In the aftermath of another year of the FEI North American Youth Championships, held Aug. 9-13 at Traverse City Horse Shows (Michigan), we’re looking back at these words of wisdom, first shared in 2018 by Grand Prix rider and Chronicle blogger Lauren Sprieser.
So you came in eighth or 12th or 24th. You made mistakes, or you got in the ring and panicked, or you got cocky or you just got straight up outhorsed. Or maybe you didn’t score high enough in qualifying to get named to a team. Maybe your horse got hurt or sick or the money to travel across the country was too great. Maybe you don’t even have access to a horse to teach you that level of work at all.
You are one lucky duck.
Statistically speaking, the winners of Young Riders aren’t the ones we see in senior competition down the road. To wit: Ali Brock and Courtney King Dye placed in the 20s. Adrienne Lyle placed 12th one year. (I remember; I was 11th, and it was nice to stand next to someone tall.) And neither Kasey Perry-Glass nor Laura Graves went to the NAYRC, as it was known when they were of age, at all.
But it’s even more than that. There are great lessons learned from failure, from the show that didn’t go as planned. It’s an honor to be there, and there’s plenty to be learned at that level of competition: working with a team, getting along with the parent/kid/coach who’s not so nice, ramping your horse up to a big show without frying him mentally or breaking his body down, having a plan and sticking to it. And there is so much to be gleaned from the struggle. The biggest lesson I learned from three NAYRCs? That it’s impossible to half-halt with my head up my butt.
The real lesson is that competitions like the NAYC are just a moment in time, and that even if a 20-something-year-old person had no scholastic or employment obligations to meet and had nothing to do but ride an endless supply of horses under quality tutelage, it’s just not really possible to learn everything needed to become a great rider and trainer by one’s 21st birthday. There are just not enough hours to accomplish it all. Add in that many of my friends from my Young Rider years, including myself, went to college, and it’s a miraculous thing at all to be able to figure out a Prix St. Georges test with flair by 21, much less how to train a horse up the levels to that point. Riding a schoolmaster is an amazing opportunity and teaches a tremendous amount of skill, but being a horse rider, even a highly proficient one, is a different skill than being a horse trainer.
It’s also wonderful to watch the riders blessed with The One rockstar horse go on with that horse and do big huge things, but those of us who haven’t yet had The One have instead gone out and built different skills, training horses with weird quirks, learning how to coax the best out of different types, learning how to teach lessons and run barns and stay positive when things aren’t so easy. Those are tremendously valuable skills, even more important than the average blue ribbon on the average day.
And remember, too, that so many of those who compete at the high performance levels of youth horse sport grow up to be amateurs or walk away from horses completely.
Success at the junior or young rider level isn’t the end, or at least it doesn’t have to be. It is just one path, one of many, and one that is no better or worse than any other. In the same way that there are horses competing at the WEG this year that were also successful at age 4 or at third level or in the small tour, there are many that were rogues until 9 or spent their first few years in another discipline or were completely unremarkable until, one day, they weren’t.
So don’t despair. Grit your teeth and work harder. Relish in the joy of no expectations. Flounder. Reflect. If it’s really grim, have some ice cream. And then show up the next day and the next and the next. The road to success is long and paved with a million tiny failures. Only 999,999 to go!
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist with distinction making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s C. Cadeau, as well as her own string of young horses, with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.