Get With The Program

Feb 22, 2016 - 10:30 AM

Our columnist has the simple recipe for becoming a top horseman: a great education.

I constantly hear people asking the question: What makes a truly successful horseman?

Everyone wants to know the secret to a great career, how to be a true horseman, and what it takes to really make a go at it as a top professional rider or trainer in the horse industry. Some answers are more entertaining than others—I am thinking of Denny Emerson’s book How Good Riders Get Good. Others are more factual and talk about hard work and dedication, such as anything by George Morris.

While I’ll be the first to admit that I neither have, nor am I ever likely to have, the depth of true knowledge in horsemanship or life as these two legends, I do know a thing or two about great horsemen. I’ve been lucky enough to have been taught by some of the best in the world.

The Common Thread

Every great horseman with whom I’ve had the opportunity to ride shared one common thread. Was it talent? Surely they were all supremely talented. Nobody becomes the best at what they do without natural talent.

Sure, some were probably more naturally talented than others, and in fact some top riders will even say that they weren’t great. I had one great mentor tell me that his childhood coach told his parents to have him take up basketball instead of continuing on with his riding lessons! Truthfully, however, he was (and still is!) extremely talented in addition to being ridiculously modest. The level of talent of all these people surely varied from one to the next, but they did all have some of it.

However, I’ve also known some very talented individuals who, for one reason or another, just never made it. Many times the truly talented will lack drive. So while talent is a key ingredient that may help lead to a superb career and life as a true horseman, it’s not the determining factor.

Drive must be the ticket then. Surely it is drive and talent that do the trick. It seems so obvious, really. If you have all the talent in the world but no drive to show up day after day, then what does it matter? All of that talent will go to waste. When I think of the greats that I’ve learned from, their drive is unbelievable. They are the first up in the morning planning the day. They all possess the sort of personality that refuses to take a break. Each one of them literally lives the life of a horseman. Their occupation is more of an obsession, and it actually defines them.

But you know what? I knew kids growing up who had talent and drive but never made it. They were still missing something. When we think of the greats, we don’t think of them as men or women, but as horsemen or horsewomen.

Horses. The missing piece must be the horses. Just think of all the really talented, hard-working kids out there who just need to catch a break. All they need is a great horse, right? All the greats had superb horses. Bruce Davidson had Eagle Lion and JJ Babu and Doctor Peaches, Leslie Law had Shear L’Eau and Shear H20, Jimmy Wofford had Kilkenny, Karen O’Connor had Biko and Prince Panache, and David O’Connor had Giltedge and Custom Made. Yes, all the greats had great horses, but you know what? They made them great by using that one special ingredient that bound them all together.

Pick A Program

Loyalty. Not blind loyalty to a person, but rather blind loyalty to a program.

Each and every great horseman can tell you exactly who taught them their program. For some it is a household name, but for many it is not. For some, it was their childhood coach who showed them how to properly care for and train horses. For some, like me, it is the person who gave them their first opportunity as a working student in the horse world.

It is the true immersion into a program by young, talented, driven individuals that teaches them to take average horses and make them good. It is that same program that will help them take good horses and make them great, and it is that same program that will take great horses and make them world beaters.

It takes years, not months, to learn a program. My advice to up and coming kids who truly want to take a shot at being the best they can be is simple: Go work for someone you have a very real respect for as a horseman. Go move in with them and learn everything about what they do. Watch them every day and learn everything you can from them. Watch how they live. Watch how they interact with people. Learn everything you can about the program. You are not above any of it.

The day-to-day care of the horses is the first and most important part of any good program. So while you learn your riding skills in your lessons, do not neglect the knowledge you learn in the barn. Too many kids look at the working part of this experience as the penance they must pay for their riding lessons, and this mindset could not be more misguided. As a professional, I get as much, if not more, business based on how we care for our horses, as compared to clients I acquire solely from my riding success.

