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January 8, 2010

Horses And Riders—How Do We Get Them Together?

...with LINDA ALLEN

Our columnist believes our young riders and young horses could benefit one another for the future of the sport.

The best–and worst–thing about our sport is its uniqueness in requiring an animal and a human to meld into a single athletic entity. Success in any equestrian competitive discipline requires talent, training, and total focus on the part of both members of the team. Show jumping in particular demands teamwork to handle the many expected, and unexpected, challenges posed by today’s courses.

It’s such a frequent question posed by those unfamiliar with our sport: “Just how much of it is the horse and how much is the rider in achieving success?”

At the higher levels the answer has to be 100 percent—from each!

While we know that a great deal of talent and experience on the part of the horse can compensate for a comparative lack of these qualities in the rider–and vice versa–this really only works at the lower levels.

Yes, on a few occasions, we can be surprised to see the very best get beaten by the far less qualified. Yet the fact remains that the more demanding the test, and the greater the expectation of consistent results, the more important the abilities of both partners become.

For many of us it’s the horse-and-rider partnership aspect of the sport that we find most appealing. Learning the language and oh-so-different nature of the equine mind, becoming one with 1,200 pounds of raw power, earning the respect and trust of our partners are what provide the real gratification to not just our successes but to the journey itself.

This is not a team sport, nor is it an individual sport (except to that handful of individuals who treat their endlessly revolving string of horses like tools for the achievement of personal glory); this is a rare opportunity to merge abilities with another entity to achieve what each alone could never manage.

So what makes this unique nature of our sport not simply the best but also the worst thing about it? Plain and simple, it’s impossible to ride and compete without a horse. And, competitive success depends on having not simply a horse, but a suitable horse.

Whether you are the 8-year-old with an in-born love of horses who prays every night for a pony, or a young adult who has spent thousands of hours perfecting her skills and knows she is ready to tackle the demands of 1.40-meter competition, the next step is always the horse.

While sports like basketball, baseball, soccer and football require only a minimal amount of equipment and space to enjoy–and even to learn enough to show raw talent that might attract the eye of the omni-present scouts—riding can’t be practiced without access to something to ride. For riders hoping to go on to a career in the sport many, many horses are involved in that quest.

Riding Hungry

The realities of the world now intrude.

Horses are expensive. Even for those with property and the willingness to commit a great deal of time and effort to taking care of them, the costs of feed, shoeing and veterinary care are substantial. For those who have to board their horses out, costs go up greatly. Add in the expenses involved with competing, and it becomes beyond the reach of all but a small percentage of Americans today.

For the youngsters with an irresistible love of our equine friends, most will have to make do with a virtual experience. Kids used to be content with collecting pictures and models of horses and reading books about them. Today’s opportunities have expanded with the Internet. Between YouTube and websites such as the new Equestrian Neightion youngsters can watch, learn and participate in horse-related activities even if horses don’t reside in their own neighborhood.

For riders who have managed to get riding and showing opportunities and progressed far enough to consider pursuing their longer-term goals with the sport, it isn’t so simple if ample finances aren’t available. And, the farther you go the harder it gets!

I truly enjoyed John Madden’s Between Rounds column “It’s Time To Bridge The Chasm Between National And International” on the need to better integrate our national and international sport. His points hit the nail on the head.

I’ve always observed that the most talented and successful riders and trainers are the ones generally most generous with their time and experience to those coming up. Only those with some doubt in their own abilities tend to worry about emerging talent being a threat. Legitimate competitors usually seek competition and don’t flee from it or resort to questionable means of eliminating it.

It isn’t a lack of potential mentors; it’s the fact that few professionals out there can afford to mount even the most promising young talent on horses. The costs involved with owning them and then getting them down the road to shows is just too high.

It should be no surprise that such a large percentage of the most successful young professionals to emerge in the United States over the past few decades are the children of professional horsemen. In terms of a career in the sport, these are the individuals who had the most advantages: the right genetics; daily exposure to horses and the sport; a realistic view of what is involved to “make it” in this industry; and the opportunity to ride a multitude of different sorts of horses.

A professional parent can also be an ideal promoter. He or she has a personal interest in obtaining outside support, whether it is extra ponies and junior horses to ride or later to develop the right contacts to go forward as senior riders. The other aspect faced by most children of professionals that others often miss out on is the necessity to learn how to “ride hungry.” This is the pressure that comes with having to do well, or else.

Riding hungry is the case when you need to win to get the chance to go to the next show, or to keep the ride on the horse you’re on.

The excuse “the horse wasn’t good enough” won’t cut it when you can’t go out and buy a new one. Hungry riders learn it’s their job to make the horse good enough, to do the best possible job with it, or at least to learn what that horse can offer to your education as a horseman.

