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January 23, 2014

Throwback Thursday: The 10,000-Hour Club—Are You A Member?

"We see their public displays of competence and triumph, but we don’t see, can’t see, the other 9/10ths of the iceberg beneath the water," Denny Emerson says of successful riders. Photo by Amy K. Dragoo

In a column that appeared in the June 19, 2009 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse, our columnist wondered how many people actually accrue the mileage necessary to be truly proficient on a horse.

It’s pretty obvious that the more we do something, the easier it gets. Little children in kindergarten and first grade learn the alphabet by repeating A-B-C-D-E-F-G, over and over again, until they can say it in their sleep.

That’s how we begin to acquire virtually all of our physical and mental skills—practice and repetition, repetition and practice.

But how much practice and repetition does it take to become a highly skilled rider?

If you ask Malcolm Gladwell that question, he’ll probably reply that to get really good at anything you need to put in an initial 10,000 hours and then build on that.

Gladwell wrote “Outliers,” a book that examines the careers of highly successful people in a wide range of occupations and pursuits, and he discovered that most of them had abided by this “10,000 Hour Rule.” (Linda Allen also cited this work in her Between Rounds column, “The Course Decides The Winner In Show Jumping,” Feb. 20, p. 38.)

How long does it take to pile up 10,000 hours in practice, anyway? The answer is pretty daunting.

If you are 12, and this very day you start to ride one hour a day, every single day, never missing a day, not Christmas, not your birthday, not a holiday trip, never skipping a day because of illness or family travel, you will arrive at your 10,000-hour mark when you are about 40 years old!

If you start when you are 22 years old, you’ll be 50!

But let’s say that you are a dedicated, basically full-time rider, with a number of horses available to climb on every week. And let’s say you ride 20 hours every week (remember, no weeks off for any reason), which means you ride approximately three hours every day, seven days a week. If you do this, you can get to 10,000 hours of riding in about 10 years.

So, if you are an upwardly aspiring 20-year-old, and you don’t have to go to school, or hold down a job, or get distracted by impedimenta like babies, you should be a good rider by the time you hit 30, and you should still have a relatively intact body with which to compete.

Whoops! I forgot something, didn’t I?

That 10 years of 20 hours a week was just sitting on the back of a horse. It wasn’t specialized riding like jumping, or perfecting the sitting trot, or practicing shoulder-in. Almost nobody has a string of horses so huge that they jump 20 hours every week, for 10 straight years. You’ll need to add on at least another half-decade of intensive practice to get exceptionally good at any of the more specialized equestrian disciplines.

It doesn’t matter how gifted a 25-year-old rider you may be. You haven’t lived long enough to have gotten in 10,000 hours, no matter how many ribbons you may have hanging on your wall to proclaim your excellence.

Developing A Deep Well

There are ways to shortcut the “10,000 Hour Rule” in sports that have wide discrepancies in the fundamental quality of the basic equipment needed to perform. In horse sports, the most obviously basic item of “equipment” is the horse.

If an inexperienced rider has the chance to ride really elite horses, he or she is apt to win lots of ribbons, even against more seasoned competitors who are less well mounted.

Another shortcut involves the sheer, innate talent of the performers.

Some riders with 5,000 hours of “practice” will be better riders than others with 12,000 hours. But those talented riders, just like those with superior horses at their disposal, will still have weaknesses—“gaps” might be a better description—that can only be filled through greater mileage.

So often, in sports, music, business, whatever, there will be moments when highly experienced people will instinctively react in an appropriate way without consciously knowing why.

The “why” is buried in their subconscious mind because they’ve been put in similar circumstances in the past and will have done something to deal with that situation.

They might have dealt with it well, or they might have fallen on their heads, literally or figuratively, but some reflexive response will be imprinted somewhere in their memory banks to draw on, like water from a well, in time of need.

The less experienced participant won’t have as deep a well of past performance from which to draw. The relevant quotation here is this familiar saying: “Experience is what you get about 30 seconds after you needed it.”

The 10,000 Hour Club members are much more likely to have “filled their well” with a range of seemingly intuitive reactions, which are actually based on prior responses to similar situations that either worked or didn’t work.

Buck’s “Breakout”

A couple of examples: 2009 was Buck Davidson’s “breakout” year. Riding My Boy Bobby, he was the top-placing U.S. rider in a sea of European-based riders at the Rolex Kentucky CCI****. (Incidentally, I was the agent who “found” My Boy Bobby in Ireland eight years ago, perhaps an example of my own 10,000 hours [40,000 hours more likely] of evaluating horses.)

Some years ago, when Buck had just won the USEA Young Rider of the Year award, the U.S. Equestrian Team’s Jim Wolf and I pulled up his actual record for that year. I believe Buck had gone into the starting gate, the year he turned 20, something like 82 times.

Jim and I then speculated that if there were an average of 23 jumps on a cross-country course, and 11 jumps on a typical show jumping course, then Buck had jumped 2,788 jumps that season in competition at the preliminary level or higher. This calculation didn’t count the thousands of jumps in practice or at lower levels.

I remember Jim saying, “Do you realize that 2,788 times Buck came galloping down to a fence and had to figure out what to do about it?”

“Figure out what to do about it.” Think what that phrase means in terms of storing experiences and reactions in your memory bank.

So when Buck “suddenly” broke through, it wasn’t sudden at all. What we see with riders like Buck, and my former working student, Michael Pollard, who had a similar “breakout” year in 2009, is just the visible tip of the iceberg.

We see their public displays of competence and triumph, but we don’t see, can’t see, the other 9/10ths of the iceberg beneath the water.

That other 90 percent is the years and years of riding thousands of hours and jumping hundreds of horses out in back pastures far from the public view. Most riders don’t take advantage of the chances they’re given to stack up those 10,000 hours.

About 20 years ago, I was teaching a clinic for Marilyn Groene at Creekside Ranch in Clayton, Calif. Marilyn had a barn of school horses and ponies, and she had the usual flock of young riders possessed of the usual dream of riding one day wearing the red jacket of the USET.

Marilyn told me that the stall cleaners didn’t work on weekends, and that she’d told all of the kids that if they came and mucked out, they could ride extra horses.

“I’ll bet you don’t get many?” I asked.

“Many? I hardly ever get any!” she replied. “They want to have sleepovers with their friends, or go to the prom, or go shopping.”

In the years since, I’ve heard this same litany of woes from dozens of similar stable owners. It’s the unending tale of squandered opportunity.

Those 10,000 hours, and thousands more just like them, are waiting out there in front of each one of us. We’re going to spend those hours doing something, even if the something is doing nothing. Why not spend them on a horse?

Denny Emerson

Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.