Our columnist believes successful national riders could find the path to international acclaim more attainable with mentorship.
I had a chance to watch the USET Talent Search Finals—East, and the competition was a great reminder of how well the United States brings along many truly competent young riders.
The talent and technical ability of these young people is undeniable–a testament to their own dedication and to the infrastructure that has been built for their development over the past several decades.
But this demonstration of skill also brought up something that troubles me deeply. I couldn’t help but be discouraged to know that for the handful of riders in that accomplished group who have the aspiration to become professionals at the top international level later in their careers, prospects look bleak indeed.
No matter their talent and ambition, once they get to the top of the national ranks, unless they have a mentoring program to transition to the international level their progress may be stymied. Without a better bridge from national grand prix to the next level, we will continue to see too few riders in serious contention for an Olympic Games or World Championships team in the future to the great detriment of our sport.
The Challenges They Face
A few of these young riders will decide to make the challenging leap from the red-hot competition of the junior level to the professional level at national events. Instead of just competing against the best in their age range, they’re suddenly up against everyone from Leslie Howard to McLain Ward to Brianne Goutal. Everyone acknowledges the difficulty of that transition, but with good training many will experience considerable success at the national level.
What few of those highly successful riders realize, however, is that the transition from top national-level rider to being competitive on the international scene is just as big of a leap.
I’m not talking about doing a European tour of shows that on any given weekend are no more, and often less, competitive than our U.S. grand prix classes; I’m talking about the top of the sport—the events that make careers and that with consistent success carve out a place in history for horses and riders and bring honor to countries.
Those events in my mind are, of course, the Olympic Games, FEI World Equestrian Games, FEI World Cup Finals, Grand Prix of Aachen (Germany) and Spruce Meadows’ CN International (Alta.), not to mention the entire European Nations Cup League. These events are so challenging and so competitive that they feel like a different sport altogether.
Whatever encompasses the cutting edge in course design, whether it’s big fences, tight times or innovative jumps, you’ll find it at these events. The crowds are enormous. The atmosphere is electric. And if you’re even a tiny bit not good enough, there’s a roster of fantastic horses and riders who will push you out of the ribbons.
Given this challenge, this huge leap we ask our best national riders to make, there’s little support for them in the transition. It’s not more training or coaching they need at that level; their technical skill is already well-established, and it goes without saying that no one should even consider making this leap without extraordinary drive and commitment. Rather, I feel it’s help with logistics, barn management, horse selection, sponsor relations, scheduling, business management and the intangible advice from those who have done it about how to go from being a competent, talented rider to being a winner. How to go from being able to reproduce a Rembrandt to becoming a master in one’s own right.
The Path To Experience
It’s not easy to learn the things that help one make that leap to the heights of the international scene.
I remember that in the late 1980s, Beezie and I decided to try to be competitive at that level. She’d already had a lot of success nationally and had a bit of international experience. I’d worked for the U.S. Equestrian Team during the Bert de Nemethy days and groomed for George Morris, who always took time to give me some pointers. But even with that experience, I still made a rookie mistake.
We planned to do an indoor circuit of eight shows. Knowing what I did of indoors in the United States back in those days, I planned for dodgy footing, challenging stabling and brutal show scheduling. Given that, I figured we needed six horses, so that’s how many we shipped over.
I was so wrong.
I spent a lot of extra money shipping horses we never used. It turned out that the show schedules were manageable, the footing was good and the distances between the shows were so short that the horses could go home to Johan Heins’ (a Dutch trainer and my friend and business associate) for most of the week between shows. It was a lesson learned the hard way.
It wasn’t easy for Beezie and I to eventually learn the ropes. With lots of time, experience, support from sponsors and owners, her talent, luck and some generous mentorship from people like Michael Matz and George Morris, we eventually figured out the basics.
What can be done to make new international riders more successful? I think mentorship is the key. I use that word intentionally. By the time a rider has experienced considerable success nationally, his or her needs, in terms of development, begin to change.
These riders need to be independent, set their own goals, manage their own barns, have their own successes and be responsible for their own failures. But they need some support from their new peers as well. They need to be willing for things to get harder before they get easier—to sacrifice short-term success for long-term goals. They need to continue to learn from those who helped them get where they are, but also to seek out learning opportunities from those who are where they want to be.
I’m confident that riders already at the top level are comfortable enough in their own careers to offer some advice and support of those coming along. Beezie and I have a barn in the Netherlands now, and we will be able to offer riders a home away from home along with help with logistics and general advice.
George Morris and the team, as well as other top riders and trainers around the country, should encourage our best riders at the national level to aim high—to remember that this week’s grand prix win is only a success if it fits into a rider’s larger international goals.
We need to have many more riders thinking internationally, not internationally in the sense that the Europeans do it better than us (we have the medals to prove that’s not the case), but because there are more U.S. riders ready to compete at the top than have given it a serious try. Now they’re being bolstered by real support.
With the best system for bringing along junior riders in the world, we can and should expand that effort so that we’ll have a lot more depth at the top. A concerted effort to help riders aspiring to move from national to international competition could help them bridge the huge chasm between a tough U.S. grand prix and the biggest show jumping stages in the world.
The payoff for U.S. show jumping could be enormous.
John Madden, Cazenovia, N.Y., is married to international grand prix rider Beezie Madden. Together, they operate John Madden Sales Inc., where they train horses and riders. The horse business has encompassed John’s entire life, and in addition to his business he’s the Organizing Committee Chairman for the Syracuse Sporthorse Tournament (N.Y.) and on the USEF High Performance Show Jumping Computer List Task Force. He began contributing to Between Rounds in 2008.