In Response: Embrace Your Own Journey

Aug 28, 2017 - 2:12 PM

I’ve been following the conversation centered around Katie Prudent’s comments about the current state of show jumping. I felt I might be able to unify the perspectives of these great horsemen in an effort to get each rider out there excited about embarking on his own journey to success.

At the end of the day, perspective is reality, and everyone has his own reality. All of the comments in response to Katie’s article represent a piece of the tapestry that is our sport. None more important or significant than the other. When we put them together, though, we can see more clearly the parts that are working well and the parts that need improvement in our industry and sport.

I would like to share my perspective, too, in the hope that some riders out there might be inspired to work hard and fight for their place at the top of the sport. Our future success as a country depends on it. It absolutely can be done, and I’m proof.

Callan Solem on VDL Wizard at the 2016 Longines FEI World Cup Final. Photo by Sportfot

Your journey begins with where you are. The No. 1 thing that success demands is that we keep showing up… on the bad weather days, the days when we don’t feel like it, the days we have something that we’d rather be doing—all of the days! If we can be empowered to attempt every day to be a little better than we were yesterday, this can translate into a huge difference. Think about trying to make 1 percent progress every day. In just over three months, we’re looking at 100 percent improvement.

Focusing On Self Improvement
When Katie says, “The sport has become for the fearful, talentless amateur,” I think that we need to remember that neither of these is necessarily a permanent condition. George Morris is the No. 1 advocate for the talentless individual, because he points out work ethic is even more important than talent. A person with average talent can work harder than someone with natural talent to become a better horseman with better results.

And being fearful isn’t necessarily a permanent condition: Are you fearful because your position is weak? Because you need to work on some specific sports psychology skills? Those are things you can improve. And if you’ve never been afraid riding, you’ve either not been doing it long enough or not been pushing yourself hard enough.

What Katie wants us to do is accept the challenge of improving ourselves every day. Introspection, criticism and growth are rarely comfortable. She wants us to forge ahead so that we might become the very best versions of ourselves. These are the brave people who have stood and will stand on the podiums.

When Robert Ridland joined in the conversation, he pointed out that in the old days the top racecar drivers were their own mechanics, and today their sport, like ours, is more specialized. Mechanics take care of the cars for them, giving drivers more time to analyze driving skills. I get his point—namely that elite Olympic riders must have time to focus on analyzing their rounds, improving their techniques rather than spending all of the spare time caring for their horses.

Robert’s job as chef d’equipe is to assess what’s going on in the ring and who is most likely to produce clear rounds for the United States. He does this job very well, and this is why our results as a country are so outstanding.

McLain Ward pointed out that it is possible to make a great contribution to our sport at the highest level without making a lifelong commitment. While so many of us have made that commitment, it is certainly not a prerequisite for success. In order to stay at the top level for a lifetime though, like the very best in the world, horsemanship will be the greatest tool in your arsenal. Horsemanship can serve to bridge the funding gap between competitors.

By planning my horses’ show schedules carefully and trying to be attentive to their needs, I have been able to have many horses that have competed successfully for well over a decade.

Leslie and Peter Howard responded to Katie as well. They attributed a lot of the change within our sport to the dawn of breakaway cups. While no one would argue that this was a huge improvement in safety for horse and rider by eliminating a bulk of the more serious accidents, it did take away the need for the grit and resilience both physically and emotionally from the rider. Certainly what we do is still dangerous, but not the flip-over, tangled-up kind of dangerous that it was before.

Building Resilience
Resilience remains such an important tool for riders who want to be a part of the upper echelon, though. When I was trying to put the Torlando Group together, I began asking people that I was close to if they would be interested in helping to purchase this young horse for me to produce and hopefully compete eventually in grand prix classes. I asked a lot of people who said no.

I felt like it would never happen. I called VDL a number of times to say that I didn’t think that I could make it work. Every morning, though, I would get up and try again, and eventually there were enough people who agreed to help me.

Not only did this experience exercise my resilience, but it also honed in me a truly authentic gratitude to the very special people who have believed in me and helped me to stay in the international ring. Cherish the owners of the horses on which you are fortunate enough to compete. As they say, “A horse without a rider is still a horse, but a rider without a horse is not a rider.”

Without Carol Thompson, the members of the Torlando Group, Horseshoe Trail Farm, and Collin and Virginia McNeil, my story might be a very different one.

Being a working student for Carol also taught me a ton about resilience. My big goal as a junior rider was to ride in the equitation finals, so I worked in a grocery store for the summer to save enough money to lease a horse for the finals. It wasn’t enough money, though, to lease a horse and ship it to the Northeast from where I lived in Atlanta.

Through Sunny Stevens, my trainer at the time, and her friend Sue Ashe, we were connected with Carol Thompson. She would have a horse that was already in New Jersey that I could ride the day before the USET Finals (N.J.) and show there and the ASPCA Maclay Finals at the Meadowlands. It was such an exciting twist of fate that would result in me going the next summer to be a working student for Carol. I would eventually stay, living in her basement, as her rider, for 15 years.

She was an amazing horsewoman, and I learned everything that she would teach me. I messed up a lot, but I was always in the barn, and no one would work harder than I would. It was very difficult but also representative of what life would be like if I chose this profession.

When I made the difficult decision not to go to college, I knew what I was signing up for. I loved it: the manual labor, the grueling hours at shows, breaking babies, exhaustion, all of it. I was getting comfortable in the struggle for achievement. She was toughening me up, and it has served me well.

How Hard Will You Work?
Ronnie Beard also commented on Katie’s podcast [in his Between Rounds forum on p. 82 of the Aug. 14 print issue of The Chronicle of the Horse], and it really resonated with me too. He was talking about it being unnecessary to go to Europe in the summer to keep up with the others. I agree with him; you can practice good riding anywhere. You don’t have to be at the Longines Global Champions shows or the other fancy shows to attempt to perfect your craft. My first year showing at the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) circuit was 2011. I had already been a professional rider for 15 years and on multiple Nations Cup teams in Europe.

I showed at HITS Ocala (Fla.) and HITS Culpeper (Va.), and I still do. I guarantee you that Andy Kocher and Laura Chapot are just as fast as you’ll see anywhere. These days with YouTube and the tremendous access to information on the internet, there are a lot of creative ways to increase your knowledge about the sport and caring for horses. Wherever you are in the world, in your journey, keep pushing yourself, so that the day that your chance comes, you’re ready.

The sport is really expensive. There’s no getting around it. There will always be riders around who are better funded than you, and there will always be riders with less. We do the best with what we have and keep striving to improve. Focus on your own journey, learn from others, but don’t think for one second that it’s easy for anyone.

We each have our own challenges. Whether it is working all week in a highly competitive school to fly in to compete on the weekends on a horse that has seen more than you have, getting up the courage to ask that one last person if he would chip in to help you buy a young horse that you think has a lot of potential, or a million scenarios in between, it will not be easy.

That is the way it should be at the top of any field. How hard will you work? What will you be willing to give up? How long will you keep at it? How clear will you be with your intention? It is the honest answers to these questions, not your bank account, which will determine your success.

Callan Solem, 38, has helped the United States win in Nations Cup competition around the world finishing seventh at the 2016 FEI World Cup Final (Sweden) with VDL Wizard. She runs Callan Solem Show Stables in Chester Springs, Pa.


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