Style or Substance?

I recently spent a weekend in Burbank, California at the inaugural West Coast edition of the College Preparatory Invitational Horse Show and, while the weather wasn’t ideal (seriously – 59 degrees? In the valley? In March? With rain?!), the students were great fun to watch and I saw some terrific riding. In fact, what really stood out about these riders is that, unlike many of their eastern counterparts, there weren’t a lot of riders with IEA experience under their belts so the horse draw component was a new challenge for them – a challenge they undertook beautifully and with great attitudes even (and especially!) if they drew horses who either weren’t actual horses (there were some ponies in the mix) or who were tired/stiff/sore/didn’t feel like playing that day.

And that’s the foundation of intercollegiate equestrian competition in a nutshell.

I often encounter students who express a strong desire to ride on an intercollegiate equestrian team but state with firm conviction that they simply must go to a school with good school horses. Seems reasonable, right? The problem is that very often a student’s definition of a “good school horse” conflicts with reality – more specifically, a student wishes to ride only A-show quality stock with automatic lead changes, soft mouths, perfect manners, and the ability to carry next year’s Maclay winner to victory – or, you know, HH Azur. Whichever.

But here’s the thing, students – intercollegiate riding programs are fueled by horse donations and every horse donated to a program arrives there for a reason. Is that a negative thing? Not at all – the most common reasons people donate horses to intercollegiate programs are straightforward. Perhaps someone purchased a young horse and needs a home for a horse who has slowed a bit (a jumper who needs to ease into the three foot range, a dressage horse with some arthritis who shouldn’t do any more canter pirouettes but can easily do Third Level work, etc.). Or maybe a student has shelved their riding career for college/graduate school/a job and has a horse in need of a job.

Sometimes donated horses have quirks that make them unsaleable on the open market but have both the talent and strong competition records that give them a high tax write off value for the donor. I knew a school horse who found his way into a college program because his x-rays were terrible and no one would buy him but who never took a lame step in the seven years the college owned him. (He was also a favorite draw for everyone in his IHSA region.) I also knew some school horses who couldn’t handle the stress of traveling to competitions every weekend but were rockstars if they never set foot on a trailer. (Like I said – quirky.) One program I know inherited a pricey imported jumper who went inexplicably blind in one eye, rendering him unsafe over fences but making him a great fit for teaching students how to package a big canter stride.

And that’s just it – each horse has something valuable to teach to any rider. Isn’t that the point of riding in college – to learn to ride better than you did in high school?

There’s an older blog posting from The Chronicle of the Horse that made the rounds again for #ThrowbackThursday last week and still rings true. I encourage you to follow the link and read it in its entirety, but the gist is that riders who want to take their sport to the next level (whatever level that may be) need to ask themselves whether they want to belong at the next level or whether they want to look like they belong at the next level, because there’s a clear difference between the two. The former is the one whose sole goal is to continue to improve his or her skills and be a better rider (and horseman) every single day and the latter is the one who worries what people will think if their polo wraps clash with their saddle pad, their trailer isn’t the latest model, and their horse isn’t the most fashionable bloodline on the market.

In California, I saw a student ride a mustang in a flat class with such a strong lower leg and beautifully giving hand that the horse never looked uncertain or out of balance. It got a little forward a few times and once broke out of the canter for a few strides, but at the end of the class, the judge pinned her first over the other riders – one of whom had the good fortune to draw a fancy warmblood who had just won a big children’s hunter class at Thermal the previous weekend.

Which rider do you think the college coaches were more interested in at the end of the day?

So students, as you begin to think about what you want the next phase of your riding career to look like – whether you decide to pursue an intercollegiate team experience through the IHSA or NCEA or apply yourself to becoming a professional someday by majoring in an equine-related field or even just want to continue your riding education during your college years – ask yourself what truly means the most to you – do you want to learn about horsemanship through a series of varied experiences (which will probably include riding horses that aren’t the easiest or most talented) or do you just want to look good sitting up there?

Style or substance; those are the choices.

A riding mentor of mine constantly intones that if someone can ride a difficult/untalented/uneducated horse well, then riding a fancy, well-trained horse is a piece of cake. The real work – and real reward – comes from putting the pieces together when they don’t seem like they necessarily fit and becoming adept at finding solutions for each challenge. (Fun fact: Your overall college education is the same way.)

(Need help finding the right substance for your next four years? Contact me or pick up a copy of my book to guide your search.)



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