Watch the professional grooms. Pay attention not just to how hard they work but to how much they care as well. Notice the little things. What do the horses eat, and more importantly, why do they eat it? Learn to take pride in how the horses are turned out every day, not just at the competitions. How does this program look after their horses’ legs after a jump school? What do they do to ensure that the horses are feeling perfect after their fitness gallops? Take pride in the cleanliness of the stalls—heck, I even took pride in the organization of the muck pile. I still have a photo of the perfectly square steps I spent hours packing together with pride, just so I could impress my boss to gain a little more wisdom and perhaps another horse to ride that day.

Learn how to truly take care of horses. Learn to be a true caretaker of horses. It is all of these little things that make up a great program.

Watch how your mentor trains horses from the beginning. Pay attention to his selection of those young horses. How he starts his young horses is as important as how he trains the upper level ones. Take note of how he moves horses up the levels to become top competitors.

Notice the little things, like what type of horses last in the program and which ones go on to other careers. What happens to the ones that wash out and don’t make it? Do they get cast aside and left for whatever the world brings them? Do they get responsibly placed into the right situation? Every horse has a place and a job. A good program will find that place even if it’s not where they had originally hoped that horse’s talent would take them.

What about the horses that are slow to develop? How are these horses produced? Does the trainer continue to push the horses until they figure it out, or does he practice patience as he thoughtfully trains the animal? Then keep track of what he does to maintain success with proven campaigners. Are they competed often, or are the occasional ideal competitions hand picked?

The veterinary and farrier programs and care are key. When the veterinarian shows up, try to be the one to hold the lead shank. Ask to be the person who gets to jog the horses for the vet. Stay quiet and listen. God gave us two ears and one mouth so we would listen twice as much as we speak. What is the veterinarian looking for when he or she shows up to the barn? Is the vet there regularly to maintain soundness or only when there is a problem? They should be proactively maintaining the horses with regular care without being unnecessarily aggressive.

When and how often the horses get shod is a huge part of any program. Again, ask to be the person responsible for helping the farrier. A good farrier or blacksmith is likely the best horseman in the barn. I have seen some brilliant farriers get dismissed because they don’t have a DVM attached to their name. Do not make that mistake as you will miss out on some very important knowledge. The key thing you want to know about this part of the program is how long they are able to maintain a horse’s career and what they do to make that happen. It’s all a part of the program.

Keep Adding Wisdom

One day you will be ready to leave. All good things must come to an end, so at some point it will be your graduation day. When that day comes you will be excited for the next chapter, but you will likely be terrified too. Take that program with you and begin to expand upon it. Put the right support team in place around you. No one can do it alone, so rely on your family and friends to help. In the beginning you probably won’t be able to afford a full-time staff, so these people will help get you started. Find a younger person to mentor and start to pass on some of the information you have learned. They will gladly help you out if they feel you are returning their hard work with nuggets of wisdom.

Now is also the time to start looking for the next great horseman to learn from. Our education is never complete, and everything you will learn from this point on will become a piece of the program you took with you. So choose wisely. Not everyone has the same philosophy, so it’s important that the people you choose to learn from can work cohesively with that initial program.

Yes, you can learn something from anyone, but it’s far easier if it’s coming from the same general school of thought. I often joke that 90 percent of what I know and teach is plagiarized and the other 10 percent is stolen. The truth is, that’s really not a joke. I’ve taken the initial program I learned over 3 ½ years and added a piece of wisdom here or a bit of knowledge there. I’m a long way from done, but the program I have right now comes from one great opportunity and many great horsemen and women since then.

Some of what I’ve learned has likely been forgotten, but I’ve held onto as much of it as I can. Take what you learn from all of the great coaches, trainers and horse people you meet in life and thoughtfully incorporate it into your program. Not all of it will fit, but much of it will enhance what you’ve already started. If you want to be the best you can be, then get with the program.


Jonathan Holling has been a mainstay at the top level of eventing for close to 20 years, competing in North America and Europe. He won the 2012 Bromont CCI*** (Quebec) and was a member of that year’s Nations Cup team at Boekelo (the Netherlands). Jon has successfully ridden around numerous four-star events. In addition, he formerly coached the Area IV young rider team, which has won numerous medals, including two golds. He serves on the U.S. Equestrian Federation Competition Management Committee, Eventing Committee and High Performance Eligible Athletes Committee. He started contributing as a Between Rounds columnist in 2015.

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