I seem to encounter a lot of students who seem to think I landed on this planet as a fully-formed FEI rider with my very own fully-formed (and fancy!) FEI horse. I likewise encounter a lot of the same students who seem to believe this about the college coaches they’re contacting, that they were born atop a horse knowing exactly how to ride it over a four foot oxer or slide it into a perfect stop. I suspect they also believe we were born into families of equine riding royalty – the Davidsons, the McQuays, the Chapots of the world. Thus, in their minds, when they reach out to contact me or contact these coaches, they’re reaching out to people whom they need to impress if they’re going to be successful in the recruiting process.
I’m going to stop that train of thought for you right now, kids, and share a little (not-so) secret with you: We all started somewhere – and usually that somewhere was the bottom.
My first “dressage” horse (who is, as I type, standing in my parents’ pasture at the ripe old age of 27) was a 15.2 hand black overo Paint mare who had the unfortunate distinction of having withers a half inch shorter than her hip and a back that was just this much too long to be proportionate. I bought her with a (fully permitted by my parents) skim off the top of my college fund when she was a yearling and I was 11 and I did everything on her in addition to dressage. We did western events, jumping, a LOT of trail riding, and I even remember running the Indiana flag race on her one time. (Point of order: Magic has never been known for her speed.) But thanks to some wonderful, classic dressage training from open-minded instructors, we were able to school very credibly (and correctly!) up to Second Level before I graduated to another Quarter Horse (purchased inexpensively) and eventually my first warmbloods – a castoff Holsteiner jumper and a semi-retired PSG school horse who everyone thought was done but taught me upper level movements from the age of 19 until he was 22. (The PSG horse I got for free, by the way – my hard work impressed a trainer who deemed me worth of him.)
Summary: I paid a lot of dues before I found my way to fancy – but very few of those dues were monetary.
And that’s an important note I want to emphasize here, readers: Like a lot of young riders, my junior years were pretty tight financially. I did have the privilege of living on 80 acres of Midwest farmland with a small barn and paddocks – a huge cost savings for my parents when it came to horse-keeping – but when it came to attending bigger shows and pursuing things like the NAJYRC, there was no spare cash to invest. All of my shows until college were of the open and 4H variety (where you could pay $20 and ride in as many classes as you wanted to – a steal!).
What my parents did have the money for, however – and this is important for student and parent readers alike – were lessons. LOTS of lessons. And books. And (at that time) VHS tapes of top riders. I devoured all of it. I learned to braid a mane from a book; learned the difference between piaffe and passage from watching the Grand Prix tests at the Atlanta Olympics over and over (and over!) again; learned the warmblood bloodlines from a stallion service video; and learned the history of other horse breeds from a book that showed up randomly in a friend’s garage sale.
There’s an editorial piece by eventer Jon Holling in the June 19 and 26 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse about what it takes to become a professional these days. One piece of advice he offers is this: “If you are under the age of 30 and you are the best rider/trainer/teacher around, you need to move someplace else.”
I’d like to take his idea and build on it a little bit, so if you’re a high school student worried that you aren’t good enough for college because you’re riding in your backyard right now – or conversely, perhaps you’re the reigning county fair/4H champion for your county/state and think you’re at the top of the world with no room for improvement, I have the same advice for both of you:
First, go get the Chronicle and read Jon’s piece right now. (I’ll wait.)
Second, GET EDUCATED.
There’s a lot of money floating around the horse world, readers. (You probably already know this.) And by that token, you also already know that if you have the money for it, you can show every single weekend in various locations aboard various horses year-round. But for those stuck at home on the very best horse they can afford, plugging away day after day, you have every single thing at your fingertips that you need to level the playing field when it comes to riding in college and/or working in the horse industry. It isn’t a quick fix and it’s going to be frustrating at times, but if you want to be the best college riding candidate and/or best future equine professional you can be, use education to level the playing field. Sure, everyone would rather buy their way in, but money aside, if you want it as badly as students often tell me they do, this is your chance to prove it – not only to me, but to yourself.
To get started:
Take lessons with every single trainer who comes your way. Be a sponge and soak everything in. Learn what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t stick with one discipline either; find things from different disciplines that you can use to make yourself a stronger all-around horseman or woman. And don’t stop at just your own lessons – observe every other lesson you can and train your eye to quickly recognize the difference between good decisions in the saddle and bad ones, as well as the difference between effective trainers and ineffective ones.
Read books about riding – and magazines and articles and blogs. To quote my mentor, “Yes, they actually write about this stuff.” (He’s usually only half sarcastic when he says it.) And the best part about the Internet is that it gives us a ton of this very information for FREE…
…which brings me to…
YouTube videos! Please bear in mind that any recommendation to learn horsemanship from Internet videos has to come with some caveats, kids, because I think we can all agree that not every single video online is a gem. (In fact, there’s some downright terrible riding on there.) So when I say that you should watch videos on YouTube to improve your riding, I specifically recommend that you watch videos featuring professionals with a good reputation and correct, ASPCA-approved methods (!).
That said, there are a wealth of videos from top horse shows to stream and schooling footage of top riders to view – and while you’re at it, don’t just limit your viewing to your own discipline either. If you’re a show jumper, watch as much McLain Ward as you can handle, then watch Charlotte Dujardin ride through a dressage test and see what they do the same and what they do differently. Watch Buck Brannaman do groundwork with a horse and then compare his methods to Pat Parelli. Then dig deeper: watch “how to” videos on braiding and grooming and knot-tying and trailer loading and all of the other day-to-day things we do with horses.
And then students, just when you think you’ve observed as much as you possibly can, go back and observe some more.
That’s what college coaches are looking for. And that’s the first step on the path to becoming a professional: not just education, but also the thirst for it. Any coach in the country will happily work with a kid who hasn’t had the money to show every weekend but wants to work and learn every day. And even if you are showing every weekend in the local stuff and you’re so good at it that you win a lot, there’s no harm in looking beyond that to the next level, in asking yourself what it will take to be part of a top-level college team and how you can build those skills. And if you’re a budding professional, who else can you learn from and what other skills can you acquire to make you stand out from other trainers?
The cost of college is an ever-increasing dollar amount every year and costs within the horse industry aren’t terribly fixed either. But with every investment you make, it’s fair to to expect a return on it in some form. After college, graduates typically expect to enter a career field that will make their tuition dollars worth the price. In the horse industry, savvy professionals understand how to balance their income and costs (as well as how to leverage their experience and reputations) to make a living. But no matter which direction you head after high school, students – or even if you head in both directions – you will need some form of education beyond that which you now have and a lot of that education is available to you at this very moment for little or no cost.
So get out there and learn, students. Learn your way from where you are to where you want to be.