Opening Doors: Reflections From Day 2 Of EAP

Jul 11, 2018 - 12:48 PM

“Opens eyes and opens doors.” That, Sally Ike tells me, is the motto of the USHJA’s Emerging Athletes Program. She ought to know, since she’s the chair of the USHJA’s EAP committee, and, near as I can tell, was the driving force behind the creation of the program 10 years ago.

It’s a worthy pair of aspirations. Yesterday’s post, about the importance of attention to detail, fits with the “opens eyes” piece of the motto.  Today I’ll talk about opening doors.

One of my great frustrations as a riding parent is the cost. I mean that partly in the usual sense of, “Well, there goes my lake cabin.” But I also mean it in the sense that it’s frustrating not to be able to provide my daughters with as many opportunities as I would like. We simply can’t afford to support that much showing and saying “no” in the face of your child’s passion is never fun, especially when they cross paths with so many others who are able to do the things they would like to do. (I say that in full recognition of the fact that, as both Audrey and Ada understand, there are plenty of others who look enviously at what they’ve been able to do. Perspective is important.)

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Audrey’s group had their first mounted session with Anne Kursinski. All photos courtesy of Chad Oldfather.

I asked both Anne Thornbury and Sally Ike what advice they’d give to someone in our situation. What should our focus be? Fewer but bigger shows? As many shows as possible? What’s the right mix? Their answers differed in their particulars but were consistent in spirit.

Sally put it this way:

“It’s not about showing! It’s about improving your skills, and the success will come. [Bill] Steinkraus characterized shows in one of his books as the test of the training.

“For talented and ambitious kids, my recommendation has always been to find the best help you can afford. A ski instructor once told me that I should watch everyone coming down the mountain because of what I’d learn. The same is true of equestrian sport; you need to surround yourself as much as possible with the best. It will rub off!

“Go to shows like those at the Kentucky Horse Park to watch the best, work on your skills and then test them whenever/wherever is most convenient. Yes, we have people in the highest financial brackets competing at the top levels, but, think about it, our most respected and successful professionals did not come from families with deep pockets.”

Good advice. It’s a long way to the top no matter what your field, and the pinnacle can seem especially distant in a world—like the horse world—where the costs of entry alone are significant. Talent, ambition and hard work by themselves won’t always get you in front of the eyes you hope to catch. Luck’s a necessary ingredient here as it is most everywhere else. And luck can take a lot of forms.

Yesterday morning, just after the trailers had arrived and the girls were unloading, their trainer Serah Vogus stood watching and doing her best not to direct traffic, because this week that’s not her job. Understand that Serah’s accomplished some things. She’s been selected for the Gladstone Program (roughly the EAP for professionals) and ridden in the George Morris Chicago clinic a handful of times. Even so, she couldn’t help but say, “I wish there had been an EAP when I was a kid.”

My point? Simply that the mere existence of the EAP is a stroke of good luck for all those fortunate enough to take part.

Nobody makes a secret of the fact that a strong performance at the EAP can indeed open doors. The USHJA’s website and other materials emphasize that riders who have done well at EAP nationals have leveraged that into later successes. The opening meeting underscored the point. “This is a ‘show me’ week,” Anne Thornbury told the participants. “Show me what you’ve got.”  She and EAP committee member Stacie Ryan made it clear that a rider who leaves a good impression this week might very well find herself with some nice opportunities down the road.

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Anne Thornbury encouraged the riders to show her what they had to offer.

It’s a life lesson as well. As a baby lawyer I imagined that getting clients involved the ability to work some sort of inexplicable magic at cocktail parties. Maybe it does, and I just never learned how to cast that particular spell. But what seemed a whole lot more effective was doing good work for the senior lawyers I worked with and the clients my firm entrusted me with. Both wanted me to be useful, to be responsive to their needs and to pay attention to detail. If I did that they’d continue sending me work. And then the clients would mention my name to someone else who was looking for a lawyer, and then I’d have another client. Showing, rather than telling, is what did the trick. As far as I can tell it’s a dynamic that holds true in all sorts of circumstances.

An EAP regional session, as EAP committee member Stacie Ryan pointed out to the girls, is definitely a competition. But not in the normal sense. There have been some sessions where no participants advanced to nationals, and others where as many as six have. Her message was that they not concern themselves so much with that but should instead focus on learning. “If you do that, you’ll get noticed.”

As anyone who’s ever been asked, “Will this be on the test?” knows, there’s often a perceived (and sometimes real) gap between learning a subject well and learning what’s necessary to succeed on an exam. Here I suspect the two largely align. Most of this week’s participants raised their hands when Anne asked the group who among them hopes to work in the horse world. For them, the thing they are at the EAP to learn is, ultimately, how to be useful. The high-profile equestrian looking for a working student is looking for reliable help. Someone who knows the basics and is hungry to learn more, who has the judgment to handle most things on her own but also to ask for help when appropriate, who gets the little things right.

Learn all of that, no matter what your field, and you’ll tend to get noticed by people who can open doors.

Chad Oldfather is spending the week with his daughter Audrey at an EAP Regional Training Session and is blogging about the life lessons he’s learning along the way. Don’t miss his first blog.


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. 

Read all of Chad’s COTH Horse Show Dad blogs for the Chronicle.

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