams from the East Coast to the West will hold tryouts to assess newcomers and re-establish relationships with returning veterans.  This isn’t the case for all teams, mind you, as some will forego tryouts for upperclassmen and others will hold tryouts well before the first week of the semester, but in many instances, if you’re a first-year equestrian team hopeful for an IHSA or IDA team, you’ll need to hit the ground running (er… riding) soon after you arrive on campus.

Yikes!  How can I prepare, Randi?

It goes without saying that you should follow all pre-tryout instructions to the letter – which means that if the coach requests everyone show up in their horse show attire, you pull your coat out of its dry cleaning bag, polish your boots, and make sure your hairnet is tucked in properly before you get on the horse.  Likewise, be on time to the tryout (which means early!) and, if you’re delayed for a reason beyond your control (a class that runs late, a car accident that blocks your way to the barn, etc.), you communicate that to the coach or team captain in a timely and polite fashion.  You also need to pack your very best attitude when you head to the barn that day – be friendly to everyone (especially the horses and their handlers – both of whom will provide opinions on your candidacy) and take mistakes in stride without getting flustered.  And that, readers, brings us to the real secret of the intercollegiate team riding team tryout:

The coaches all secretly hope you’ll make mistakes (and some may even set you up to do just that).

Wait – what?!

It’s true.  While coaches love when a really talented rider comes in and pulls off a flawless tryout ride on a notably difficult school horse, that sort of perfect scenario doesn’t clearly demonstrate your attitude as a rider, your coachability, or your resilience.  Sure you possess “the look” they like; sure you got your leads and distances and made a horse who’s often compared to a piece of plywood look like a rubber band – but what will happen the first time you draw a quirky horse who pushes all of your buttons at a meet?  What happens when the stars don’t align and everything goes wrong?  How do you react when you miss a distance?  How quickly do you recover from a flubbed canter depart or stumbling downward transition to walk?  How often do you make the same mistake before you correct yourself?

These are questions coaches keep in their minds when they assess new riders.  A coach doesn’t have to be a genius to guess how you’ll react when things go well (and you probably already sent a recruiting video showing just that).  But the real difference between a great candidate for the team and someone who will be cut is in the way you address adversity – a crucial part of your character makeup that will influence not only that coach’s ability to work with you but also how well you work with the already established team.  Remember, traditional horse shows are all about how well you do in the moment, how correct your equitation is, and how you and your horse function as a team, but once you transition to the college format, the teammates you travel with are of the human variety and the skills you need will be different.  Coaches want to know early on how smooth your transition will be.

What do they look for?

  • A sense of humor.  No joke.  The ability to laugh at yourself when you accidentally count an extra stride (or leave one out!) or make another trivial mistake during your tryout demonstrates that, while you take the sport seriously, you also realize that it isn’t a life and death situation.  Your coach and teammates will spend many hours with you over the course of the season and they would rather spend the time laughing if they can.
  • A desire to succeed.  While you’re laughing at your one-time mistake, however, it’s equally important to maintain focus and quickly assess the situation so that the same mistake doesn’t repeat itself again a moment later.  After all, everyone makes mistakes now and then and coaches understand that.  But if you’re still laughing at the same mistake on your third attempt at a right lead canter depart and haven’t changed anything about the way you’re riding the horse to try to avert it, it’s not funny anymore.  In fact, you’re now demonstrating that you don’t take anything – not the sport, not your own ability to get the job done, and not winning – seriously.
  • The ability to follow directions.  It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  Yet you’d be surprised at the number of students who get so nervous at tryouts that they miss what the coach or another instructor tells them and either fail to complete a task or miss valuable tips that can help improve their success with the horse they’re on or with the exercise they’re charged with completing.  Coaches aren’t just at the tryout to pick riders, they’re also there to coach – so take advantage of any and all helpful suggestions they offer!
  • Approachability.  Remember, it’s a team sport and the average size of an IHSA team is around 25 or 30 riders and IDA teams are usually much smaller, so coaches need to know that you’re friendly and get along with a variety of people.  At tryouts, demonstrating this facet of your character is as simple as talking with the people around you and offering to help where it’s needed.  If it’s not your turn to ride, can you help someone else adjust their stirrups or tighten a girth?  Does a jump need to be moved or put back up?  Can you begin a conversation with the really shy freshman sitting off to the side to make them feel included?  Acting like a useful member of the team is one of the surest ways to be chosen to become one.

Making the leap from your familiar equestrian career back home to the new challenges and requirements of the life of an intercollegiate rider can be nerve-wracking at first, but don’t forget that the tryout is designed to be an indication of not only your abilities in the saddle, but how you’ll be as a part of the team both in and out of the saddle.  Keep an eye on the bigger picture, don’t forget to smile, and have a great ride!

(Need help selecting a college where you can continue your riding career after high school?  Contact me or pick up a copy of my book today!)

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