It was maybe ten years ago that I finally accepted that riding at the top of the sport, in the way that I had always dreamed, was for those with access to a lot of money. It wasn’t like a light bulb going off – it was more like a slow water torture over the years. I think razor blades by the handful would of been an easier thing for me to have swallowed.
Now, I’m not talking about the one-hit unicorn Disney stories; I was lucky enough to have one of those. I mean the string of horses always at the top levels, always in with a shot, that kind of top of the sport.
I grew up, as a lot did back 20 years ago, with my $3,000 off-the-track horse and the can-do determination and work ethic of a good kid who really believed that with enough try, anything was possible. To some extent it was kinda possible back then.
A free horse and a shockingly expensive $6,000 horse later, I did make it to four star by my early 20s, got myself listed, got a name for myself and even a few good ribbons (aforementioned Disney story). I was fairly terrible at dressage and my thoroughbreds sure weren’t careful, but with enough chutzpah to always go clear cross-country I could do just fine. Keep in mind this was before the days that eventing horses could almost get confused for dressage horses in certain instances.
Somewhere within all those years, horse sports changed, just as the world changed. Probably, in many ways, it has really changed for the better; but with that change it has skyrocketed financially. Of course the obvious change is the prices of horses, but you can wipe the brush broadly as everything from hay to vets, blacksmiths to entry fees have more than quadrupled in price since 20 years ago when I ran around with images of National Velvet in my head.
The recognition finally that I was never going to be a Laura Kraut or William Fox Pitt or whomever – despite any talent that should grow in me overnight, or how hard I worked my tail to the bone – was a hard pill to swallow. Short of Ed McMahon showing up at my doorstep with that million-dollar cheque, or Ms. Mars wanting to suddenly adopt me, this was not going to happen, and any attempts at such would probably put my family and my future in serious financial jeopardy. No, my life with horses was to create what I could, enjoy them as much as I could, and then sell them on and do it again. A tiny, and I mean tiny, portion of my heart wonders if one day I could get lucky with that one-in-a-million owner, but the other 99% of my heart says, ‘don’t hold your breath girl, lest you pass out, get on with what you can do.’
One thing that has not changed despite the economy is how wonderful the horse life can be. I am a born animal addict. I love the horses, I love my dogs, and I love waking up and seeing a farm that is mine and animals I enjoy spending my days with. I am also lucky as I am a knowledge addict – a starving consumer of anything that may help me know more about horses or my riding. I watch YouTube videos of clinics, weekly I will scan ClipMyHorse for any new grand prixs, and naturally I never tire of helping Leslie with his horses and love the weeks he has time to help me with mine. I love teaching our students and learning from that as well. I may be limited financially to the number and quality of horses I can have, but I will never, ever, be limited to how much I can learn.
So now I finally come to the crux of this rambling of mine…
Leslie and I attended a clinic together the other week. I won’t go into names but suffice it to say, the clinician is a gem of the American show jumping world and a highly revered teacher in parts of Europe. They were holding a fairly private clinic at a farm close to us, so naturally Leslie and I jumped at the chance to ride with them.
I have only very recently forayed into the show jumping world. In doing so I acquired three young horses and have, with the help of Leslie competing one of them, been quietly producing them to try and do my very best by them. My ‘dream,’ if you will, is to produce one that I can be successful with at the 1.40m level and then we shall see from there, but as of now I have one that has been doing well in the five-year-olds, one in the six-year-olds, and one that I just did my first seven-year-old class with – much to my heightened adrenaline LOL.
My acquiescence to never becoming McLain Ward has not changed my desire to be the best at everything I can do, so I have cautiously entered this new world trying to do everything just right and not put a foot wrong. Because of this caution, I had suggested to Leslie that we go to the clinic early so that I could suss out this clinician, see what they were all about, and what I was getting myself into as I really had no inside knowledge of them, only of their impressive resumé.
We got there in time to see the group before us, which consisted of two girls and one adult amateur type. The girls were roughly between 17 and 20 if I had to guess and sat upon very well-trained horses. The clinician had them standing there and was going over some basics in a very classical, highly eloquent way.
After listening to them for about ten minutes, I looked at Leslie and said, “They are genius.” Leslie looked back at me and said, “yes, very very good.” The way this person could explain the fundamentals of flat work and how it related to jumping in almost a poetic way was genius. The looks, however, on those two girls’ faces! They were bored, they were aggravated, and I later said to Leslie I was just waiting for one of them to pull out their phone and start scrolling through Facebook. You could visibly see how uninterested they were in anything the clinician was saying. I said it was like having the Dalai Lama in front of you, but preferring to watch TikTok instead. My mind was blown.
When they were later asked to go out and perform the most menial of flat work tasks, they were useless. These girls that were jumping 1.20 or more on the weekends could not perform the most basic of leg yields, had very little clue on turns around the haunches or forehands, and couldn’t even pass a whip from one hand to the other. One of them proclaimed exhaustion when pressed further to learn to leg yield, which I thought was hysterical considering the age of the clinician standing in the middle of the ring all day in the blazing sun. The clinician then offered to lunge their horse for them and guess what? The girl did not even know how to prepare a horse to lunge. Their lack of any, and I mean ANY, comprehension for classical basics on the flat completely undid me, especially knowing how big they were jumping at shows.
