Last year, here in Palm Beach, Fla., I had a fascinating conversation with Emil Hendrix, the great Dutch horseman. He told me that they’d gathered all the trainers in Holland together and asked them to come up with the factors that make a good rider into a great rider. After much thought, they came up with these five: ambition, emotion, management, selection, and talent.
Ambition unquestionably topped the list. My mentor, Gordon Wright, used to always say, “She is 90 percent aptitude and 10 percent attitude.” Or the other way around. And he always preferred attitude to talent—although it’s nice to have both. He also would say, “There are the workers and then there are the walkers and talkers.” God forbid you were one of the latter!
Ambition, attitude and determination are all close to the same thing. Ludger Beerbaum and Joe Fargis simply never give up. Their sights are on the top of the mountain, period. That’s why they have all those gold medals hanging around their necks.
Norman Dello Joio is another example. As a junior rider, others had more means (money and talent), but Norman was always seething with desire. He wanted it more.
As a child, I was always timid on a horse; stiff, and with limited talent. But I was obsessed with success and loved to work. Whenever I accomplished something, I had to accomplish something higher. And it wasn’t easy for me.
Many people—most people—”talk the talk” but don’t “walk the walk” when it comes to ambition. Ambition means doing anything and everything it takes to reach your goal. And literally giving up almost everything else in life. I always rode on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Emotion is what the Dutch trainers considered factor No. 2. Great riders are “cold” on a horse—but not too cold! I don’t in any way mean to infer that they don’t have sympathy and compassion for their horse. No, they must have those emotions.
But there are two fears in riding: Physical fear is the fear of getting hurt. Mental fear is the fear of making a mistake.
Physical fear causes obvious limitations, but mental fear, or stage fright, is something everybody has to a degree. You wouldn’t be a good competitor without it. Gordon always told me my stage fright worked for me in the ring. All my life, I’ve suffered terribly from nerves, but they miraculously evaporated in the ring.
In discussing or describing a rider, the Germans always mention the word “nerves.” One develops better nerves—colder nerves—by being constantly subjected to pressure situations. That’s where the Germans have it over everyone else in championships.
Factor No. 3, management, has two parts: Management of the horse and management of the rider, and they’re equally important. Some people always produce good horses, horses who reach the top of their potential, and some people do the same with riders. There are very, very few horsemen who can do both. It’s much like handling an actor’s career on Broadway or in Hollywood.
Our  Olympic team—Beezie Madden, McLain Ward, Peter Wylde, and Chris Kappler—all deserved to go to Athens because they each run a first-class operation. Their horses look sound, fit and “in bloom,” and that’s what counts. I can’t tell you how many sore, dirty and unkempt horses I see at the horse shows. It’s sad, disgraceful and unhorsemanlike.
Selection, factor No. 4, means having an “eye for a horse.” Have you ever noticed how some people always have good horses but some never seem to? Basically it’s an instinct, a feel, a taste. You can’t teach it, although you can enhance it. Emerson Burr always had that eye, and he stocked the Fairfield County Hunt Club (Conn.) for years with top-quality animals.
Funnily enough, great riders don’t always have a good instinct when it comes to buying horses. Their riding gets in the way. They ride so well that every horse feels good and jumps well to them. Rodney Jenkins and Bernie Traurig were the exceptions.
Don’t ever talk yourself into a horse. And don’t buy problems. You’ll get enough problems after you own the horse.
Talent—I’m sure you’re surprised—is last on the list. As Gordon Wright said over and over, “Give me attitude over aptitude any day.” Yes, as a teacher, it was nice to have Conrad Homfeld, Buddy Brown, Katie Monahan, or Leslie Burr in my barn. But they were very sharp and they each have a work ethic too.
There’s always lots of talent out there. But usually they never make it because they’re mismanaged or they lack desire. It’s the same with horses. Lots of great horses are ruined by the wrong hands.
Look back on this list and grade yourself for each factor between 1 and 100—very, very honestly—and see in which factor you fall short. Be honest and work on your weak points.
Let’s take Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and examine her career. Karen Healey did a wonderful job in producing this girl as a junior. And then Meredith came to me to ride jumpers in 1987 for five years, so I know her well.
As far as ambition, work ethic, and competitive drive, I’d score Meredith with a 98 percent. With the hardening and toughening of riding in Germany, Meredith’s emotional factor went from the low 90s to the high 90s.
Meredith never, ever lived in a stable with bad horsemen and bad management. She always saw it done right. Now that she’s had to do it herself, it’s only gotten better. High 90s.
Meredith always had a good instinct about the horses she was riding. Again, she always rode quality and demanded blood types for herself. That’s all she rides today. Her husband, Markus Beerbaum, is a very strong rider, so he rides the others, and that’s the way it should be!
Meredith’s talent in the early days was a 90. She was very good, but there were others better. Now, because of the other four factors, she has caught up and surpassed them.
And that’s what it takes. But it’s something very few can do.