A few years back I had the chance to spend the day with a lawyer named Don Verrilli, who at the time was the Solicitor General of the United States. The SG is the person responsible for representing the United States government before the Supreme Court. It’s about as big as lawyering jobs get. This was, in short, someone at the top of his professional game.
We had never met, but we have a few friends in common, so I had a little sense of what to expect. I knew, for example, that he was likely to take me up on my offer to skip the fancy lunch reservation we had in favor of a much more character-filled Milwaukee alternative. (He did.) And as we conversed it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was someone I would have loved to have the chance to learn from back when I was a young lawyer.
Verrilli was in town to deliver the address at the law school’s graduation ceremony. I’ve heard my share of graduation speeches over the years. Most are good. This one was great, and I’ve repeated it to new law students ever since. Its message was simple: Do the little things right. It’s good to have big dreams and to want to change the world. But you can’t do those big things unless you’re willing to do the little things.
This week I’m at HITS Balmoral (Illinois) with my daughter Audrey for the USHJA’s Emerging Athletes Program. I’m hoping to provide a post each day with my more-or-less real-time reactions and impressions. It won’t involve commentary on individual performances. Not only am I not qualified to provide that commentary, I’m also not any kind of neutral observer. Nor is the goal to attempt any sort of clinic play-by-play in a more general sense. “They started the day doing X, then turned to Y, and concluded with Z” is a recipe for boredom.
I’m hoping instead simply to notice things. With luck what I’ll notice are things that might not strike others in quite the same way. And then I’m going to riff on them a bit with what I hope will be interesting results.
I don’t remember when or how I first heard about EAP, but I recall thinking it was a very good idea. I’m currently in my second tour as an EAP parent, and everything I’ve seen so far supports that initial view. Three years ago, [my older daughter] Ada rode in one of the regional clinics, with Chris Kappler as clinician and Anne Thornbury as stable manager. I walked away impressed.
Ada, for her part, walked away exhausted. That was true for the other participants as well, and it’s consistent with the basic logic of the program. The participants do all the work themselves. Once the session starts the barn is off-limits to everyone else save for the clinicians. No parents, no grooms, no trainers. Anyone can watch the riding sessions, but anything else a parent learns has to come secondhand from a very tired child.
The program’s goal, EAP program committee chair Sally Ike tells me, is to help the participants become better horse people. This doesn’t just, or maybe even mostly, mean better riders. Riding’s a part of it, for sure, but so is all the less glamorous work, the day-to-day detail and drudgery that puts a rider in sustained contact with her horse and allows her to gain a more accurate sense of its condition and mood.
The first day of the EAP has a bit of the flavor of the first day of summer camp. There’s the stress of getting ready, getting there, and getting settled in. There are the introductions and figuring out where everything is and what’s expected. There are the nerves and the anxiousness that accompany any new experience.
Ada’s EAP experience three years ago was largely a solo flight. We trailered her horse in; I helped her unload and set up the stall, and then the time came for parents to exit the barn and she was on her own.
Audrey has the good fortune to be here with three barnmates from Millcreek Farm. The four of them—Audrey, Anna Spitzer, Ellie Warren and Ellison Neumann—are talented riders and, above all else, friends. They are fortunate to be able to bring the positive, cooperative atmosphere of the barn with them. It can’t help but enhance the experience.
This session of the EAP began right about where Don Verrilli’s graduation speech left off. As stable manager Anne Thornbury made her way down the aisle checking horses and tack the implicit message was clear: Do the little things right. Clean saddles, clean bridles, clean horses, clean boots.
There’s a safety rationale for that, of course. Clean equipment is more likely to be safe equipment. And the process of cleaning helps to uncover small problems before they become big problems.
There’s another rationale too. It’s the same sort of thing that leads good lawyers to obsess over spelling, punctuation and the minutiae of language. If you haven’t paid close attention to those things, then how can I have confidence that you’ve paid proper attention to the big things? Both are the products of a careful and deliberate mind. A client usually can’t tell when a lawyer has made a mistake on the law—that’s what they hire a lawyer for, after all—but they can tell when a lawyer has spelled their name wrong, and they tend not to like it.
And so it is in the horse world. Many of the EAP attendees are here because they hope to become professionals. Toward the end of her presentation to the group Anne Thornbury emphasized that a hallmark of the most successful professionals, especially when it comes to securing sponsors, is that they keep everything in their barns in perfect condition. That doesn’t mean being an unpleasant person. You can be a Don Verrilli and take the time to enjoy a leisurely lunch in a local dive. But you have to pay attention to the little things.
The little things are not glamorous. The little things are rarely fun, and they can extend an already too long day. But the big things are a lot less likely to happen when the little things don’t get done and done right.
It’s a useful lesson for all of us.
Chad Oldfather is the blogging COTH Horse Dad. He’s the non-horsey father of two junior hunter/jumper/equitation riders, and he’s taking readers along on his horse show parenting journey. By day, he’s a law professor in Wisconsin, but on weekends and evenings, he can be found, laptop in hand, ringside at a lesson or show. Read his first blog, “My Soul For An Equitation Horse” to get to know him.