However, when later asked to canter to a tiny jump, they were perfection. Atop their robot-like steeds they posed, heels down, keeping a rhythm the entire way – perfection. These girls were sitting upon some of the most incredible, never-changing, never-reacting, horses I have ever seen. I wouldn’t think these animals were going to the Olympics anytime soon, but they were 1.20m robots.
Those that can afford will afford and will not have to bother with the ‘boring’ aspects of flat work or dealing with a difficult horse or anything else aside from the thrill of competition.
Later that night Leslie and I sat out on our deck and discussed everything we had found fascinating in our rides at the clinic. Then we both got to the topic of those girls. The first thing I thought of as a mom was how fast I would have walked in there and wiped that look off of my son Liam’s face if I had ever paid for him to learn from the best and he sat there looking bored!
But the next thing I said to Leslie was, “Who will train the horses one day?”
Our experience with these girls was not unique. We see it all the time at shows, you read about it in other peoples’ ramblings – these girls we saw are not alone, by any means. This, this is what we have due to the aforementioned economic change. Those that can afford will afford and will not have to bother with the ‘boring’ aspects of flat work or dealing with a difficult horse or anything else aside from the thrill of competition. Of course, we all know that because of this lack of interest, they will never become Wards or Krauts, but that is not important for them right now.
I think because of the huge cost of horses and competing, we are seeing fewer kids that have to make their $6,000 horse into the best damn horse they can and then go work for people every spare second in order to sit on something better and get some free lessons. It’s all good right now while people like me can sell them our horses and pay off our farms (wink) but when I am dead, and there are more people buying the made ones and fewer people producing them, then what? Who will make the horses? Because I promise you, not in a million Sundays are these girls making horses.
Nothing I am saying here is groundbreaking news. We hear it all the time about the lack of horsemanship, the lack of basics, blah blah blah. But although for the most part it reeks of ‘old man on front porch bemoaning the new generation,’ I actually do think it is a real problem and one that as trainers on this continent we need to address.
I think the easiest thing to sell to those with money is the dream. Spend the hundred or two hundred grand and for sure Polly is destined to be shoulder-to-shoulder with Fuchs. Send them in the ring, slap the robot on the ass, and off they go to the 1.20 or beyond. Until the horse starts stopping, Polly gets disgruntled, quits riding and then in walks Mary and the cycle begins anew.
I think what we need to instead start selling is ‘the life’: the thirst for knowledge, the pride of production, the skill of riding and understanding each horse as an individual.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against spending big bucks for a horse. In fact if you can afford it, it is the best way to go, as good horses make good riders. My limitation to $3,000-$6,000 dollar off-track horses sure as hell retarded my growth as a rider; however, what I do have a problem with is spending the bucks, expecting the horses to be due a service to the humans. The big bucks should be spent for horses to be teachers, not machines.
I think what we need to instead start selling is ‘the life’: the thirst for knowledge, the pride of production, the skill of riding and understanding each horse as an individual. And yes, absolutely the goal of success, but as a product of the other ingredients, not as a be-all and end-all. I try very hard to sell the life to our kids that come to us. In selling the life and not just the dream, I can keep ‘normal’ financed kids in the horse world; there can be a place for them there.
I said earlier a problem for this continent, as in Europe that has always been sold to those kids. My husband never grew up to dream of gold medals [in the UK], but to rather have a viable career in which he could provide well for himself with animals and a sport he enjoyed. The gold medal came because he was good and a worker; it did not come because he simply desired it or ever even dreamt of it.
I am seeing kids that remind me of myself leave the horse sports in droves because of disillusionment when they find out their horse cannot compete with the next one’s Young Riders horse, and it is often because they have been fed the line that only winning matters. Of course, I am so anal that all I want to do is do it right (and yes win LOL), but within the reality that I know there is only so much I can do with what I have, so my winning may have to be at 1.30 instead of my desired 1.40 or … if I bare my utmost heart to you all … a Saturday night grand prix.
I am not implying that we should try to make every hobbiest a rider, or every child a horseman. There will always be a place for people who buy the horse as I may buy a speed boat, and that is fine to some extent. But what we need to be careful about is that the scales do not tip too much in that direction. Trainers old and upcoming must be mindful that when we do have students that proclaim they want a career in horses, we preach the importance of knowing the animal and the sport as much as chasing ribbons and money. If not … who will train the horses?
In the meantime, my friends, I have just won my first 1.20-metre in my new world. Ward and Underhill need not sweat yet, but I will be quietly working away at achieving my first 1.30m win, all the while working every day training other peoples’ horses and other peoples’ kids and trying to inspire the next generation that there is value in what I do. They would be wise to take heed of it and not just have expectations of being handed their next winner.
That said, If Ed McMahon is reading this … I am easy to find.