When it comes to the decision to move up a level, we can try to write rules that will ensure riders are qualified. But everybody has an example of the one horse that they saw jump around somewhere who left all the rails up but left them thinking, “Phew, that was rough.” But it was clean, and that event might have been their last qualifier before moving up a level. It would have been great if the horse had four rails and then couldn’t move up, because they’re not ready, but the horse was honest, and it was a trier.
The riders owe the sport a bit more by being prepared. I want everybody to be more responsible. Instead of blaming the sport, blaming the course, or blaming the dressage judges, we owe the sport to be better. We owe the sport to be better than we are. How are we going to do that?
If the U.S. Equestrian Federation can require everyone to take SafeSport training, I wish we could require everyone to answer these five questions before they consider moving up a level, or consider letting their kid move up a level, in eventing.
1. Are you scared to go out there?
That should absolutely be question No. 1. You shouldn’t be scared. If you’re scared to go out there, you’re not properly prepared. You might be nervous; everybody’s nervous to do well. But you shouldn’t be scared.
Let’s start by defining “fear.” My definition of fear is not knowing the outcome. I know that if I ride this horse in a good rhythm and find a good distance and present him to the fences straight and balanced, everything’s going to be fine, and I have no fear.
Now, let’s say I go out there, I come off a turn a little tight, and I get myself in a little bit of trouble; he hangs a leg, and he turns over. Well, that was a bit unfortunate. Now we have to back up and figure out why that happened. But when I left the start box, I knew in my mind that I was perfectly prepared to do everything. Now, I didn’t do everything, but I was prepared to do everything, so I had no fear.
If you don’t feel that way, ask yourself, what are you afraid of? At the lower levels, most people are afraid that their horse is going to run off; that he’s going to be too strong; he’s not going to come back when the rider asks. So, what makes you scared? If you can answer that question, then we can help you figure out how not to be scared.
Being nervous is different. Nervous is, “Man, I had a really good dressage test; I left all the rails up, and I’m in third.” Or you’re nervous going into the show jumping because you’re in the lead by 0.5. That’s nervousness. That’s excitement. That’s anxiety. We’ve put in all this hard work and all this time into this; I want it to go well. I’m ready and excited to be here. As opposed to: “I don’t think my horse is going to jump that ditch,” or, “I don’t think we’re ready for this,” or, “He’s going to run away with me.”
Not everybody has to do this sport. Not everybody has to go to training level. Not everybody has to go advanced. Not everybody has to go above beginner novice. You should enjoy it and do it at a level that you like. If you’re an adult amateur, and you only ever want to go beginner novice, then go beginner novice, but be really good at it. If you go to Europe and buy a $300,000 advanced horse and just want to win at beginner novice, super! If that’s your fun, and that’s what you want to do, that’s awesome.
2. Do you know, or do you hope?
When you’re in the start box, do you know it’s going to go well? Or do you hope it goes well? Things may or may not go wrong when you’re out there; that’s part of the sport. But when you’re in the start box, you should feel like you’ve done the work at home and know you can do what’s ahead of you on the course.
You don’t want to move up to preliminary and then encounter your first skinny in competition when you’re not really very good at skinnies. I hear people say things like, “Well, I have a right corner issue.” There’s going to be a right corner out there! Anytime you’re in the box going, “I really don’t know…” you should work on that more at home. You should be in the start box thinking, “I’m really glad I fixed that right-hand corner issue at home, because that one downhill is going to be a bugger.” That’s the mentality you want to have, that you fixed it at home, so you’re pretty confident to be here.
The riders have to be better prepared for the level. It’s what Ian Stark was talking about after the Bramham CCI4*-L (England), where he was the cross-country course designer and felt several combinations weren’t ready to be there. He was talking about the four- and five-star level, and I’m talking about a little bit of every level. No one at Badminton (England) is circling twice on cross-country so they don’t have speed penalties, like someone might do at novice, but everything is relative.