In this sport you win with the best ones, but you learn from the others. And what you learn from the horses you ride is what will stand you in the best stead as a trainer and horseman throughout your career.

Other riders, those from non-horsey backgrounds, certainly go on to make it too, but it appears to get harder with every passing year. There are so many phases to navigate through on the way up the levels that it takes real perseverance to make it. This is true for those with the financial resources and those without.

In the end, the ones who do fight their way to where they want to go learn to enjoy the hard work and the challenges and at least to tolerate the unpredictability of it all.

A Stepping Stone

If I had one wish for our sport today I believe it would be that there would somehow emerge a new synergy between the breeders of sport horses and our aspiring riders. There’s logic to it. Breeders are sorely lacking in riders to bring the young stock they produce up to the competition level where their real value lies. Aspiring riders are equally lacking in a supply of horses to hone their skills.

European nations have achieved a lot with this sort of synergy.  It’s not uncommon for the son of a small breeder to bring a homebred on to win the 5-year-old championship at the Bundeschampionat (the German national championship event for young horses). Plus, most of their successful team riders got their start by training and riding young horses for various breeders and owners—riders such as Marcus Ehning, Christian Ahlmann, Marco Kutscher, and Toni Hassmann to name a few.

When these riders were doing their apprenticeships they did essentially nothing but young horses. Few, if any, had even national-level grand prix horses at that time. They could concentrate on them and thus do the best possible job for their owners.

Most of them received mentoring from the best international riders, and some were even employed by them. Once they proved their abilities and learned skills essential to their longevity at the top ranks, they moved up to be replaced by a subsequent generation of young horse trainers.

Many of these riders even kept as sponsors at the international level the owners of the young horses they trained. Meanwhile, countless top-quality horses continue to emerge from this system to keep top stock under the team riders at all times—and fill our show grounds with well-schooled “ready-to-go” horses.

Admittedly, it’s far easier when each country in Europe offers a vast array of different levels of shows in which to compete. There are few parts of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France or Switzerland that do not have opportunities for younger horses and riders to compete over courses designed by licensed designers with just a single day’s commitment of time, gas and low fees. We are so lacking in these opportunities.

In any case it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved—upcoming riders, emerging equine athletes and the sport as a whole—if we can achieve a new dynamic for young horses and our upcoming riders.

Specialization makes sense in many areas. The best neurosurgeon in town doesn’t have the time or the right kind of experience to best care for a child with a stomachache. So why is the grand prix rider on the road 50 weeks a year the best choice for taking on a 4- or 5-year-old prospect?

It’s entirely possible that a younger rider with desire and talent might make it to the top, but a new business that allows for more time on the horses’ backs, might be a better bet. The hungry younger professional might even be clever enough to take the horse on an out-of-pocket expenses basis for a share in the profit when the training he puts into the horse raises its value.

For the older junior in need of more experience than his budget can provide, a “deal” with a breeder or owner of a younger horse to put that all-important mileage on a 5- or 6-year-old could be just the ticket. The rider pays nothing for the horse, but he puts the money into the maintenance and showing expenses for a year. The rider gets the mileage on a quality horse—and learns a ton about how good horses came to be that way—while the owner foregoes a sale until the horse has more of that all-important experience without investing the training expenses on the horse during that time.

I’ve seen this situation work well for everyone on many occasions as long as it’s all spelled out in contract form. The majority of younger horses progress well just through the consistent adequate riding that most juniors, with some years of good training behind them, can provide. Supervision is essential. It must be on a regular basis, but it doesn’t usually need to be daily.

Whether it’s horses or riders we’re talking about, they all need training, fitness, regular daily serious work and lots and lots of experience if they are going to make it to the big time. The best then need to be “seen” (spotted by those in the know who can take them the last step).

The great new U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Emerging Athletes Program can really help in this regard, but it cannot solve the “hours in the saddle” dilemma faced by so many potential stars. Not every rider will make it to the international arenas of the world, but any rider who can also train a horse (as opposed to just riding a trained one) will always find a job in this business.

Putting horses and riders together is the challenge we face. Putting them together to get the vast amount of experience they both need, and then putting the right ones together to bring home the medals we all want for our country, should be our goal.

Noted international course designer Linda Allen created the show jumping courses for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 1992 FEI World Cup Finals. She’s a licensed judge, technical delegate and a former international show jumper. She lives in Fillmore, Calif., and San Juan Cosalá, Jalisco, Mexico, and founded the International Jumper Futurity and the Young Jumper Championships. Allen began writing Between Rounds columns in 2001.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Horses And Riders—How Do We Get Them Together?" ran in the January 8, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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