Jack Le Goff, the legendary former coach of the U.S. Equestrian Team’s three-day team, was a fountain of little sayings. Some were funny, some were wise, and some shouldn’t be printed on a T-shirt.
One saying that I always thought both funny and wise was, “Because I was not born with the wealth I deserve, I have had to work for a living.” The distressing fact for many young riders is that, like Le Goff, they too weren’t born with the wealth they deserve and will, therefore, have to actually get jobs.
Another equally distressing fact is that college graduates are almost always able to get higher-paying jobs than high school graduates. College is certainly not for everyone, and there are plenty of people who never went to college who’ve been toweringly successful, but the statistical evidence does suggest that if someone has the chance to attend college, it’s usually the wisest decision.
This creates a great dilemma for many young riders, and it leads to the question so many parents hear: “How do I go to college and still ride?”
Sometimes the question is phrased more broadly, as in, “Can I continue to ride really well and ride a lot and still go to college?”
Or, “Can I find a college that has the academics I need and that also has a good riding program?”
It’s very hard to be making great improvements in your riding and suddenly be faced with the prospect of four or even more years of very limited riding time. This dilemma is made profoundly sadder if it involves having to sell or lease out a special horse.
There’s no right or wrong answer that suits everyone. I never felt that I had any alternative but to go to college. My parents had made that abundantly clear from the time I was pretty young. However, once I got to Dartmouth (N.H.), I didn’t waste much time creating riding opportunities for myself. I was friends with Joe and Dot McLaughlin, who owned Hitching Post Farm in Royalton, Vt. (Their daughter, Rosemary, and their granddaughter Laurie still run the farm today as an event center).
I would try to arrange my class schedule so that I had a couple of free afternoons a week, plus Saturdays and Sundays. This was before Interstates 91 and 89 had been built, so getting to Royalton from Hanover, N.H., on those winding back roads took about 35 to 40 minutes. After a couple of years, I probably could have given my car its head, and it would have found Hitching Post all by itself.
At any rate, Joe let me ride dozens of different horses over the next three years, including a 3-year-old named Thunder Road, who Mike Plumb would later ride at Badminton (England). During my senior year, 1962-63, I bought my first event horse, Lighting Magic, and I kept him across the Connecticut River in nearby Norwich, Vt., at Judy Barwood’s farm. I could get there in eight to 10 minutes, so rain, snow or shine, I rode outdoors almost every day.
I also met Mac Williamson from Woodstock, Vt., while I was at college. Mac raised Thoroughbreds for flat and steeplechase racing, and I rode lots of his horses too. It was through Mac that I first visited Southern Pines, N.C., where I now live part of the year, and after Mac’s death, his wife gave me an old mare named Chee Oaks, who was to become the dam of one of my advanced horses, Chestry Oak. My college riding, in other words, has had a long influence on my life.
When I was there, Dartmouth didn’t have its own riding program. It does now, but like so many college programs, the great emphasis is on hunt seat equitation’not the best situation for aspiring event riders, but far better than not riding at all.
Some riders look for colleges in areas of the country within an easy driving distance of a specific event training center. They arrange to board their horse there, assuming their parents can foot the bill, and commute to ride several days a week. If they can’t afford to have their own horse, they can always make themselves indispensable by helping out with chores, riding extra horses, and filling in on weekends. So often, the key to getting extra horses to ride is a willingness to work hard and to be there when needed, even if it means foregoing the occasional fraternity party.
Another educational option is to look into either community colleges or colleges located within an easy driving distance from where you already live. This will allow you to live at home and keep riding the same way you did through high school’with the added benefit that you can still get your mother to do your laundry.
I’ve had friends who have gone through college in five, six or seven years. Whenever they had a really good horse, or a significant riding goal, they just took a leave of absence. As long as you’re firmly committed to eventually graduating, this can be another successful option.
Still others resign themselves to riding during summer vacations only, while, inevitably, some young riders give up horses altogether in a sort of “all-or-nothing” gesture. Some of them will return to horses in their late 30s to mid-40s, after marriage and family, as finances allow.
Very often, students ask me whether I think they should go to college. I don’t usually answer with a definite yes or no, because I do think that college really isn’t for everyone. What I do tell them is that I know that horse jobs don’t usually pay too well, that the hours are long, and the work can be physically exhausting.
Many riders eventually conclude that they’d rather have a job outside the horse industry so they can make enough money to afford to support their riding and their horse. If they don’t have a college diploma, the income they can expect to earn, even if they’re in their 30s or 40s, will be much less than that earned by brand-new college graduates in their early 20s.
In other words, that diploma arms them against an uncertain future. They may never use their degree, but if they do need it, they may need it very badly.
College has intangible advantages too. It’s hard work. It makes you do things you’d rather not, and it holds you against rigorous standards of performance. This discipline isn’t much fun, at the time, but it’s probably good for you.
I don’t believe that college makes you “smarter” or “wiser,” but I do think it forces you to think more analytically and critically than you otherwise might. It definitely broadens your depth of knowledge. What are the odds that, if not for the threat of academic failure, I would have ever studied astronomy or Latin, or read that thrilling bestseller The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot?
Because I was able to ride throughout four years of college, I know it can be done. Admittedly, the intensity and quality of my riding wasn’t the same as if I’d been taking daily lessons from Phillip Dutton or David O’Connor, but I still rode a lot, thanks to my parents and friends.
So, you may have to juggle your schedule, compromise where you go to school, and be willing to do some commuting, but it doesn’t have to be one or the other.