If you can’t collect your horse enough down the slide to jump the skinny at the bottom in the FEI Eventing World Championship (Italy), that’s an issue for you. If you can’t slow your horse down enough to keep from getting speed faults at training, that’s an issue. If you have to circle to be safe, then yes, please, by all means circle to slow your horse down to proceed safely. But then recognize that that shouldn’t have happened. You may have finished without penalties, but that wasn’t a “clean” round.
3. Have you met the qualifications? Or are you qualified?
Those are two big, different things. Just because you’ve met the minimum qualifications set under the rules to move up to the next level does not mean you are actually qualified—that you have the skills needed—to move up.
That brings me to another question, which is: Are you willing to move the goalposts? I am not too concerned about how long it takes you to get to your goal; I’m more concerned about your safety when you do. Are you so driven to do Fair Hill [Maryland] this year? Or are you willing to move the goalposts and go, “You know what, we’re going to do Ocala [Florida] in the spring instead; we’re just not ready.”
If you look at some of the riders that are on the silver medal-winning team from the World Championship, and you see how far they’ve moved that goalpost from when they were 18 until now—those goalposts have been moved a lot with different horses.
If you’re so driven that you’re on a deadline to accomplish your goal, we’re going to run into some problems. That brings us back to the qualifications—if we want to do X event, we have to have so many MERs. Well, we shouldn’t be forcing any MERs; they should be right there.
I’ll admit, I was guilty of that with my first horse. I wanted to do Radnor [Pennsylvania] so badly. Well, I had a run-by at Middleburg [Virginia]. And I thought, “That doesn’t matter. I’ll just get special permission, and I’ll go.” And they said no. That was a good thing because I really wasn’t ready, even though it was just a simple run-by, and I never really made a mistake. But it’s that mentality—I wanted to do X, and I was willing to let things go. I think the grown-up side of you realizes that run-by was probably a bit of a mistake, looking back on it. Luckily, I wasn’t granted permission, and I didn’t go to Radnor that year. That was a good learning curve for me.
If I helicopter over eight of the 10 show jumps at the training level, I’m not really qualified to move on to preliminary. I need to be riding those lines the way I want to ride those lines. Everybody has a rail now and again, but I’m talking about the rideability and the look of it.
Is it in balance? Is the horse diving onto his shoulder through the turn? Is he running through your hand? Are you aware of where you are in your lines? Do you even know what all those things mean?
If you are willing to move the goalposts, that makes qualification less of an issue. If you need four MERs to move up to the next level, and you have eight, well, great! Then you don’t have to worry about it. It’s better to be overqualified instead of just qualified.
4. Are you pushing yourself past your talents? Or your horse past his talents?
Are you on the right horse at the right level? Are you the right rider for that level at this time?
This, to me, is more of an upper-level question, from preliminary onward. Most horses have enough scope to go training—most. And I say most because I’ve seen a few that really don’t have enough scope to do training. If you’re going to compete at training level, you want the horse to have enough scope that it could go preliminary, so if you make a mistake, it’s easy for them to get out of it.
When schooling at home, is your horse able to jump a jump on a good stride very easily? Because when he gets on a bad stride, or when he gets a bad ride, or he trips or whatever, you want him to have enough scope to get himself out of it. Is he working really hard to get around, or is he confidently jumping around—and confidently jumping around is not running off. Confidently jumping around is a horse that can go down there and just jump the jump. It doesn’t need to be chased. It doesn’t need to be pushed. It doesn’t need to have the hair ridden off of it.
Obviously we design things at the upper levels to make you ride your horse aggressively and forward and all of those things. But when you are schooling at home, does it feel to you like it’s easy for the horse? Is it easy for you? If it’s not easy at home, it’s definitely not going to be easy at the show.
It shouldn’t be hard. If you’re pulling out your stick more than once or twice on a whole round, I think you might need to look at whether you’re at the right level.
5. What have you done to check yourself?
Have you sought out other opinions on your preparedness to move up, besides your trainer and yourself? Have you allowed yourself to step outside your world and ask someone else’s opinion? Do you have a good enough relationship with your trainer to be able do that? Or are you so afraid of your trainer that you can’t step out of that box?
This is something your trainer should want you to do, because trainers should be having their work checked. The U.S. Eventing Association’s Eventing Coaches Program (formerly the Instructor Certification Program) is a good system to have yourself evaluated as a trainer. It’s not the be-all, end-all, but it’s a check.
I’ll use myself as an example. When I had a bigger barn and had a group of students getting ready to do two- and three-stars, we would all go to Phillip Dutton’s together, or to Karen O’Connor, Ralph Hill, Linda Zang for the dressage, or other trainers and riders I had respect for, because I want somebody checking my work as a coach to make sure I didn’t miss something along the way. You’re not perfect. No one’s perfect.
If you’re a trainer, and if you’re not checking yourself and having someone check on your work, I don’t think you’re doing yourself or your students a just favor. It doesn’t mean that you have to send them off to go somewhere else, although I’ve done that; I’ve had students where I tell them, “I can’t. I feel like I’m missing something with you, and I want you to go ride with this person for a month or two.” You’ve given them an extended amount of time; you’ve done everything in your Rolodex, and you’re missing something.
It doesn’t have to be ego. Maybe somebody else says the exact same thing but just says it a little bit differently, and it clicks for that student. I take personal pride in sending my people somewhere else and having that trainer say, “Wow, this person rides really well. You’ve done a good job.” Of course, I’ve also been told, “How did you let this rider get to this point?” and had to go back and fix that. No one is perfect.
Making A Choice
Finally, if you’re a trainer, someday you’re going to have a student who doesn’t have the right answers to all these questions but still wants to move up. I’ll be honest—sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose that battle. There’s a lot of responsibility to being a coach or a trainer, but at the end of the day, I can only give the student (or their parents) the information. If they choose not to listen to me, then I have a choice: I can either continue to keep you as a client, or I can get rid of you as a client. That’s a hard line, but that’s what it comes to.
I’ve sat and had hour-long conversations at clinics, saying, “Look, this is the wrong horse for you,” or “Your kid doesn’t know enough yet to bring this horse along.” That was my biggest struggle when I was traveling a lot: I’d go teach a clinic in the middle of the country, and some poor kid’s got some off-the-track Thoroughbred and not enough education to really help the horse, so it’s running off or having other issues. You try to tell them that this is not the right horse for them, but they love the horse, and they think they know better, and they’re going to do it their way. Or when you try to tell someone a horse doesn’t have enough scope to go advanced, because even though the horse is jumping around, it’s not good.
You can only tell people so much, and that’s a really, really hard thing. A lot of times people think you don’t like them or don’t like their horse. I don’t like or dislike anybody, but there’s a line here, and you’re either good enough, or you’re not good enough yet. You may work as hard as you want to work, but if your horse doesn’t have that scope it doesn’t matter how hard you work. I’m trying to help you, and it’s not personal.
It’s a heartbreaking thing to have these conversations, not just for me, but for a lot of trainers out there who really care about the sport. So it frustrates me when I tell somebody they’re not ready to move up, and they hear me, but they’re not listening. I want to tell them, “You’re the person I’m writing about! You’re part of the problem.”
But I’m not always right, so go get a second opinion. Go to somebody else. Don’t just go to Tina down the street; go to somebody good who’s going to give you honest feedback. Don’t just say, “Well, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Danny Warrington, of North East, Maryland, is a former steeplechase rider turned international three-day event rider and trainer. In his racing years he worked with Hall of Fame trainers Jonathan Sheppard, Mikey Smithwick and Janet Elliot. In eventing he also sought out the best trainers, including Bruce Davidson, Karen O’Connor, Jimmy Wofford and Phillip Dutton. His passion for safety and personal responsibility led him to establishing his LandSafe Equestrian training, along with his wife, Keli Warrington, to save lives and reduce injuries from falls.
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our Oct. 10 & 17, 2022, issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
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